Right Near the Beach

This Spring Break, Big Foot received his very first passport stamp! We spent a few days in Jamaica, and not only did he have a blast, but I was even able to relax.

First, let’s talk about money. This vacation was definitely a splurge for me, but with careful planning and timing I was able to pull it off. In the end, I spent about $1500 for the flight and 3 nights stay at the resort. Specifically, $900 for the resort (kids under 6 stay free), and $548 for the flight.

The outbound flight experience was wonderful. The security check at MCO was uncharacteristically fast and painless, and my first experience flying JetBlue was lovely. The inbound flight experience was something else, but more on that in a later post.

There were two big factors that made me choose this particular adventure for this year’s Spring Break. First, my son has been fixated on the idea of the beach since he was two, despite having the kind of mom who lives in Florida, yet never goes to the beach. In fact, he once drew me a beach “just in case I didn’t know how to find the beach”. Second, one of the way the Franklyn D. Resort  differentiates itself from others in the crowded tropical vacation market is though the inclusion of a vacation nanny assigned each family.

That’s right: the all-inclusive price includes all meals, all drinks, many activities, airport transportation, and a vacation nanny. Vacation. Nanny. Which means that even a single mom like me can have some time for self-care during the vacation.

We arrived at the resort on a Monday, and the reception staff was friendly and welcoming. I was informed that our room had been upgraded from a Garden/Pool View Junior Suite to a Beachfront 2 Bedroom Suite. The suite was clean and pretty, with TVs in each bedroom and in the living room, a beach patio with a view of the beach, and a kitchenette (with some cheese and crackers in the mini-fridge).

Although it was already close to 5:00pm when we arrived, the nanny still came to meet us in our suite, give us a tour, and stay with us for a bit so my son could go on the beach before dark. Before she left, she walked us to one of the restaurants so we could have dinner. There are multiple restaurants on the property, including one with grilled foods and kid favorites (right next an ice cream bar with a tree house on top!), an adults-only fine dining restaurant, and a buffet. During our stay, some of my favorites were the (very spicy) jerk chicken/pork and the guava-glazed chicken.

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Jerk pork from the grill

The next morning, Anna, our nanny, arrived at 8:30 while we were at breakfast. Big Foot warmed up to her very quickly and went off to play on the beach with her until her lunch break. By the time she returned, after we had our own lunch, I asked my son what he would like to do next, he enthusiastically said, “Go play with Anna!” Then, he grabbed her hand and took off running. Most of our vacation was spent with him playing with the nanny, and I really enjoyed listening to him recount his adventures at mealtimes and as we spent the evenings together. During his time with Anna, Big Foot played on the beach, tie-dyed a shirt, played in the club house, played on the beach some more, played on the playground, swam in the pool, had a beaded bracelet made, went fishing, and watched rabbits.

I had planned on taking advantage of the fitness center and glass bottom boat tour, but I spent most of the free time doing all the things I rarely do: reading a book on the patio (not for work, and without interruptions!), have a massage surrounded by the ocean, and get a pedicure without rushing. I was also able to enjoy a glass of wine here and there since I didn’t need to worry about driving home. I have to say that the pedicure was mediocre, but the massage was absolutely heavenly. The fact the two services cost me less than I would pay just for the massage States-side was a bonus, especially when the spa includes this view:

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And did I mention I was able to read a whole book during those few days? While sitting under trees and looking out at the ocean?

Oh, and apparently, I was even flirted with, but I’m in the stage of my life where I don’t notice these things until the young lady working as a nanny points it out to me.

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Reading Spot with a View

 

Some of the activities were not available because our stay ended before the weekend, but one of the highlights was the Wednesday evening beach-side barbecue. It was just cool enough to be comfortable, the anti-bug lamps were effective, and the food was both plentiful and tasty. Truly the perfect setting for the last evening of our stay.

Check out was at noon on Thursday, and someone came to pick up our luggage for us at 11:00 am, which means Big Foot was still able to enjoy some last-minute beach time. The check out process itself was quick and painless, and the airport shuttle arrived right on time. Big Foot was definitely sad to say goodbye to Anna, and I sure wished we could have stayed another day or two.

Overall, I would say the vacation was a success. Everyone at FDR was really friendly and helpful, and they really have it set to make it a perfect vacation for parents, including single parents. It isn’t a luxury resort per se, but for me the luxury was in being able to enjoy a vacation with my child (and get to be in the pictures!) while still having some time for myself. I would absolutely go again.

Plus, this moment alone was worth it:

 

 

Keep wandering,

                            ~Joëlle

 

Small Village, Big Writing

 

As a single parent, much of my life revolves around Big Foot. Add the fact that I am a teacher, and much of my life ends up being about other people. However, I have finally learned that I cannot be good for anyone if I do not practice self-care, and therefore I am being intentional about nurturing myself as a person.

Writing is one of my most consistent passions, but it often takes a backseat to the responsibilities that come with the different hats I wear. I steal moments late after Big Foot goes to sleep, or early before he wakes up if I am not too exhausted, because I feel guilty spending time on myself while he is awake. On more days than I care to admit, I am so emotionally and intellectually drained from teaching that I can’t find the energy to pick up a pencil or open my laptop.

This year, however, I found the perfect compromise: The Kenyon Review’s Writers Workshop for Teachers. To make things better, the workshop was held in Ohio (where I’d never been), which meant a week away to focus on my writing in a new setting. So I silenced my self-critic, and went.

The security check at MCO was only mildly unpleasant: big crowd herded along by obviously disgruntled TSA employees, which is better than my usual experience there. There are no direct flights from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Columbus Airport, so I had to stop in Philadelphia. My flight from Orlando was on time, and surprisingly reached its destination about 10 minutes early… which would have been great if my flight hadn’t been about 45 minutes late. Thank goodness I really like PHL.

The workshop itself was amazing. First, the (really) small village of Kenyon, Ohio is just the right setting for writing. The buildings are quaint, and the campus is seamlessly blended with the village. Additionally, T-Mobile does not seem to operate there, so I had no cell signal whatsoever. This had two advantages: One, my usual phone-based distractions were completely absent. Two, I was able to experience the kindness of my classmates, as people whom I had not known until our arrival on campus were quick to offer up use of their own phones so I could call my son and wish him good night each evening.

 

 

In addition to the inspiring architecture, there is an abundance of trees and grassy areas as well as many spots inviting people to stop, reflect, and (in my case) write. From benches under trees to large branches in a tree, the campus was like a playground for artists.

Beyond the setting, the classes themselves were amazing. The teachers were obviously experts, both in writing and in teaching. The other participants in the group also challenged and inspired me in ways that are not accessible to me in my everyday life. I was exposed to writers I had not yet read and was able to have literary conversations with people who actually enjoy such things. Then, after I had been filled with artistic impetus, I had something that I am always missing: time to write, free of guilt. The meals shared with other writers (from my program and the other concurrent sessions) and the nightly readings by instructors and participants rounded up the experience perfectly. When time came for us to depart, I wished I could have just a few more days.

The flight back was pretty awful. It was about 20 minutes late, which was not that bad, particularly since I was able to wait with one of the friends I met at the workshop. However, we then spent about an hour on the tarmac, meaning that my perfect hour-long layover turned into having to be rescheduled on a later flight.

Still, overall the trip was well worth it. I had time to myself and time to work on my writing in a setting that allowed me to be interact with other adult who share my passion for writing, generate more new material than I have in a long time, receive professional feedback, and discover writing strengths I didn’t know I possessed. I came home physically, artistically, and mentally refreshed, which allows me to be a happier (hence better) mom.

Keep wandering,

       ~  Joëlle

 

Wandering Before It’s Too Late

My son, Big Foot, just turned 4, and I realize just how true to life Sesame Place’s slogan—Go Before They Grow—really is. My baby seems to have suddenly disappeared, and in his place, there is a straight backed, strong-willed kid. He starts VPK in the fall, and I can tell how close he is to losing the sense of magic and wonder that comes with early childhood innocence. He loves Grover, Elmo, and Big Bird, so I knew it was now or never. Additionally, the trip was a 2-in-1 gift: a first plane trip for my big boy who loves vehicles, and a magical chance to meet imaginary friends for my little boy who still thinks they might be real.

I budgeted $1000, which is a splurge for me. However, it was a great incentive to save, and I would rather spend it on creating special memories than on buying more “stuff” I don’t necessarily need.

I was lucky enough to score tickets from MCO to PHL for a total of $311, which also earned me some points on my union’s saving website. I booked my vacation package directly through Sesame Place via their website. It included 3 nights at a hotel, Fun Card admission tickets (unlimited admission until 12/31), one Dine with Me! lunch for two, a discount card for the shops, and one-time ride again privilege and advance show seating.

There was a bit of a mishap with the package reservation, however. The Sesame Place website listed the hotel as having a free airport shuttle. This was a deciding factor for me as I avoid driving on the highway and am reticent to drive in very unfamiliar places, since it seems to trigger varying degrees of anxiety for me. Well, when I contacted the hotel to schedule, they had no idea what I was talking about, and the airport shuttle service they recommended was no longer taking reservations. Upon contacting Sesame Place, they did provide me with some freebies and an apology, but not transportation. I received many suggestions, including some ride offers (which I missed due to a dead phone) from an amazing traveling group I belong to, and I eventually ended up finding a shared van which, although it took forever to pick me up, only cost me $40.

 

Elmo Hands

Cute touches right from the start

Now about the park; it was just perfect for Big Foot and his current personality and development stage. Our first full day was a Thursday, and it was blissfully uncrowded, which means there was very little waiting throughout the day. Being used to SeaWorld and having recently visited Disney, this was a welcome surprise.

Speaking of surprises, my usually skittish child had a great time getting on the many rides that are sized just right for the preschool set, even on a couple that I thought might be too much for him, like Elmo’s Cloud Chaser. As a note, if you are overweight, this particular ride will not be a comfortable one; it was an unwelcome reminder that my butt is on the wider side. The Peek-A-Bug ride is cute and very tame. Big foot loved the slide in Elmo’s World and the Flyin’ Fish Ride. A big plus with this rife is the ability to control how high you want to go.

The park is of very manageable size, but a stroller ($16 online/$18 in park) makes getting around much easier. We could probably have done the whole park in a day if we rushed, but I am glad we had the time for a slower pace.

Our first stop was Elmo the Musical. The show was very cute, and reinforced shape recognition and counting concepts. Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Velvet star in this imagination mystery. My son was captivated and loved the audience participation prompts.

Elmo Musical Sign

Next, it was time for our Dine with Me! lunch reservation. When we arrived, a tote bag of goodies from customer service was waiting at our table. It included a souvenir plate, a souvenir cup, a beach towel, a small Elmo plush, a cookie monster frame, and a Cookie Monster bowl along with a handwritten note of apology. There was a lot of smiling, dancing, decent food, happy party atmosphere and a keepsake cup for Big Foot.  We did get some tears because Abby didn’t stop by our table, but thankfully she was at 1-2-3 Smile with Me. We did breakfast at Dine with Me! as well the next morning before the park opened as part of our apology package. My son’s verdict on the character dining experience? “It’s the best party I’ve ever been!”

I purchased Photo Key for Thursday. It does cost $60 (if purchased online; $70 at the park), but as a single parent, I never get to be in the pictures when we go on adventures, so I decided to splurge a little. It was nice to have, but I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t as many opportunities as I was expecting for using it. For example, even though the map shows the area by Elmo’s Cloud chaser as a picture spot, I did not see any photographers there even once during our trip. I am still glad that I have some high-quality pictures of myself with Big Foot and various characters, and that it comes with a full photo release.

The parade was wonderful! Definitely stake a spot a little early right across from Snuffy’s Eats. That’s pretty much where the characters will stop and dance, and if you are lucky, they just might invite you to join them as they did Big Foot. There is dancing, letters, counting, and pretty much all of the monsters you can handle.

 

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On Friday, we were there bright and early for breakfast at Dine with Me! The spread was nice: French toast, bagels, prepackaged muffins, tater tots (a guilty pleasure I haven’t indulged in several years), fresh waffles (super tasty with hot apple slices), fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage links. The entertainment was like that of the lunch, and breakfast does not include the souvenir cup. The characters did seem to have more time in the morning to take pictures in the performance area rather than just when they came to the tables.

After breakfast, we hit up some of Big Foot’s favorite rides from the previous day before seeing the Magic of Art show. This is at one of the outdoor theaters, so the choices are tough: sit up front and cook, but get high fives and up-close interaction with the characters, or sit up in the shade but be further from the show. The story was very cute and emphasized the importance of creativity and perseverance. Abby, Elmo, Grover, Telly, Cookie Monster and Mr. McNutty are in this show.

SP The Magic of Art

Next, it was back to Elmo’s World for a few more runs down the big slide followed by a lunch of pretzels, yogurt, juice, and tomatoes as I did not have the patience to brave the lunch rush lines.

We saw the Let’s Play Together performance which was also in an outdoor theater, but this one was covered, which means it wasn’t too hot. Like all the shows at Sesame Place, the stage is simple, and the theater isn’t too big so it’s easy to get a good view of the characters. The music was lively and fun, and the whole show underscores cooperation and friendship. Burt, Ernie, Abby, Rosita, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Elmo are all in this show.

Finally, we were off to the water area. There’s a nice “sand” playground and an actual sandpit here. I did not plan on going in the water myself, so Big Foot had to stick to the splash pad and wading pool in the Twiddle area. The Count’s Castle looked fun, but Big Foot was not quite big enough to go there on his own. Still, he had so much fun in the Tiny Tiny Tidal Wave that we missed Grover’s All-You-Can-Eat Spaghetti Dinner, so we had pizza and French fries for dinner.

Tiny Tidal Wave

Our flight was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, so we took the shuttle to the park at opening time so Big Foot could get one last go at the rides. The lines were still short, so we made it on Oscar’s Rotten Rusty Rockets, Elmo’s Cloud Chasers, and Cookie Monster’s High C. He also wanted to try out the Cookie Jars and Blast Off, which he liked so much that we used our Ride Again Privilege from the hotel benefits. I do wish I had realized they had special events on Saturdays, as I would have scheduled a later flight so Big Foot could take a picture with Curious George who was visiting 1-2-3 Smile with Me.

Overall Verdict: A –

Pros:

  • Many opportunities for character interactions
  • Perfectly sized for the preschool set
  • Developmentally appropriate shows with positive messages
  • Character dining is affordable
  • Lots of adorable spots for pictures
  • Lots of great places for photo ops, including the Sesame Street Neighborhood
  • Really fun parade

Cons:

  • Can only bring one small snack per person
  • Mostly marked up junk food choices; hardly anything healthy
  • On some days, there aren’t quite enough Photo Key opportunities available
SP Big Foot Wave

Bye Sesame Place!