Manatees in Apollo Beach

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In January we took a field trip to the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, Florida. My dear friend, Shelley, who is another full-time RVing mama, introduced me to this great family resource. The manatee viewing is fabulous and…it’s FREE! Fabulous and free make for an excellent resource combo. As we travel to vacation destinations all year long, our expenses can add up rapidly if we don’t make strategic selections. We all know that free venues do not always provide a quality experience, however that is not the case with this place.

You can visit the Manatee Viewing Centers website HERE, for more information and discover what this place is all about.

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As this was our first time viewing manatees in the wild, my kids and I were thrilled!

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It’s amazing to see how large these creatures are in person. I feel that seeing them in the wild gave us a better perception of these gentle giants…way different than when we’ve seen them in aquariums. They almost look like giant stepping stones in the water.

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The viewing center is run by the electric company. Story goes…that years ago people began to notice that the manatees would congregate in the water near the power plant every winter. It was discovered that they were warming themselves in the hot water that was discharged into the bay. Fortunately for us, the electric company decided to serve the public with this fascinating occurrence and maintains a lovely public exhibit. They have created a pier that extends out in two directions for use as a viewing platform. A touchtank that includes rays and horseshoe crabs was recently added. My son thought this was an excellent exhibit and he rolled up his sleeves and spent a good half-hour with his hands in the water. Upstairs there is a small museum and gift shop to peruse. The content is quite good, especially considering the admission price! I highly recommend this wildlife exhibit as it is geared towards visitors of any age. You can spend as little as a half hour here and make a stop just to view the manatees in the water. If you want to get full use of the facilities, plan for an hour or two. There are restrooms and picnic-tables, should you wish to bring a picnic lunch.

If you a traveling in a bigger vehicle, then I suggest arriving earlier in the day, so that you have easier parking options. The parking lot is not very big and we noticed that this place is popular around lunchtime. Parking is always on my radar as we have a large dually that is pulling our fifth wheel around the country…so we have some very wide hips on our truck!

We had hoped to visit Crystal Springs and snorkel with the manatees, but that did not pan-out this time in Florida. This was the next best thing for us. Have you seen manatees in the wild? What are your favorite viewing spots?

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The Florida Keys

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Chris and I have longed to visit the Florida Keys for the 18 years that we have been together. Somehow this little string of islands has eluded me, even when I lived near Fort Lauderdale for a stint in my college years. Well, Christmas of 2016 finally brought us to the Keys…and yes, I think we would all be happy to winter here every year.

Our first stop was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. This was the perfect  pause on our drive down from Orlando. Thankfully I snagged two nights at this campground earlier in the year, as all the state parks fill up fast. This was a great stop for us to slow down and transition into island life. Unfortunately, I got sick in Orlando and I was horribly ill while here. We still managed to enjoy our time though. We all decided that Key Largo is a great stop on the way down, but is not where we would want to spend more than a day or two (we like the vibe of the lower keys a bit more).

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John Pennekamp State Park

Pennekamp Park is known to have amazing snorkeling out near the reef, however you must take a boat out…and since we already had some serious fun planned further south, we decided to save the cash and just chill on the beach.You will want plenty of bug spray in this campground though…even in December, the bugs were bad. Kayaking would of been great here if I had not been under the weather. The campground did provide some fun wildlife viewing though…

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While there we also took a drive down to Islamorada and had a lovely lunch on the water.

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Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar, in Islamorada

From here we went down to Key West. We stayed at Boyd’s Campground so that we could have full-hookups and be within biking distance to downtown.This was also our home base while we visited the Dry Tortugas National Park, you can read about our trip here. The Tortugas are amazing and satisfied our need to see gorgeous, tropical-turquoise water…at least for awhile!

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Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

On our first afternoon at Boyd’s, we hopped on our bikes and headed into Key West…6 miles each way…and one of my absolute favorite urban family bike-rides ever! This is a fantastic activity for families with tweens and teens. We felt that overall it was quite safe for the kids to ride on the paths and streets…and as it was so fun and unique, they had a blast! We parked our bikes near Mallory Square and had drinks at the Sunset Pier to celebrate our family adventure….My kids love “kiddo coladas”…a fun tradition I created on our first trip to Maui when the kids were all pretty small, back in 2010. On that trip we spoiled the kids and had a crab dinner on the lanai of our condo and I served them kiddo coladas….pina coladas, sans the alcohol for my kiddos. The tradition was born! Now once or twice a year, on a really special occasion, we toast with kiddo coladas. Just saying the name makes me smile!….

Back to the keys….we pedaled around town, tried conch ceviche and Mahi bites from the Conch Shack, window shopped and then had the most magical bike ride home. Being that it was December, the town was dressed up for Christmas. We biked through the most adorable neighborhoods that evening, all dressed in their holiday lights, in pitch darkness, as we navigated our way back to camp. I wish I could of stopped to capture a photo of this ride….it was so special!

One gem we found on Stock Island was Roostica Wood-Fired Pizzeria. We biked there from our campground. This pizza is off-the-hook dee-lish! After falling in love with authentic, Italian pizza in Rome, I have been quite particular about this sort of pie (that’s putting it mildly). There are very few places that I would travel far and wide to eat pizza, outside of Italy that is. Roostica ranks right up there with Serious Pie in Seattle and Pizzeria Caldera in Jackson, Wyoming. The later is a less know pizzeria, however just as superb in my opinion. Although we’ve had some amazing pizza in New York and the North End in Boston, these are three of my favorites in the States.

I have to say…I was not expecting much from Key West. In the back of my mind, I was prepared for an overly-partied town. I was pleasantly surprised to find a quaint and vibrant thriving beach community. Visiting in the winter is definitely perfect for our crew. We really didn’t have that much time in Key West as we were gone to the Dry Tortugas for three full days, however we enjoyed every moment of our time there.

From Key West we headed north about 20 miles and set up camp for Christmas at Sugarloaf Key KOA. I must say, all year I tried to get reservations at Bahia Honda State Park, as I was determined that this was where we should be for Christmas…so I wasn’t really planning to keep our reservations at this park…this was more of a back-up plan. Needless to say, I never did find a cancellation at Bahia Honda so we kept our KOA reservations. Well, we loved it! This was a great Christmas stay and we actually had a very spacious site, considering we were in a parking lot in the Keys…we were incredibly happy. The park was very festive for Christmas. The pool was really sufficient for the kids…and the parents. The small beach was well kept and they had a giant inflatable rock-climbing area in the water that my kids played on for hours each day. The park is also in a convenient location, centered right between the state park and Key West.

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We totally rocked Christmas in the Keys!

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Making Gingerbread Houses
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We continued our tradition of Christmas Crab
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Our Christmas Eve bike ride
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The stockings were hung by the tv with care…and were blessed with great treats from our California family!

We did take a day to visit Bahia Honda. Unfortunately it was very windy and not a day for snorkeling. We enjoyed strolling along the water and then went over to the swim beach for a picnic.

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Bahia Honda State Park

For our family, the Keys had a little bit of everything. Chris was off of work for over two weeks, providing our family with an abundance of rest and relaxation time. If you follow my Instagram feed, you will know that we move around quite a bit and my husband is on the go for work A LOT. So this vacation was incredibly sweet for us (believe it or not…every day is not a vacation). Although we miss our loved ones on the west coast, there was something very freeing in the absence of planning and schedules for Christmas. It was by far the most relaxed Christmas I have ever had. And that…was the perfect way to polish off a year and keep my focus on the true meaning of Christmas. Celebrating the birth of our Savior is always my favorite time of the year. This year gave us a fresh perspective and provided opportunity to merge tradition and simplicity.

 

Dry Tortugas National Park

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Camping….70 miles out at sea.

Last January I saw an Instagram post from the Currently Wandering Crew (you can read it here) that stopped me in my tracks. I immediately linked to their blog and read their post on camping in the Tortugas. I was inspired. Excited. Determined. Chris and I talked it over and within four weeks…our reservations were made. Although we are fulltime travelers and have visited numerous places with wanderlust appeal, we looked forward to this stop all year long…and the Dry Tortugas measured up to our high expectations in every way.

Continue reading → Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Wilderness Resort & Disney

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Our first Walt Disney World experience and some ideas for other families who may be planning their own trip…

We enjoyed four wonderful days at Fort Wilderness, Disney’s own 5 star campground. This place is awesome! Based on the recommendation of friends we booked this early in the year. As the months went on, I was tempted to cancel the reservations many times due to the expensive nightly rate…however, I am so thankful I did not. This campground is worth every penny.

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The location is beautiful. As the campground is a Disney Resort, they send you free Magic Bands once you book your trip and you can then preload your park tickets and reservations onto these little bands. With the Magic Bands, you don’t need to worry about any paper tickets and our dinner reservations were even linked to the bracelets. We also received free transportation and free parking at any of the resorts because we were staying within the resort system.

We pulled into Orlando on a Sunday and had a ginormous surprise for our kids! My parents had flown out to see them and to visit the Disney parks with us. They were shocked and the photo and videos are priceless.

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For our first night in Orlando, I had made reservations at Raglan Road Irish Pub, which is at Disney Springs (Downtown Disney – a fun area to walk around, shop, eat and find entertainment – with free parking). This was an amazing way to start our Disney vacation! The Irish dancing and live music were fabulous and festive. The food was very good, though small portions for the price….we did not mind, as the entertainment and ambiance were such a hit. The downside is that kids meals are $10! My parents enjoyed the evening as much as my children and we all left happy and well fed. Disney Springs is beautifully dressed up at Christmas. I wouldn’t of minded spending more time there if we could have.

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We choose to have a more mellow Disney vacay…verses a crazy-busy-see-everything-we-can trip…and we are so thankful we did! Our plan was simple: 4 full days broken down as…

  • Day 1 – The Majic Kingdom
  • Day 2 – enjoy Fort Wilderness
  • Day 3 – Epcot
  • Day 4 – enjoy Fort Wilderness, shop and chill

I cannot imagine if we had visited multiple parks, day after day. We were exhausted each evening, staying at the parks until they were almost closed and we relied on sleeping in the morning after to recover.

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Our day at the Magical Kingdom was amazing. It wasn’t overly hot or crowded so I feel like we were able to truly enjoy the park. Our notes on this park are:

  1. Arrive at opening (we were there a half hour after it opened)
  2. Taking the boat transportation from Fort Wilderness to the park is advantageous… relaxed and mellow, beautiful and not crowded. Don’t sit in the back of the boat, as you will inhale the scent of fuel. Allow at least 45 minutes from the time you leave the Fort Wilderness boat dock until you walk through the park gates. The boat ride is quick, but security is a long wait.
  3. Make Fast Pass reservations with your Majic Bands online, several weeks prior to your visit. I intended to do this. When my parents decided to join in, I waited to book the Fast Passes and by the time I did it….all the prime times were unavailable. The cool part is, my parents, though not staying at a Disney Resort, created a Disney My Experience account, bought tickets and linked their profiles to mine. This enabled me to book Fast Pass Tickets for them, as well as my crew…so we all enjoyed the same schedule!
  4. Don’t book Fast Passes for the morning as the lines are not that long. We did 3 major rides in the first hour. Book them for noon or later. The way Fast Pass works is this: you can book 3 FP in advance per person, online. Once you use all 3, you can book one at a time for the remainder of your day. I thought that if I booked them early, that we would just add them as we went, once we used our first three. What happens is that all of the good rides are not available for FP once the day gets going…and all the rides that have FP available…don’t have long lines anyways, so it really makes no difference.
  5. Download the free app prior to your visit. It is amazing! It shows the current wait time for every ride in the park…and it’s accurate. It also gives you walking directions to each ride and gives you access to maps of bathrooms and entertainment schedules.
  6. Book Fast Passes for Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs and Splash Mountain.  If you don’t book a FP for one of these, hit it first thing in the morning when the lines are not long. We only waited 20 minutes for Space Mountain because we went straight for this line when we arrived at 9:30.
  7. You can take food into the park and water. We took our refillable water bottles and plenty of healthy snacks. This helped our budget big time as lunch and dinner pretty much averaged $15 per adult/teen and $8-10 per child without drinks or sweets.
  8. I was honestly not thrilled with meal options at this park. I do think we choose the best lunch option though: Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe. The Greek salad with grilled chicken completely surprised me for $12 – it was so much better than I expected…and healthy…the chicken was fresh and very good. The burgers and fries were also good Disney fare. The Pinocchio Village Haus restaurant also had a reasonable flatbread pizza and side caesar salad.

 

We pretty much knew what to expect at The Majic Kingdom as we have enjoyed Disneyland many, many times in California, however we had no idea what to expect from Epcot. The only thing I had really read review-wise was that the food in the various countries was amazing. So we basically arrived at Epcot knowing that we would eat well. Our notes on this park are:

  1. Test Track is an awesome ride. Plan to do it at least twice. We loved it! Allow a half hour after this ride for the kids to wander through all the cool post-ride stuff that is there.
  2. If you want to see the Frozen thing, plan a Fast Pass for it way ahead of time…the lines were crazy long all day and we never did see it.
  3. Look on the Disney app for entertainment and add them to your itinerary. I felt like it was difficult to know when performances were happening and we missed many different things in the various International areas.
  4. Mission Space is a virtual ride in a space ship and will leave you feeling motion sick…even if you normally don’t get motion sickness.
  5. Get a Fast Pass for Soarin’ – it is a super fun ride!
  6. After you ride Spaceship Earth…reserve 30-40 minutes for your kids to play all the cool virtual games that are at the exit…they will love it. The ride itself was not much, but we loved all the hands-on activities after.
  7. Eat a little something in several different countries. As you walk through the back half of the park you will wander from country to country. You can sample food, watch a video for each country and see entertainment. My kids loved this as much as the adults did. We sampled so many different things and they tried things they never had heard of.
  8. Eat in France! The ham and cheese baguette sandwiches will remind you of train rides in the south of France and the napoleon in the bakery was fabulous. The one thing you can skip is the crepe wagon…sadly the crepes were a disappointment.
  9. The apple strudel and bratwurst in Germany were delicious.
  10. Don’t miss Epcot…it was a unique experience and excellent adventure for tweens, teens, and adults.

As it turns out, we did eat our way around the globe in Epcot. My parents laughed and enjoyed every bite of this edible adventure. I’m sure you can enjoy this park without purchasing a lot of food…but honestly, it was a sensational way to experience this amusement park…and celebrate my mom’s birthday!

Fort Wilderness was the perfect haven during our Disney shenanigans. This campground is massive with over 700 campsites and 700 plus acres. The customer service is exceptional. When we arrived we were received by a gentlemen who greeted us with “Welcome Home.” You really are made to feel welcome here. This is a model that all parks should follow.

This campground is quite unique in that there are many guests who arrive and dress up their RV’s and “yards” with Christmas decorations….like nothing you’ve ever seen in a campground. I’m not referring to long-term residents or full-time RV’ers who dress up their rigs like we do…I’m talking about vacationers who visit for 2-4 weeks and dress up their vacation spot like it’s on candy cane lane.

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We took a nice long walk one evening and went through much of the park.

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We also enjoyed a nightly campfire with Chip and Dale and live music. The campfires are BYOS (Bring Your Own Smores). It was fun…especially since they do not permit campfires in individual campsites.

FullSizeRender 5.jpgThe pool was lovely and relatively quite during the second week of December. There is a great snack shack poolside that had some excellent lunch options. The main attraction was the waterslide that kept my tweens happy for an entire afternoon.

The one attraction that we missed was the nightly Electrical Water Pageant. We heard the music a couple of nights, but were too tired to venture out after 9:00. I think this would of been fun to ride bikes over to the water and see.

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Some patio entertainment at our campsite…Angie on the guitar and Lexi on the keyboard…keeping it merry and bright!

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We also heard amazing reviews on the buffet at the campground, but simply ran out of time to sample it.

As we look back on our Disney stay I am reminded of how delightful it was. In planning for this adventure we kept saying to ourselves…”this is a one time deal and we will probably not return, so lets live it up!” From the moment we arrived I began to say “I could do this again.” It was a splendid time and staying at Fort Wilderness was the perfect way to do Disney for this crew.