Saturday, February 28, 2015

Traveling to Walt Disney World with Food Allergies

When you travel with a kiddo that has food allergies, you put yourself on high alert. Everything gets wiped down, extra epi-pens are packed, menus are scoured, reviews are... well... reviewed. You prepare as best as you can and steel yourself to become your child's food advocate, protector of all that may enter the mouth of the babe.

Then you go to Walt Disney World.

Prior to heading down, we checked in with the Disney Moms' Panel and asked them about what to expect. We did some checking into menus on the Disney Food Blog and All Ears and read up online about experiences others had before us. From what we could tell, it looked like we would be able to go just about everywhere and not stress (too much) about the food that we brought or had brought to our table. We made our ADR's (Advanced Dining Reservations), made the note on our reservations that we had a peanut/treenut allergy, and headed off to Florida.

As it turned out... our worrying about Will's allergies basically went away with the wind as soon as we stepped onto Walt Disney World property.

Since finding out that Will has peanut and walnut allergies in the fall of 2013, we have been nervous just about everywhere we go. We read labels on sample carts, we avoid foods that servers and managers are "unsure" about, we don't go into places that fry their food in peanut oil (gosh how we miss Chik-Fil-A). We brought every Epi-Pen in our possession with us (including 2 that had just recently expired) because we are so worried that our little guy is going to get an unwanted surprise out somewhere that we wanted to make sure we were as prepared as we could be.

The folks at Disney, as it turns out, are pros. No. Let me retype that. They're PROS. All caps, baby.

We ate at a restaurant for most of our meals (a couple of lunches were had in our room with groceries we had purchased), and were blown away by the attention to detail and knowledge of allergens that the staff had. Here are some of the things that we experienced while we were dining out at the Walt Disney World Resort:

Special Attention. As soon as we sat down to eat at almost every restaurant we went to (with the exceptions of T-Rex and Raglan Road, which are not "technically" Disney restaurants), our server notified the chef in charge of allergens for the evening - and that chef came to our table. From the mouth of the source we would hear what menu items to avoid to keep our little guy safe and what items could easily be altered if we wanted to try them within the bounds of the allergies. Buffet? NO PROBLEM. The chef - not a sous chef, not a server, but the chef - would walk us through the line and explain what dishes had what nuts in them and would then personally take our requests for any menu items located near nuts that we would want brought to our tables. Oh - the restaurants that we didn't see the chef? No worries there either; the servers were pretty darned knowledgeable and were able to give us the same rundown as a chef would have.

"This duck best not take my Mickey waffle..." - Evie
Off-Menu Items. As you can imagine, there are some things that are just too risky for us to attempt with our little man at the table. The biggest problem we ran into were desserts regardless of whether or not we were eating at a buffet. The fine Disney chefs were prepared for this, however, and would immediately ask us if we were interested in a plate of Enjoy Life cookies or whatever other special nut-safe dessert they may have had on-hand. For my husband and I this was awesome because we kind of really enjoy desserts. And for the kids... well... who doesn't love special cookies? This also resulted in my son getting basically a bottomless bowl of blueberries at every meal - which he totally loved too.

Counter Service Chaos? No Problem. Anyone who has ever been to Disney (or really any amusement park's counter service) during a high-volume meal time knows how incredible chaotic it can get. Hungry kids and frazzled parents and service staff trying their best to keep up with all of it are common sites at any counter service dining option during these times. This was the most nerve wracking ordering scenario for me because it seemed like the highest risk for cross contamination (if any was possible) due to higher-volume repeat orders. Turned out - not to worry. Disney has this down pat too. Oh, you have a food allergy? No worries. Our manager will personally handle your order which will be delivered to you on a tray a completely different color than everyone else's tray so that you can be assured our staff knew that your tray was an allergen-safe tray. Seriously. Don't stress it.

Stress-free Corn Dog Nuggets & Fries for our Will!
Extra Goodies. Knowing that the small purchased snacks throughout the parks and hotels tend to be made in a facility with allergens present, the fine folks at Disney dining have made sure to cover that for you as well. There were at least 2 different occasions where the chef (again, not a runner - but the CHEF) brought us out some extra Enjoy Life cookies or Babycakes in to-go containers. The day of our flight home, the chef brought us EVEN MORE so that we would have goodies on the plane for our little guy (which - side note - JetBlue has Skeeter nut-free cookies - score!).

To say that we were impressed with how the Disney Dining crew handled allergy issues is an understatement. At one point, Steve (who did the bulk of talking with chefs and servers) even said that he was close to tears because for the first time in over a year and a half it truly felt like we didn't have to worry about Will while we were out eating in restaurants. The Cast Members were beyond helpful, incredibly understanding, and super well-versed about their menus in ways that I always wish other places would "just get". We were about as relaxed about eating out as we had been in a long time (you know... taking a toddler and an infant out to eat aside...).

So if you are a parent of a kid with food allergies and you're wondering if a Walt Disney World vacation is something that you can consider - the answer is yes. Yes yes YES. Walt Disney World Cast Members have shown us that they take their food allergy training VERY seriously and want to make sure that folks can have a safe, enjoyable vacation.

As such - I can't wait for Will to outgrow this toddler eating phase and start to get more adventurous so we can show him our favorite foods at WDW... stress free.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Daily To-Do List

I like to think in my own mind that I have it together. That I am the kind of woman who means business and just gets things done and...

Here's where my husband would chuckle to himself and say "Yeah, OK Honey." Why? Why would he say such a thing?

Well... because the reality is that I am rather scatterbrained and a bit distractable. It drives him crazy when I get to work at home because I'll start one chore, then start another, then sometimes for fun a third, then go back to the first, work on the third again, go back and finish the first, then work on the second... you get my point. 

I knew this about myself when I worked a desk job before I came home, so back then I used to have a to-do list notebook and a million sticky-notes that reminded me to do the important things. Anything that didn't get checked off on the to-do list moved to the next day's list with any new things to do. By keeping those running lists, I was able to actually get things done and keep things moving. I still got distracted, but at least I had some guidance.

So I went on Pinterest and found a couple of to-do lists that I liked, but none were exactly what I was looking for. I took a few, cherry-picked what I liked and made my own which I am now adding to the fray.

Here's my to-do list printable; I'm sharing it with you. I made it today in MS Publisher using one of their basic stationary templates (I know, I'm so original) and added in some text boxes of what works best for me. Maybe it works best for you, maybe like the other 83475 to-do lists out there did for me it will help you to shape your own.

Either way - here it is.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Our Experience - Tips & Tricks for Traveling with Tiny Humans

To those who know us, it is no secret to anyone that my husband and I love Walt Disney World. We are members of the Disney Vacation Club (since 2007!) and it quickly became "our" vacation spot. Once we welcomed our kids into the family, the discussion of how and when we introduced them to the "Happiest Place on Earth" was had and determined. A couple of weeks ago, we returned from taking our little ones - our almost 3-year-old son and our 10-month-old daughter - on their first trip to Walt Disney World.

I will openly admit here that we are planners by nature and tend to worry about things that we shouldn't worry about nearly as much as we do (which happens because we over-think the 893278 scenarios of how things "could" play out in a situation). Because of this, we were apprehensive about bringing our tiny humans on the airplane ride. We knew we could swing the actual vacation with a few simple strategies, but the airplane ride was what made us nervous. At the end of the day, everything was manageable and we walked away with a few lessons learned from the plane ride and the trip itself - and a great first family trip to the House of Mouse.

Because I feel like the community of those who have been before is often the greatest resource, I wanted to share with you some of the things we did that helped us out on our vacation. My goal is to add to the litany of blog posts out there about traveling with kids, and hopefully you'll be able to glean something that will help you out. After all, it was Pinterest searches, advice from friends, and blogs of other moms that helped me out too.

I feel like the Monty Python crew is behind me yelling "Get on with it!", so here we go...

1. Let Go of Whatever "Before Kids" Looked Like. When we used to do a Disney trip before Will and Evie were here, it was a whirlwind parkfest. We would arrive at opening and stay until the park closed for one day at each of the 4 major parks, spend a day at Downtown Disney, and another day trying a new non-park restaurant and packing up to go home. It was always a power trip (so to speak). This seemed an unreasonable approach with 2 under 3. There would be naps to contend with, non-park character breakfasts (because let's face it, we all know that the 2.5-year-old just wants to see Mickey as much as possible), bedtimes, and all other types of unpredictable things that come along with kids. So before you even CONSIDER attempting to recreate whatever your favorite pre-kid vacation was WITH your kids... just forget about what it used to look like. It's not going to look like that again for a while. (Sidebar: If your kids are old enough, involve them in the planning and ask them what they want to do too!)

"Will, when we go to Florida, what do you want to do?"
"I want to see Mickey Mouse."
2. Plan Around the "Normal" Routine Where Possible. With our kids being so young, naptime is still a pretty crucial time of the day. We planned our air travel, restaurant reservations, FastPasses - you name it, and we scheduled it AROUND naptimes. Tired kids are cranky kids, so we made sure that they would be able to crash either in our hotel room or in the stroller as close to their "normal" naptime as we could. We also tried to get them to bed as close to their normal bedtimes as possible too (understanding that sometimes it's not entirely possible - we did what we could). This not only made transitioning from home to vacation relatively smooth, it also made transitioning back home again pretty easy as well. For us at this stage in their life, we found that our double stroller worked perfectly for naps on the go. The back part for our 10-month-old lays completely flat and the front reclines so our 2.5-year-old could get comfortable. Covered their faces (reasonably) to eliminate distractions and they were well on their way to taking a 1.5-2 hour nap every afternoon. It worked out SO well. (Sidebar: Find your normal routine sticking point/points when thinking this through. For us it's naptimes and mealtimes - but it might be different for your kids. Also - map/find out where baby changing/nursing areas are; it will make your life easier if you already know ahead of time.)

This double stroller was our naptime power tool. So glad we brought it with us!
3. If You Can Stay Away with the Amenities of Home - DO IT! When we became DVC members several years ago, we chose the option we did knowing that we were hoping to have 2 kids and wanted to have spaces for them to sleep. What we also did for ourselves that turned out to be not only an added bonus but I think a MUST for anywhere we stay again was make sure we had access to a kitchen and laundry machines. It turned out that having those amenities made life a LOT easier for us. We were able to keep up with our laundry - which with a toddler and an infant is HUGE - and only had one load to do when we got home. Having the kitchen available allowed us to be able to give the kids the early breakfast they're used to (or at least enough to tide them over while we caught a bus to a restaurant breakfast) as well as give us alternative options for lunches and dinners on nights we didn't have reservations out somewhere. There are a lot of ways that you can stay somewhere that's almost like staying at home rather than a hotel and often they are rather affordable. Rent someone's timeshare, find a condo rental close by where you want to be, or crash with family or friends. It makes the vacation high last just a little bit longer when you return. (Sidebar: A lot of areas have off-property grocery services available that will be cheaper alternatives than what you buy on-property. Seek these out for toiletries, food, or laundry soap that you wouldn't pack in your luggage to save a few dollars.)

"Mommy made me noodles. I love them." - Evie
4. Butter Up Your Fellow Passengers (and Flight Crew) with Chocolate. Best $10-12 I ever spent. We got the flight crews up and back a bunch of Dove chocolate and wrote thank-you notes for their patience and assistance. We made our fellow passengers for the flight down little bags of Hershey's kisses with a note thanking them for their patience (and ignoring skills) of our two little ones for the plane ride down. The difference in how we were treated on the way down from our fellow passengers when I had the chocolate was TOTALLY different from the way back. Now that could probably be explained by just being a different crowd (plus who wants to leave Florida to come back to blizzard conditions), but it was definitely a noticable difference. Besides, by giving our flight crew chocolates, our kids got little plastic pilot's wings (which they promptly lost - but that's besides the point) that no one else did. So yeah - chocolate = worthy purchase, will do it again on our next trip. (Sidebar: If you look this idea up on Pinterest, you might find an apology letter to fellow passengers. I refuse to apologize for my kids just being kids, so I wrote thank-you notes instead because I appreciate patience & kindness & fun - not pity.)

...and if you can somehow manage to get them to nap on the plane - DO IT!
5. Go with the Flow. Kids are going to have meltdowns at dinner. Kids are going to get overexcited and loud at a time that might not be "appropriate". Parents are going to have end-of-day meltdowns because they're exhausted. You're going to have one exhausted kid and one that wants to keep going until they throw them out. Don't plan everything and just go with it. Steve and I LOVE Epcot. It's our favorite park in Walt Disney World; before we had kids, Epcot had 2 days of our vacation dedicated to it because we love it so much. There's just so much there to see and do. With our kids... Evie decided bedtime was bedtime and fell asleep at such times (nap and nighttime) in the stroller. Will wanted to stay up late... and we barely touched World Showcase. We spent the majority of our time in the Character Spot, The Seas with Nemo and Friends (both the ride and Turtle Talk with Crush were done twice), the Land, and Spaceship Earth. But that was OK - it was what our little guy wanted to do, and we let him steer the trip. He decided what we did, and we - in turn - experienced Disney through the eyes of the kids (he knows what his sister likes too, and stands up for "Evie wants to do this" pretty often). So as a wise philosophizing turtle once said: "Kill the motor dude". Go with it, and experience wherever you are - be it Walt Disney World or a mountain camping trip - through the eyes of the little ones. (Sidebar: No seriously, figure out ways to get them to nap if they normally nap - or at least rest for a bit if they don't. I know I said that already in #2 above - but it's so worth it.)

If you need to be told what it means to "Go with the Flow", listen to this song.

6. You Don't Always Need Your Camera to Capture a Memory. We are a big camera/picture family. Our camera - either our dSLR or our phones - go with us everywhere and anyone who knows me knows that I AM that annoying mom who posts too many pictures of their cute kids on Facebook/Instagram. As such, I try to make the effort to make sure that I don't always reach for the way to freeze that moment in time. Too often when you do, it kills the moment; kids start hamming it up for the camera, smiles become forced. My favorite memory of our trip is one that only someone from the outside following us around would have caught on camera - and I'm glad I didn't break to get mine. (Sidebar: If you're worried you'll forget things that happen on your trip without taking video or snapping pictures, bring a journal along and record things at the end of your day.)

"Oh, you guys just woke up from your naps? Cool.
Now look at the camera and smile like you just ate chocolate."
To my last point, let me share the story with you I alluded to about my favorite memory of the trip. We had spent an entire day at Animal Kingdom and decided that rather than leave for dinner, we would just grab dinner at one of the restaurants in the park. It had been wall-to-wall people all day long, so the thought of fighting crowds with hungry kids (who wanted to see Chip & Dale more than they wanted to catch a bus for dinner) to leave was not appealing. When dinner was over and we left the restaurant - the park was deserted with still 2 hours left until they closed. There were only a handful of people milling about enjoying what was left of the day, and we were 4 of that handful. The day was starting to switch over to evening; the sun had left the sky but was still lighting it, and the moon had risen above the park. There was an African band playing music outside the restaurant we had eaten at, and it just made the atmosphere completely perfect. Steve had Evie in his arms, and started to bounce around and dance with her as her grin widened and her little pigeon giggle started to become a part of the music. Will, on the other hand, had noticed that it was getting darker and had immediately started to look for the moon - and found it. He pulled on my pant leg, all sorts of excited and said "Mom! I see the moon! Look, Mom!" as he pointed and smiled.

Then he ran away from me yelling with his arms out to his sides - "MOM!!! I AM FLYING!! I AM FLYING TO THE MOON MOM!! COME WITH ME!!!"

I, of course, put my arms out to my sides and ran around with him. Flying to the moon with my son while my husband danced with our daughter.

My biggest tip is to just enjoy each other. It doesn't matter where you travel to - just enjoy each other, savor the moments, and cherish the memories. Those are the things that you'll carry with you for the rest of your lives.

**Coming soon - my thoughts specifically regarding our experience at Disney with little ones and a kiddo with food allergies. Keep your eyes peeled!**