30 Hours in Austin, Texas

When Clay’s sister and family made plans to fly out to Texas for a week-long visit, we advised them to fly into Austin rather than San Antonio because rates tend to be more reasonable and we all could spend a night or two in Austin before saying our goodbyes at the Bergstrom International Airport. We looked forward to our return getaway to the state capital (fun fact – it’s the second-most populous state capital in the nation) and after a packed-full week of San Antonio adventures, the seven of us (four adults and three kids) piled into the 4Runner and made our way to Austin, Texas.

We took the scenic route through Hill Country – stopping in Driftwood, Texas for lunch at The Salt Lick, a favorite spot of ours to take out-of-town guests. At The Salt Lick, you can experience a winery, an outdoor playground, delicious BBQ, and the quintessential hill country Texas vibe. It’s extremely kid-friendly and despite feeding thousands of people throughout the week, it is very efficient and well-run.

From The Salt Lick, it is just a quick 20-minute drive into downtown Austin. We checked into our hotel, The Embassy Suites Austin Downtown Town Lake, and let the kids run back and forth between our rooms while the adults enjoyed a cocktail. The hotel is perfectly situated between the Texas Capitol Building, University of Texas at Austin campus, 6th Street, and South Congress Avenue so we were able to walk almost everywhere, which is our favorite way to explore a city!

Violet would.not.stop.singing How Far I’ll Go from Moana.

We totally experienced 6th Street just the way it’s meant to be experienced…

…during the day with kids!

For an afternoon snack, we went to Voodoo Doughnut and found ourselves disappointed. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by artisan donuts throughout our travels but these just weren’t that good. Furthermore, the ordering process is insanely frustrating and completely inefficient and the person who took our order embodied every single stereotype of the millennial generation. If you find yourself in Austin craving donuts, skip Voodoo and head over to Gourdough’s Big. Fat. Donuts. We wish we did! Oh and in case you’re wondering what our picks for best donuts ever? Sugar Shack in Alexandria, Virginia and Condon’s Doughnuts in Wells, Maine. You’re welcome.

We walked along Lady Bird Lake back to our hotel to take advantage of the manager’s reception (free drinks!) before heading back out at dusk to see the world famous bats.

The largest urban bat colony in North America lives underneath the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. During ‘bat season’ (April – November), the bats leave the bridge nightly, which results in quite the spectacle that can last up to 2-3 hours.

We walked to the Austin-American Statesman park and waited for about 30 minutes for the first bat to emerge. And before long, we were treated to a wave of bats.

Hard to believe but there are thousands of bats in this picture. We all commented on how awesome it would be to see the bats from the water. There were a lot of kayakers and a couple of river cruises on the water and they definitely had the best seats in the house – next time we’ll do that, for sure!

The next morning, we checked-out of the hotel after breakfast and walked down South Congress Avenue to experience the iconic Austin street scattered with shops, restaurants, and bars.

Our Lady at 1500 S Congress

I’m certainly not alone in my love for all the public art throughout Austin.

One of my favorites – Big Eye on South Congress

1720 S 1st Sreet

I mean – you can’t go to Austin and not take a picture with this mural, right? Located on the wall of Jo’s Coffee (absolutely delicious coffee!), it had been vandalized (again) since we were there last summer…the lettering is thicker this time around.

After getting our fill of South Congress Avenue, we drove to Covert Park at Mount Bonell, a famous area alongside the Lake Austin portion of the Colorado River (not the Colorado River…Texas has their own Colorado River…because that makes sense).

We then headed to the University of Texas campus for lunch. We ended up at Gabriel’s Cafe and enjoyed Texas beer and traditional lunch-fare. The building was hosting an MBA graduation ceremony so we definitely felt like we were on a college campus, complete with gowns and caps.

University of Texas at Austin is no Clemson University but we could certainly see why so many people like it! 🙂

We had just enough time to swing by the State Capitol Building before heading to the airport.

The Texas State Capitol Building is such a cool place to visit – it’s open to the public and is gorgeous inside! Surprisingly, it isn’t the tallest state capitol building in the United States (that honor belongs to Louisiana) so I guess not everything is bigger here. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to explore all the halls and chambers like we did last summer but there is always next time.

And before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to Meredith, Harry, and Alaina. We are so thankful they chose to spend their Spring Break with us here in Texas. Who knows where the Army will send us next, but wherever it may be – we can’t wait to share it with our family and friends.

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Three Days at Disneyland Resort – The Happiest Place on Earth {Spring Break Recap 4.0}

To bring everyone up to speed, our 2017 Spring Break involved a tour of the southwest with stops in Albuquerque, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Disneyland, Tombstone, and more. Last fall, when brainstorming ideas for our spring adventure, we realized that we had reached the point in our parenting journey when taking the obligatory family Disney vacation no longer seemed like an overwhelming feat of strength. While my childhood was peppered with the occasional visit to Disneyland and Disney World, Clay had never been to a Disney park prior to this trip and we had never been together, so the only experience we had to pull from was almost 20-years old! Because we’re suckers for California and appreciate the idea of working our way up the Mickey-scale, we decided to make our first family Disney experience at Disneyland – the happiest place on earth.

Via Marriot.com

What I knew as Disneyland as a child has actually morphed into Disneyland Resort, which consists of Disneyland Park, Disney California Adventure Park, and the Downtown Disney District. There are three hotels that are considered part of the resort (complete with the $$$ mark-up!). And honestly, the only perk of staying at one of these hotels (that we could gather), is that registered hotel guests are given an Extra Magic Hour at one park on select days (see Extra Magic Hour), which wasn’t worth the extra $$$ to us. There are a lot of hotels within walking distance of Disneyland Resort, so while staying on property is super convenient at Disney World, it’s not really necessary at happiest place on earth. We’re Marriott junkies so we stayed three nights at the SpringHill Suites, which was only a short 10 minute walk to the park. And it had a CVS on the first level – doesn’t get much more convenient than that, folks.

Because of the short walk to the park, we were able to go back and forth to the hotel as necessary throughout the day. While we’ve been out of the napping kids game for awhile now, we all appreciated heading back to the room for a couple of hours each afternoon just to relax and regroup before heading back out for the evening/night.

The hotel was nothing fancy but it got the job done. We were in a suite, so after the kids went to bed, Clay and I were able to enjoy cocktails and watch television without disturbing them and we had more than enough room to kick-back and relax during our three days there. We checked into our hotel on a Monday afternoon with plans to be at the park on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. We couldn’t have planned it any better. On Monday night, we walked down to the Downtown Disney District for dinner and bought the kids the ever-famous mouse ears. And then we went to bed with plans to wake-up early and see what all the fuss was about at Disneyland.

So let’s talk Disney. Long story short – we didn’t really consider ourselves ‘Disney People’ prior to this trip. We were looking forward to our visit but Clay and I had a “we’re doing this for the kids” mentality. But you know what? WE LOVED IT! I seriously think Clay and I may have enjoyed it more than the kids. It was truly a magical family trip. Prior to Disneyland, we assumed that this would be our only visit and then we would go to Disney World a few years from now in order to ‘check that box’ but now we’re wondering if we need to go to Disney World sooner rather than later because we had such a fabulous time. It wasn’t peaches and roses 100% of the time but it was pretty darn close.

We were thankful for Disneyland Resort offering a Military Three-Day Park Hopper Pass for $156/person and we were blown away by the sincerity of the gate-keepers offering their thanks to Clay whenever we entered the park. One thing we noticed was how efficient the security lines and entrance lines were at Disneyland – they took an unpleasant experience (entrance lines into theme parks) and made it as pleasant as possible. All of the staff was friendly, smiling, and committed to ensuring that every one had a magical time.

This photo was taken on our first day, right before we entered the park. We were excited!

The very first ride we went on was Star Tours. It was one of the rides that I remember most as a kid because shortly after it opened, my dad took me on it (I barely hit the height requirement) and I had an epic freak out because I thought we were really going into space. Star Tours was the perfect first ride – we had a blast and seeing our kid’s reactions to flying through space was something we’ll remember forever. Violet was exactly at 40 inches on this trip so there were only a handful of rides that she couldn’t go on….she went on everything else.

Like Splash Mountain!

And HyperSpace Mountain…

…and Radiator Springs Racers.

Disneyland doesn’t have the Magic Bands like Disney World, so FastPasses are issued via paper vouchers. We found the system very easy to use and we were able to ride every single ride we wanted to without having to wait too long at all. The park was busy but the longest we waited for a ride was 40 minutes and that was for the Toy Story Midway Mania at California Adventure – FastPass isn’t offered for that ride yet (only 15 rides offer FastPass). We were at the park for three days and we rode every single ride we could, we certainly didn’t feel like we just waited in lines all day. We also took advantage of the Disneyland Mobile App, where we could track ride wait times, character locations, etc…

Our children didn’t express much interest in meeting characters – they were just as happy to see them from afar. This means we didn’t have to spend $$$ on character dining because they really didn’t care. Thankfully – all characters that they met, we were able to do so quickly and only had stand in line for five minutes or less. We even ran into Mickey in a dark corner on Main Street (less sinister than it sounds) so we snapped a picture and called it a day – no long line necessary!

The Stormtrooper was a bit of an asshole, which we loved. The commitment of the characters at Disneyland is unparalleled – we were very impressed!

We met Cinderella and were able to see a few more princesses from afar. Violet really wanted to meet Elsa and Anna but we never could find them. And we weren’t willing to drop $80/person for the Frozen dinner show. Violet didn’t seem to mind though….

…because her highlight was meeting Chewbacca! Sadly, she was too short to go on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride so I took her to meet Chewbacca while the boys rode it (via FastPass – no standing in line!). We waited about 20 minutes to have a private meeting with him and seeing her reaction was something I’ll never forget. ❤

Every night, there is the Main Street Electrical Parade. People start securing spots early – like really early, which is the opposite of how we roll. We timed it so we were in line for the Mad Tea Party and then on the teacups for the beginning of the parade…best seat in the house and we didn’t waste any time stalking spots. We then realized that most people with little kids were watching the parade so we used that time to hit all of the ‘all-ages’ rides in Fantasyland – Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventure, Pinocchio’s Daring Jourey, and It’s a Small World (we had rode Peter Pan’s Flight earlier).

Unfortunately, the Disneyland Railroad was out of commission during our trip but there were very nice conductors that let the kids explore the engine and train cars.

Of course Disneyland is super stroller-friendly – we were amazed by all of the stroller-parking zones and how we were able to leave stuff in our stroller without having to worry about anything happening to it. I’m glad we decided to bring the stroller – it made maneuvering within the park and hotel with tired kids super easy and fast. Both kids fit in a single BOB – no double stroller necessary.

The Autopia ride was a favorite of the kids – we rode it at least once every day.

Weston is actually a pretty good driver!

Clay and I would debate over who got stuck being the passenger while Violet was driving…that girl is dangerous behind a wheel!

The former Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse (which I loved growing up) is now Tarzan’s Treehouse – still super fun though. Which reminds me, I can’t believe our kids haven’t seen Swiss Family Robinson yet…it’s like we’ve failed as parents.

The kids LOVED Toontown. Clay and I did NOT get it…we thought there were so many cooler parts of the park but the kids were smitten. Which reminds me – when we were on Splash Mountain, we could see the construction for Star Wars Land…we are definitely looking forward to either coming back to Disneyland or going to Disney World to experience Star Wars Land. We are now that family.

We had such a great time at Disneyland Resort – it really was a magical family experience. And while the kids had the occasional breakdown (they weren’t alone – throughout the park you could hear parents saying “We spent a lot of money – you WILL enjoy this and NOT cry!”), the overall vibe was chill and we were just enjoying being able to experience a place that is about unbridled family fun.

So thank you Disneyland for exceeding our expectations.

We will be back.

Las Vegas…With Kids {Spring Break Recap 3.0}

I had been to Las Vegas a handful of times throughout my childhood and despite it’s reputation as a city of sin, I have many fond memories of our trips there. Back in the 1990s, there had been a push to make the city more family-friendly and apparently my family took full advantage but many are saying that some 25+ years later, Family Vegas has died. And after our overnight stay there, I agree. While there are remnants of the family-friendly Vegas I remember, it’s definitely not the same..probably because what happens there, now stay’s there.

Grand Canyon National Park is only about a four-hour drive to Las Vegas, the majority of it through northern Arizona. As mentioned previously, we had lunch in Williams, Arizona and then before we knew it – we had made it to the Arizona/Nevada border.

The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (completed in 2010) spans the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada and replaced the original Route 93 that literally ran along the Hoover Dam. It is the second-highest bridge in the United States after the Royal Gorge Bridge and is quite impressive. As it should be because it’s the world’s highest concrete arch bridge. Our kids knew that Disneyland was on our itinerary, so let me tell you…they were excited to stop and see the Hoover Dam. It’s every child’s dream.

An engineering marvel, the Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border has damed the Colorado River into Lake Mead since 1935, irrigating two million acres and generating enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes. It’s also a popular tourist destination – most likely because it offers an interesting stop for people traveling from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – like us! We skipped the tour and chose to look at it from afar before continuing onward, much to the relief of the kids.

Weston is obsessed with architecture, particularly towers and skyscrapers. Being able to see the tallest observation tower in the United States, the Stratosphere, was a highlight for him. We chose to stay on the strip because we wanted to do Vegas right and settled on the Excalibur Hotel and Casino. I had stayed there as a kid and loved it. Unfortunately, it is not the same Excalibur that I knew and loved.

And let’s just say that the kids were not impressed with what they saw while Clay was checking us in. I’m chalking it up to us just doing our due diligence of exposing our children to as much as the United States as we can – even the seedy underbelly. #parentsoftheyear

You haven’t lived until you pushed a stroller on a casino floor trying to find the elevator to our room with two children in tow. Do we know how to do Vegas or what?

 Not a bad view, huh?

VEGAS BABY!

We ate dinner at a counter-service place in New York, New York because they had about 100 beers on tap. Priorities.

Violet entertained the crowds with her break-dancing skills.

After dinner, we walked down to Bellagio to watch the fountains.

I think I was making this face the majority of the time while out on the Strip with our children that night. We stay out until about 9pm soaking up all the sights before heading back to the hotel to play arcade games in the child gambling hall in the basement of the Excalibur. It was like old Vegas minus Bugsy Siegel.

Our kids were enamored with the non-licensed costumed characters. But not as much as the guys pictured was enamored with the showgirls. $100 that this scene is his Facebook profile picture.

My biggest complaint about the Excalibur is that the hotel got rid of the majority of the medieval interior decorations that were prevalent when I would stay there in the 1990s as a kid. There would be knights walking around, it felt like you were literally in a castle, and it really did feel magical. And now, other than the exterior, it is just another non-descript hotel. Womp womp.

Soak it up, kids.

The next morning, we walked around the Strip some more and took advantage of the emptier streets. Apparently if you don’t stay out too late and don’t have your kids with you, one gets to sleep in while in Vegas.

The kids liked the interior of the Luxor. No need to go to Egypt kids – this will suffice.

And look…Clemson! #allin

After a couple of hours, we were ready to hit to road for California. If you have made the drive from Las Vegas to the Los Angeles area, then you are aware of how painful this drive is through the desert. There is literally nothing aside from Fort Irwin and Barstow, California between the two major metropolitan areas.

But we were able to eat In & Out so it wasn’t too bad.

Next up…Disneyland!