Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Memorable Christmas

 Every family has their own Christmas traditions.  And if they are fortunate enough to be able to travel together, their own travel traditions.  Every family has their own Christmas memories.  And if they are fortunate enough to be able to travel together, their own travel memories.

As the year comes to a close and my family is once again blessed to spend the holidays together, I can't help but reflect on our own Christmas traditions and memories. And because this is a travel blog, aptly named "Incredible Memories", to combine such things with travel memories and traditions is a double blessing.

This post is a walk down memory lane to the Christmas my daughter got engaged...in Germany at Christmas time. A precious time of family togetherness and welcoming our wonderful son-in-law into the fold.  He was already completely enamored with our daughter, and we didn't want to scare him off with our craziness so we opted to wow him with a German Christmas and introduce him to our family style Christmas vacation!

Walking is always a part of our family vacation!  But of course we have to be well nourished to do so and as partaking of the local cuisine is another very important travel tradition, we stopped at a konditerei for some coffee and kuchen before we began our trek around the village.

We don't just walk in the day and were rewarded with this beautiful sunset on our evening walk!

Christmas in Germany just isn't Christmas if you don't visit a Christmas market.  Being overachievers, we visited not one but two.  And in that same "overachiever" vein, we also visited two countries as we  drove to Innsbruck, Austria to experience at Austrian Christmas market as well.

The Garmich Christmas market was in the evening and the lights were magical.  

On Christmas Eve, our family separated to accomodate our different interests and abilities.  And in keeping with tradition,  I took half of the children on a safe, beautiful sightseeing expedition..in this case the Zugspitze...

while my husband went off on a risky adventure with the others..in this case, skiing in the icy Alps of Austria because the snow was so bad on the German side.  In keeping with tradition, they came home with a hair raising tale, but also in keeping with tradition, they did come home safely!!

Everyone dreams of a White Christmas and we were not disappointed!!  It started snowing Christmas evening and by the next morning we woke to a Winter Wonderland!

*Notice my husband out there with them engaging in risky behavior of snowball fights while I'm safely warm indoors with my camera! lol

And speaking of my camera, I'm ALL about the photos on our vacations.  And my family is pretty good about obliging me.  A definite tradition is a "rock star" pose. 

And because its always about the memories, this photo is the one that is framed in my living room to always remind me of this trip. It captures my family perfectly!!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Christmas at Disney Part 2

(Continuation from Part 1 of Kristy's husband's post)

So, after having gained roughly 2 pounds each just from inhaling the air surrounding the gingerbread exhibits...

...we had to move on.

We had lunch reservations and tickets to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. The Christmas Party, for those unfamiliar with it, is an after-hours event inside the Magic Kingdom, available for a not quite seizure-inducing fee, should you discover you haven’t maxed out your credit yet. Lunch reservations, for those unfamiliar with them, are a kind of appointment you make at nicer restaurants to come by, have a chat with some of the staff, try out the lobby chairs, then after a while stagger away in search of food.

At least that’s what seems likely to happen when you first check in at a popular Disney restaurant. They are generally swarming whatever time you go, including four hours after closing.

Here we are waiting to enter ours.

If you are trying to plan ahead and are unsure whether the establishment you are considering qualifies as a popular Disney restaurant, there is a simple two-step test. Step 1: before you enter, check whether the building is located anywhere within 10 miles of the Walt Disney World border. Step 2: after you enter, check whether anyone is eating. If the answer to both questions is yes, it is a popular Disney restaurant.

However, as you veteran Mousekovites know, Disney usually manages to pull off the surprising, and, in our case, we were seated in less than 15 minutes. We were eating at Sanaa, a delightful, African-theme restaurant inside the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Disney bills it as “African cooking with Indian flavors.” Maybe they also have an Indian-themed diner somewhere that serves antelope burgers. I’ll let you know when I find it.

The atmosphere at Sanaa is top-notch. In a helpful example of the always-clever Disney effects department, some of the menu items actually appear outside the windows to assist in making your selections. African Chicken, for example.

If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a meal at Sanaa, you can’t really do better than to order the Indian-Style Bread Service. The bread itself is called naan. I do not know what ‘naan’ means, nor do I care. It might simply mean ‘bread,’ so that the title is redundant, like how some restaurants serve torte cake. Or it might mean something wholly unrelated to food. If I found out tomorrow, while on my way there for lunch, that naan is Swahili for “rolled out hunk of tree bark often given as a prank to Westerners overeager to part with their money,” I would still order it right after greeting the waiter.

At Sanaa, naan is a circular, flat loaf served with nine different dipping sauces, each very unique and very delicious.

For some reason, this comes, as you can see, on a long wooden board instead of anything resembling traditional serving ware. This could simply be a continuation of the African theme, or it could be that the last joke about what naan means has more plausibility than I am comfortable exploring. So, moving on.

Lunch was our last major event before heading to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. One of the selling points of the party is the non-stop hot chocolate, hot cider, candy canes, cookies of various kinds, etc., served all over the park. While nice, this presented a dilemma for my family. At the time of our trip, we were battling several food allergies, the total list of which meant we as a group were allergic to roughly 85% of any given grocery store. This meant two things: 1) the plumbing in my house was seriously earning its keep in those days, and 2) three of us couldn’t eat a single thing served at the party.

Enter the head chef of Sanaa; a fine gentleman by the name of Eddie, pictured here.

(As a side note, the little one in the bottom of the picture is not scowling because of Eddie. He’s a big fan of Eddie’s work. I don’t remember precisely, but I think he was mad because we had cut him off after his fourth serving of Butter Chicken.)

Anyway, my blogette had gotten to know Chef Eddie a little on a previous trip, so she contacted him in advance of this one to see if he knew any chefs working in the Magic Kingdom that we could ask about special ordering allergy-friendly snacks. Eddie did us one better. He insisted on making something himself. That was surprising enough, but even more surprising was the bulging bag he brought out that contained a thermos of hot chocolate, brownies, chocolate covered strawberries, and an assortment of various other treats, all completely allergy-friendly. He made each one himself, from scratch, for not one dime, just because we had taken the time to get to know him and he wanted to make sure our time was memorable and easy. Since our trip, Eddie has moved to Jiko, an even more upscale restaurant in the same resort. Apart from his culinary skill, which is formidable, it’s clear to me why he was promoted.

[LEGAL DISCLAIMER SENSIBLE PEOPLE DO NOT NEED: We did not ask Eddie to do this and Eddie is not required to do it for you. Nor is any other Disney chef. We had simply been nice to him in the past and he chose to be nice in return. We have witnessed a surprising number of Cast Members respond with over-and-above generosity and gratitude when shown a little kindness and interest in them as people. To me, this suggests those are things they don’t get much of. END LEGAL DISCLAIMER]

Onward to the Magic Kingdom and Mickey’s Christmas Party.

So, having already donated bone marrow to purchase your park admission tickets, you now more or less agree to let the Walt Disney Company sell up to two of your non-essential organs. In exchange for this, they give each member of your party a small, green wrist band that looks a little too much like a hospital admission bracelet. This is an important item it turns out, because at some point during the early evening, the Cast Members start kicking out anyone who doesn’t have a one. Suddenly all these dedicated Disney-goers find themselves badly wishing they too looked like recently recovered medical patients.

Inside the park there are snack stations, as mentioned, each one helpfully marked by a large, inflatable bathroom scale.

Kidding. They look big peppermint sticks, like this:

Each one has a different variety of snacks and drinks, all available in unlimited quantities for nothing but the paltry entry fee we already discussed.

There are other unique aspects, too. There is the Once Upon A Christmas Time parade that you can only see during the Party. It features a lot of familiar and expected Disney faces, but also a few things you don’t often see. Clarabelle the Cow baking Christmas cookies, for example.

I am not sure why, but for some reason Disney seems to be trying to orchestrate a Clarabelle Comeback. Maybe I’m just not the visionary type, but I don’t see it happening.

There were also some very fun Christmas Dancers I did not get any good pictures of, so here’s a passable one.

Our favorite was the marching toy soldier band. They played their own music, including actual brass instruments. Give it a watch:

There were several unique floats we hadn’t seen during any other parade. And of course, the Big Guy.

There wasn’t anything wrong with my camera. It turns out Santa is actually a little out of focus in real life. It’s his age, I think. Have you ever noticed how really old photographs never look all that sharp? Apparently, it was the subjects’ fault, not the equipment.

Who knew?

Anyway, there are of course also several character meet-and-greet stations. These are always a hit with the kiddos. They are also a hit with adults who, for reasons that are absolutely, totally fine, like to join in pretending the 20-yr-old actors signing an endless stream of autograph books actually are corporeal manifestations of cartoon characters.

We met Rapunzel and Flynn. Both were very sweet and very fun. The Little Guy got tips on The Smolder.

He’ll get there.

The Castle Lighting was a sight to behold. It begins with a show on the Castle steps starring the Frozen characters. It culminates with Elsa, as the name suggests, lighting up the Castle. I will grant you that doesn’t sound terribly exciting. I get it. But bear something in mind; we are experienced, hard-bitten, grizzled Disney veterans. We are not easily impressed. We have been to Disneyland and Disney World. We have been on two Disney cruises. We have seen all the fireworks. We were at Epcot during its anniversary month, we have talked to Mickey, been the Grand Marshalls of the Festival of Fantasy Parade, I’ve been the Veteran of the Day (invited twice), we’ve been onstage at the start of the Indiana Jones show, we have Bob Iger on speed dial, etc.

The point is, we have seen it and done it, whatever it is. And yet this was an absolutely stunning light show. Truly. We were very impressed.

I have many pictures and even a video. They won’t do it justice, so instead here’s a nice shot my daughter took during the fireworks finale, which was also truly excellent. As for the rest, you’ll just have to take my word for it until you’re ready to put some of your own organs up for sale. We can’t spare anymore of ours.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Its the Most Magical Time of the Year

Its the Most Magical time of the Year
For vacations and going,
To see lights a-glowing
At Christmas marts far from here!

Its the hap-happiest season of all
A French Christmas Market with its ferris wheel so tall
Crepes and gifts galore
A magical, wintry place to explore.

Germany Christmas Market

Its the Most Magical time of the Year
For vacations and going,
To see lights a-glowing
At Christmas marts far from here!

There'll be chestnuts a-roasting,
and Mullwein for toasting.
And caroling out in the streets.
Nutcrackers, sweetmeats,
And sights of the glories of the 
Christmases long, long ago.

It the most magical time of the year
There'll be Christmas parades
With St Nicholas's aides
Such joy when he's here
Its the most magical time of the year

Its the Most Magical time of the Year
For vacations and going,
To see lights a-glowing
At Christmas marts far from here!

**with my apologies to Andy Williams

Monday, December 4, 2017

Christmastime at Disney Part 1 - The Christmas Experience Outside of the Parks

Guten Tag, Travelers. I am the husband of Kristy, one of the two blogettes who maintain this site. I have been asked to contribute an entry based on my expertise in accidentally having spare time when my blogette did not.

My wife/blogette had heard the week after Thanksgiving was one of the least crowded times to visit Walt Disney World. This explains why, when we should have been peacefully lying about digesting 13 pounds of turkey per person, we were instead crammed elbow to elbow with 62,000 of our closest friends, partaking in all the Magic™ that the Walt Disney Company can inflict upon Christmas Chanukah Kwanzaa the Holidays!

At the time, we were living in Washington, D.C., and elected to take a plane because it had been way too long since we were last strip-searched. So, we started our trip off with a nice, late morning flight to avoid anyone being too tired.

Upon arrival, we checked into one of the Disney Springs hotels, the Best Western. We stayed there the first night and moved to the extremely cool Port Orleans Riverside for the duration of our trip, because dragging 650lbs of luggage from one place to another is just not something you can get enough of!

Stuff-wise, we are not a lean operation.

After check-in, we headed straight to Disney Springs because, this being the first day of the trip, we still had money.

For those who have not been there, Disney Springs is essentially a large, Disney-themed outlet mall. Or at least it was. It’s now roughly 60% Disney-themed, with a new section of shops having been completed in the last couple of years. The shops in the new section have a collective theme I would call “We Want In On This.”  They’re nice, don’t get me wrong. But Under Amour, Columbia Sportswear, Levi’s, and Vera Bradley don’t really stir up my childhood nostalgia.

The old section, however, has a lot to offer. After Thanksgiving, one exhibit worth checking out is the Christmas Tree Trail. This is a long series of ornate Christmas trees, each decorated in the theme of a classic Disney film or group of characters.

The one of the right isn’t playing along with the face he’s making. He’s being choked out by the little one.

Here’s a sampling of the various trees along the way. 

It even snowed! In Orlando! Sort of!

Actually, the snow was a really nice touch and helped create a fantastic, Christmas-y atmosphere.

After the Christmas Tree Trail, we headed over to the harbor area of Disney Springs to watch a coordinated, Christmas-themed drone show. It was extremely impressive.

The next day we took some time to tour several of the resorts to see their decorations. Disney may not have a clue what a candy bar costs everywhere else on the planet, but they have sure figured out how to decorate. I can highly recommend this is an extremely pleasant and, above all, inexpensive pastime.

It was during this particular outing we encountered the Gingerbread. I don’t mean we found a bakery, and that this bakery had some particularly nice gingerbread available for purchase. Oh no. I mean nearly full-sized houses, murals, castles, and even a working carousel all made of Gingerbread!

For instance, in the lobby of the Contemporary, we found this Frozen-inspired exhibit:

Nifty, right! I’ve tried making pancakes into recognizable shapes and the best I’ve managed is a Rorschach-like blob that could be a Mickey silhouette, but could also be something the dog horked up on the carpet. The Disney guys made this thing out of essentially gingerbread, honey, and chocolate. The scale isn’t clear in this shot, but to give you an idea how big this was, take a look at the ingredient list:

Diabetics have been known to go into insulin shock by just reading through the list too many times, so caution is advised.

The lobby of the Grand Floridian was even more impressive.

It’s big enough to be used as an actual store.

This particular Disney gift shop was constructed out of, among other things, a literal half-ton of honey. Not kidding.

That's it for the free stuff, folks.  Next time, join us we show how Disney transforms three of their parks for Holiday Magic sure to break budgets of all sizes.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Thanksgiving Family Vacation to Remember!

During the years my family lived in England, we opted out of the traditional Thanksgiving celebration in order to travel to European destinations.  One year, Romania was the destination of choice!  In preparation for our trip, my husband and I both read Dracula and Bran Castle, a.k.a. "Dracula's castle" was a top destination on our list.  I was not a travel agent at this point and consulted with a friend who was from Eastern Europe thinking she'd be a great resource for me.  She advised me on the airport and recommended a great hotel owned by friends of her family.  Sadly, I did not do my homework and we flew into an airport...4 hours from Bran Castle.  (There were 2 others much closer.)  The hotel also didn't work out due to availability issues. That was  a great blessing in disguise!  We passed that hotel on our 4 hour trek from the airport towards Bran Castle. It was in the middle of nowhere and near nothing on our list of attractions we wished to visit!! - Moral of the story..unless your friend really is a travel agent...he or she may not be a the best resource for your travel plans!! Lucky for you though if you are reading this, you know a travel agent who is a great resource and can advise you better than my well-intentioned, but poorly informed friend!

In spite of the overwhelming stress of the poor plans, I was determined not to let the disappointing turn of events deter us from making some great family memories,  and we found other accomodations, rented a car and begin a long snowy trek from one side of Romania to the other.  

In lieu of the hotel in the middle of nowhere, we stayed in this adorable pensione right in the center of the city and were able to walk to see many attractions which included this interesting church.

 On the drive we saw the real Romania and were fascinated by the transitions between Eastern European Communist block villages interspersed with the traditional sites of horses and wagons (on the highway no less!) and women in the traditional peasant attire of dirndl skirts and kerchiefs upon their heads.

 And of course, we did make it to Bran Castle!

As well as Peles Castle which was also quite interesting.  No English tours were available the day we were there but happily a woman travelling with her husband who also didn't speak Romanian took pity on us and took us under her wing and translated the tour for us as well.

And in case you're worrying about our not having a nice Thanksgiving meal rest assured while not traditional...or even remotely what we thought we were ordering, we did indeed have a memorable Thanksgiving dinner!

Vegetarian Pizza - Romania Style