Surf City USA Day Trip – 7 Family Friendly Things To Do in Huntington Beach

While you can definitely fill a full week relaxing in Huntington Beach, California, if you only have a limited amount of time to play in Surf City USA, no worries. We have the perfect itinerary for a full day of family-friendly fun in this casual and cool Pacific Coast community.

My family and I stayed in the beautiful Irvine and Costa Mesa areas while visiting Southern California this summer, the perfect home base for a vacation in Orange County. The Costa Mesa Marriott is 10 minutes from Huntington Beach, so we had just a short, 20-minute drive back to the hotel after a full day of fun. For information about things to do in the Irvine and Costa Mesa areas, be sure to visit my post: Family Travel – Fun Things to Do in Irvine, California #OrangeCounty.

Our friends at Visit Huntington Beach hosted our visit for the day and helped us coordinate a schedule that included a combination of water sports, good food and relaxation that was perfect for me, my 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. If you are planning a girl’s getaway, romantic weekend or vacation with younger kids, they have a lot of other ideas about things to do in the area – so be sure to check them out for ideas before you arrive.


1. Learn to Surf – When in Surf City USA, you gotta surf! After all, Huntington Beach has the most consistent waves on the West Coast. If you don’t know how to hang 10, surf lessons from Toes On The Noes is the perfect thing to do in Huntington Beach.

Located at the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa in the Retail Courtyard, Toes On The Nose offers lessons for those of ages 6 and up with any level of experience. As first timers – we were so excited about the opportunity to hit the waves with a little help from the pros.

After putting on wetsuits (provided by Toes On The Nose), we walked across the street from the hotel to the beach with our two instructors, Brock and Paul. Our 2-hour morning lesson started with a brief explanation about technique and we practiced going from the paddling position to standing on our surf boards while we were still on the sand.

Then we hit the water. Jackson went up immediately and Annie was soon to follow. It took a few more tries for me – but it turns out you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I wasn’t going to win an award for style, but I had a blast riding a wave all the way in to the beach.

Brock and Paul were so patient and nice. They’ve both been surfing for a long time, especially Brock who started surfing when he was just a little one in preschool. It’s clear they are in their happy place when in the ocean. Even though they are clearly very experienced, they seemed to really enjoy surfing with us rookies and were excited for us when we got up on our boards. We all enjoyed getting to know them…it’s always awesome to meet people who are living their dream.

After a while, it was clear that Jackson was really progressing quickly. Brock took him out to work one-on-one with him so he could experience as much as possible before the end of our lesson. It was so fun to watch Jackson feel the thrill of catching waves on his own. While Paul and I watched him from the beach, Paul told me that he could tell he had the bug. Paul got it when he was 13 years old and has been hooked on surfing ever since. He could tell Jackson was heading there.

Jackson stood a little taller when Brock and Paul asked him to come see them next time we visited Huntington Beach so they could go surfing together again.

While surf lessons are a bit of a splurge – it’s totally worth it if you’ve never done it before. I also felt so much more comfortable knowing the kids had experienced surfers with them who knew about rip currents and how to be safe while having fun. Our instructors really maximized our time in the water, giving us the chance to catch waves immediately by telling us when to pop up…timing is everything.

Many thanks to Brock and Paul and Toes On The Noes for an epic morning.

Jackson said it was lit.

2. Ride Bikes Down the Boardwalk – After your surf lessons, rent bikes at Toes On The Noes (they also offer hourly and daily bike rentals) and cruise down the Boardwalk. There’s an 8.5 mile paved beach path perfect for pedaling around. It’s a great way to soak in the sun, the views and the relaxing vibe of Huntington Beach and the Pacific Ocean. We worked up an appetite after hitting the waves, so we rode our bikes from the Hyatt to Sandy’s Beach Grill for lunch. Bike rentals come with locks and you’ll find bike racks all along the paved path, so you can stop to shop or eat or just relax on the sand.

3. Have Lunch at Sandy’s Beach Grill – While on your bike ride down the boardwalk – stop in Sandy’s for a bite to eat. This casual restaurant serves authentic California cuisine and is right by the iconic Huntington Pier. We had delicious scallops and mushroom flatbread at a table with a great view of the ocean. It was so yummy and relaxing and we were able to lock our bikes up on a bike rack right outside the restaurant. Check out my full review of Sandy’s Beach Grill in the post, 8 Great Restaurants in Orange County.

4. Stand Up Paddleboarding at Huntington Harbor with OEX Sunset Beach. We fell in love with Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) last year in Florida. So much so, that we bought our own paddleboard before we left Sandestine! We don’t get the chance to go out as often as we’d like in Houston, so whenever we are by the water – we always try to squeeze in some time to SUP. OEX Sunset Beach, a kayak and SUP rental shop only a short drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from Sandy’s Grill, is a great place to grab a board and get on the water.

Since we’ve been stand up paddleboarding before, we each got our own paddleboard – but two people can easily fit on one board if you are new to the sport and have younger kids. OEX Sunset Beach also offers lessons if you want to learn before you head out on your own, but SUP is really easy…you just have to find your balance. While it’s a lot of fun, relaxing and a great way to explore – it’s also a great workout. We went out around 3:30 p.m. so we had two hours to play. OEX Sunset Beach closes at 5:30, so all kayakers and paddleboarders have to be in by then.

The harbor is beautiful and there were a lot of kayakers and paddleboarders out on the water. We had fun exploring the area and looking at the boats and homes along the way. Paddleboarding is very calming to me. I love falling into the rhythm of paddling as I glide across the water. The kids love it, too. It’s a great way to see the water from a different perspective and while we didn’t talk a lot – it’s fun to experience SUP together with your family.

We went pretty far out, around several bends in the Harbor and before we knew it, it was time to head back. It was a little windier then we anticipated and because we were going against the wind on the way back, we made it back with only about 10 minutes to spare! With tired arms, tighter abs and full hearts – we turned in our equipment.

Tip: Parking is limited in their parking lot but you can park for free along the highway. You can also store your valuables in the shop (car keys, etc.) so you don’t have to worry about taking things on the paddleboard.

5. Shop at Pacific City If you have time and want to do some shopping, Pacific City is a fun place to visit. Right on the Pacific Coast Highway – they have big stores like Free People and LUSH (our favorite bath products!) as well as smaller specialty shops. We went after we finished SUP and before dinner and really enjoyed CherryHills Market. They also have restaurants and live entertainment. While we just visited for an hour, we could have been here much longer.

6. Eat Dinner at Cucina Alessa – Just a short drive from the Boardwalk to Main Street is a delicious Italian restaurant, perfect for dinner. While you don’t want to wear a bathing suit or cut offs, it’s not too fancy. We were very comfortable. Jackson got lasagna, I ordered lobster ravioli and Annie had pasta with grilled shrimp and everything was delicious. We heard that all their handmade pastas are yummy – especially the Butternut Squash Ravioli. For a full review about Cucina Alessa, see my post: 8 Great Restaurants in Orange County.

7. Bonfire on the Beach – While there are several public fire pits available for use on a first come, first serve basis on the beach each evening, there’s a special area across the street from and between the Hilton and Hyatt hotels where you can reserve a private bonfire. Waterfront Adventures, part of the The Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, allows you to enjoy watching the sunset on the beach and making s’mores by the fire without any of the fuss. They provide the beach chairs, fire pit, wood, soft drinks and water, and all the fixin’s for s’mores.

This was an amazing way to end the day. We just showed up on the beach and checked in with the attendant at about 8:30 p.m. Our private fire pit was already set up. During the evening he continually checked on us and kept the fire going so all we had to do was get comfortable and curl up by the fire. We loved visiting together about our Huntington Beach adventures in such beautiful surroundings.

Tip: Be aware that the beach closes for everyone at 10:00 p.m. Starting at about 9:45 p.m. police vehicles begin to patrol the beach – so be prepared to pack up or pay a fine!

The kids happily dozed off during our ride back to Costa Mesa after the Bonfire. Before they were out like a light, both of them smiled and said…”Today was the best day. Ever.”

So, yeah. This mom’s kinda loving Huntington Beach.

What is your favorite thing to do in Orange County?

As guests of  Visit Huntington Beach our meals and activities were provided in order for us to experience Surf City USA area attractions. No other compensation was received and, as always, all opinions expressed are my own or taken from input received from my kids.


Family Travel – Fun Things to Do in Irvine, California #OrangeCounty

Family Fun Things To Do In Irvine, California

Are you planning a family vacation? If your travel plans include California, you don’t want to miss visiting Irvine in Orange County. During my recent 6-day trip to Southern California with my two kids, we found Irvine to be the perfect destination for family-fun as well as a great home-base for several day trips we took to the Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach areas.

Many thanks to the folks at Destination Irvine who set-up travel and coordinated some of the activities during our trip. I highly recommend visiting this site to prepare for your perfect Southern California family vacation.

At the center of Orange County and just minutes from John Wayne Airport, Irvine is a beautiful community filled with shopping, bike trails, good food and fun things to do. I’ll be covering details of places to eat and our day trips in future posts, but first I want to share some tips about what to do in Irvine proper….a fabulous destination in itself!

Where to Stay:

Embassy Suites Irvine

Our home away from home for two days was the Embassy Suites Irvine – Orange County Airport. A comfortable place to rest and relax with plenty of room to spread out, the Embassy Suites, with separate living and bedroom areas great for families, also provides all guests a complimentary made-to-order breakfast each morning (hello omelets!) and snacks and beverages in the evening. We loved playing cards in the atrium before dinner while enjoying refreshments.

Embassy Suites Irvine

Plus – if you are smart enough to schedule some down-time during your vacation (I need to do a better job with this) you can swim in their indoor pool or take advantage of summer programming like a painting class we noticed they were offering on Wednesday evenings. Very cool.

Embassy Suites Irvine

We’ve stayed at Embassy Suites hotels in other states before. In fact, Annie still remembers staying at the one in Dallas when I took her to the American Girl Doll Store for her birthday when she was just five years old. Embassy Suites does a great job of providing consistently great service across their chain of hotels and the Irvine location just went through a $12 million renovation – apparent by the modern furnishings located throughout both the guest rooms and public areas.

Fun Things to Do:

Orange County Great Park and The Great Park Balloon Ride

The Great Park Balloon - Irvine, California

We made a stop here Sunday evening – the first night of our trip. Open Thursday – Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., The Great Park (once a Marine Corps Air Station) is now home to sports fields, a carousel, a farm and food lab with interactive fruits, flowers and vegetable displays (open from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), a historical hanger with cool exhibitions including two World War II airplanes, a play area and visitor’s center, and probably the most recognizable attraction – the Great Park Balloon.

The helium balloon goes up 400 feet offering views of Irvine; however, wind prevented us from riding it while we were there. Because of this fact (we learned that it hadn’t been able to go up for several evenings the week we were there) and more activities offered earlier in the day then in the evening, I recommend going to The Great Park in the morning/early afternoon.

The Great Park Farm and Food Lab

If I was lucky enough to live in Irvine, I would be out here. A lot. They have a farmer’s market on Sunday mornings and host classes including sports and dance, yoga, photography, art, sustainable gardening, cooking and wellness throughout the year. They also offer activities like movies on the lawn and family craft and play programs. While we were there, a fencing organization was outside practicing. We heard they are building a new ice skating rink including a practice facility for the Anaheim Ducks there as well as well as fields for many different sports. My kids, who both play lacrosse, were happy to hear that lacrosse facilities were included in the plan.

The Great Park, Irvine CA

We were bummed we weren’t able to experience the 15-minute helium balloon ride, but we checked out a frisbee and soccer ball from the visitor’s center at no-charge and had a great time enjoying the sunset and beautiful evening playing together on the lawn.

We are slowly learning that when we travel, we have to be flexible and deal with the unexpected…making the most of the journey as it unfolds naturally. You can plan (and boy do I plan!) but certain things, like the weather, just can’t be helped. Getting stressed out doesn’t make things any better. We ended up having a great time doing something that wasn’t on the itinerary.

Tip: Bring a picnic and make a day at the park if time allows. Visit them online to see about free classes and activities that may be going on during your stay and take advantage of the Farmer’s and Artisan market with food trucks and live entertainment on Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Irvine Spectrum Center

Great Wheel - Irvine Spectrum Center

We learned pretty quickly that there’s no lack of shopping in Orange County. The Irvine Spectrum Center is an outdoor shopping center with two department stores (Nordstrom and Target), many full service and casual restaurants, tons of popular stores, and entertainment including a movie theatre, ferris wheel, carousel, kiddie train, Dave & Busters, and a comedy club.

Great Wheel Irvine Spectrum Center

Since we didn’t get to ride the Great Park Balloon – we were very excited to get a bird’s eye view of Irvine from the Giant Wheel, a ferris wheel in the middle of the shopping area with 52,000 energy-efficient LED lights. On a clear day when at the top, look towards the Santa Monica Mountains (53 miles away) and Downtown LA (40 miles away).

For the record….I was never scared. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Honey and Butter, Irvine

Tip: Visit Honey & Butter for the best darn macarons. Our friend Rob at the fabulous Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine and Cocktails restaurant recommended this to us. (I promise I’ll fill you in about Andrei’s later!) The character macarons are even more delicious than they are adorable. Annie was thrilled to get a Pig macaron – she is nuts about pigs. Other flavors to die for: milk and honey, sea salted caramel, thai tea and matcha. We bought a bag of assorted flavors to take back to the hotel to enjoy later but they were gone before we got back to the car.

Don’t judge….we were on vacation!

Pedego Irvine Electric Bikes

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

One of the absolute, hands down, top highlights for all of us during our week in California was our tour of Irvine with Bob at Pedego Electric Bicycles. I used to want a Vespa, now I want an electric bike. Bob, the store owner, is awesome. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy who truly loves SOCAL and Irvine.

Amazing bike trails begin literally outside Bob’s store’s door. One of the reasons we all fell in love with Irvine is because it’s truly a bike friendly city. We only experienced a taste of what the area has to offer in terms of trails….it left us wanting to experience more.

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

These bikes have heavy frames compared to the road/race/triathlon bikes the kids and I are used to – but they are extremely easy to operate. Unlike Houston, Irvine is very hilly so riding up some of the inclines, especially on long rides, can be challenging. On a Pedego, you can either pedal like on a regular bike, stop pedaling and let the electric bike do all the work or do a combination of both. Pedegos can go up to 20 miles per hour and operate with a throttle. These are particularly wonderful if you are recovering from a sports injury (like my recent tendon tear in my leg).

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

Bob sells bikes as well as rents them and offers guided bike tours. We went out for about 1 1/2 hours and experienced spectacular views along Shady Canyon Trail, University Trail by Quail Hill, Woodbridge Trail, and Turtle Rock Trail. We rode by beautiful homes, water, a golf course and even saw a road runner while we were out. Bob gave us a lot of background information about Irvine during the ride. If you really want to know a city, get out of the car and get on a bike. Irvine trails and Pedego bikes make it easy.

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

Tip: If you’re shorter than me (I’m 4’10” – about the average size of a 5th grader) then you’ll probably have trouble riding these bikes on your own. But no worries. They have tandem bikes and my 10-year-old daughter, Annie, rode one with Bob (and loved it).

ChocXO Chocolate Factory


I may or may not be in love with chocolate.

Wait. Yes – definitely, yes. And Irvine is home to one of the best Chocolatiers, ChocXO…the only Bean to Bar Chocolate Factory in Orange County.


In addition to a shop full of goodies, ChocXO on Irvine Center Dr. offers 45 minute to 1 hour tours of the factory. For just $10.00 a person you can learn about how they make their specialty chocolate and the tour includes three, free chocolates from their chocolate case as well as samples of raw cacao pulp, cocoa nibs and cocoa liquor. Sasha, our guide, walked us along the educational wall of the factory with windows where we saw the machines they use to make chocolate. She told us what happens before they get their fine flavor cacao beans from Central and South America and what they do with them to make their products.

This tour was especially interesting for us since we just returned home from the Dominican Republic with Fathom Impact Travel were we worked at Chocal, the women’s chocolate co-op in Altamira. Many of the activities we did by hand to assist production at the co-op, like discard the bad beans and separate the shells from the chocolate nibs after they were ground up, are done by sophisticated equipment at ChocXO. It was eye-opening to see how chocolate is made here versus in an undeveloped country. While there are many similarities, ChocXO certainly has the advantage of technology and the chocolate we sampled was unbelievably delicious.

I highly recommend just about any of the chocolate squares and truffles in their chocolate bar. My favorite flavors: birthday cake, lemon meringue, spicy PB&J, salted caramel and creme brulee. You can purchase them while you are there as well as order them online, but sadly – cannot find them in stores in Texas. Sigh.


Tip: Request tour guide, Sasha. She’s fabulous! She’ll give you a ChocXO quiz at the end of the tour and you can score two more free chocolates if you turn it in…especially fun for the kids.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Irvine and Orange County?

Be sure to visit again soon for posts about fabulous places to eat and details about our day trips to Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.

As a guest of Destination Irvine, some of our travel related expenses were covered in order for us to experience Orange County area attractions. We also happily paid for some of our own travel, food and activities during our journey. No other compensation was received and, as always, all opinions expressed are my own or taken from input received from my kids.


What is Fathom Impact Travel and #TravelDeep? (Part 1)

family sunset aboard Fathom Adonia

Beautiful sunset at sea aboard the Fathom Adonia.

I just got home from a vacation unlike any other I’ve taken. My family and I travel as much as we can and we’ve been on a lot of adventures over the last several years. But last week we flew to Miami and boarded a ship that took us on a journey we won’t soon forget.

Fathom Impact Travel invited several travel writers to join the other passengers and crew aboard the Adonia, a 700-passenger ship that sails every other week to the Dominican Republic. My husband, daughter and son joined me to experience a family vacation with a twist. While we would definitely see a beautiful country and do some typical tourist-type activities on our own, the main reason we were going to the Dominican Republic was to make a positive difference for those who live there.

child in Puerto Plata

There’s a lot I want to share with you and I’m going to break it down into a series of posts, but just to let you know (spoiler alert) we had an extraordinary time. I’m still trying to process everything. It was fun, rewarding, hard work, exhausting, uplifting, sobering, emotional and beautiful. We grew together as family, we changed a bit individually and we experienced the country in a way we never would have on any other vacation. We were able to relax and be tourists, too…so really – it was a combination of a regular vacation (hello – we were on a cruise ship!) and cultural immersion/mission work.

Before I dive in with some of the nuts and bolts of what this trip is all about and what it includes, I’d like to thank Fathom for the experience. While we paid for our air travel to Miami and many activities on the ground and extras on the ship, Fathom covered our stateroom, food and impact activities so that we could see first-hand what the new Fathom #traveldeep experience was like.

Fathom, the newest brand under the Carnival Corporation and plc umbrellais a new kind of cruise that combines the love of travel with the desire to make a difference. We were on the sixth sailing to the Dominican Republic (the also sail to Cuba every other week) so the concept and experience are still quite new for staff and travelers alike.

reforestation with IDDI

Planting trees as part of the Reforestation Impact Activity with Fathom. Made a new friend with IDDI.

Fathom calls the concept travel with a purpose – the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Dominican culture while working alongside its people to create enduring social impact. To achieve that, they have set up several impact activities, led by impact guides that you meet on the ship as well as community partners from NGO’s including IDDI and Entrena on the ground. You select three you want to experience while the ship is docked at Puerto Plata’s port for two full days and 2 half days including:

  • Reforestation
  • Community English
  • Repapel – Recycled paper and crafts entrepeneurship
  • Cacao & Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
  • Water filters
  • Concrete Floors in Community Homes
  • CAMS – Creative Art, Music and Sports (offered during the summer), Student English (offered during the school year)
Fathom Spanish phrases class

Taking a Spanish Phrases class on board to prepare for teaching Community English in the Dominican Republic.

Impact guides offer training through classes offered on the ship while you sail to the Dominican Republic. We took hour-long sessions on topics such as Spanish Phrases, Empowering English Tutoring, Visual Storytelling, Getting to Know the Dominican Republic, and Raising the Next Generation of Changemakers so we could prepare for our on-ground experiences.

Fathom Adonia pool

While sailing to Amber Cove, the port in Puerto Plata, we also enjoyed the Adonia’s many amenities including a swimming pool, fitness center, spa (that offered massages, hair, nails, facials and even acupuncture), multiple lounges and a wine bar, gift shops and dining areas. She also has a full library that was always a buzz with activity. Lots of games, puzzles, computers, comfortable chairs and couches were available as well as great books for all ages including many copies of The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind – the ship’s book club pick that many travelers read and discussed in groups during the cruise! We checked out a set of dominoes (a popular Dominican past time) to play many times on the ship until we purchased a set of our while sight seeing in Puerto Plata.

Fathom Adonia scavenger hunt

Late night scavenger hunt aboard the Adonia. Our team won!

They also offered fun, fitness activities like yoga, meditation and dance classes (we learned the Merengue and Bachata). You could take a wine and paint class, cocktail class, watch late night movies on the top deck and listen to the Adonia’s band – The Craze, as well as several Dominican Republic bands who came aboard while we were at port. Scheduled activities like scavenger hunts (not to brag or anything – but our team won the first one!), fitness seminars and bandioke (karioke with a live band) were also popular.

fuseball on Fathom Adonia

Annie playing Fuseball with new friends aboard The Adonia.

Because of the requirements of the work experienced on-ground, you have to be eight years old or older to go on this cruise. Some of the impact activities require you to be even older because of the type of work being performed. On our sailing we had a lot of kids, pre-teens and teenagers on board, which I think is great. There isn’t a kids game room or any children’s programming per say, but my kids participated in many of the age-appropriate activities offered and had a great time. I do feel like there could be more offered for the younger cruisers, though. This may be something they look at adding on future sailings.

What do you think about Fathom Impact Travel so far? Do you have any questions? Be sure to leave them in the comments section…I’d love to feature answers to them in an upcoming post. Visit Still Living The Dream to learn more about our Fathom experience coming soon!

I was invited by Fathom to sail on the Adonia to the Dominican Republic and experience impact activities with my family. While the main cruise (food, travel, room and impact activities) were provided to me at no cost, as always – all opinions expressed are my own. I gladly paid for air travel to the port, gratuities, on our own activities, taxis, souvenirs that supported some of the groups we helped while in the Dominican Republic, some food and beverages as well as other expenses on my own. 


How To Prepare For A Magical Disney World Adventure

StillLivingTheDream MickeyMouse

I recently visited Disney World with my two kids and husband. As a Disney Social Media Moms Conference attendee, I was invited to some special event experiences during the official event but we extended our stay so we could experience Disney together as a family afterwards as well. Because I hadn’t been to Disney in 20 years and my 7 year-old daughter and 11 year-old son had never been, we had a lot of questions when packing for our trip. We wanted to get the most out of every magical second at the parks! I think we did a pretty good job but like any vacation…we learned a couple things along the way as well.

I plan to cover a lot of what I learned including some behind the scenes fun and giveaways in upcoming posts but I just received the following note from Still Living The Dream reader, Jennifer Evans. Jennifer saw my first follow-up post about my trip to Disney and since she is planning a trip with her husband, Mark, and 10-year-old son, Cole, soon (see their cute photo below), she had some questions. I thought it would be fun to answer them here so anyone else planning a trip and wondering about the same things could hear how I responded.

 StillLivingTheDream Evans family

Dear Still Living the Dream,

I’m headed to Disneyworld with my husband and our fearless, active 10 year old son. I haven’t been to Disney in 20 years, and our son has never been. So, consider us rookies. We’re staying in a condo 3 minutes away (so off site), and we’ve purchased Magic your Way Park Hopper + Water Park combo passes for 5 days. I’ve been reading the Unofficial Guide and taken notes from friends, checked out the Disney site for traffic info to try and select the best days for the various parks. I think we’re fairly prepared for that. But, I have some questions for you:

Question: What do you carry with you? I like to travel light. Do I bring a small wristlet? A backpack? Do we put everything in a locker every day and just cram wallet necessities in pockets? What about your phones?

Answer: I am the same way! I didn’t want to be slowed down with a lot of “stuff” while walking around in the parks BUT I also wanted to save money on things like bottled water. Since we don’t have stroller age children whatever we wanted to bring with us we needed to carry ourselves….all day. We ended up bringing a backpack which my husband usually carried and I had a small, cross-body purse. I just had my cell phone, lip gloss, cash/credit cards, park tickets and fast passes…very light. Ed carried our camera, water bottles, snacks, etc. We never got a locker. The park is very backpack friendly. I can’t think of a ride where we couldn’t bring it on with us. Some people like to put their cell phone in a plastic ziplock in case the bag gets wet like on Splash Mountain, but we didn’t and we were fine.

Question: Did you find it was helpful or annoying to bring your own snacks and waters with you? I’m a bit of a princess, so I don’t want to gauge myself on prices but I also don’t want me or my husband to feel like a packhorse. 


Answer: The first thing you need to know is that EVERYONE is a princess at Disney World so get ready to be treated like one while you are there! Disney allows you to bring in water/food just know that whatever you bring, you have to keep up with. I have to admit, I was envious of some of the folks with strollers because they could cart around a little more. We packed pretty light, but since we didn’t want to pay for  bottled water (which left us more money to spend on Dole Whip and Mickey ice cream bars), we brought one or two water bottles with us and filled them up all day long for free! Many of the kiosk or quick dining restaurants were kind enough to fill them up for us but we also used drinking fountains as well. We also brought along snacks like goldfish, pretzels, granola bars, trail mix, fruit snacks, etc. We’d munch on those throughout the day in addition to getting a couple park snacks and/or meals from kiosks. (Hint: you have to try the fish and chips at the UK at Epcot!)

Question: We have our 3 credit card like passes – Do we get lanyards for them when we arrive? Should I buy some now?

Answer: I saw many people with lanyards and it’s not a bad idea; however, we kept our park passes in my small cross-body sling purse. If you think you might be into pin trading (and it’s SO fun you need to read about pin trading from my Disney Cruise post) then you can get an attachment for the bottom to hold your cards. I was just afraid of carrying them around and maybe losing them because once you are in the park, you don’t really need them again.

Question: We arrive in the middle of the day on day #1, so our plan is to head over to a park for the afternoon and evening. Do we just show up at the gate, or is there something I should do ahead of time?


Answer: We arrived in the middle of the day, too and headed straight over to Epcot after checking into the hotel. We had 7-day park hopper tickets and we just went straight to the gate. If there’s any problem at any park entrance (Jackson had a problem with getting in one day – the ticket scanner wasn’t reading it right) then there’s a ton of people that will help you right then and there. Hint: Be ready to go through bag check prior to the ticket gate at each park. It goes by pretty quickly, but it’s an additional stop for those carrying in any kind of bag.

Question: Our daily plan based on our family’s style is to get there early and plow through until early afternoon, go home & chill, then hit another park that aft/eve. Does this sound good to you?

Answer: That is EXACTLY what we did. Here’s the beauty of park hopper tickets and why I highly recommend them. You can get up and go to one park in the morning (perhaps one that is open earlier or that has something you want to do in the AM like a breakfast character dining experience) then take a break around 1 or 2 ish (we’d go back to the hotel and rest and/or take a dip in the pool) and go to another park in the evening ( to see the fireworks, an evening show or to a park that has a later closing time). One day we actually did THREE parks in one day (because we are crazy like that).


One of the best days was when we decided to go to Magic Kingdom in the evening. We were staying at the Contemporary during that part of our trip which is right by Magic Kingdom (we stayed at the Pop Century during the second half of our vacation). We decided spur of the moment because we weren’t tired to go to Magic Kingdom at 9:00 p.m. We hadn’t yet been to that park and we walked in right as the fireworks started. Standing on Main Street with the stores all lit up and the fireworks above the castle  – it was UNBELIEVABLE. We all just held hands and smiled and just took it all in. After that a lot of people, especially those with small children, were leaving the park….so we went to ride Space Mountain. No lines! We rode several other rides in Tomorrowland, all very quickly because the park had thinned out. At 10:00 we went back to Main Street in time to see the Electric Parade, then we hit a store or two and left. It was such an incredible couple of hours…we experienced so much in such a short period of time at Magic Kingdom at night and could not have done it if we didn’t have park hopper tickets.

Question: What is 1 useful thing you learned that you don’t find in the books?

Answer: How about three?!

1. If you are on a budget, one good idea is to buy Disney gift cards. They are accepted everywhere at Disney and we used ours like it was a debit card. We kept track of what was left on each and knew that when it was gone, it was gone! It helped us keep souvenir and snack purchases to a minimum.


2. If you think you want to pin trade (and you have time before your trip) go to ebay to buy some trader pins in bulk. You can get them for about $1.00 or less a pin (they cost about $4.00-$5.00 each when bought at the park in sets and from $9.95 on up for single pins!) Bulk lots are random, you can’t choose what you get…but because you are trading them, it doesn’t matter if your 10-year old son starts off with a bunch of Princess pins! Just be sure to research the seller to make sure he/she has good feedback and is selling authentic pins.

3. I’m going to do a whole post on this but you have to try Dole Whip while you are there. If you are a beer drinker – try the grapefruit beer at Epcot. And the orange bird from when we were little? He’s back! You can score a Citrus Swirl (frozen orange juice and vanilla ice cream) treat and even buy an orange bird souvenir sipper cup to take back home. (We bought three!)

Question: Which Disney app do you like best?

Answer: We used the My Disney Experience App, a great way to Explore Walt Disney World Resort on an interactive, GPS-enabled map. Through this app you can:

  1. View FASTPASS return times for the park you’re in.
  2. Get wait times for attractions and showtimes for fireworks and parades.
  3. Know what’s close or starting soon with Here & Now.
  4. Find Character greeting locations and times.
  5. Add activities to your Wish List.
  6. Browse restaurant menus and make dining reservations.
  7. Share plans with others through Family & Friends.
  8. Keep reservations and activities organized in My Plans

But Disney JUST released their newest (and super cool) app called Story. We literally found out about it while at the conference. This free app isn’t about navigating the parks, it’s for anyone/anywhere. It allows you to pull images from your iPhone’s photo gallery and edit them within an album that you can make into a story with captions and different themes…one of which is Disney so you can totally share photos of your family at the park with friends back home on facebook or through email. I’m going to explain the app in full detail in a future post but you can read more about it and download the Story app here.

Question: Are there affordable taxis at the entrances, in case we don’t want to wait for our shuttle?

Answer: That is one thing I don’t know about because we stayed on Disney property. There are many benefits to staying at a Disney resort and the biggest one is transportation. We had so many options depending on where we were going. We loved the monorail when we stayed at the Contemporary Resort but found the buses to Pop Century and to other parks where so efficient. We never waited in line very long….it made getting around so easy.


One last bit of advice:

Have fun and enjoy the time with your family…avoid trying to do and see everything! Have a plan but don’t be afraid to deviate from it when you are having fun and in the moment.  Some of the best moments were those we spent “off our itinerary”….watching the sunset on the lake at Epcot, running into Belle and having a quick impromptu visit, sharing a box of fish and chips at the UK sitting on the curb and people watching….

I’ll never forget my trip to Disney. I hope yours is just as magical!

Readers: Are you going to Disney this summer? What questions do you have? Have you been already? What is your biggest piece of advice for those who have never been?

I was invited to attend the Disney Social Media Moms Conference. I paid a fee to attend which included the opportunity to participate in conference activities, stay at a hotel and experience Disney World. I was not asked nor expected to write a post about my experiences. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 


How To Help Tornado Victims in Oklahoma

oklahoma relief graphic

My heart breaks for the victims of the recent tornado in Oklahoma. Like me, many people have been wondering how they can help those in need.

I’m so proud to be a part of the Texas Bloggers group. Immediately, members joined forces and are using their voices to get the word out about how you can help. You can visit The Texas Bloggers page to see a list of participating bloggers who have posted lists of shelters for victims, links to organizations that are helping and need donations, lists of supplies that relief workers need most…even one about how you can help if you live in Houston.

The United Way of Oklahoma, has opened up a disaster relief fund to serve those affected by this storm. The funds raised will be distributed between organizations that are helping directly with this tornado disaster.

My prayers and my support go out to Oklahoma today. Please help if you are able.



We Are Doing The 2013 Summer Bucket List Challenge! (Happy Family Movement)

summer bucket list challenge main photo

Last year when I heard about the Summer Family Bucket List Challenge by The Happy Family Movement, I immediately signed up. We sat down together as a family and brainstormed things we wanted to do during summer vacation. (You can see my list here)

The challenge is back this summer and you can sign up here. We did! It officially begins on May 20, 2013 and you can enter to win prizes, get inspired by other family’s bucket lists, view adventure guides as well as have access to other travel resources. There’s even a facebook community you can join!


Colorado Summer Road Trip

Last year I made a garland with each activity listed on a separate index card attached with a mini clothespin. After we did the activity, we’d put up something from the activity by the card (like a program, ticket stub, photo or brochure) and by the end of the summer we had a very fun, visual way to remember our summer vacation! I decided to do something similar this year as well.

The year before last, without a plan in place, the summer ended in a blink of an eye and all those things we had in our brains that we wanted to do, never got done. While we didn’t accomplish EVERYTHING on our bucket list last summer, we did most of them and I really have the Summer Bucket List Challenge to thank.

We are so excited about this year and my kids (my 7-year-old daughter, Annie, and 11-year-old son, Jackson), my husband and I are already thinking about fun things to do with the extra time off. We are crossing a BIG bucket list item off our list before summer even starts. We have a trip to DisneyWorld planned in May! We’ve never been and we are so excited! I also have a bucket list trip  to Paris in June planned with my mom and two sisters. It’s always been my mom’s dream to go. She is retiring this year and we are taking her abroad to celebrate the beginning of the new journey in her life!

But the bucket list challenge isn’t just about big vacations and high-dollar trips. In fact, it’s more about the little things that we feel we’ll always have time to do so we never really do them…like taking a picnic in the park, a bike ride on the beach… or a neighborhood walk to feed the ducks! You can in this post see we crossed this one off our list right as summer started (and you can get a glimpse of the my index card garland)!

Some of the items we didn’t get to like fishing and visiting the observatory have made it on this year’s list. Annie  has been bugging me since last summer to learn to sew and I keep telling her “when we have more time”. So, you guessed it, it’s on our  2013 summer bucket list and we plan to take a class together in July.

Since I work from home full-time and my husband works from home part-time, we have more flexibility to do things like take a family bike ride or a short swim at the neighborhood pool. Our lives have changed a bit since last summer, too. I lost 55 pounds and embarked on a healthier lifestyle which we have all embraced. We ran our first fun run together last weekend and we have many items on our list this year that are more physically challenging then ever before (like participating in a mud run, going water skiing and trying to parasail).

Really though, the items on the list aren’t the most important things about the summer bucket list. Whether or not we go fishing this year (although we hope to!) isn’t what it’s really about (at least to us). What it means to us is to make time to do things together as a family. So many times during the school year we get going in a million directions with homework and after-school activities like scouts and sports… we don’t have time to really visit. Carving out time to do things together during the summer months when time is more on our side is a great way to re-connect. Even planning the outing or trip together can be a fun time in itself!

(If a visit to Aquatica or SeaWorld is on your Summer Bucket List, visit about our trip last year here when we crossed it off our list. We included tips that might help you plan your visit!)

The Patrick Family’s 2013 Summer Bucket List

summer bucket list challenge collage

Ice Cream Cone free printable tag artwork by Amy Moss
  1. Go to the beach
  2. Go fishing
  3. Visit the observatory to see the stars
  4. Go water skiing
  5. Go bird watching
  6. Do a mud run
  7. Go parasailing
  8. Participate in 2 family fun runs
  9. Learn to sew
  10. Sculpt with clay
  11. Keep a journal
  12. Have “date nights” both time for mom and dad to go out alone, plus time for each parent to spend time with each child doing something fun
  13. See a concert with lawn seats at The Woodlands Pavilion
  14. Invite a different family over for dinner every couple of weeks
  15. Have a talent show
  16. Pitch a tent in the backyard and “go camping” Make smores and tell ghost stories.
  17. Face our Fears – pick a thing we  each have always wanted to do but were afraid to … and try it
  18. Go snorkeling
  19. Go to Aquatica and try out some new adventures in San Antonio while we are in town
  20. Go to the Drive-In Movies
I was not compensated for this post. I’m just sharing  great summer resources available because I love the program and want you to have the best summer ever!

Remembering The Magic – Top 10 Moments During Our Disney Cruise


I was completely unplugged for over a week while my family and I took a cruise on The Disney Magic last week. While I thought it would be tough to be “off the grid” (and I certainly did miss connecting with my Facebook, Twitter and Still Living The Dream friends), it turned out to be one of the most magical weeks I have ever spent with my husband and children on vacation.

This was our first time on a cruise ship and we had a lot of questions before we boarded like what to pack, what excursions to sign up for while in the Caribbean and what to expect regarding activities on the ship. (These will all be topics that I will cover in future posts about the Disney Magic, by the way!)

But as soon as we stepped on the ship and a crew member announced over the loudspeaker, “Please help me welcome aboard The Patrick family,” we knew we were going to be in for a wonderful ride no matter what ended up in our suitcases or whether we selected a snorkeling or beach tour excursion in Cozumel.

My Top 10 Magical Moments on The Disney Magic (in no particular order!):

Running on Deck 4 in the morning and watching the sunrise. Runners can choose between looking over the water while on a treadmill in the ship’s exercise facility (which I also took advantage of several times during our trip) or running the entire length of deck four…three times around equals a mile.

Watching Jackson become more independent. Disney knows that as much as parents love their kids (and kids love their parents) sometimes grown-ups and little ones want to do different things. So they offer a nursery for infants and three different kid’s activity rooms for older kids (Oceaneer’s Lab and Lounge for Annie’s age group, The Edge for pre-teens like Jackson and The Vibe for teenagers.) My kid’s loved going there to play sports, take cooking classes, do arts and crafts and enjoy special parties with kids their own age. Jackson was able to go with his new friends to play dodge ball or play in the arcade on the top deck. He even explored the ship a bit with permission from us and Wave phone in hand (each stateroom comes with 2 “wavephones” to use while on the ship so that you can get in touch with your family when going in different directions). His confidence and self-esteem grew…and with that – so did my heart!

Seeing Annie meet the Disney Princesses for the first time. We had many opportunities to meet Mickey and the entire Disney character crew while on board. Character meetings were offered often (both spur of the moment and scheduled) and because there are a limited amount of people on the ship – lines weren’t ever that long. Each meeting was special, but the morning we had the chance to meet six princesses in the ship’s lobby really stood out. Seeing Annie’s face light up as Belle gushed about how pretty she was, Aurora spun her around and Cinderella embraced her made ME tear up. It was a beautiful moment.

Relaxing by one of three pools on Deck 9. The Mickey pool with water slide  is a favorite with kids (complete with splash pad for even the youngest cruisers), Goofy’s pool is deeper and you can watch movies on a giant screen while you swim and the adult-only pool is a quiet sanctuary complete with the comfiest lounge chairs. Beware – you may fall asleep! I had the chance to enjoy all three pools at different times during our week away.

Getting to know our wait staff while enjoying out of this world cuisine each night. Weird, right? I mean, why would getting to know staff members be a vacation highlight? Because Disney offers unique, rotational dining which meant that we had a reserved seat at one of three restaurants (Animator’s Palate, Lumiere’s and Parrot Cay) every night with a different theme (Captain’s Gala, Prince and Princesses, Pirates in the Caribbean) and menu every night. (Hello lobster and chocolate souffle – I love you.) Our servers, Nathan from London and Andrae from Jamaica, served us every night no matter where we dined. By the second night they knew that Annie would probably want milk while Jackson preferred Sprite and would have their drinks waiting for them. We got to know them so well, it was a teary good-bye our last night together.

Enjoying Nightly, Broadway-Style Shows. This is a separate post in itself. But let me just say – the shows were outstanding complete with elaborate costumes and set-design, special effects (fireworks on stage!) and extremely talented actors/singers. Our favorite was the Dreams – An Enchanted Classic and Villains Tonight.

Swimming with the dolphins in Grand Cayman. A excursion worth the splurge. I will never forget Annie’s face when Luna the dolphin pushed Annie’s feet with her nose and sent Annie sailing through the waters.

Towel animal creations in our room every night. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference. Coming back to our stateroom every evening after the show, tired from a full day of activities, a towel monkey or swan would greet us on our freshly turned-down bed with chocolates and the itinerary for the next day.

Getting a massage in the Vista Spa. Disney cruises aren’t just for kids. They offer different activities for people of all different ages and interests. In fact, 20 percent of those on board our cruise didn’t even come with kids! Getting a 75-minute massage in the Vista Spa was so relaxing and the spa was so beautiful.

Seeing my family dressed up on formal night. The preparation ahead of time to find and pack dress up clothes for the four of us was so worth it. I mean, Ed and I work from home most days so it’s perpetiual casual day at our “office”! We never get gussied up anymore and seeing my family looking so beautiful made my heart happy.

**Gazing at the ocean water from our stateroom veranda. Here’s a bonus to my top ten….number 11! Breathing in the fresh air (no Houston seasonal allergies at sea!) and watching the ocean water as we glided gently through it from the privacy of my room’s balcony in my jammies was beyond relaxing. Ed enjoyed reading his book out there as well. Such a special way to start and end each day.

You can experience “The Magic”, too!

The Disney Magic will be sailing out of the Port of Galveston in Texas from now until May 2013 and they are offering a special where kids under 17 years old can sail FREE on most six and eight day cruises from January 4, 2013 until March 1, 2013!

Have you ever been on a Disney Cruise? What were your magical moments on board?

My family and I  were invited as guests of Disney on a 7-Day Caribbean Cruise aboard The Disney Magic. While most of our trip expenses were covered, all thoughts and opinions expressed are entirely my own. 




Baking It Forward – To My Mom in New York

Sometimes having a blog can be so rewarding…. an outlet that allows me to share with you so many things. Products, books, crafts and recipes I love. Funny stories about marriage, parenthood and life in general. Fun places to travel, both within and outside the city of Houston.

Other times it’s a burden.

Like recently. When I’ve wanted to share with you something significant that’s been going on in my life but instead I’ve chosen to gloss over it. Filling recent posts with giveaways and back-to-school stories. And sometimes, not posting at all.Because writing something down makes it real. And I haven’t been ready for real.

Until today.

This morning I found two cookie recipes online and then went grocery shopping and filled my cart with items like sugar, flour and butter. I pre-heated my oven to 350 and dusted off the Kitchen Aid mixer. And as I put together the ingredients to form a perfect treat…I slowly came apart.

My mom making a teddy bear to send to my aunt when we first heard she was sick.

The cookies are for my mom.

She had just barely recovered from her own heart attack last April when her sister, my aunt, called with news that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. After a month of chemo, the doctors delivered the worst news possible. There wasn’t anything that could help. My aunt was given just three months to live.

My mom took a leave of absence from her own job to fly across the country to help her. (My aunt never married and doesn’t have any children.) Over the last couple of months her health has deteriorated and my mom has been there by her side to help her go to the rest room, feed her through her IV, rub her back and hold her hand while she cries.

This week marks that three month mark her doctors predicted would be the end. And we know in our hearts that they were right. She doesn’t have much time left.

Me and my aunt during our visit this summer.

I visited to help for a bit during the summer but I don’t know how much help I really was. I struggled with my own emotions and while I kept them in check while I was there; hugging my aunt goodbye for the last time was almost too much to bear. I cried the entire trip back home. My sister has been able to travel up to help several times and my aunt and uncle have been there to help, too.

But it’s mom who has been my aunt’s main caregiver. She’s so strong and calm and ever present.

But I know she’s tired. And she’s sad.

I have developed such a deep respect for what those who take care of ill and aging family members go through. The sacrifice they make to take care of someone else.

I hope the cookies I baked and the care package I send will bring her comfort. That she will feel loved and cared for while she is loving and caring for her sister, my aunt.

I got the idea from Imperial Sugar’s Bake It Forward Program. I’ve been lucky enough to do some work for them this summer and through my affiliation with the company I heard about tins you can get from them and then fill with goodies and send to someone who needs a smile. The hope is that person will then be inspired to fill the tin with goodies to send to someone else and that the tin slowly travels from person to person.

I registered my tin and then after my mom gets her cookies, she can send it to someone else and track it. I know that she has many people that she can give it to like nurses and aides that visit the house to check on my aunt and my other aunt in Massachusetts who recently lost her mom and is caring for her sick father. But because I don’t want my mom to worry about baking more cookies, I sent her a second batch to fill the tin and pass it on!

You can check out more about the Bake It Forward movement on their website. I think it’s a great idea. It motivated me to send my mom a care package and also, to finally share what’s been going on with me…with you.

Do you have someone who could use a smile?

Disclaimer: While I have done some other work for Imperial Sugar, the idea to post about my experience with The Bake It Forward movement and all thoughts and opinions expressed are entirely my own. I’m thankful that their idea inspired me to bake for my mom and hope that my story inspires others to do the same. 



Boot Camp Day Five – A Bump in the Road

For those of you just joining in on my boot camp experience, I signed up for a one month boot camp class with a groupon deal I bought. I’m really, quite seriously, out of shape. I’m heavier then I’ve ever been and haven’t been doing much of anything vis a vis “exercise” lately.

With my friend, Patti, by my side and the promise of a scooter from my husband (you can read more about that here) I’m determined to finish out the month. By then I’m hoping I will have lighted a fire that will spark me to continue down the road to good health.

photo courtesy of flickr: veggiefrog

So this is week 3 and I usually go twice a week; on Tuesday and Thursday.

My partner-in-crime called Tuesday morning (which would have been day 5) at 4:30 a.m. to tell me she had a headache and wasn’t going. Dressed and ready to roll, it only took me 3 1/2 seconds to decide to go back to bed and skip it too.

The power of a work-out partner is strong, ya’ll!

Determined to get in 2 classes this week, I woke up early Wednesday and waited for Patti to pick me up. When she didn’t text me to say that she was on her way, I got worried. When she didn’t respond to my texts, I remembered that she had been to a concert the night before. Patti was sleeping soundly.

I was on my own. I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it took a lot to get in my car and go there alone.

And I was proud.

For about two minutes. And then the hardest work out of my life started and I ceased to think straight anymore. We ran around the park track in formation and then did “slingshots” where the back person sprinted to the front. I had a hard time keeping up and at one point dropped out of formation. I felt like a failure but my trainer kept by my side and pushed me.

Then we did pull-ups and I discovered I have absolutely no upper body strength. Good to know. Tears trickled down my cheeks as I struggled to complete just two. My trainer pushed me to do four.

Then we did inverted push-ups and lunges and more running and bench kicks and more running. And at the end…we pushed monster truck tires across the pavement. I’ve never been so happy to see 6:00 a.m. in my life … time to go  home.

But I was proud.

Until I woke up this morning and my arms and calves hurt so much that all excuses aside, I just couldn’t go to boot camp today. I felt bad about skipping BUT then I remembered that they hurt because I was out there working and I should feel good about that. And I should listen to my body.

I’m going to take a walk today. And then I’m going to boot camp three times next week to make up for only going once this week.

I’m learning that road blocks aren’t always bad. As long as I make a new plan and keep moving forward.



Boot Camp Day Four. Stairs.

Today we took it up a notch.

I didn’t realize it when I signed up for this gig, but every other week boot camp changes location to the outside of a building with stairs.

35 of them.

That we climbed. Many times.

Frontwards, backwards,  on all fours, running, jumping, hopping….

It was crazy and by the time we got to the backwards crab I thought I was going to have a breakdown.

After all the climbing plus the jumping jacks, basketball jumps, chair sits, etc. … I know I’m going to be sore tomorrow. And even though I told Patti repeatedly, “this sucks” and I called the trainer a bad name under my breath (which I now regret, he’s really a very nice fellow), I’m glad I went.

Because I’m moving upwards.

Literally and figuratively.

And someday I’ll be able to climb up up all 35 stairs backwards on all fours. (Hey you have your goals, I have mine, don’t judge!)

And that makes me feel good.

Have you done something good for yourself today?