Christmas at Walt Disney World – Extra Crazy, Extra Crowded, Extraordinary

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Our family always spends Christmas at Walt Disney World.  We have been told we were crazy, out of our minds, and even downright stupid. Ouch. That’s the one that hurts.

Christmas Tree at EPCOT

EPCOT Tree

Why would we intentionally go to Walt Disney World during the Christmas holidays? Do we know it’s the busiest time of the year? Are we unable to go ANY other time? Is there no psychiatric treatment in New Jersey that would prevent us from making such an insane decision?

Simply put, we go during Christmas because we love it. From the massive Christmas trees at the theme parks to the beautifully decorated wreaths at the resorts, there is holiday magic in the air. We do know it is the busiest time of the year. We have rubbed elbows and bumped shoulders with tens of thousands of our closest friends for many years now, and we still love it. And yes, there is psychiatric treatment here in New Jersey, but Christmas week at Walt Disney World does more for my heart, head, and soul than any doctor’s office.

Themed Bay Lake Tower Tree

Bay Lake Tower Lobby Tree

So what are the tricks to surviving the busiest time of the year at the Most Magical Place on Earth? Here’s what works for us:

PLAN: We did this year’s trip with four weeks of planning, and despite what some people believe (yes, Jim, I’m talking to you), there was tremendous effort put in. No matter when you decide to head to Disney World for Christmas, make sure you have some plan in place – book FastPass+ options, book dining reservations, and check times for extra magic hours, rope drop, and park closing.

Rope Drop at EPCOT

There is an actual rope at Rope Drop

UTILIZE YOUR MORNING:  I know. It’s your vacation. You can’t even deal with the idea of getting up at 6 AM. If you want to make the most of your time at Disney World during Christmas, the early bird gets the worm. My family can get more done in a morning extra magic hour than we can in a full day at the Magic Kingdom Christmas week. We do more getting there at rope drop in our first hour or two than we will the rest of the day.  Sleep when you’re dead!

EPCOT's famous Geosphere

Spaceship Earth in the morning

RESIGN YOURSELF TO NOT SEEING IT ALL: You won’t. This is not the time for a once in a lifetime trip, where you want to do and see everything. You can’t. A Cast Member told us that if you see seven or eight things a day at the Magic Kingdom during Christmas week, you’re winning. Know this is your fate and roll with it.

USE DOWNTIME FOR BONUS MAGIC:  Now is the time to visit the resorts.  Enjoy the holiday decorations, gorgeous trees, delicious gingerbread, carolers, and characters.  There is more to Walt Disney World – especially during Christmas – than just the theme parks!

Grand Floridian Lobby

Lifesized gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian

We have never left a Walt Disney World Christmas vacation disappointed, and I doubt we ever will.  Plan, keep expectations realistic, and just go with it!

Wilderness Lodge and Artist Point – the Perfect Christmas Combination

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Who doesn’t want to go home to their cabin in the woods at Christmas time?  Gather your family around the fire, with a giant pine tree standing in the center of the room, rock in your rocking chair, and enjoy a cocktail and a dinner of freshly caught salmon.  It sounds idyllic to me.

That may be why we try to spend every Christmas dinner dining at this rustic Christmas paradise.

Day 6 5The decorations are not over the top, gaudy, bedazzled and blinged out.  They are earthy and rustic, with a nod to the Pacific Northwest roots from where the resort was conceived.  The feeling of homey warmth consumes you, and it’s cozy despite the grand, vaulted ceilings.

When you combine the beauty of this amazing resort with the amazing food served at Artist Point, you have one of the most perfect Christmas combinations you could imagine.  While the menu may vary when you visit, a staple is the delicious salmon.  The type of salmon varies by season, but the cedar plank preparation imparts a wonderful flavor to the perfectly prepared fish.  Combined with the smokey portobello mushroom soup, hearty and full bodied for a cold (or perceived cold!) winter’s day, this is one of my favorite meals at Walt Disney World.

You have just over 11 months to plan your Christmas season visit to Walt Disney World, and I cannot recommend enough the combination of this amazing resort and fabulous restaurant.  It’s the best of both worlds – a homey, rustic, holiday feeling in the middle of warm, sunny Florida.

Artist Point mushroom soup

Christmas at Walt Disney World – What We Love, What We Love Less

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The smell of Christmas ham may still be wafting through the house, and you may still be walking past those last three Christmas cookies that no one really likes, tempting you to break your New Year’s resolution to lose weight.  So why on earth am I talking about Christmas at Walt Disney World already?

If you’re a DVC owner, you probably know why.  We are already coming up on the 11 month booking window for next Christmas, and if you want the resort preferences you want, you’ve got to book early!

For those who are always on the fence about whether or not to book their Walt Disney World vacation during the busiest time of the year, here are the reasons why we do.

Christmas Dinner at Artist Point – The Wilderness Lodge location just screams Christmas.  The rustic lodge with the roaring fireplace and the giant Christmas tree make this a natural choice for the holiday.  The cozy, warm feeling of Artist Point is as close to Christmas dinner at home with family – if your family lived in a Norman Rockwell painting – as you’re going to get.  The food is delicious (is it wrong that my mouth is still watering over the pork belly and corn and crab salad I had?), and the location ideal.  It’s a perfect Christmas meal.

The Decorations – Remember the year that you had all that free time at Christmas after the shopping, wrapping, baking, cooking and cleaning, so you decided to deck every hall in your house with boughs of holly, elegant wreaths, themed Christmas trees, and giant gingerbread houses?  Yeah, me neither.  But guess what?  You’ll have all of that at Walt Disney World!  Wreaths and garlands dripping with ornaments, trees that soar towards massive ceilings, and life sized carousels and gingerbread houses can be found in every corner of the resorts.  The best part?  You won’t get sap in your hair setting the tree up, and you don’t have to vacuum all the pine needles out of the carpet.

The Lights – I wish I could say that our house is like the Griswold Family Christmas, where the dad wants so many lights on the house you can see it from outer space.  It’s not.  My husband is the king of understated Christmas lights.  We usually have a battery operated candle in each window, but the batteries usually die by December 4th, and they don’t usually get replaced until the following year, when my husband decides it’s cheaper to throw the lights out than replace the batteries, and the whole process begins again.  Any other lights are usually put out by the kids and I, and I gotta tell ya, if it’s cold, I’m darn near tempted to dump the light box into the bushes, plug in the first plug I find, and pray it’s on a string of lights that actually works.

The Osborne Spectacle of the Dancing Lights is the ultimate holiday light display.  Snow, music, and millions of lights makes it more festive than I could ever dream at home!  No matter how ambitious I am with my own lights, there’s just nothing that compares with the amazing display.  You just want to walk down the street hugging people.  Seriously.

Candlelight Processional – If you are lacking Christmas spirit at home, you will surely find it here.  This is a narrated story of the birth of Christ, read by a celebrity narrator, with the accompaniment of a brilliant choir and amazing orchestra.  There is nothing better to do on Christmas eve than to enjoy a wonderful family meal, followed by the Candlelight Processional, followed by Illuminations.  It’s another hug everyone experience.

So, I’ve convinced you to be on the phone with me later this week to make your reservations for Christmas, right?

Well, yeah, there are a few things we don’t love about Christmas at Walt Disney World.  It is crowded.  You can expect lines for attractions to top 90 minutes or more.  There is some stress trying to get dining reservations and the room you want at the resort you’d like.  And it’s really tough to pack a family’s worth of Christmas presents and decorations in your carry on bags for the plane.

But honestly, some of our best family vacations are the ones we’ve spent at Walt Disney World at Christmas.  We make it our annual holiday destination.

Chinks in the Armor

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While reading a friend’s blog recently, I began waxing nostalgic (which is English teacher speak for wondering why the hell I did what I did when I did it) about the people I’ve dated and the man I married.  You all know the old adage that love is blind, but I don’t think that it is.  It’s all about lighting.

We all put on rose colored glasses when we first get into a relationship.  Men manage to control the flatulence that often becomes part of life once they’re comfortable in the knowledge that a little gas isn’t going to scare you away (or a lot, just sayin’).  Women race to get out of bed first in the morning to freshen up a bit – you know, wash the important bits, apply heavy coats of makeup, blow dry and curl your hair – so that when their beloved wakes up, he sees the cover of a romance novel laying in bed next to him, in a lacy peignoir  set, as opposed to what he’ll see a few months down the road, curled up in flannel, drool dribbling down her cheek, and her hair looking like she combed it with a rake in her sleep.  We also overlook the little quirks and funny ways when things are just getting started.

Here’s how you know things are going to work out.

You know your partner is flawed.  We are all products of the families we grew up in, and for much of our lives, many of us try to overcome the damage that was done or fix the parts of us that are dented as a result of our parents dropping the ball on the occasions that they did (and all parents do).  But when you have an old favorite vase that was your great grandmother’s, even though it’s got a crack here or a chip there, you put it in the window, so the sun shines behind it, casting it in shadow, chips at the back, cracks covered with a strategically placed plant or flower.  It’s just as beautiful as you remember it being when you first saw it on grandmom’s mantle.

That’s how you should always look at your partner.  I met my knight in shining armor when he was 21 years old.  He’d already been to college, at the age of 14, which put him in an odd sort of circumstance.  He grew up before he was ready, thrust into the more mature world of academia, without learning some of the social graces we learn going to high school with our peers.  He had no real peers – dismissed by kids his own age, not regarded by the people in college.  Wearing shoes that are too big for your feet causes you to fall down a lot, and he certainly has the dents to show that he had.

But when he rides in, on his blazing steed, with the sun at his back, casting him in shadow, you don’t see the chinks in the armor.  You see what a great dad he’s been and what a generous and giving husband he’s been.  You see the man who slept on the floor with a new, crying puppy to keep her comforted, or on a chair next to me as I recovered from surgery and couldn’t sleep in my bed.  You see the wonderful home he’s provided for us and the incredible vacations he’s shared with us.  You see the outline of the hands that have held mine as we sat next to each other at a school play and the arms that wrapped around me when my sister died.

This is our 24th Christmas together.  There are ornaments on my tree that Jim and I chose together at a little shop in Mullica Hill on our first Christmas together.  I chose beautiful gold ornaments, which I knew would reflect the lights on the tree and make a beautiful glow in the living room of our tiny condo.  When you look at them up close now, some are chipped.  The gold has flaked off in some places.  Some are even broken, but if I place them on the tree carefully, you don’t notice it so much because they are cast in the shadow of the lights behind them.

There may be chinks, but if you look in the right light, you still see the knight in shining armor.  And despite what other people see when they look, he always seems to be standing in just the right light to me.

Merry Christmas Poop-Poop

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Fakesgiving, followed by Thanksgiving, followed by two term papers.  That’s on top of the normal hectic pace of being a mom with three kids, two dogs, one husband, and a great gig with The Mouse.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

In the whirlwind that was the month of November, I decided to pick one of the busiest weekends to order my Christmas cards.  I started, got interrupted, and wandered off.  I came back, started again, and had to go feed someone’s hungry.  I tried again, loaded a few pictures, typed a word, and loaded a dishwasher.

Such is the life of a mom.

After three days with the website up on my computer in various stages of completion, I finally placed my order for my holiday cards.  They turned out so cute, and I was so proud of myself!  I was tickled when I got the email from Walgreens, saying my cards were done!

I opened the box, and just beamed with how cute my girls looked in their pictures.

Then I saw it.  My daughter’s name was misspelled.

Remember the box on the final page of the order that said “Did you preview your card?”  Yeah, I thought I had at some point over the weekend, and I clicked it. But I hadn’t.

Thank goodness it was the kid who’s name is most often misspelled by family and friends, so I doubt anyone would notice if I hadn’t blogged about it.  But yeah, there won’t be a mother of the year trophy on my mantle.  Again.

I’m just worried now that I also didn’t preview the t-shirt I ordered for Pop-pop…..

Time to Plan the Christmas Photo! Fa La La Fashion Sense

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I have tortured my children for years.  Honestly, it may be why I had children and why I’m so grateful they are girls.  Through the years, I’ve loved dressing them up in outfits that exploited the fact that I had daughters.  Lacey, flowery, with bloomers, with matching hats – I have so enjoyed dressing my girls.

At some point, though, after the third baby girl, it seemed that I had hit a brick wall when it came to Christmas pictures.  Looking back, one dress seemed so similar to the others, it was becoming harder to tell which kid was in which dress.  I tried to break from the red and green Christmas favorites and moved into black, gold, silver, even brown.  It wasn’t cutting it.

I moved on to interesting poses.  Let’s not have them all sitting pretty, looking like perfectly well behaved little angels.  Let’s show some personality.

And I found my inspiration!  No more boring holiday photos for this mom.  This is last year’s Christmas card photo:

Just wait until you see what I have in store this year!

 

The Christmas Cookie Crisis – Or Why Anna Should Stay Out of the Kitchen

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You know those people who gather the family during the holidays and do happy, fun, traditional holiday things?  Yeah, we’re more like the Griswolds – we start out with the best intentions, but somewhere on the way to our Norman Rockwell Christmas, we take the detour at dysfunction.

Christmas cookies are no exception.  With the new KitchenAid Stand Mixer I got for my birthday in September, this was going to be the year of the cookie at our house!  No more scratching the word “Oreo” off of those chocolate sandwich cookies with the red middles and calling them my own.  No more soaking the ‘Nilla wafers in red and green food coloring, then telling the kids Elf pee made the cookies soggy, and Elf pee has magical properties!  No, not this year.  I was making my own cookies!

Of course, every child in the house clamored to help – until they realized that there would be more work involved than opening the package.  Once words like “mix, pour, drop, and separate” came into play, they opted to separate themselves from the whole process.

I began with an ambitious list of cookies I’d never made before, then figured I’d better throw in a few that I could not possibly mess up.  My old standbys were my Aunt Lee’s butter cookies, which I’ve made a bazillion times before; and Jim’s favorite – white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.  To those tried and trues, I added a list of new ones.  There would be pistachio cream cheese, lemon ricotta cheese, peppermint snowballs, jewel box cookies, ooey gooey Paula Deen chocolate cookies, and Snickerdoodles.  At the last minute, I threw in peanut butter blossoms, only because, c’mon, who doesn’t love chocolate and peanut butter?

So this is how it went.

Lemon Ricotta – Did I tell you about my new oven?  The convection oven that I don’t know how to work?  So, yeah, I put all three cookie trays in, and within a matter of minutes, the bottom tray was as close to on fire as you could get without actual flame coming out of the oven.  The parchment paper was burnt, the cookies were burnt, and the house stunk.  Good times.

After nearly burning down the new kitchen, I thought I’d better switch to something I know.  Aunt Lee’s butter cookies have always screamed “Christmas” to me.  It’s the only time of the year we ever had them, and they were always fun to make, because the kids could get involved in sprinkling them (not like the Elves and the ‘Nilla wafers – with sugar and jimmies).  I even had a brand new cookie press to make quick and easy work, which would surely help lure the children back to the kitchen.  Yeah, not so much.  The cookies were a disaster, not one came out of the cookie press in usable condition, and after almost an hour of messing with the whole thing, the dough got canned.

So with that boost to the baking morale, let’s tackle the peanut butter blossoms.  I have to say, these turned out okay!  I didn’t burn any, the kids helped roll the balls in the sugar, no one squashed the chocolate kisses as they came out of the oven.  Success!

So, on the heels of that fabulous success, and with the attitude that I’d better not press my luck, I grabbed the peppermint snowball recipe from Sandra Lee.  How could I mess these up, right?  You make these cookies with pre-made, store bought cookie dough!  It’s a no brainer.  Well, Sandra Lee’s cookies looked like this:

Mine did not.  Scrooge you, Sandra Lee!  Mine still tasted pretty good – even if they looked a bit scary.  They got all the flavor, none of the fluff.

Well, back to the tried and true, right?  How much humiliation can one woman take in a holiday baking season?

White chocolate macadamia nut cookies.  Well, of course I know my way around nuts – I live with a house full of them!  These probably turned out the best – closest to what they are supposed to be, no house fires, no culinary disasters.

I’m encouraged again!  Let’s try those Jewel Box cookies!  I knew I could rope the kids in for this one – poke their fingers in the cookie dough?  Of course!  That sounds a lot less like work and a lot more like Play-doh!

So, the recipe I have says it makes 66 cookies.  Yep, 66.  Does anyone EVER get the amount of cookies they are supposed to?  I NEVER do.  And when I see the ball of dough I end up with, I know that not only is 66 really optimistic, I think those Smucker’s people are messing with a whole different kind of grape concoction.  I can’t imagine jelly giving you these kind of hallucinations!

I roll the balls to the diameter they say they should be, and discover that Granuaile is the only thumb who’s print will actually fit on these cookies.  But it’s not fun enough for her to stick around for all of them, so Brighid and Eilis take turns putting their prints on the cookies, through the cookies, crushing them like fragile glass.  Even the 1/4 teaspoon of jam that I’m supposed to fill them with seems to overflow.  Something’s not right, but in the oven they go, and out they come.  They’re good.  Not pretty, but good.

This is about the time when I was praying the spirit of Christmas Yet to Come would turn up and show me to MY final resting place.  There would be no begging not to see the name on the tombstone – I’m just gonna roll right over….

Next to go into the oven are the pistachio cream cheese cookies.  I had to make the dough earlier, since they needed an hour to cool.  What could possibly go wrong with pistachio and cream cheese?  Sounds yummy, right?  So, why do they taste like cardboard?  What did I forget?  No idea.  But they’re nasty.  The dogs were offering to go into their crates voluntarily at bedtime if I promised NOT to give them a cookie.

After nearly six hours in the kitchen, you can stick a fork in me – I’m done.  I made up a tray of cookies for the house, and put together the treat boxes Eilis wanted to give her teachers for Christmas – which is why I really undertook this task.  Don’t worry, she’ll still get good grades – I hid the pistachio cookies on the bottom of the boxes!

Next year, when the bug strikes me that we need to do something traditional and holiday-ish, I may just finally learn the correct order of the gifts in the 12 Days of Christmas and just sing Christmas carols.  I’m fairly certain I can’t burn the house down doing that.

Fairly certain.

War Horse – A Movie Review

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by Guest Blogger Brighid Skamarakas

So Eilis and I went to go see the press premiere of War Horse on Thursday. I vaguely remembered seeing the trailer and it not looking totally awful (although maybe not interesting enough to warrant the purchase of a full-priced ticket.) But when she asked if I wanted to go I said sure. I have to say I was pretty impressed. The story is cutesy, as to be expected, but there were actually some very powerful and very funny scenes. The movie certainly does a good job of highlighting the multinational impact of the Great War, the humanity of the soldiers on both sides, and the hardships endured by troops and local civilians alike. It was a nice departure from the heavy, depressing movies being churned out a lot lately but not so light and fluffy that you wish you were sitting in one of those depressing movies. There were quite a few familiar faces, including Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter films. The theatre was full of happy tears and sniffling at the end and several scenes even garnered a few cheers. Based on the trailer alone I probably wouldn’t have forked over the ten bucks but I can now safely say that if you’re looking for something the whole family can appreciate this holiday, War Horse is worth the Visa gift card from grandma. War Horse is in theatres December 25.

2011 Christmas Party Invitation

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You’ve waited all year and it’s finally time! The 2011 Christmas Party Invitation is here! Please join us in celebration of the holiday season at our 2011 Skamarakas Family Christmas Party.
Please click to watch the invitation if it did not start playing for your immediately.  Right click to view full screen – and give it a few seconds to begin playing!!

School Friends, Teachers, Tutors – and the Christmas Shopping List Grows Longer!

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With three daughters, all of whom have friends and teachers they like to give holiday gifts to, it seems that the holiday budget has to grow to nearly the size of the national debt in order for me to accommodate all the people on the list!  The kids also like to give a little something to the grandparents that’s just from them.  Add to that the people I always find at this time of year that I’d like to give a little something to – like the two girls who tutor me in chemistry and save my sanity.  And the guy who works the tutoring desk who asked me the other day if I knew the DMX song that was playing in the tutoring center (I did not) – he earned a spot on the list by insulting me when he said, “But you’d probably know it if it was Tony Bennett, right?”  He gets the burnt cookies.

But what is a mom with a budget tighter than that chunky monkey Santa’s squeeze down the chimney to do?

Let’s go to my old favorite standby – Oriental Trading.  The place has everything you could ever want to make your own inexpensive gifts!  Something cute I found that would be great for Grandmoms and teachers is this adorable gingerbread man necklace.  It’s festive for the holidays, and you can make 12 of them from one kit – that’s just over 50 cents each!  For the teacher, add a $5 Starbucks gift card, and she’ll have something handmade to help her remember your child for years to come, plus she gets a little treat while she’s out doing her own Christmas shopping!  You can find this and MANY more gift ideas at www.orientaltrading.com.

For your teenagers friends, think along the lines of something your own teen would like.  Perhaps have him/her choose a collection of songs they like and make each teen a CD that they’ll all enjoy listening to.  Teenagers also love photos of themselves with their friends, and you can find frames of all sizes and shapes at the dollar store.  Buy a simple frame, grab some wooden letters that spell out BFF at your craft store, have your teen paint them, then glue them to the front of the frame.  Print out your teen’s favorite picture with each friend to put in the frames, and viola – the perfect gift for around $2.50!

Younger kids get a kick out of snowman soup!  Again, hit up places like Oriental Trading or the dollar store, and find some inexpensive holiday themed mugs (Oriental Trading usually has plastic ones at $10 per dozen.  In each one, put a single packet of hot cocoa mix, a chocolate kiss or two, a candy cane, and a few marshmallows.  Wrap the whole thing in cellophane, and tag it with this little poem:

Snowman Soup
Was told you’ve been real good this year.
Always glad to hear it!
With freezing weather drawing near,
You’ll need to warm the spirit.
So here’s a little Snowman Soup
Complete with stirring stick.
Add hot water, sip it slow.
It’s sure to do the trick!


These also make great party favors for your holiday parties, and if you are going to make a bunch, skip the mug and put the ingredients in a holiday treat bag, twist tied at the top.  You eliminate the cost of the mug and save about .75 per gift!

Never underestimate the value of Christmas cookies and holiday fudge.  I know we all say a dozen times a year “If I eat one more Christmas cookie, I’m going to explode!”  But we usually say it as we are snagging another cookie.  What other time of the year are you going to have this many fabulous treats in front of you?  As someone who is lucky I don’t burn the slice and bake variety of cookies, homemade treats are one of my favorite gifts!

I hope this helps you save a little in your holiday budget for you to do something nice for yourself this Christmas season.  Splurge on some fuzzy slippers you can wear while sipping your snowman soup and noshing on those Christmas cookies.  You know you deserve it!.