Posted in: Hiking, School, Sightseeing

Exploring Epcot (Orlando, Florida): Tickets/Reservations, Parking, and Rides

I know I said we were only going to do one Amusement Park while in Orlando, and we chose Universal Studios. However, someone gifted us with tickets to Epcot (Thank you!!!) and we were able to go to explore Disney’s Epcot.

The boys had a blast. Ben and I had researched the rides and the different attractions/food in World Showcase and had a game plan all laid out. We wanted to get there around 10:00 am (park opened at 11:00) so that we could get a closer parking spot. Parking was $25 for standard parking and $45-50 for premium. However, because we got there so early, we were only a few rows from the entrance even with parking in the standard lot. Parking was also staggered to help maintain social distancing.

Another win of going early, was that even though the park officially opened at 11:00, they let everyone in around 10:15am. We were on Test Track by 10:30 and The Seas at 10:50am.

It was a great experience walking through the park. Due to the limited capacity, ride times were much shorter. Our longest wait was about 1/2 hour. The Frozen line in Norway was longer, but we didn’t go on that one.

Disney allows you bring in snacks and water (no glass, no heating or refrigeration) and backpacks. We brought several bottles of water, as it was going to be really warm (88℉ was the high!). Water fountains were open, so we could refill our water bottles. We were also able to get a cup of ice water in Canada and France. Mexico told us they were only selling bottles of water.

There was a lot of construction walls up for coming new attractions. I know that Ratatouille and Guardians of the Galaxy were being built.

Epcot was gearing up for their International Flower & Garden Festival, so we also got to see lots of really cool flower displays.

There were currently not any of the nightly firework shows at any of the Disney parks, so once we had ridden and seen what was on our list we headed out.

We were all pretty tired at the end of the day. We got to the park at a little after 10:00 am and left around 7:00 pm (closed at 8:00pm). We managed to get in 17,701 steps for the day at Epcot.

COVID:

To enter the park, you had to go through temperature screening. Masks were required and it was stated that if you did not comply you could be asked to leave. I did see several staff members telling people that the nose had to be covered as well. Disney did a great job of marking social distancing lines/markers on the ground and on large outdoor benches. There were hand sanitizer stations available at ride entrances and exits. However, we noticed a lot of them were out or were too slow to keep up with the stream of people. A pump/manual style type probably would have been better. (Universal Studios gave everyone a squirt of sanitizer before they were allowed on a ride.)

RIDES & SHOWS:

The first ride we went on was Test track, as we read it was one of the more popular lines and often had longer lines. Because we were so early, there wasn’t much of a line and we got on before the park even officially opened! The interactive piece at the beginning of the ride where you can design your own car was shut off, so we missed having the fun of designing your own car and testing it against the track. The line inside was air conditioned and had some neat concept cars to look at while you waited. We were in line for maybe 15 minutes. It was still a fun ride. The outside track got up to about 63 miles per hour, although Ben pointed out that I drove faster than that on the way over to Epcot.

We headed to The Seas because they have a really neat aquarium at the end of the ride. The wait was short, maybe 5 minutes. The queue line was made to look like a beach scene and parts of it looked like you were underwater. Even the handrails were made to look old and rusty! The ride was ok, it was a little boring. Part of it was that we had the ride stop on us for “technical difficulties”. However, at one point in the ride you get to see parts of an actual aquarium and the Nemo characters are projected onto the glass to seem like they are in the aquarium as well, which was really neat. The aquarium at the end was worth the ride though. We got to see different kinds of fish, a dolphin, manatees, sharks, moray eels, and a sea turtle. (Nick was very happy he got to see a sea turtle. He has been asking for a turtle for a pet for a while now.)

We headed back towards the front of the park to the iconic Epcot globe to ride Spaceship Earth. It was a 20 minute wait. It was a little bit of a dated ride (opened in 1982, last renovated in 2007, per WiKi). The beginning of the ride was dark and was hard to see some of the graphics. It was still kind of neat, definitely more of an educational ride. Will liked the animatronics during the middle of the ride. At the end of the ride, you descend through the globe. Instead of lap belts to descend through the ball, the cars turn around backwards on the hilly descent. At one point, we got stuck going down for “technical” issues, so I was very glad we were backwards and not leaning forwards at an angle. There was an interactive screen in the car was fun during the descent. The interactive exhibits and screens at the end of the ride were not available (due to COVID).

Our next ride, which was one of our favorites, was Soarin’ Around The World. This one had a long, boring queue. There was a trivia game on the My Disney Experience app to play while you waited in line. This ride had about a 30 minute wait. Staff members working the ride wore pilot type uniforms. It was worth wait. You entered the room and there was a huge screen in front. There were 2 sections of seating, with 3 rows of seats in each section. Each row of seats lifted off the ground to make you feel like you were flying (paragliding). Ben and Will were in front of us when we sat down, so we could see their feet dangling above us. It did make you feel like you were moving, so they warned it could cause motion sickness. You flew over Egypt, the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Sydney, Africa, and ended at Disney’s Epcot.

After Soarin’, we headed over to Living With The Land, since they were in the same building. It was about a 5 minute wait and was a boat ride. There were plastic sheets between rows of seats in the boat. It was interesting, more of an educational ride. You got to see a really cool greenhouse and fish farm. Disney paired with the USDA to study ways to grow crops in harsher climates, etc. They use the items grown here in the Land’s restaurants. There was a Behind the Seeds tour, but it was closed currently.

VIDEO: Clips From Living With The Land ride

We headed over to World Showcase and stopped in Mexico first. We went to the Grand Fiesta Tours ride. The app stated it was a 10 minute wait, but was really a 20 minute wait (10 minutes of the wait were outside). We also got to see Pluto, Goofy, Mickey and Minnie drive by while we waited. Inside, the building had a few exhibits to see and then you were right in the middle of a market/town. It was a little confusing where the line started at this point. As you moved further in, the lines were very tight width wise. There were row dividers in place, however not a lot of spacing was enforced inside. This one was our least favorite ride. We were on for only a few minutes when the sound went off. Boats were still moving, but very slowly. They claimed the boats went back online at the very end, but we all ran into each other, which was very jarring. They did not let people stay on and go again even though ride didn’t work for 90% of our time on it. I’m not sure if they shut it down completely or not, as there were still people waiting in line outside.

We headed over to China next. We watched the show Reflections of China. You were in a large room with a 360-degree screen. It is a standing show, although there are row dividers to lean on. They had rows closed to keep social distancing, as well as placement markers on the floor. It was some interesting propaganda, but showed some beautiful views. It showed how diverse China’s landscape is and motivated Ben and Will to want to go to China.

Reflections of China Theater Room and waiting room

We stopped at Canada and watched their show Far and Wide. It also had a 360-degree screen.

Our final ride was Journey into Imagination with Figment. It was ok, not one I would ride again. Younger kids would probably enjoy it.

Posted in: Animal Sightings, Hiking, Museums & Tours, School, Sightseeing

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park (Key West, Florida): Swimming and Cannons

We went to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park to enjoy the beach. The park does charge admission ($6 per car of 2-8 people, plus a $0.50 charge for each person, so it was $8 for the 4 of us).

The beach parking lot was an easy walk to the restrooms and beach area. The water was gorgeous with its various shades of blues. The sun was shining and it was a great morning. There was sand towards the water, but a lot of the beach was rockier than we expected. Key West does have a coral reef which protects the island from having bigger waves, which probably also keeps it from getting a lot of fine sand. The water was also a little cold, even though the temperatures had been in the upper 80’s!

The boys enjoyed swimming, but Ben and I mostly waded. I enjoyed sitting at a picnic table in the shade watching the small lizards climbing the trees and the kids playing in the water. We didn’t have a bucket, but the boys made a double walled sand moat for a cone shaped sand “castle”.

After swimming and getting changed, we headed towards the front of the park and explored the Fort area. The fort was pretty cool. It had cannons, a self-guided tour (pamphlet and audio option), and lots of neat information.

On our way out, we had our only iguana sighting! He/she was on the side of the Fort.

The Fort had such a neat shape to it, but it was hard to capture on camera without having a drone. I would definitely check it out if you are at the park, especially if you have any history buffs in your group!

Note: Get there early in the day. We left around lunch time and the beach parking lot was full. There were still some spots in the lot by the Fort, but it looked like the gate was turning cars away.

DETAILS:*

  • TICKETS: No tickets, but park admission fees. Single occupancy car/motorcycle $4.50, Car with 2-8 passengers $6 plus $0.50/person, pedestrian or bicycles or extra passengers $2.50.
  • HOURS: 8:00 am to sundown, Fort closes at 5:00pm
  • PARKING: Parking near beach and fort
  • BATHROOM: Yes
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: 1-3 hours, depending on how long you like to swim. We spent an hour at the Fort.
  • *Details correct at the time of posting, but please double check before you go.
Posted in: Animal Sightings, Car Ride Games, School, Sightseeing

Key West: The Drive and A New Car Ride Game

Since we were in Miami, we decided to do an overnight in the Keys. We had looked a few months ago for RV parks, but they were completely full. We decided to just drive down and stay in a hotel for night. We were excited to see the Keys; we had heard such good things and the pictures looked amazing.

No one prepared us for the drive.

I-10 is a long two lane highway, which at times gets down to a single lane each way. Maps/Waze claimed the drive should be about 3-3.5 hours. They were wrong.

We were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, often standstill or 5 mph in Key Largo. It was a Tuesday morning in February! The Main Street in Key Largo was lined with dollar stores, sandal outlets, and snorkel shops. You could not see the water at all. Drivers were aggressive and we were in slow moving traffic for an hour and a half. We went 3 miles in that time. We even saw people turning around through the hilly grass median.

We had our bottle of Blue Lizard sunscreen out for Ben to put on his arm (he was driving for the first part). It turned a deep blue right away. (If you are not familiar with the brand, their bottles or caps turn blue in “harmful UV light”). The sun is intense here in Florida!

Once we got out of Key Largo, it seemed to clear up a lot and we were also treated to the gorgeous views of the water. It did rain on us for a little bit of the drive down.

The drive back up was much the same, steady movement until around Key Largo where we ran into more traffic.

The boys were working on school work during the drive, so they were occupied. Once I switched to driving, I kept Ben occupied with a new car game: Find The Coolest Mailbox! Florida had some crazy mailboxes. We saw one in Miami that was a horse rearing up on it’s hind legs while holding a mailbox.

We missed capturing the outboard motor mailbox and the horse in Miami.
Posted in: Animal Sightings, Hiking, National Park, National Parks, School

Everglades National Park

While we were in Miami, we went to Everglades National Park. At first just to see it since we were in the area, but it turned out to be one of our favorite parks.

We took three trails: Anhinga, Gumbo Limbo, and Eco Pond. The Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo trails were at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and were a nice walk. Anhinga was a nice smooth path and boardwalk.

The Anhinga Trail had water that was amazingly clear. We saw two alligators along this trail: one swimming and one right next to the trail.

The Gumbo Limbo trail was a shaded dirt path through a forested area. We saw lots of dragonflies.

The Eco Pond was also a dirt trail that wrapped around a pond. We had read that it was supposed to be good for wildlife, but we didn’t see any.

We stopped at the Flamingo Visitor Center and saw two crocodiles and a few manatees. The water wasn’t as clear here, so we could only see them when they poked out. We saw some nesting ospreys and so many other birds.

Which one is the crocodile or alligator, which one is wood? It’s crazy how much they can look look like a log in the water! The picture on the left is a log, and the ones on the right are crocodiles in the water.
Bottom center and right: manatees

There were boat and kayak launches throughout the park as well. The Flamingo Visitor Center had a food truck there making some tasty burgers, so we grabbed a quick lunch (Weeki Tiki Food Truck, $9.50 for a burger).

I would definitely recommend visiting the Everglades National Park!

Note: Each Visitor Center had their own stamp, if you collect them.

Posted in: Museums & Tours, School, Sightseeing

Walking with History: National World War II Museum (Will’s Blog Post)

            The WWII Museum is amazing. If you haven’t been there and are going to New Orleans for a little bit then you should visit this place. It has all sorts of cool exhibits, and artifacts about World War II. There are four main buildings which are the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, the Hall of Democracy and US freedom Pavilion, the Solomon Theater Building, and the Campaigns of Courage building. We stayed here all day from about 10AM to 5PM. It was great, but if you don’t want to stay the whole day reading, I’ll explain all of the exhibits here so you can plan your trip.

            Louisiana Memorial Pavilion: This area is where you sign in and get an introduction via a fake train taking you off to “war.” On the second floor is the Arsenal of Democracy which goes over some of the statistics and overall look at the countries their armies and their weapons. It explains more on the US home front. The third floor is the D-Day exhibits which have first hand accounts, weapons used, and a cool demonstration of one of the German lookout towers with a model instrument. The First floor also has a little history on The Higgins Boat and has a motorcycle and artillery gun near the side.

            The Solomon Theater: We walked across this quickly and only saw a little, but it mostly consists of the movie theater, a fun, quick look at the marines and some of the supply ships the US used in the war and a gift shop.

            Hall of Democracy: This is where we went for lunch at The American Sector Restaurant and Bar. It was nice enough and actually pretty nice for being at a museum. I got an Oreo sundae which was delicious and chicken and sausage gumbo. My dad got a double cheeseburger with fries. We also visited their special exhibit about the distraction part of the army that was made to keep the Nazis guessing and that made the inflatable tanks and guns. This exhibit was called Ghost Army the Combat Con Artists of World War 2.

            Campaigns of Courage: This was really cool. The top floor goes over the process of taking down Japan and has a really cool building structure that first looks like a ship and then a jungle. The first floor goes over the defeat of the Nazis and looks like a desert and then the ruins of a city. This goes more in depth into the defeat of the Axis powers and has fun videos that go over most of the reading.

            US Freedom Pavilion: This is a really cool exhibit that lets you see  some of the vehicles used during World War II including a B-17E Flying Fortress called MyGalSal. It also has a jeep with a gun attached and an amphibious car that has a rifle rack in the front.

Outdoor statues
Admission button (acts as proof of ticket), stylus for exhibits, Dog Tag card (You are assigned a person to follow at the beginning of your visit in the train. You collect information along the way and can review it later. You can even log on once you are home to read your experience.)
Social Distancing Signs

DETAILS: *

  • TICKETS: Due to COVID, you need purchase tickets ahead of time for a timed entrance. Tickets are available online. Face coverings are required. There are several ticketing options, including private tours. The General Admission Tickets are $28.50/adult, $18/child K-12. There are discounts for military, seniors, college students. WWII Veterans and children under 5 are free. The Campus Pass includes General Admission and the 4-D Beyond All Boundaries movie. $35.50/adult, $25/child K-12, $7/child under 5. There are discounts for military, seniors, college students. WWII Veterans are free.
  • HOURS: Daily 9 am- 5 pm. (Closed Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve/Day)
  • PARKING: Pay parking on street or nearby lots. The Museum also has a paid lot.
  • BATHROOM: Yes
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: several hours
  • *Details correct at the time of posting, but please double check before you go.
Posted in: Animal Sightings, Hiking, School, YouTube Video Link

Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and Fontainebleau State Park

One of the things we wanted to see while in New Orleans was the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. It holds the Guinness World Record of the longest bridge over water (continuously).

There was a toll on the north side of the lake heading south (back to New Orleans) for the bridge. The toll was $5/2 axles, or $3 if you had a toll tag. You could also take a different highway home to avoid the tolls, but it does add additional time to your commute.

When we went, it was a little overcast and cloudy. Luckily there wasn’t too much traffic on the bridge. The causeway has two bridges, one going North and one going South. Each side had two lanes. Around the middle of the bridge, there was a drawbridge to allow water traffic through, although we did not see it in action. The drive was fun. We saw a few birds roosting and a few motor and sail boats out on the water. At one point, we couldn’t see land in either direction! Lake Pontchartrain is large at 629 mi² and 39.77 miles in length, but averages only 12-14 feet in depth. VIDEO: Driving On Lake Pontchartrain Causeway from New Orleans to Mandeville (South to North)

Although the drive itself was our mission for the day, we also stopped at Fontainebleau State Park to stretch our legs. Admission was $3/person (daily), not the normal per car fee. The park had several offerings: campground, cabin rentals, playground, beach, walking trails. We headed to the Visitor Center first and learned some interesting information about the park. It was at one point a sugar plantation and was named Fontainebleau by its owner after a park in France. Located in front of the Visitor Center were the remains/ruins of the sugar mill. They were fenced off with a short picket fence, but they are in bad shape, so be careful walking near them. The Visitor Center had a campground map that had a park map printed on the backside. The Visitor Center was smaller, but worth a stop if you are in the park.

The windows looking out had an etching of the sugar mill. It is a little hard to see in the pictures though.

We drove down to the beach and it looked like a soft sand. There were alligator caution signs throughout the park. The beach also had a nice large parking lot, several picnic bench areas, and a large building with changing stalls, showers, and bathrooms. There was also a pier you can walk out onto, located at the beach area.

Walking trail to Marsh Boardwalk

It was a little muddy, so we only took the shorter trail near the beach area to the marsh boardwalk. We saw a few birds and ducks, but no alligators. It was a nice enough park, but I wouldn’t go back for more than one visit with the entrance fee. I would definitely prefer to go Barataria Preserve to get a look at bayou type of areas. However, their rental cabins did seem nice and were right on the water, so it would be a nice place to stay. (Click here for my Barataria post.)

Fontainebleau Park Details:

  • TICKETS: $3 per person for daily pass
  • PARKING: Lots of parking at beach, Visitor Center and near trails
  • BATHROOM: Yes, at Visitor Center and Beach
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: 1-3 hours

Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Information Links:

Posted in: Museums & Tours, School, Sightseeing

Confederate Memorial Hall Museum

One of the reasons for going on this trip was to learn/see new things and to expand the boys’ views of the world. We wanted them to be able to think and research, listen to both sides, and come up with their own conclusion, to not just take everything at face value.

And so we found ourselves one Saturday morning at the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum.

The museum is in a really neat building and is the oldest continually running museum in Louisiana.

DETAILS:

  • TICKETS: Due to COVID, you need to email the Museum to make a reservation for the day/time you want to visit. You pay for your tickets once you arrive ($10 adults, $5 kids ages 7-14). It was only open Thursday to Saturday when we were in New Orleans.
  • PARKING: Pay parking on street or nearby lots
  • BATHROOM: Yes, downstairs
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: 1-3 hours

The museum is on the main floor of the building, with the bathroom downstairs. They had some neat pieces of history on display. It was mostly reading with one video. There was a small gift shop as well.

We started on the left side of the museum and one of the first exhibits we saw contained a Dix! New Orleans has history to the city. Being on the water, the city had plenty of trading with ships coming and going. At one point, the city was separated into French and American sides. Canal Street separated the French and English speaking parts of New Orleans. Each side had their own currency (French bills and American/English). Per our tour guide at Sazerac House, people met in the middle of Canal Street to do business, as it was considered neutral ground. One bank there decided to create a new currency, the Dix (French for 10). It was printed in English on one side, French on the other, and was a $10 bill. It later was nicknamed a Dixie, and hence the name for the South was created.

Battlefield trees with shrapnel embedded
Top: Uniform and gloves of Daniel Merwin. He lost his right arm in battle. His “Invalid Fork”, and 2 Left Hand gloves. Bottom Left: Sucession Badge image.
We find the mention of Ohio in the strangest places.
Different artillery shells.
Silver crown given to Davis, link of chain (boats), Stonewall Brigade Medal, Seal of the Confederacy

It was interesting to see this perspective on the Civil War. There were some signs that definitely had a Southern slant to the way they were worded. There was no real addressing the issue of slavery, it was mostly facts and information about battles, soldiers, and Jefferson Davis. It did give us a few good talking points to go over with the boys.

The gift shop was an interesting mix of wooden toys (chess board, 9 pins, chalkboard, Jacob’s Ladder etc.), hats and t-shirts, patches, stickers, quill pens, and the Confederate flag.

Posted in: Hiking, National Park, National Parks, School, Sightseeing

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve: Chalmette Battleground and Cemetery

Chalmette Battleground and Cemetery is another part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. When we were there, the Visitor Center was only open on the weekend. The park itself was open until 4:00 pm most days.

It is a battleground site. This was our first battleground visit on our trip. There is not a lot to see: a Visitor Center, the obelisk monument, a memorial urn statue, and a plantation house. If you climb the levy, you can look at the river. There is a nice paved walking trail around the monument to the house. There is also a driving path (I did see lots of people walking it too) that leads further back on the battlefield and to the cemetery.

Pano of the Park grounds

The Rodriguez Plantation house is still on the property, although the second story staircase is gated off with a danger sign. We saw that the second story balcony was missing several boards.

The Park’s grounds also contain a National Cemetery, although only 4 from the War of 1812 are buried there. I didn’t know until after our visit, but there is also an audio tour available by calling on your cell phone (number is 504-799-0803 per their website) and there is also a virtual tour.

Cemetery: Can be accessed by walking or driving on the “self-guided driving” path

As a side note: Will saw one of the paintings featured on an informational plaque at the park in his history textbook. He thought it was pretty funny that the image included in his textbook had a National Park Service plaque memo that the image was inaccurate, as the river “was not crowded with ships during the battle”.

Posted in: Christmas, Holidays, School, Word Find

Christmas Word Find: Travel Trailer Shaped

I know I did one of these at Thanksgiving. However, the kids requested a Christmas one, so I thought I would share.

We hope you and your families have a very Happy Holiday season!

For a printable version click here.

Answers, click here.

Posted in: Museums & Tours, School, Sightseeing, YouTube Video Link

Remember The Alamo!

One of Will’s picks to see on this trip was the Alamo. This kid loves history.

It was in the downtown area, not far from the River Walk. We walked between the two quite easily (it was less than 10 minutes, depending on where you were on the River Walk).

It was really neat to see. They did a really nice job with historical information signs and diagrams. There’s a gorgeous, huge, oak tree in the courtyard. (Ben’s favorite thing was the “historical” gift shop.)

Due to Covid, there was a limited amount of people allowed in the church area of the Alamo. Tickets were free, but they were sold out the day we were there. We do plan on going back once we can get tickets.

VIDEO: Walking Around The Alamo

VISITOR NOTE: The postcards in the Alamo gift shop were $1.99 each. The shop across the street and the San Antonio Visitor Center had them for about $0.35/each.