It is no secret on this blog that I LOVE Christmas! It truly is the most wonderful time of year for me. Things I look forward to:
Annual Cookie Making Day
Decorating the House
Picking out the Christmas Trees
Decorating the Christmas Trees
Moving Jack the Elf all Around the House
The Smell of the Christmas Tree
All. The. Christmas. Songs.
Christmas Eve Dinner
Spending All of Christmas Day in Our Pajamas
Christmas shopping may be the last one listed here, but it’s one of my most favorite parts of the season. I pride myself on buying really great gifts. I do this by taking cues throughout the year, listening to family members tell stories and gleaning ideas, seeing what they could use in their lives to make them better/easier/more fun, and then just finding gifts I know they will love but they’d never buy for themselves. (There are also the “must have” gifts that I get them; not the “hot gifts of the season”, but the gifts they must have to replace something they currently use or do that drives me bananas.)
My weekly screen report showed that my phone time was up 162% last week for an average of 5 hours and 27 minutes a day. At least 2-3 hours of that time was spent researching Christmas gifts! The remaining hours were spent on Wordle, Instagram and Spotify shame listening to Christmas carols in my car.
Buying Christmas gifts makes me so happy! Most of my shopping is done online, however I do venture out on the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year with a deal friend. Granted, a lot of that shopping is for ME, because I’m not going to pass up a good deal for myself because that would just be silly.
Last year, I wrote about my role as the family’s travel agent. It appears, I am also the family’s gift guru. Right around this time of year, I start to get the requests from family members about what they could get for Little Mister or Mr. KK. So not only do I need to get them gifts for myself, but I need to find enough gifts and ideas that other people can give them too. Oh, and add in the extra layer of figuring out Santa gifts for Little Mister, too. No one needs this many gifts, especially our child.
Because of this, I try and get all of my shopping done early. That way, I have the last 2-3 weeks in December to focus on what others can get my loved ones.
Don’t get me wrong, we have some family members who are VERY difficult to buy for even for me. (They will all tell you that I am the one who is hard to buy for, but that is false! I am SO EASY to buy for.) So that takes extra time and creativity. But there is nothing better than that Eureka “Ah Ha!” moment when I uncover the perfect gift for him or her.
Wrapping Christmas Gifts
Oh, how I love to wrap gifts! Each year I try and have 1-2 wrapping paper themes/colors, and each person gets their own wrapping paper (this makes it easy to group presents under the tree and it looks really nice, too!). Then, I set aside 2-3 hours (or at least half a day if I’m doing it all at once) and get to it. I put on the Christmas music, spread out all my wrapping supplies, and put myself on Do Not Disturb mode. Sometimes I’m able to take a day off from work to tackle the wrapping. Other times, I start after Little Mister goes to bed, Air Pods in, and wrap until 1am.
So what’s it like being the family gift idea generator?
It’s hard work!
First, I have to think ahead far enough in my own gift planning to ensure that I am giving the gifts that I want to give. Once those are purchased, I will review my Plan B gift option list, the ones that didn’t make the first cut to have my name on them. These are usually low hanging fruit to give away to other people to get for someone. Once I run out of the back up gifts, the challenge begins.
For example, Little Mister needs ZERO things for Christmas. ZERO. It was hard for ME to think of Christmas gifts for him. There is no room in the playroom, we can’t fit another thing. He doesn’t even know what to put on his Christmas list. This says to me he doesn’t need anything!
We are barely getting him any gifts. And to help combat too many gifts, gifts he doesn’t need and just plan STUFF, I have asked the Grandparents to limit their gifts to 5 gifts. AND, they cannot be sneaky and put 20 things in one box and call it a single gift. Even with the gift limit, I’m still having a hard time thinking of gifts for them to get for him. I want this Christmas to be fewer gifts, but more meaningful gifts.
This is a timely post, as it is Cyber Monday! I do have a few deals to catch…happy shopping!
This post is always meant to be one you can “read” with mindless scrolling through photos to experience our Thanksgiving. For those keeping track at home, the day started at 6:30am and ended at 10pm when the last guest left. A full day of food, laughs and drinks.
This photo diary includes recipes from our Thanksgiving meal! So here we go!
Today started before the sun came up. This is me, Black Friday shopping and simultaneously planning out the day’s timeline while lying in bed.
I shared this tip last year, but here it is again. Your 2 best friends on Thanksgiving Day are: chicken stock and your phone – the alarms on your phone that is. I plan my whole day out and set alarms to keep me honest.
Next, you should be sure to taste taste everything to see if it needs more salt, or more bourbon.
Our first step in making Thanksgiving a little easier (besides my phone alarm trick) was to make a punch ahead of time so we could eliminate the need for Mr KK to make 1,000,000 drinks before he could get a sip of his own cocktail. This punch was a crowd pleaser! Highly recommend – here’s the recipe for Bourbon Rosemary punch.
When we prep for hosting, I’m usually in charge of the inside of the house – which includes watching the dogs and entertaining Little Mister – while Mr. KK handles the outside. Yesterday was a little over 50 degrees, so we were able to set up our patio heater and chairs on our new deck in case anyone wanted to get some fresh air.
No one wanted to enjoy the deck…but we found 5 minutes to take a breather out there.
Let’s talk turkey…and everything else!
We did 2 turkeys again this year: a full turkey in the fryer (house in still intact) and a turkey breast in the oven. Both turkeys came out amazingly juicy! My mother-in-law preps the turkeys, and my father-in-law drives the birds over the morning of Thanksgiving and enjoys a drink with Mr. KK (and me!). Our turkey breast had a garlic and herb marinade and the fryer turkey had a rub on it.
Everyone makes jokes about my mother-in-laws breasts (we are nothing if not inappropriate) as part of tradition.
Thanksgiving Menu 2022
Butternut Squash Soup Shooters with Creme Fresh. I used this recipe for the soup and it was delicious. The sage and ginger really added a depth of flavor.
Caramelized Onion and Gruyere Rugelach
Every Christmas I make cinnamon and sugar rugelach, but this is a savory take on one of my favorite cookies. I used this savory rugelach recipe, but substituted gruyere for the cheddar, and candied pecans for the candied walnuts, just to put my own spin on it.
Interestingly, I found the recipe in a magazine – yes, a paper magazine – and I didn’t even look it up. Well, if you click on the recipe link, you’ll see that this recipe only got 1.5 stars from 2 reviewers. From personal experience, this recipe got 5 stars across the board from our family! Perhaps it was the subtle changes I made (nuttier cheese vs boring cheddar). But I highly recommend. Plus, you make it with pre made pie dough so it’s super easy.
The last appetizer I made was the Spicy Whipped Fetafrom this blog post. Somehow, I didn’t get a pick of it, but it was also really good; I served it with baby naans.
Our cousin (cousin in law?) made a delicious, light soup. I’m going from memory, but it was a veal stock with chicken and mortadella meatballs, with escarole and ditallini. It was the perfect first course!
The turkeys were the real stars of the show, and TBH, I don’t even really love turkey. But I loved picking off the crispy skin and dark meat that fell off the fried turkey!
This is happiest Mr. KK looked after an hour of stress when the new turkey fryer pan set up DID NOT WORK and he put the turkey in the oil and it barely covered the turkey. This was after the oil wasn’t hot enough and we had to heat it for another half hour. This was all going on while we were serving up the soup course, so thankfully no one heard all the swearing going on in the front yard. But it all worked out and we ended up with one golden brown bird. The best part about the fried turkey is that a 16 pound bird cooks in about 45 minutes!
For sides, we had stuffing (made with sourdough, apples, pancetta and apricots), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, dressing and Ina’s Cacio e Pepe Asparagus.
All assembled, it looked like this:
Little Mister was not a fan of any of the food we were serving (aren’t 8 year olds fun??) but he agreed to try some foods (which was a win). Here is his plate, which could easy be called “Deconstructed Thanksgiving” and be served in a Michelin Star restaurant for $50.
After he finished “eating” the plate looked the exact same except a small piece of turkey was gone (he gave turkey a “Maybe”), the tip of the asparagus was missing (10 minutes of chewing with a weird look on his face) and all of the sweet potatoes were gone (“this tastes like pumpkin pie filling”).
Pecan pie, pumpkin pie and cheesecake!
I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving with loved ones!
8:04am…time to start changing this house into Christmas!
*The best way for our family. Your trip is likely completely different and equally amazing!
During the Fall of my Senior Year in college, I worked at Disney World in their College Program. I spent 5 months living and working at The Mouse House and I have to say – I loved every minute of it.
Why did I choose the Disney internship? Was I a Disney fanatic? Nope. Did I love the heat and humidity? Double nope. Did I want a unique experience here in the good ole USA where I could meet people and have fun? Ding, ding, ding!
Back when I was in the College Program at Disney, all the CPs lived in a magical place called Vista Way. For those of you old enough to understand this reference: it was like Melrose Place meets Animal House. Thousands of college kids living together in idyllic conditions – pools, gym, no adult supervision.
I worked at Blizzard Beach, a ski-lodge themed water park, operating the chair lift that brought guests in their swimsuits to the top of a “mountain” to some of the water slides. CPs work everywhere in the parks; I had friends who worked on Tower of Terror, drove the monorail, operated merchandise carts, drove the parking lot trams and sold Turkey legs in the Magic Kingdom.
After my 5-month stint, I returned one additional time 5 years later. And then, 20 years passed. I began thinking about taking Little Mister to Disney a few years ago, then there was a pandemic. So here we were, January of this year, and I thought, “What are we waiting for? He’s at the right age, let’s just do this!” So I contacted a Disney travel agent, and two days later, we were booked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in late spring. And we kept it from Little Mister until 2 months before our trip (I just couldn’t keep that secret until the day before we left!)
Why Did You Choose to Stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge?
When it came to hotels, there was no other place that would bring joy to Little Mister like the Animal Kingdom Lodge. There was a show on Disney + during the pandemic about the AKL, and how they care for the animals. Little Mister (LM) is SUCH a huge animal lover, that we watched every episode of this show. He would tell everyone, “I’m going to work at the Animal Kingdom when I grow up.” I love this dream for him, I hope it comes true.
So to have the opportunity to stay at a hotel where you can watch giraffes, zebras and other animals whose names I don’t know from your balcony, it was the only option for us. Plus, LM wanted to visit the Animal Kingdom park 2 days during our stay, and that was only a 5-minute ride from our hotel.
Being the research queen that I am, I started listening to a podcast called Be Our Guest, run by travel agents (not the one I used) that was easy to listen to and filled with information about the parks. Having been away from Disney for 2 decades, I had A LOT to learn about the new park pass system, Genie Plus, dining reservations, and a million other things. I shared our trip details on an episode of this podcast!
It’s long, but really outlines how I approached our trip planning. A great listen when you’re walking the dog or sitting in traffic.
This was a trip of firsts: the first time Little Mister was going on a plane (he did great!), the first time I was back at Disney in 20 years, and the first time we were traveling after the pandemic. We were ready!
I could write pages and pages about this trip, but I’ll share the highlights below:
Animal Kingdom Lodge
This hotel is beautiful. And there was a scent in the lobby that I wish I could have bottled and brought home with me. I think there is a candle of that smell somewhere in Disney Springs, but we never made it there. We had a standard hotel room, but we had a balcony where we could sit and watch the animals. There literally were giraffes eating off a tree 30 feet from us! There were places all around the hotel where you could view the animals. The pool had a great water slide that LM loved. Some people stay away from AKL because the only park it’s near is the Animal Kingdom, and the only mode of transportation it has is busses. We never had a problem getting a bus, and barely had to wait. All of our trips to the parks were smooth and quick.
Day 1: Magic Kingdom
We arrived on a Tuesday, and spent the afternoon by the pool. We were rested and ready for our early entry into the MK on our first full park day. If you are early risers, doing early entry to the parks is the way to go. You get this perk with some of the hotels on Disney property. Highly recommend. It allowed us to hit the most popular rides first before the lines were long. For us, that ride was the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a roller coaster-like ride through the coal mine. It’s a TON of fun, and LM loved it. We were able to ride it a second time later in the day, too. Our favorite rides were: Splash Mountain (we rode this one at least 3 times, that big drop at the end made Little Mister belly laugh and I could listen to that all day long); Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; Jungle Cruise; Pirates of the Caribbean; Buzz Lightyear; Haunted Mansion (Little Mister did NOT like this ride, too scary). All in all, it was a magical first experience at a Disney park for us as a family.
Day 2: Animal Kingdom
Because we were doing 2 days in this park, we focused on attractions on Day 1, and then experiences on Day 2. We did early entry again (this park opens really early, so early entry was at like 7am, which meant getting on a bus at 6:30am, FYI), this time to secure our spot in line for Pandora (Avatar). The construction of this area, and everything to look at while you’re in the queue, is what makes Disney, Disney. It is awe-spiring and the attention to detail amazing. The ride…well, let’s say if you get motion sick like I do, it might not be your favorite. I needed a moment when we got off, but could appreciate why everyone loves this ride. LM had been talking about the safari since we told him we were coming to Disney, so it was our first stop after Pandora. And it didn’t disappoint! We saw every animal, even the lions (thank god)! We rounded out the day riding everything we could, having an early dinner, and escaping with only 1 souvenir.
Day 3: Animal Kingdom
Back again! We rode the safari again (equally as amazing, but a different experience with a different tour guide) and did the Caring For Giants experience, which allowed us to go behind the scenes at Disney (aka: backstage) and be up close and personal with the elephants. We learned all their names, how they are fed and cared for, and saw the from a platform that you can only access from this tour. I highly recommend doing one of these experiences, they’re usually small groups and interactive.
Much of Day 2 was spent with Little Mister earning his Wilderness Explorer badges. This is such a wonderful experience at the AK, and the “guides” at each station were simply the epitome of what Disney is all about. If you’ve seen the movie “Up”, you may remember Russell the Wilderness Explorer who was trying to earn his “Assisting the Elderly” badge. Well, the Animal Kingdom has set up about 15 or 20 “stations” around the park, and kids can use their guidebook to find them all, complete a little activity and learn about animals and conservation, and earn a badge. When you collect all of the badges you can get sworn in as a Senior Wilderness Explorer, and you recite an oath and it is the cutest thing ever and it made me cry watching Little Mister do this after working so hard to get all of his badges.
Day 4: Hollywood Studios
Fun fact: when I worked at Disney, this place was called MGM. It was also my favorite park, and we played here often because many of my friends worked here. This was our last park day, and we made the most of it. Early entry (again!) and we bolted to Slinky Dog Dash. This was probably my favorite ride of the whole trip. First, who doesn’t love Toy Story. Second, it is so FUN! We rode Slinky three times in a row! The Little Mister was belly laughing and whooping each time, it was so fun to see. We even rode Slinky one last time before we left the park – our final ride on our awesome trip. We also hit up Sci-Fi Drive In for lunch, Mr. KK did Rise of the Resistance, we did Frozen Ever After, Toy Story Mania, Micky & Minnie’s Runaway Railroad. It was the perfect last park day to our trip.
Our Last Day
Our last day was a Sunday, and our flight was early evening. We had a delicious character brunch at Topolino’s (highly recommend!). And just a week before we came to Disney, they reinstated character hugs! So the characters were able to come right up to our table and interact with us, and Little Mister who was shy at first, eventually started calling them all over for hugs. We spent the rest of the day by the pool until it was time to head to the airport.
Dining in Disney World
There are about 4,389 places to eat in Disney; everything from pretzel carts to fine dining. Where you choose to eat is personal to you and your family. For us, we planned one nice sit down meal a day. That could be lunch or dinner. I love to eat and go to nice restaurants, and I didn’t want this vacation to be any different. On this trip we ate at: California Grill in the Contemporary Hotel (great view, wonderful experience, delicious food, and our most expensive meal); Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge (get the bread service! the food was delicious and we sat at a window and watched the animal roaming and having dinner); Tiffins and Yak & Yeti at the Animal Kingdom (both good!); Sci-Fi Drive In at Hollywood Studios (so fun! nice and casual); Topolino’s Terrance at the Riviera Resort (amazing brunch…everything was delicious!).
Why didn’t you go to EPCOT, you may be wondering. For this trip, it didn’t feel like the right park for us to spend a day. We were very focused on animals, and really enjoyed 2 days at the AK. Plus, it leaves something for us to do next time!
All in all, this trip was nothing short of perfect. Little Mister was the perfect age (7), we went on a non-school-vacation week so it wasn’t insanely busy (but it was cheer competition week so it was still crowded with teenagers!). We did everything we wanted to do, at our own pace. On the first day I clocked 19,000 steps!
Again, the link to the podcast about my trip is here.
Growing up an only child, all of my childhood vacation memories are of me and my parents. California to visit my grandparents, Wildwood, New Jersey the same week every August until I was 18 and, a trip to Six Flags in New Jersey. Not to do the amusement park (I would have been riding those rides solo) but instead, for the drive through safari.
I have vivid memories of this safari; namely, sitting in the backseat of the car, thighs stuck to the leather bench seat in the summer heat, little monkeys sitting on the hood of our car as we drove 5 mph through the park, and – the pièce de résistance: a giraffe walking up to our car, bending its long neck down to the passenger window, and my mom rolling down her window and feeding him a piece of gum. (For the record – my parents have no recollection of this happening so perhaps I’m making this up?)
But what I do remember from the Safari was that I thought it was pretty cool.
So when it came time to think of a birthday present this year for our Little Mister, the Safari felt like the perfect gift! 1. He loves animals 2. It was an experience, and would not be another toy in our playroom and 3. We could make a weekend out of it and have an adventure!
Our adventure started with a traffic-filled drive to the middle-of-nowhere New Jersey to a Hampton Inn in the Township of Cranbury. (Can someone please explain these Townships to me? What the heck is a ‘Township’?)
Little Mister is not an experienced hotel visitor so he thought who he was rolling his suitcase up to the front desk. Since we’re still in a pandemic and I have an unvaccinated child, once we got into the room we stayed there: bringing in take out and watching movies on TV.
The next morning we arrived at the gates to the Safari after meticulously reviewing all of the animals we would see, the order we would see them, and how many exactly there were. And let me tell you: it didn’t disappoint. I don’t know who was more excited to see animals…me or the Little Mister. I just couldn’t not believe I was looking at an elephant a few feet away – not caged like a zoo – and I was in New Jersey.
We often had to stop so animals could cross the road in front of our car because they have the right of way (of course). And we were in New Jersey! (Did I mention that we were in New Jersey?)
Our Little Mister could not contain himself. Here were some of his most favorite animals, right in front of him! Lions! Elephants! Giraffes! (My favorite) Tigers! Bears! Rhinos! And a whole lot of gazelle/oryx/eland that literally all look alike. Not to mention about 4 million geese. He was so excited about seeing the geese, I felt we would have driven around a few ponds in Connecticut and has the same effect at the safari that was 3 hours away.
But seriously, this Safari is practically in our backyard (closer than Africa! Cheaper than Disney!).
I highly recommend it! Especially if you take your kids overnight to the lap of luxury also knows as the Hampton Inn.
Here are some highlights:
All this for $9.99/person? Talk about the bargain of the century! If you haven’t been, and you have an animal lover at home, GO. It’s totally worth it!
The time of year has arrived when I drive myself absolutely insane looking for our family’s annual vacation house. (cue the fanfare!)
Next year will be our 13th year (lucky 13?) of vacation houses, and each one has been better than the last one. No pressure.
Over the last two years, finding a vacation home is proving to be very challenging (Thank you, COVID!). People are sticking closer to home, opting for driving destinations vs flying. And because our vacation house geographical area is New England, more than 70% of the houses are already booked for next summer. Not only are they booked, but the prices per night have gone WAY up.
I know about this price increase because I have been stalking houses for so long, and have made so many Trip Boards and Wish Lists that I remember how much houses cost. Houses that were in my “acceptable” price range last year, have increased more than $200-$300/night.
As the family’s travel agent – and someone who has traveled extensively with both my parents and my inlaws – I have a very good idea of the type of house that will work for us as a group.
Ideally, 3+ bathroom (one for each family; we could get away with 2, but…why? we’re on vacation)
Close to beach (bonus if it’s walkable!)
At least 3,000 square feet (trust me, this is a good starting point for square footage)
Parking for 3 cars
Close to a town with great restaurants
Large kitchen, big enough to fit the entire family around the island and leave me enough room to move around and cook
Countertop where we can set up our bar
Seating for 8 in the living room; we need to all be able to be in the living room relaxing at the same time
Outdoor space for eating and hanging out
A reading nook for my mom
A desk area for my mother in law to do her “correspondence”
A chair where my dad can go from reading to napping in 3 minutes flat
A play area for Little Mister
An outdoor napping space for Mr. KK
A warm spot in the sun for me
With our price range (which, it seems, used to be easier than it currently is)
I do all of my research on two specific websites; one rhymes with Bear B and B and the other, Mer-bo. I have spend so many hours on these two particular sites, that I have grown to know each and every house for rent.
My obsession is SO extreme, that you could show me just the fabric swatch of a sofa cushion from a random house and I could likely tell you what the house looked like (“It’s the modern farmhouse with the wide plank floors, blue kitchen cabinets and orange drapes”) where it was located (“Thats the house in Kennebunkport, near the beach with the playground in the good walking neighborhood with the ice cream shop you can walk to”); whether or not it was in our price range (“Affordable before 4th of July but is over $1500/night in August”) and one other random yet distinguishing fact about the house, such as (“Oh that’s the place with the finished basement with the dart board and pool table and weird light up Nude Beach sign”)
While this year is proving to be challenging, it hasn’t stopped me from obsession over these two websites. I’m on them late at night when I can’t sleep, and I’m back searching first thing when I wake up.
If I may make a suggestion to the creators of these two websites: can you please create a “thumbs down” icon? I already have the option to “favorite” a property with a little heart, but I would also like to be able to mark any houses I’ve looked at and rejected so that they no longer show up in my search results. There is nothing more annoying than having a house show up in search results, tricking you into looking at the property again until 4 photos in you realize you’ve already looked at the house and dismissed it for whatever reason.
And speaking of rejecting properties, it doesn’t take much for me to say “no” to the house (sorry, home owners). I rationalize it as if I’m going to spend a precious week of vacation somewhere, it better be pretty spectacular.
Reasons why I will reject a property almost immediately (don’t hate me):
Outdated living room
Patio furniture acting as actual living room furniture
Carpet in the main living areas (I’m sorry, but carpet in beach houses is weird)
Black leather couches
Dark wood paneling
Shared outdoor space with owners
Too many personal items in the house (Are you living here, or am I?)
Cluttered countertops and dressers
No outdoor space
No linens included
Blonde wood furniture
Non-open concept floor plans
Mismatched furniture (but not in a cool way)
Four poster beds
Big furniture in a small room
Small furniture in a big room
Before you judge please know that I believe if you are going to be charging $1,000/night to rent your house, ti better well be worth $1,000 a night. And white appliances in the kitchen are not worth that much money.
But here’s a secret, homeowners: your photos can tell a really nice story. If you take nice photos.
What I would say to the people taking the photos for house rental listings:
Put the toilet seat down
Wait until a sunny day to take photos; natural light trumps evening with the lights on every time
Put the dishes in the drying rack in the kitchen away
Toss the magnets on the fridge
Make the bed vs “pulling up the comforter” (hello, hospital corners!)
Wash your windows, fixed broken outdoor furniture and pick up your child’s toys in the yard
How in God’s name are your photos blurry???
If your finger is in the photo, take a new one. Please.
If you can’t get a good photo of the entire room, just forget it. No one needs to see a close up of bi-fold closet doors