Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cheep Cheep Cheep

I love to brag about my thrift store finds and treasures. Everyone loves a great deal and a great find, but I think these monologues serve a different purpose for me. They serve to convince myself that secondhand shopping is okay, or even better than new shopping. Somewhere back there in my mind is a voice saying "You let your daughter run around in OLD CLOTHES?"

My daughter has very specific ideas about the ways her clothing should look and fit. It's not about fashion; she has definite specs for how her clothes should lie on her body; pants cannot be too high or too low, shirts need to be long enough for tucking because she doesn't like them flouncy, etc. These ideas change frequently, so right there is a big expenditure. It's not good enough to have one "tucking" shirt, once she has decided shirts must be tucked, life becomes a miserable hassle of laundry demands and tears unless she has sufficient "tucking" shirts. It is clear she is uncomfortable with untucked shirts, just as I am with tucked shirts, so I am not inclined to force the issue. Life is too short to have a drawn out battle with tears and screaming every morning over a tee shirt. I've solved this problem by shopping at the thrift store. She gets the clothing she wants, and I spend less than I would on one comparable item at Target.

Similarly, I reject the handwringing and stress that results from worrying your kid will dirty, rip, stain, lose, or outgrow their clothing. When we go to the park and play, we PLAY. We may come home looking as though we've emerged from a swamp walk, but we are happy. I would vastly prefer she dive cheerfully into playing and get messy than sit on the sidelines to preserve her frock. I don't have a lot of limitations on what she can play in either. If we need to dress nicely for something, we always manage to dig out something that looks presentable. Too many times I have suggested she put on old play clothes for a trip to the park only to have her decide she'd rather sit home in pretty clothes. Nope. Not on my watch.

Something I love about shopping in the thrift stores where I go (a tony neighborhood near mine) is that much of the clothing is nearly new, and is almost always far better brands than I could afford to purchase new. I might spend $5-15 on a new pair of jeans for her at Target (depending on the clearance rack) but I regularly purchase Children's Place and Gap jeans for her for literally pennies on the dollar. These clothes are better made than the discount ones and often have extras like fancy snaps, embroidery, designs, etc.

As the clothes get outgrown, so do things like bicycles. I laughed when I saw her hunching over her little bike--she had jumped two sizes of bike; from 12" to 16"--seemingly overnight. The bikes at the local toy store were long on extras like baskets and streamers and short on quality. Most of them had plastic chainguards, chintzy training wheels, and were rattling and coming apart after a few spins around the showroom floor. Rather than waste $90 on one of these, I turned to Craigslist. I found a local family selling a bike just like I needed for only $20. I picked it up and my daughter has already logged several miles on it (while I got a much needed workout trying to keep up!).

And so this weekend's tote board:
9 shirts for Maggie
4 pairs of jeans for Maggie (1 in her current size, 3 in the next one up)
1 pair of high heeled boots for Maggie, which are her current favorite thing in the world
2 tops for me
1 pair of pants for me
1 skirt for me
1 fleece jacket for me (I've been stealing my husband's for 2 years now)
1 Kenneth Cole suit off the dollar rack (yes, only $1, and exactly the husband's size)
1 16" bicycle with appropriate frills and sparkles

Total: $55.93

I spent more at the grocery store!

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Disney Report--Lodging

The first question everyone asks is "Did you stay on-property or off?" I have done both, and have stayed in more than one (but by no means all) of the Disney resorts. The immediate and obvious tradeoff is that Disney resorts cost more money for less amenities, but are undeniably "Disney". But we found many more less-obvious pros and cons to weigh.

Sure, money definitely factors in. Off property you can get a very nice hotel room, or an efficiency, or even a condo for around $100, and be as close or closer to the theme parks as you would be in one of Disney's own hotels. I rented a timeshare efficiency for less than $100 a night and had a jetted tub, a separate bedroom, a living room, free wifi, and a kitchenette. That same money would get you a very basic room with no free wifi, no kitchenette, two double beds, and a closet-sized bathroom on Disney property. To me that tradeoff is obvious; if money is a concern, I'd rather have a space where we can spread out a little and enjoy the convenience of having our own means of feeding ourselves.

However, we are a pack of only children who need our space. A week together can be tough on us if we don't have room for that all-necessary alone time. We have friends who stayed in the aforementioned Disney property and found it to be perfectly adequate for their needs. I would have been unhappy there. I like having a fridge and micro, plus a coffee pot, so I can have my coffee immediately upon waking (and still in my nightgown). My daughter is accustomed to having her chocolate soy milk and a snack early in the morning, and it's hard to do when you don't have a fridge. For us, it's important to have those amenities.

A key aspect to staying out of the world that we discovered quite by accident was that if you are outside of Disney, you tend to eat more meals out of the world, which can be half (or less) than what you would pay "inside". A counter-service meal at a Disney park or hotel costs between $20 and $40 for three people. The food is about on par with an average fast food restaurant. If you are in a Disney hotel with no means of transportation other than Disney transport, you are a captive audience. You'll have little other choice than Disney's offerings. If you are beginning and ending your day outside of the gates, you can very easily begin your day with IHOP and end it at a steakhouse and spend less than half what you would at the counter service cafe in your Disney hotel.

Another wrinkle to Disney's hotels is that with the advent of the Disney Dining Plan, reservations are a must for almost all table service dining. This meant that when we were hungry at dinner time with no reservation, our options were to take a cab somewhere, order room service, or eat at the most expensive restaurant in the hotel. We found that the moderately priced places were near impossible to get into, but if you were willing to pay $150+ for dinner, you could walk right in. The time we stayed on property, we made that choice more than once because we simply needed to eat.

This brings me to my next point:

The Rental Car
Disney would like you to believe that a rental car is completely unnecessary if you are staying on property. Disney operates Magical Express, a "free" (nothing is free) service that will ferry you to and from the airport, plus a fairly comprehensive "public" transit system. It is true that this transit system makes it fairly expedient to get to the parks, but unfortunately getting anywhere else can mean a very long bus ride. Disney's own literature advises a 1.5-2 hour lead time to make it to a dinner reservation if you are relying on their transport. (!)

Therefore, even if you are staying on property, I would strongly recommend a rental car. I struggled with this, thinking that it seemed an extra expense on top of higher-priced lodging. However, I've read estimates that state using the car to eat one meal per day outside of the world will save you the cost of the rental car. I was skeptical at first but I believe it now. Having a car also means:

*you can easily get to the grocery store, drug store, or, as we just did, emergency room.
*you can easily get to a restaurant, and if it has a prohibitively long wait, you can easily get to another
*you can grab a bag of sandwiches and put them in your bag to take into the parks
*you can run to a store to pick up something like a forgotten bathing suit without being held to Disney's inflated gift shop prices.
*you can get to and from the airport on YOUR time schedule, without making stops at other resorts
*driving to and from your hotel from the parks, you have your own space inside your own vehicle, which can be priceless when you have spent the whole day getting jostled and poked by crowds of people.

Within the parks and Disney hotels, a t-shirt costs $25+. A princess dress, $65 (not including shoes, tiara, etc). A keychain or mug, $10-20. At Walgreens, Target, or Walmart, however, you can get your fill of Mickey tshirts, mugs, pens, keychains, autograph books, hats, ears, toys, etc for a fraction of the price. I found Mickey tees 2 for $12. Hats for $10 and under, mugs for a few dollars, ears for 50% less than park prices. Whether you're bringing gifts back for your family or have a child who wants virtually everything they see, you can save a lot of money by having the freedom to purchase souvenirs outside of the world. In many cases, the items you find are the very same items as you find inside the park, down to the UPC code. In other cases, they're pretty close, or you might like them better. In any case, if there's a special unique item that's only available in the parks, you can save by purchasing the other gifts and sundries at the drugstore and saving your money for your one special item.

Next installment--what to take to the parks.

The Disney Report

This will be a series of posts sharing my experiences and advice in visiting the venerable theme park near Orlando.

Keep in mind I am a blue-hair havin', combat boot wearin', tattoo-havin' gal with an audio geek husband and a rockin 4 year old daughter. So our advice may not mirror the advice in the official guidebooks or even the unofficial guidebooks, this is more "how to enjoy Disney while not being a mainstream middle-of-the-bell-curve Disney family". And trust me, it can be done.

Three years ago we went for our first time, expecting to not personally enjoy it, but to enjoy it for our daughter's sake. We all had such a blast, that we came home and started planning (and saving) for the next trip. When we told people where we had been, we frequently heard "Aggguuuhhh I'm DREADING that trip but I'll have to do it someday" and "you guys REALLY don't seem like Disney people."

Disney has a lot more to enjoy than what is highlighted in the guidebooks, and I'm not the only one who thinks that. I saw plenty of left of center folks wandering around the parks and having a wonderful time.

It can, however, be hard to find accurate Disney advice that ISN'T controlled in some manner by the Disney Empire. When you hear about a hotel giving you the "magic" or not you might rightly suspect that that writer is somehow being influenced by the far-reaching tentacles of corporate.

If it's a book you're looking for, I highly, highly recommend The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, by Len Testa and Bob Sehlinger. These people are proudly NOT on the Disney dime and are committed to giving you fair, impartial advice. Their guidebook is like a dictionary in size and features extremely detailed information, down to (seriously) the fluffiness of the pillows at the resorts.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

If you wait long enough.....

This summer when my sewing machine was not being cooperative, I was kicking myself for not rescuing one of my grandma's machines before they got sold at the estate sale. In browsing online to look at vintage machines I became enamored of a lovely style of Singer from the 60s; classic styling, all metal construction and AQUA.

I saw one of these beauties at the sewing machine repair shop, but it was broken and the repair estimate was fairly high. I still loved that pretty robin's egg blue though.

Monday a coworker mentioned that there was a person on our employee exchange giving away an old sewing machine, and maybe I'd be interested. I thought maybe it would be a fun thing to fiddle with and see if I could get running.

The man told me his wife had sewn all their (grown) children's clothes on the machine, and it had been sitting idle since her passing a few years ago. He said no one was interested in sewing machines--he just wanted it to have a good home.

I, who was mourning the loss of Grandma's machines and that missed connection at the repair shop...I wanted to give it a home. Maggie and I stopped over after work this afternoon. He took me upstairs to show me the machine, and I squealed.

It was aqua.

I took it home amid profuse thanks (me, for the free sewing machine, him, for giving his wife's machine a good home) and couldn't wait to try it out. It was threaded and everything, just ready to go....and it sews like crazy.

And it's aqua :-)