Quick and Dirty on Disney with Teenage Boys

If you are someone who loves Disney and visits frequently, this article is probably not for you. (In fact, you may find it blasphemous.) If you are someone with teenage boys who like to ride big roller coasters and haven’t been to Disney in recent memory, and you are trying to decide whether it is worth the cost, and how you might save some money along the way, read on.

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Closing down Carowinds with a final snack, 2009

My boys have been raised on Carowinds, Kings Dominion, and Busch Gardens. We visit one theme park each summer, always on a weekday when short lines give us the biggest bang for our buck. Jack and Henry grew up becoming more and more daring each year, and have ridden all of The Big Ones for the last few years. In discussing future vacation plans with them, Disney often showed up in the mix. Early last December, I found RT nonstop Hacker Fares to Orlando on Kayak for about $275 each, and scheduled the trip during our 4-day weekend in January. The trip was on!

If you like to book your own travel and save money as I do, a Google search about Disney can be daunting. After doing a lot of reading and consulting with friends and experts, our trip began to take shape. My decisions were guided by the following principles:

  • Spend money on options that would give us the most flexibility and convenience.
  • Find sleeping accommodations that would give us a little bit of breathing room.
  • Being in the Disney Bubble was not a necessity.

The first big decision was whether or not to stay “On Resort.” Being guided by the first principle (flexibility and convenience), I decided we were either going to stay at one of the hotels on the Disney monorail line (and thus super-easy access to Magic Kingdom and Epcot) or we were going to stay off of the Resort and rent a car. Properties that are on the Disney campus but aren’t served by monorail are served by the Disney buses, and most experts agree the buses generally take more time than using your own car. A price check on hotel rooms, keeping in mind my second guiding principle (think big!), made my decision very easy. For our dates, one room for one night in a Hotel served by the Monorail was more than 2 rooms for 3 nights at a nearby off-resort property that included breakfast and WiFi. Comfort Inn, here we come!

Second decision was on the type and number of days of tickets we would purchase. Our flight arrived in Orlando on Saturday at 3pm and left on Tuesday at 4pm, giving us a maximum of 4 days we would need tickets. Because there aren’t as many big roller coasters at Disney as there are at some of the other theme parks we have visited, I decided on splurging for the Park-Hopper pass because:

  • It would allow us to hit the big rides in one park, and then move on to another park in the same day.
  • I anticipated revisiting Magic Kingdom over our 4-day stint, which would mean we would completely miss a park if we didn’t do Park-Hopper, and
  • I wasn’t sure how much time we would spend in Animal Kingdom and didn’t want to “waste” a day of tickets on just a few hours.

I ordered a 4-day Park-Hopper pass for each of us through Undercover Tourist. I saved a little bit of money versus the gate price, but more importantly, I was able to book our FastPass+ online weeks in advance, giving us the convenience the boys* being able to ride at least three big rides a day without waiting in line. (Regardless of your budget, make sure you purchase tickets ahead of time and book your FastPass+ before your visit!)

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Jeff, Jack, and Henry after the Rock ‘n Roller Coaster

The rest of the decisions fell into place after I decided on lodging, transportation and tickets. The trip was a success, and I came away with the following thoughts:

  • I was very glad we stayed off-Resort and had a car. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which my boys would surgically seek out the thrill rides at each park, ignoring all other things Disney, and then be ready to move on. One night we went to Epcot, and they literally rode 2 rides and were ready to leave. Not interested AT ALL in World Showcase. Their favorites from all of the parks? Tower of Terror and Expedition Everest.
  • My guys have aged back into wanting a nap or chill time in the afternoon (YES!), so we would go back to the hotel after our morning park visit. The extra room at the hotel kept us sane, and the option of eating lunch and/or dinner outside of Disney saved money.
  • I think if we had gone in the summer we could have done without the Park-Hopper option. We would have spent the extra time at the pool and just covered Magic Kingdom in one day.
  • On our third night, we ate dinner at a Brazilian Steakhouse near our hotel and went to The Escape Game. They were pretty much done with Disney by then, and this turned out to be one of the best nights of the trip.

So, now my boys have fun memories of Disney and a “Been There, Done That” attitude. We had a good time and are glad we went, but also glad we can check it off the list!

*Jeff will ride The Big Ones, but not me, not anymore. I did, however, become familiar with the Chicken Exits at many rides, which allowed me the pleasure of standing in line without the torture of riding the ride. I’m sure some of you can relate.

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The Chicken Exit at the Tower of Terror was an elevator, so I did actually get a ride on that one!

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Inside Scoop: Oriental Rug Auction

This Sunday, November 22, at 1:30 pm Pars Oriental Rugs of Durham will hold their final auction to liquidate inventory. The owner, Mr. Piroozbakht, is retiring and has already sold his building. All that remains between him and sailing off into the sunset is his inventory of hand-knotted oriental rugs.

If you are in the market for floor coverings, I think this is worth your time! My sister attended an auction at Pars recently and said there were only 8-10 people there and very few competitive bids. A google search turned up no advertisements for this third and final auction other than this listing from the auction company. You could be one of a handful of people finding GREAT deals on quality rugs.

Not sure if oriental rugs are your style? Check out this slideshow for inspiration that tends toward the more traditional and formal, and this article for a more modern or contemporary flair. How about English Country Farmhouse? Sure.

Happy bidding!

 

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Teaching Kids About Money

As a self-proclaimed Thrifty Mom, I like to think I started teaching my kids about money early.  Admittedly, some of my efforts have been more successful than others. (Mental note: Revealing to a 4- and 7-yr old that their main Christmas present is a trip in July is not a great idea.  Delayed gratification is a tough lesson on Christmas morning.) My boys referring to Cheerios as Toasted Oats, and Apple Jacks as Apple Dapples was a source of hilarity to my extended family, but I stand by the lesson of value in generic cereals. Likewise, the story of one of my sons asking his aunt and uncle for a particular Christmas present because, “my Mom is too cheap,” has earned a place in the annals of family lore, and yet I’m glad they know our resources are not unlimited.

Here are some of my more successful tips for teaching kids about money:

1. Take them grocery shopping.  Teach them about price labels and units such as price per ounce. Give them a budget and ask them to plan a meal.

2. Teach them to comparison shop for their own gadgets and toys. While my younger son (11 yo) is a habitual saver, money burns a hole in my older son’s (14 yo) pocket. As such, I feel like it is a victory that he will now leave Best Buy without a new pair of ear buds so that he can go home and comparison shop online before buying.

3. Take them to the public library. Our public libraries are an amazing resource for books, classes, internet access, music, and technology. For young people from all backgrounds, it is important that they understand what can be accessed FOR FREE at a public library. (And, I do admit to bribing my children this summer with $$ for every book they read.  We pick out a bunch of books at the library, keep them on a shelf near the door, and spend time reading every day.)

4. Let them see you supporting charities. Yesterday in church, as the empty collection basket passed by us, I whispered to my son, “Did you know our money goes directly from our bank account to church?” He had a look of shock on his face, and I was surprised he didn’t know we gave money to our church. It was a good reminder to me to talk about money and values.  Here’s a great article about adult spending that could lead to interesting conversations with your kids.

My hope is that my children will grow into adults who understand the value of a dollar, how to make the most of their money when times are lean, and how giving money and helping others is perhaps the easiest way to feel rich.

What do you do to teach your children about money? What do you want them to learn?

(For more great tips on age-appropriate lessons for children, check this out.)

Thrifty Mom’s Quick Guide to the Calm Before the Storm

Hey there Triangle Moms.  Are you pulling your hair out with the snow days?  Here are some quick suggestions to consider:

Today (Wednesday) is the best weather day for the foreseeable future.  GET OUT OF THE HOUSE WHILE YOU CAN!  

  • If your kids are old enough to be at home alone for a while, go do something for yourself and your sanity.  A pedicure (ask for Helen) or a quick cup of coffee with a friend may give you just the pick-up you need.
  • If your kids still need supervision, call a friend with kids the same age and try to arrange a play date or a childcare swap.  If you have local family, ASK FOR HELP! Desperate times call for desperate measures.
  • No chance of getting some breathing room from your kiddos?  Then take a trip to the library, to an indoor playground or skating rink, or bowling.  Take the kids to eat for free at Firehouse Subs or Torero’s.

Also, use a little time today to plan for the snow-in over the next few days.

  • Head to a craft supply store, and don’t forget your coupon.
  • Make sure you have sweetened condensed milk and vanilla extract on hand for Snow Cream, and place a clean mixing bowl in your freezer until you are ready to put the bowl outside for collection.
  • Are you a DIY’er?  How about buying a gallon or two of paint so you can get a project done while you are snowed in, and don’t forget your coupon.

Final suggestion?  If you and your family have a little $$ in the bank and can leave town on the spur of the moment, pack up and drive out ahead of the storm.  Disney will be in the upper 60s this week and should be relatively deserted.  🙂

Good luck!

Buying a sofa in the Furniture Capital of the World

As part of my December living room makeover, I spent a good bit of time shopping for a new sofa. Sofas range in price from less than $500 to over $5000 (and some sectionals can be upwards of $10,000!). After doing some research, I set my budget for a high-quality sofa at $1500, and scheduled a trip to Hickory Furniture Mart, about 2 hours west of the triangle, with my sis.

Before the trip, I scouted the furniture in the triangle area.  First stop: Whitley Furniture Galleries in Zebulon.  There I learned that a great name brand for my price point is Rowe, and the sister brand Robin Bruce.  The customer service was very good, and they are willing to price match any competitor.  They do not have many floor samples for sale or even on display, so it would have been a special order situation (and not ideal for me, since I was hoping to have a new couch by the time we hosted the Koonce Family on Christmas Eve).  My next stop was Heavner Furniture Market.  They have an enormous selection of market samples ready for immediate purchase, and there were two or three sofas that caught my interest, including a Rowe “Berkeley” sofa for $1095 (below). Heavner is able to special order Rowe and Robin Bruce furniture and has a design center with all of the fabric samples.  I learned later that they do not price match (and their prices aren’t quite as good as those I found elsewhere), but they do have good customer service and the location is convenient for Triangle-based shoppers.

Rowe "Berkeley" at Heavner Furniture Market

Rowe “Berkeley” at Heavner Furniture Market

After doing my local research, my sis and I headed out for our shopping extravaganza – an overnight trip to Ikea and Hickory Furniture Mart.  A quick note about the Mart: among the 4 levels of shopping there are both Showrooms and Outlets.  The Outlets sell their overstocks and market samples at a big (often 50% or more) discount from their usual prices; what you see is what you get, and you buy it on the spot.  The Showrooms sell custom-order furniture at a 40%(ish) discount off of “retail price.”  For the Rowe showroom, I found that their prices on custom order furniture were about 5% less than Heavner Furniture Mart…not much savings considering the 2 hour trip.

We started bright and early on Monday morning at the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Furniture Outlet.  (Take note: the Mart is closed on Sundays.)  I love their mojo – the furniture runs from contemporary to mid-century modern – and it is a true outlet, with outlet prices.  Fans of The Good Wife might be interested to know that MG+BW is responsible for much of the furniture on set.  We scoured their large showroom, which houses everything from sectionals to beds to credenzas, and ultimately found The One (found here as a sleeper sofa).  Initially, I didn’t think I wanted a slipcovered sofa because they typically have a casual feel and I was looking for something more formal.  But, this sofa has very straight lines and it was the perfect color (charcoal) and fabric (tweed-ish).  And the price? $989.  After checking it out for napping comfort, I made the purchase.  With my Shop and Stay Discount Card, I got an extra 10% off, bringing the entire purchase to $961, more than $500 under budget.  Shipping was going to be $150, but my mom and step-dad graciously agreed to pick it up on their way from Asheville to the Triangle on December 23.  Perfect timing!

The  big purchase in my living room.

The big purchase in my living room.

One last piece of advice: At any price point, it is a good idea to comparison shop for special order furniture.  Find the make, model and fabric you want, either online or at a showroom, and then make some phone calls.  With each contact, ask for any special offers, and get a price quote that includes tax and shipping.  In addition to Hickory Furniture Mart, I would call:

  • Whitley Furniture Galleries: located in Zebulon, this is a good choice for Raleigh-based shoppers.  They price match, and depending on delivery costs, it may be cheaper to rent a uhaul by the hour and pick it up yourself.  They are a family-owned store.
  • Furnitureland South: located in High Point, this is a good option for Chapel Hill and Durham-based shoppers.  They also price match and actually had the lowest price on Rowe furniture when I inquired.  They have an enormous showroom, and my buddy, Jill, swears by their Outlet Center, located on-site.

Food Truck Rodeo!

I’ve been working with lots of relocating families recently, and I love orienting them to our local culture.  From sweet tea, pimento cheese, and BBQ to mid-century modern deck houses in Coker Hills, historic homes on Franklin St, and Northgate Park bungalows.  I even explained the term “rode hard and put up wet” (which apparently is not part of the mid-west lexicon) to describe a house that had not been maintained to two different people on the same day.

Being a South Carolina girl, I have a pretty good handle on all things Southern, but I did not realize that the Food Truck Rodeo is a local phenomenon as well.  If you Google “food trucks” or “food truck rodeo” the results are overwhelmingly Triangle-based.

The Durham Central Park Rodeo helped launch the food truck craze; these folks are so devoted, they’ve been known to have a rodeo in January.  Apparently the Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeos are loved by local restaurants because they bring more crowds than the trucks can handle and the overflow heads to the establishments.  Chapel Hill was a little late to the party, but thanks to Public Outcry, they are now on board for Food Truck Rodeos, too.

What’s better than a Food Truck Rodeo?  A Food Truck Rodeo to support TABLE.  The Rodeo will take place at Orange United Methodist Church on Saturday, May 3 from 3-7 pm.  It will be a great afternoon…kids’ activities (Bounce House!), TABLE snack demos, and live bands.  Bring a blanket or lawn chair and stay a while.Image

Real Estate Websites for the Stalker in You

When I tell people (especially women) that I am a Realtor, about 30% of them get a gleam in their eyes and say, “I love looking at houses.”  They confess to watching the listings online and going to Open Houses with no intention of buying.  Yesterday a friend told me she and her husband go to mobile home showrooms just to browse!  WOW!  If you are one of those people, I might not tell you anything you don’t already know about real estate websites, but maybe we can at least normalize your obsession.  Believe me, you are not alone.  If you are a relative newbie in the Real Estate Stalking community, let me tell you about some popular sites:

Let’s start with the granddaddy of them all, www.realtor.com.  You can search by zip code and housing features, and sort by new listings.  The website pulls data directly from the MLS, so it has status updates in real time, i.e. when a house goes under contract, the Status changes to Contingent as soon as the Realtor puts it into the MLS.  Realtor.com also has a sister website, www.houselogic.com, aimed more towards homeowners with lots of DIY stuff, tax tips, and suggestions for green living.  Look for houselogic to be combined with realtor.com in the next few months.  Disclaimer: this website is promoting home ownership on behalf of Realtors, so if you are looking for balanced advice on whether you should buy or rent, you won’t find it here.

Another listings website, which popularized the Realtor-hated Zestimate, is Zillow.  A few notes about Zillow:

The accuracy of Zestimates vary widely, and even the highly rated data is suspect.  The Orange and Durham county data is similar to the data described in this youtube video; even though it was rated 4 stars, the appraiser explains why this still isn’t a good estimate.  (Note:  If you are thinking of selling your home, go onto Zillow, search for your address, and Correct Home Facts if the number of bedrooms/baths/square footage is under-reported.  This will improve your Zestimate.)
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A limitation of Zillow is that data is not updated regularly in the same way realtor.com is.  For example, this home, which went under contract on 11/7/13 and closed on 12/6/13 for $484,500, is still listed as For Sale.

Zillow sells advertising space to Realtors.  When you pull up a property, you will see 3-4 agents with contact info on the right side of the screen.  It will say Listing Agent or Premier Agent.  Be aware that if you call the Listing Agent about the property, (s)he is representing the Seller’s interests, so don’t share any confidential or financial information about yourself.  If you call a Premier Agent, you are just responding to their paid advertisement.  This is neither good nor bad; just be aware that the data isn’t generated solely on endorsements.

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Every real estate firm has their own website that pulls listings from the MLS, and each is a little different.  Of course, I am partial to My FM Realty.  You have an immediate search engine at your fingertips, and when you register with a little bit of personal information, you can save searches and receive email alerts and/or texts when anything changes (new listings, price drops, etc) in your search.  You can register with me as your agent, and when you identify yourself as a real estate stalker, I promise to leave you alone.  🙂  Or let me know what kind of house you are looking for, and I’ll be on the hunt, too.  I also love the mobile version of this site, and no special app is needed.  If you are out looking at houses, and you want to pull up a listing, just go to www.myfmrealty.com.  If you allow the website to know where you are, it will generate all listings within 0.25 miles – a very easy way to find out details of the house you are sitting in front of without getting anyone on the phone, key for stalkers of any sort.

For the person who loves ALL things home-related, check out Hooked on Houses.  It is like the People magazine of home websites.  You get Celeb Houses, TV/Movie Houses, hilarious Bad MLS photos, and the crack cocaine of home improvement obsessionistas, a Before and After gallery.  For a quick orientation to the site, check out the Top 20.

In the “Your Tax Dollars at Work” category of websites, let me introduce you to GIS.  Every county has a GIS website that connects a smart map to information on each plot of land.  You can look up the owners, when they purchased the home, how much they paid for it (i.e. “stamp value”), and what the tax value is.  This level of information is helpful when you find a home you want to purchase, or if you are just more curious or have more time on your hands than the average Joe.  You can also use this website if you forget the names of your neighbors you just met at the community pool.

Good luck stalking!  Let me know if I can help!