Sunday 30 June 2013

Day Zero Project - Go fruit picking

I know I keep going on about it, but I'm really enjoying working my way through my Day Zero Project list. I'm 33% of the way through it now - yes I've ticked off some of the easier ones, but I'm also finding that it is keeping me really motivated to try out lots of new things both for myself and with the family.

We've been living just down the road from Roundstone Pick Your Own Farm for years now and shamefully we've never been. We always say that we will, then before we know it we've been busy or the weather has been bad, and then the seasons have changed and it has closed for the winter. So today, even though we'd had a busy few days, we made the most of some glorious sunshine and headed over for some strawberry picking.

Roundstone Pick Your Own, West Sussex

We've picked strawberries in our garden and on my Dad's allotment before, but this was the first time that we'd been to a large pick your own farm. It was a bit of a walk to the strawberry field but both little ones were enthralled by the fields of crops and didn't make any fuss about the walk. As soon as Mia caught on to what we were doing she was grabbing strawberries as fast as she could. Harry was a little more hesitant, checking with us first before he picked one.

Roundstone Pick Your Own, West Sussex

It was very busy today at the weekend on a lovely day. We walked out to the furthest point and then took the tractor back down to the shop, carrying our large punnet of delicious strawberries. Now I'm thinking that I could take the children on my own during the week and find some more things to pick, it's much more fun than picking a plastic tub off the shelves at the supermarket!

Thursday 27 June 2013

BritMums Live 2013

Last weekend, I stepped a little way out of my comfort zone and attended Britmums Live 2013. I loved reading all the posts about BritMums last year, and when the tickets went on sale I purchased one immediately because I didn't want to miss out again. It was so far in the future that I didn't really think about the fact that I didn't know anyone else that was going. Fortunately over the last year I've really made an effort to get to know some fellow bloggers, and this year there were plenty of people that I was really looking forward to meeting.

I was very excited, but as my train pulled into London I suddenly realised how nervous I was too, I really didn't know what to expect and I suddenly wanted to jump back on the train going back home. Fortunately I had arranged to meet the lovely Fairy and the Frog, and it was such a relief to have her recognise me as I was trying to check in early to the Travelodge (unsuccessfully - I didn't want to check in enough to pay an extra £10!) and to have a friendly face to make my way to and around the venue with.

It was all rather overwhelming when we arrived. The queue was long, there were lots of people, and because registration was by surname I ended up waiting on my own. No-one had name badges yet, so I was wondering who everyone was. Fortunately we were still some of the first in, and so the Hub, where we headed first, was still not too busy. Then it all began - chatting to the brands around the tables and bumping into familiar blogger after familiar blogger.

I am generally a shy person, but what I loved most about BritMums was how friendly everyone was. You could go up to someone that you recognised and chat to them, and lots of people approached me which was wonderful, apparently I look just like the avatar picture that I use. I felt quite comfortable going along to sessions on my own, and because other people were also on their own it was easy to find someone to chat to, or just sit and enjoy some time to myself.

I was absolutely delighted to bump into Swazi from Chocolate is not the only fruit. I had no idea that she would be there, and she was as lovely and friendly as she is online. I also put faces to lots of other names, sipping sparkling wine with Octonauts expert Kath from Knitty Mummy and Pinterest addict Kerry from Kez Online. After the drinks reception I sat down with some other epic bloggers to watch the Brilliance in Blogging awards ceremony. As you may know, I was thrilled to be shortlisted in the Crafts category, but I don't think that I could have handled my nerves if I had made it to the finalist stage! There were some very worthy winners, and plenty of genuine applause.

BritMums Live 2013

The next day I very much enjoyed the talk by neuro scientist Susan Greenfield entitled "Are we really addicted to the internet?". I've read a couple of her books, and found that she explains complex scientific ideas in a really simple and engaging way. Her talk was no exception, and it really gave me a lot to think about - there is another blog post brewing!

BritMums Live 2013

Another highlight was the Travel Blogging panel, and I came away with some useful tips and ideas on how improve the increasing number of travel posts that I write. I also had chance for a chat with one of the panellists, Trish from Mum's Gone To... on the first evening, which inspired me. I do love writing about travel and the places that we visit, and it's definitely something that I'd like to try more of, perhaps in a more entertaining or innovate way.

BritMums Live 2013

The brands that were present at Britmums also offered some unique opportunities. Okay, I only posed with Alex the lion for the chance of winning a family cruise, but I was delighted to have a Diet Coke bottle label printed for Ram to match mine, and I loved learning how to brandish a wand like Harry Potter!

BritMums Live 2013

I left the Brewery laden down with bags of freebies, exhausted and happy to be on the way home to my family. I had decided before I even left that I was definitely going to be coming again next year, and so my ticket is booked. Britmums 2014 here I come!

Tuesday 25 June 2013

The Paper Dolls, and a World Record contribution

I love the book The Paper Dolls, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. We reviewed the book last year, and we've read it so many times since. Now Macmillan are celebrating the launch of The Paper Dolls in paperback by making the world's longest ever chain of paper dolls, aiming for a chain 3km long!

We decided to take part, and so I thought that I would share the paper dolls that we made. We were able to download a template for some paper dolls to colour in, or else you could print a blank template to draw your own. We decided to use the pre-drawn template, and Harry, Mia and I sat down for a colouring session. Harry really concentrated on his dolls, and he was so proud of them when he had finished.

Child holding paper dolls

The world record attempt was a success, and the final chain was 4549.7 metres long.

Coloured in Paper Dolls

Sunday 23 June 2013

Our Disney Fantasy cruise in the Caribbean - practicalities with small children

This is the last of my posts about the recent Disney Fantasy cruise that we took as a family. Like most people that take a big holiday, we spent a lot of time researching it before booking and so I hope that these posts will be useful to anyone else that is considering a Disney cruise. This post has a few bits and pieces about the practicalities of cruising with young children and how the Disney Fantasy in particular catered for us as a young family.

Disney Fantasy cruise ship in the Caribbean

My parents joined us on our holiday and so we booked interconnecting staterooms (numbers 7604/7606). This was a Deluxe Family Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah. The children slept in a converted sofabed and bunk bed which pulled down from the ceiling, separated from our double bed by a thick curtain. Because the double bed and bathroom were nearest to the door we could enter and exit the room without disturbing them while they slept, with my parents in their room and the interconnecting door left open. My son (4) slept in the top bunk bed which we were happy about, there was a railing and it was a wide enough bed that he felt safe up there.

The toilet and shower/bathroom were in separate rooms which was very handy. We very much appreciated having a small, circular bath as the children don't enjoy showers. There was plenty of storage space in the room with lots of cupboards, a high bed and a small table with hinged lid for storage inside. To our surprise many of the sockets in the room were of the European two pin variety, fortunately not a problem for us as I’d accidently packed the wrong ones for our holiday.

The balcony was enclosed by plexiglass to a good height, but a small table and two chairs meant that it didn't feel very safe to me as I was worried they might try to climb onto them. However there was no way that they could have opened the door from the room to the balcony themselves and so as long as they were closely supervised it was fine.

Each stateroom is provided with two wave phones which you can use all over the ship for calling and texting each other which was really useful.

Children's Activities

The It’s a Small World Nursery provides childcare for children under 3. We spent a fair bit of time here as a family during their Open House sessions, where we were often the only family there. We thought that there was an excellent selection of toys and activities. We only left our daughter for two separate one hour sessions as she’s not used to being left in childcare, and we were very happy with the care that she received. You need to provide your own nappies and we also left her own drink so that she had her familiar cup. On her second session she didn’t settle as well (having worked out that she had been left!) and we were kept updated through our wave phones, ending up collecting her a little early. If your child doesn’t settle at all then you can receive a partial refund.

Disney’s Oceaneer Club provides childcare and activities for children aged 3-12. It's a very imaginative space, with a rotunda in the centre surrounded by themed rooms - our favourites were Andy’s Room and Monster’s Academy. In the centre is a small stage with regular visits from Disney characters. We enjoyed a number of Open house sessions when our nearly 2 year old could join in and play, then we left our 4 year old for some of the closed sessions. You can check your child in and out through the day, we left our son for short sessions and when he was ready to come out he told one of the members of staff and they texted us to come and collect him. It was very handy to just be able to drop him off for a short period of time if he was bored. The Oceaneer Club is connected to the Oceaneer Lab which has space for more crafty and guided activities.

Children in the play area aboard the Disney Fantasy

Mealtimes and food

All the eating areas have plenty of high chairs and booster seats. There are three main restaurants and you rotate between them through the week for your evening meals. Animator's Palate was the best restaurant for young children with plenty going on and interactive television screens. Enchanted Garden and the Royal Court were beautifully themed, but appreciated more by adults. The dining staff tried very hard to entertain our rather overtired children, making origami from menus and napkins, bringing them the food that they liked and even making a special effort to rush us through our dinner so that we could leave early. My children are fussy so I can’t really comment on the range of food available as they mainly ate pizza, chips, fruit and ice-cream, but there were different options on the children’s menus every night. Children get crayons and a menu with little activities.

Lunchtime buffet on the Disney Fantasy

Swimming pools

We didn't spend as long on the pool deck as I had imagined, as we found it very busy, and also very hot during the day. There is a large television screen showing continuous Disney movies, which makes the whole area very noisy and rather intense. Nemo's Reef wet play area is suitable for children in swim nappies, although our toddler didn't enjoy the unpredictability of the squirting jets of water. Our pre-schooler however loved it. It was kept very clean (it was emptied out and cleaned overnight) and never too busy. Mickey's Pool was lovely and warm, but crowded. We didn't really feel that the pools on the ship were large enough to handle the number of people wanting to use them.


There is plenty of entertainment on board for families with children of all ages. We watched a show every night, three of which (Aladdin, Believe and Wishes) were spectacular. The only slight problem is that if you are in the earlier dinner seating then your show doesn't start until 8.30pm, which was too late for our toddler. Because the show is always on at the same time as dinner, on a couple of occasions the only way for both adults to watch the show was for one to miss dinner and watch it then, then stay in the room with the toddler while the others watched the late showing. On a couple of days there was a matinee performance which made things work much better

Probably the highlight for us was the Pirate Party, where we all dressed up, enjoyed a pirate themed dinner, show and fireworks. There were also lots of activities during the day that families could take part in, and we enjoyed a children's disco of some sort most evenings. Another bonus was that the children's entertainment started quite early in the mornings - great for those with early risers!


We had a brilliant time as a family on this cruise. It might be a daunting thought to consider a cruise when you have young children, but I would thoroughly recommend it.

You can read more about our experiences on this cruise in my other two posts:

Our Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy with small children
Our Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy - Ports and Excursions

I am very happy to answer any questions that you might have about this cruise, and you can find my contact details on my About page.

No disclosure necessary, we paid for this cruise ourselves.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

A MAD day out at Legoland

Over the weekend I was lucky enough to enjoy a fabulous day out at Legoland, with some of the amazing bloggers that have made the finals in the MAD blog awards. Lucky, because I'm not actually a finalist myself, I won a family ticket for the day and overnight stay.

We stayed the night before in the Premier Inn Hounslow which was very nice and smart, very close to the airport which meant that we had some good views of planes taking off and landing, but with no actual airport noise in the room at all. We paid for our breakfast the next morning which was delicious, and because the children ate free didn't work out too expensive.

We arrived at the Legoland hotel at 8am and were greeted in the conference room by a table of friendly bloggers and a table of gorgeous iced biscuits. We were given a special lanyard and the most important thing - a wristband each which allowed us to enter any of the rides without queuing!

MAD Blog Awards day out at Legoland

I hadn't met many people going before in real life, so it was lovely to put some faces to names, although there wasn't much time for socialising as Ram and the children were desperate to be off! The wristband did cause Ram a few problems though, he has a Legoland touring plan which he always follows strictly when we visit, and the fact that we didn't need to rush about to beat the queues threw him completely!

Having this wristband made a huge difference to our day. Normally we only manage a half day or so, but because we didn't have to spend time waiting in queues we ended up staying until the park closed at 6pm. It also meant that we could go on some of the rides that we normally avoid because they are so busy, in particular Ram and I took it in turns to ride the Dragon rollercoaster which we really enjoyed!

We especially enjoyed the Fairy Tale Brook ride, which has been updated this year with new models and some new scenes and is looking very sparkly and clean. Duplo Valley is a new attraction since our last visit, and although we opted not to go into the waterpark we spent some time playing in the new Brickville playground. Another of our favourite rides is the Boating School.

We enjoyed a late lunch at City Walk Pizza and Pasta Buffet - late because children eat free after 3pm. The selection is reasonable and there is plenty of it, and because we timed our meal to co-incide with Mia's nap we could actually enjoy our food rather than trying to control a fed up and wriggly toddler!

MAD Blog Awards day out at Legoland

Harry had a bit of a slump at this point and looked as though he was about to fall asleep in his chair, so we perked him up with the promise of a go on the Fire Academy. This is one ride that I didn't mind missing while I waited with a still sleeping Mia, children love it but it's far too much like hard work for me!

MAD Blog Awards day out at Legoland

We had a brilliant day out and I'm so grateful to the Tots100 and the MAD Blog Awards for organising and to Legoland for hosting.

I won a family ticket to Legoland with VIP wristbands and a night's stay in the Premier Inn.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Enjoying our garden

Last year, I struggled a bit spending time in the garden. Mia had just started crawling, and she crawled into everything, stuffing her face with handfuls of whatever she found. I couldn't take my eyes off her for a second, and it was really difficult to concentrate properly on anything else.

It has been so different this year. We've enjoyed several runs of lovely sunny days, and we've really been making the most of our garden. For Mia's birthday we bought her a fantastic swing and slide set, and along with their summerhouse the children have plenty of garden toys to keep them busy.

We are also lucky enough to have a large raised bed at the back of our garage that we can use for growing vegetables. In the past we have started off enthusiastically, then failed miserably with finding the time to keep up with it - as this sad post from last summer will testify.

In the sunshine this year my vigour for growing things was renewed, and I decided to take part in the #kidsgrowwild challenge. We received a wonderful garden starter set which the children loved - little gardening gloves, miniature tools, a watering can and seeds, all neatly stowed inside a sturdy bag.

Children enjoying the garden

Harry was desperate to get started, so I sorted out a few areas of the garden for him to plant in. We planted some sunflower seeds in the vegetable patch, and scattered assorted flower seeds in the area near to his sandpit. We also bought some spinach and two varieties of carrot seeds, both vegetables that we've had a lot of success with in the past. Then Mia came along and helped with the watering.

Children enjoying the garden

I was also recently lucky enough to win some vouchers, and I used the last bits of money on an indoor herb garden. I'm hoping that this will be successful, as it's in a prominent place in the kitchen and so I should remember to water it. There's basil, coriander and oregano in there somewhere, fingers crossed I manage to grow enough to actually use it in the cooking! Harry helped me to set it up, he was fascinated with the little soil pellets that expanded when you added water and he has been running down excitedly every morning to see if anything has started growing yet.

Children enjoying the garden

I'm really hoping that we have some good weather this summer so that we can spend a lot of time outdoors. With Harry starting school I'm trying to make the most of every day, and both children love spending time outdoors. Harry and I even spent a night sleeping in the tent the other week which he enjoyed very much, so I'm sure that will be repeated, and there will be plenty of swinging and sliding going on. Here's to some sunshine!

This post is an entry for BritMums' #KidsGrowWild Challenge. We received a free gardening starter kit to take part.

Monday 17 June 2013

Our Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy - Ports and Excursions

This post follows on from my review of our cruise on the Disney Fantasy, and it's a more detailed look at the ports that we stopped in and what we did there. Our cruise was the 7 Night Western Caribbean Cruise Itinerary B, beginning in Cape Canaveral, Florida and stopping in Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands), Costa Maya (Mexico), Cozumel (Mexico), Castaway Cay (Disney's private island in the Bahamas) along with two sea days.

Grand Cayman was our first stop. We had to take a tender boat to the port, which ran smoothly. We were here for the beach, and so we went straight to the taxi rank to find a taxi. It was very easy to arrange, the taxis were in fact small shuttle buses carrying several parties at once. We paid $20 each way for the four of us and a ten minute or so drive took us to a lovely beach, part of the 7 mile beach which runs along the coast. The beach was absolutely beautiful, sheltered calm water for swimming, and white sand full of coral. We stayed for a couple of hours, which was plenty for us in the heat, and then easily caught a taxi back to the ship.

Grand Cayman beach in the Caribbean

My Mum and Dad took one of the Port Adventures organised by Disney, and my Mum has kindly written up an account of the trip for me.

Discover Native Cayman and the Saltwater Forest. This cost $62 per adult.

We met in a lounge on the cruise boat just after breakfast and were escorted efficiently to a minibus in a group of about 20 people. From there we were taken on a short drive around the main town. The bus driver/guide was very knowledgeable and gave us information about the island and pointed out items of interest (there were not a lot!). We were met at the boat by a young marine biologist who knew her stuff and was able to answer any questions we asked.

The boat was large with a flat deck near to the water line, with plenty of room to walk about and soft drinks were available. On the first part of the boat trip we mainly saw the huge geckos which were everywhere on the banks, then we went into the mangrove forests along the sides of the coast, where there were a few fish but mainly jelly fish, which she brought up in a bucket so we could touch them, the first time I have seen a jelly fish so close. We learnt a lot about mangrove trees but to be honest there was not a lot to see! The boat trip took about one hour.

Back at the minibus we went a bit further into the island but again there wasn't a lot to see apart from a magnificent road system, and it was bizarre to see the English road signs as it felt like being at home. The next stop was at a small settlement called 'Hell' at a shop selling tee-shirts with predictable slogans (I've been to Hell and back) but also had restrooms we could use.

 The last stop was on the beautiful 7 mile beach for about 30 minutes (it would have been useful to have worn swimsuits and taken towels). The whole trip took about 4 hours and no food was provided so it was a good idea to take cookies etc. from the boat.

Was it worth the cost? We had expected a bit more, but we saw all there was to see and we are not likely to go there again so we were glad to have taken the tour.

Our next port was Costa Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. We all booked a Port Adventure for this stop - The Chaccohoben Mayan ruins. It cost $75 per adult and $59 per child (under 3 were free).

This Port Adventure filled our entire time in port as we didn't stop here for very long, and we specifically chose a tour suitable for families. There was a bit of confusion at the port as a number of tours were all leaving at once and we lost sight of the person leading our group. We ended up in the right place though. It was about an hour's drive away on the bus, then the tour itself took about an hour and a half. It was quite a lot of walking for our 4 year old, and bumpy for the pushchair although we managed. The tour was very informative and engaging, and the ruins were fascinating. There were toilets and shops at the entrance/exit, and Ram bought a coconut drink - a coconut with a straw in it!

Here's what my Mum had to say about the tour:

We met in the theatre on the boat and were escorted along the dock, but there were so many people that it was a bit confusing and it took us a while to find our coach. There were about 50 of us in the group and the journey there, through very uninteresting countryside with nothing to see, took about one hour. At the site we were given a few minutes for a bathroom stop.

 The ruins were spectacular and the guide was very interesting and knowledgeable. It was very hot, about 98F (37C) so it was essential to take lots of water, and the total time at the site was about an hour and a half. We were ready for the air-conditioned coach and the one hour drive back. Worth the trip to see something unique.

Costa Maya Mayan temple tour with Disney Cruise

Next we stopped in Cozumel, which is a small island off the coast of Mexico. For us, this was another beach stop. This time we took a private taxi to the beach which cost us $12 each way and was easy to arrange once we'd found the taxi rank at the port. We specified that we wanted to visit a public beach, but we were actually dropped off at Paradise Beach which was a private beach resort. This was fine, we just walked through the resort, turned left and found a nice shady spot on the empty public beach right next door. We knew that we'd only be there for a couple of hours so it wasn't worth it to us to pay - from memory they wanted a couple of $ just to be there, plus extra to hire sun loungers, and then to spend a particular amount per person on food and drink to use the facilities (swimming pools, various slides and things anchored out to sea).

The beach itself was sandy, but in the water it was rocky and the sea was quite rough so it wasn't really suitable for swimming, certainly not for the little ones. They still enjoyed playing in the sand though.

Our final stop was Castaway Cay, Disney's own private island in the Bahamas. The Disney tour organisers certainly know how to end your cruise on a high, it was absolutely perfect. It's a short walk to the beach (a tram is available), and the beach is large, with plenty of sun loungers and umbrellas. We hired an inflatable ring, it disappeared while we were eating lunch but was easily replaced, and the sea was calm for swimming with plenty of lifeguards. There was a water play area for children with fountains and jets of water, and a waterslide for older children. Our children also enjoyed the whale dig - excavating a whale skeleton buried in the sand.

The food served at lunchtime was a barbecue, with a very limited vegetarian selection (although to be fair we were asked at dinner the night before if we would like to order special food, we declined, knowing that a day on the cruise with a little less food would do us no harm whatsoever!).

Castaway Cay beach Disney cruise stop

We spent almost all the time that we had available at Castaway Cay, and we could easily have spent another day here too. My parents enjoyed another Port Adventure, and here's what my Mum had to say about it:

Castaway Cay Walking and Kayak Nature Adventure. This cost $64 per adult.

Once off the boat we met at Martha's Barges which was easy to find, and were taken by our guide on the tram to Serenity Bay where we were given life vests and the opportunity to use water stations and the restrooms. There were about 20 people in the group. We walked through the island on a metalled road for about one mile but there was not a lot to see apart from some native vegetation. The guide was knowledgeable and was able to answer questions about the island and its history.

We were taken down a 'Private' access to a secluded beach where another guide was waiting with the kayaks. We were able to leave any bags safely on the beach. Bare feet or beach shoes are best as you will be wading in the water, and it is best to wear a swimsuit with cover-up and make sure to use plenty of sunscreen. We were given some basic instructions on how to paddle the kayaks, but they are suitable for beginners or experienced canoeists. We set off two to a kayak in convoy into the bay and paddled for about 30 minutes, quite hard on the shoulder muscles but we were never too far from the beach and the water was completely calm so not too difficult.

Back at the beach we had about 30 minutes to swim and sunbathe, then after the walk back we were in time for the lunchtime BBQ at Serenity Bay, and an afternoon on the beach. We didn't see much 'nature' as such, but the canoeing was great, and it was wonderful to be in such a secluded setting.

My parents also reported back that the adults only area of Castaway Cay was lovely!

We had a wonderful time on the cruise, enjoying a part of the world that none of us had visited before. You can read my general post about the cruise here, and I have also written a post about the practicalities of taking this cruise with small children.

No disclosure necessary, we paid for this holiday ourselves.

An afternoon a week

Last week, Mia started nursery. She had a brief stint at a different nursery about a year ago while I was still working, but since then she's been at home with me. Harry goes to nursery for three afternoons a week, and we thought it would be good to start her there before he goes to school to help her settle. 

Mia will be going for one afternoon a week to start with, and because it is a private nursery it's a long afternoon session. She is used to visiting when we drop Harry off, and she waits in her pushchair looking longingly at the children playing with all the toys. I don't think she could quite believe it when I got her out too and set her free!

She had a couple of settle sessions with me there, then it was time for me to leave her. She was a bit taken aback when she realised that I wasn't going to stay, but I was assured that she settled fine without me. She only made a fuss when she was asked to do something that she didn't want to, like sit down or go to a particular area. It's understandable really, she's still only little and it will take her a while to get used to the new routine.

So this leaves me now with a regular entire afternoon to myself, what a luxury!

Of course I'm never going to be short of anything to do in that time. But before we went away, I took the big step of registering myself as self-employed and thinking about how I can start to build up a bit of work from home, particularly in the area of freelance content writing. I know that I can't really start to look for work with long hours unless we can organise a bit more childcare, but I can make a start and see how I get on.

I'm also hoping to have a bit of time to concentrate on my own projects - I'm getting on really well with my Day Zero Project list. I'm already 30% completed and there are some things on there that I'm really looking forward to giving a go.

Finally, it's also nice to know that at least once a week I'll have a regular window of uninterrupted childfree time for things like important phone calls, and tasks that can't be done with little grabby hands about!

Thursday 13 June 2013

Our Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy with young children

As you might have gathered from some of my recent posts, we recently returned from a fantastic family holiday in Florida. The centrepiece of our holiday was a week long cruise on the amazing Disney Fantasy cruise ship. We took the 7 Night Western Caribbean Cruise on the Disney Fantasy, which stopped at Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands, Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico and Castaway Cay in the Bahamas - Disney's own private island.

This was our second experience of family cruising, having also taken a Mediterranean cruise on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas when Harry was 21 months old. On this Disney cruise, Harry was 4 and Mia nearly 2. We were also accompanied by my parents, and we had interconnecting rooms (staterooms 7604/7606).

Disney Fantasy cruise ship in the Caribbean

Well, we had a wonderful time. We are huge Disney fans in this house anyway, so we didn't mind that Mickey and his friends were impossible to escape from the moment that you arrive at the cruise terminal. The check in process was smooth, and we were welcomed onto the ship by our family name.

The Disney Fantasy ship is beautiful, and spotless. Having young children we didn't really have the opportunity to sit around much, but my parents assured us that the adults only area of the pool deck was a lovely place to relax. I found the main pool deck to be rather noisy and crowded during the day, as well as being very hot, and so we didn't spend as much time there as I had imagined. On Deck 4 there is a running track where you can walk all the way around the outside of the ship, and I often joined other parents there after lunch doing the 'naptime pushchair run'. It was also really pleasant to sit down there for a while once Mia was asleep because it was completely shaded.

Our stateroom was a generous size, with a curtain to separate the main double bed from the children's sleeping areas. Harry slept on the top bunk which he loved. The bathroom had a separate toilet and a small bath, which came in really handy after trips to the beach.

There was plenty of food on offer. For dinner you rotate between the three main dining rooms - Enchanted Garden, Animator's Palate and Royal Court), which always offered a reasonable vegetarian option. The Animator's Palate was the best restaurant for young children, as there is a dinner show on television screens around the restaurant which kept them well entertained. It was a bit noisy though if you were hoping to enjoy a quieter, more intimate meal!

There was a separate children's menu, which offered pizza and chips as well as healthier and more adult options. We had the early seating for dinner at 5.45pm, so Ram and I usually enjoyed a second dinner later on of pizza or a veggie burger on the pool deck, as well as unlimited cookies and ice-cream. We had our breakfast and lunch in Cabanas - the self serve buffet where there was always plenty to choose from. This was easier with the small children as it was more relaxed and there was lots there that they would eat.

There were plenty of opportunities for our children to meet the characters. There always seemed to be a character somewhere on the sihp, and you can check exact times and locations in your Personal Navigator (a daily schedule of events which will be placed in your stateroom each evening). The queues did build up, but if you were organised and arrived before the character actually appeared then the queue time was minimal. If you have a little girl or boy that loves the princesses there were several occasions where you could queue up once and meet a whole string of them one after the other. There was plenty of time to take your own photos, and I loved that all the characters really took the time to engage with the children.

Meeting Snow White on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship

There was a huge amount of entertainment on board for little ones. Every night there was a show, and although our wriggly, tired toddler didn't last through them, Harry was enraptured and is still singing some of the songs. Harry spent some time without us in the Oceaneer Club (for ages 3-12), but there were plenty of occasions where the childcare facilities had an open house, and we could bring Mia and all play there together.

There were also activities during the day which we could take part in as a family. We particularly enjoyed making our own magnetic door sign. I hadn't realised what a big thing the decoration of doors was - if you're planning a Disney cruise make sure that you prepare in advance! Harry and I also had fun creating and racing a car which we made from a carrot, a potato, some wheels and four cocktail sticks, we even managed to win the most 'Disney' car thanks to my carrot Mickey Mouse head on the front! Every evening there was some sort of children's disco or dance event. And this is just some of the entertainment which was suited to our young family, there was all sorts going on for older children and adults.

The entertainment highlight on the cruise was the Pirate Night. We all dressed up as pirates (bandanas were provided but lots of people went all out) and enjoyed a pirate themed dinner before a deck show featuring Captain Jack Sparrow, finishing with a brilliant firework display out at sea.

Meeting pirate Mickey Mouse on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship

The only struggle that we had was at mealtimes. Our waiters tried their very best, but unfortunately Mia just couldn't sit still for long enough, and because she was overtired at the end of a long day she had a tendency to scream. We arranged to order our food the night before so that we could be rushed through, but it was still a bit of a challenge and we spent several mealtimes outside walking her up and down the corridors. Fortunately this is something that should improve as she gets older, and if we manage to do this again hopefully it won't be an issue. Harry was absolutely fine, and even though he's pretty fussy the waiters got to know what he would eat and we topped him up with ice-cream.

Everything about the cruise was Disney, there was no escaping it. But we all loved it, and I would absolutely recommend this cruise for families of all ages.

I have also written another couple of posts about this cruise. First I have covered in more detail the ports that we visited and the excursions that we went on. I have also written a general post about the practicalities of taking this cruise with young children.

No disclosure necessary, we paid for this holiday ourselves.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Book review - Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

For Christmas this year I received This Is Not A Book (affiliate link) by Keri Smith, which I discovered when I was putting together my Day Zero Project list. I wrote about it on the blog here, and I've been enjoying working my way through it. When I saw an opportunity to review another book in the series by Keri Smith - Wreck This Journal (affiliate link) - I had to apply.

Wreck This Journal is a paperback book containing a series of creative prompts which invite you to destroy, or at the very least inflict significant damage upon, both individual pages and the book as a whole. It's a difficult process for someone like me that loves books and enjoys looking at a shelf of pristine volumes. But once you've got yourself started, it's fantastic to engage with the creative process and also have a lot of fun! This is the book in its pristine state:

Book review - Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

And this is it a couple of weeks later, with plenty of the book left to complete!

Book review - Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

So far I have:

Poked holes in a page with a pencil, torn out a page and crumpled it up, used a page as a cup to drink from, stuck in labels from fruit, dripped in paint and closed it to create a print, glued in newspaper, stuck in postage stamps, broken the spine, glued in random items I found round the house, rubbed it against our dirty car, decorated a page with tape and come up with a list of even more ways to wreck it!

Book review - Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Book review - Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Book review - Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Probably the biggest challenge for me was taking the book with me into the shower. I didn't cheat and it got nice and wet, fortunately it has dried out a bit and it's not yet completely ruined!

It all sounds a bit silly, and perhaps it is, but I've certainly had a lot of fun with Wreck This Journal. The simple prompts don't take long to carry out, and they can be interpreted as literally or as creatively as you wish. I'm intending to complete as much of it as I can, so look out for a future post featuring a photograph of an even more wrecked book! I'm also intending to have a look out for some of other books by Keri Smith.

Book review - Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

I received this copy of Wreck This Book to review, but it's been on my wish list for a while! 

Tuesday 11 June 2013

The Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Another Florida attraction that we visited on our recent holiday was the Kennedy Space Center. It's about an hour's drive from Orlando on the part of the coastline known as the Space Coast.

We arrived as it opened, and started our day exploring the Rocket Garden, an outdoor display of rockets and spacecraft. You can climb inside some of the some of the cramped capsules and see how little space the astronauts really had inside these rockets.

Family visit to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Then we caught a bus for a tour of the Kennedy Space Center complex. Buses leave every 15 minutes, and it's worth doing the tour early on before it gets too busy. Be aware that this tour will take you a couple of hours, make sure that you have everything you need with you before you get on the bus.

Bus tour at the Kennedy Space Center

First the bus takes you to the LC-39 Observation Gantry where you can view the space shuttle launch pads. On the way you pass the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building, Launch Control Center and the Crawler Transporter which transports spacecraft from the assembly building to the Launchpad. You can stop here for as long as you like to look around before you board another bus to the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

Before entering the Apollo/Saturn V Center you first view a couple of presentations. One of these is the excellent simulated launch of Apollo 8, with some of the original equipment and audio from the launch control room. The countdown starts at T-3 minutes and the different areas of the room light up as each area joins in, then as the spaceship launches the room vibrates and the glass windows at the back of the room rattle.

In the spacious main building of the Apollo/Saturn V Center there are a number of large exhibits, including some unused Apollo modules and other exhibits related to the Apollo Program. The centrepiece is a majestic restored Saturn V launch vehicle. You can also touch a piece of moon rock and view a selection of space suits. We spent quite some time here looking around and stopped for a snack in the cafĂ©.

Kennedy Space Center, Florida

When we returned to the Visitor Complex it was the hottest part of the day and we were all flagging a little. We decided that it would be a good time to view one of the IMAX films, and we chose the Space Station 3D film. It was a fascinating look inside the space station and the daily lives of the astronauts that lived there in the early days. It was very interesting, although Harry was starting to get a little twitchy by the end (we left Mia outside with Grandma, napping in the pushchair!).

We also had a look around a couple of the exhibitions - Exploration Space with plenty of interactive elements and Early Space Exploration with artifacts from the first manned spaceflights.

All of this took us a lot longer than we expected, and almost before we knew it we found that it was the end of the day. There were some areas that we didn't have time to see, including the US Astronaut Hall of Fame which is located a few miles down the road and included with general admission. I think that in order to see everything in a day you really need to make sure that you make a plan and keep to it.

If you are visiting with young children, be aware that it can be a long, hot day and that your children will need to have the patience to sit still through the bus tour and several theatrical presentations. I'd probably recommend skipping the IMAX film with young children too as it takes up quite a large part of the day and in my experience they just can't keep still for that long! It is a great place to take young children and it has certainly fostered my son's interest in all things space.

Disclaimer - We received two adult press tickets in return for a review of the Kennedy Space Center, we purchased tickets for the rest of our party.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Open Farm Sunday 2013 at Blackstock Farm

This Sunday, 9th June 2013, was Open Farm Day. Hundreds of farms across the country opened their gates. Open Farm Sunday is educational, an opportunity to show support for British farmers, and also a chance to enjoy a family day out, often for free or to somewhere that you wouldn't normally have the opportunity to visit.

Last year we visited Blackstock Farm near Hellingly, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to visit again this year. We knew from last year that it would get very busy, and so we made sure that we were among the first there when it opened.

Open Farm Sunday at Blackstock Farm, Hellingly

Like last year the children first made a beeline for the outdoor adventure playground, although this time there were two pairs of legs running down the slope! There is plenty of equipment to play on, there were also two big bouncy castles and two trampolines.

Open Farm Sunday at Blackstock Farm, Hellingly

I loved this slide made from an old trailer. It was a pretty cold day so we did retreat to the indoor soft play area for a while and enjoyed a warming hot chocolate.

Open Farm Sunday at Blackstock Farm, Hellingly

Of course the farm visit wasn't all about playing, there was plenty to learn as well. We took a short tractor ride around the farm and saw some of the horses, donkeys and alpacas. Then we went for a walk to see the chickens, goats, pigs and finished with a lovely nature walk through a little wooded area.

Open Farm Sunday is organised by LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and has been running since 2006. If you want to keep up to date with the latest news, then you can follow @openfarmsunday on Twitter.

Here are links to some other fab bloggers that also enjoyed a day out thanks to Open Farm Sunday:

Did you visit a farm today? If you did I'd love to hear about it, and if you blogged about it please do leave a link in the comments!

Saturday 8 June 2013

My pink ombre layered Birthday cake and recipe

Mia turned two recently, and we hosted a bit of a family do. For her Birthday cake I thought I would attempt a cake which is a sort of mash up of two popular "Pinterest" cakes which I've already tried - the Kit Kat and Smartie cake and the Rainbow Cake. These coloured layer cakes look really impressive, and they are not really any more difficult than making a normal sponge cake.

How to make a pink ombre birthday cake

I used my tried and tested Victoria sandwich cake recipe, passed down from my Mum which is why it is in imperial measurements. I used double quantities.

Victoria Sandwich cake (double quantities - this will make four layers)

12 oz margarine
12 oz caster sugar
6 eggs
12 oz self-raising flour
Gel food colouring (I used two small tubes, with hindsight I could have done with some more)

Cream the margarine and sugar together, beat in the eggs one at a time then fold in the flour. Divide the mixture into four bowls and add food colouring to each mixture. Add a very small amount for the first layer, then increase each time until you have four bowls of batter in distinct shades. Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes at 180C.

It really helps if you can have a separate baking tin for each layer so that you can cook them all at once, I picked up a couple of sandwich cake tins in Asda for 89p each.

How to make a pink ombre birthday cake

Remove the cakes from the tins and leave to cool. Then stack them up in order with a very small amount of icing in between the layers to stick them together.

To decorate the cake I used butter icing. I slightly increased the amounts from the recipe on the back of the packet and used 100g butter and 235g icing sugar creamed together, a splash of milk to thin it out and a little bit of red food colouring (a little goes a long way here!). This made the perfect amount to cover the top, insides and sides.

You don't need to worry too much about how the icing looks down the sides as it will be covered up. Two boxes of chocolate fingers was just about enough to go around the edges, and I finished with some pink glittery decorations and some Smarties.

Make sure to cut the cake with a nice sharp knife, and wait for the gasps of amazement as the inside is revealed!

How to make a pink ombre birthday cake

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Starting school wobbles

Harry starts school in September. We were very lucky that the local village school is both excellent and under-subscribed, so we didn't have any worries about him getting a place. He is so excited about starting school, and he loves learning, so I know that he will really benefit from it.

The other evening I finally sat down and filled out all the forms. I think that I'm a little bit in denial, I'm trying not to think too much about it. It's hard to imagine that the routines that we've been enjoying for the last four and a bit years are about to come to an end.

It's not as though we've ever enjoyed lie-ins with Harry, but there has never been any reason to get us all up and dressed particularly early. Even the toddler groups that we go to don't tend to start before about 10am. I have to get him to pre-school three afternoons a week, but because it's part of a private nursery it doesn't matter if we're a bit late. My husband and I like to take it in turns to go to the gym first thing, but I'm not sure that we'll have enough time for that anymore.

We're used to going away to visit family for long weekends and taking our holidays during term-time - that's all going to have to change. There's also the school run - it's quite a walk up and down a hill but I don't fancy taking the car and fighting for a parking space, so we're going to have to manage it.

It feels like I have so much that I need to do - buy his school uniform, a PE bag, a lunchbox (and find something to put in it that he will eat) as well as preparing him for school. I'm also fretting about whether he should know more of his letters and numbers by now and perhaps even be starting to read and write a little bit more than he can.

Do you have a little one starting school in September? How are you feeling about it?