Monday, March 31, 2014

Ellie's Birthday Weekend

I am now officially the mother of a two-year-old. Do you believe that? I cannot believe that it has been two whole years since Ellie was born. Wow.

We had her big birthday party a couple of weeks ago while we were down in St. Pete for spring break (stay tuned for more on that this week!), so we didn't have much planned for Ellie's actual birthday. We considered taking her back to Disney or something, but opted to go more low-key, which ended up being a good plan as the weather on her actual birthday was nasty (chilly and downpours). I think we ended making great decisions, and wound up having a fabulous weekend! I think Ellie really enjoyed herself.

I'm not sure if it counts as part of the festivities, but the fun started on Friday morning with our usual trip to storytime at Barnes & Noble, followed by one of Ellie's trademark dance parties. There are speakers in the landscaping in front of the store and that kid loves to bust a move in front of them.

VIDEO: Ellie dancing after storytime

That afternoon, we took her for her two-year well visit with her pediatrician. This kid was a champ! She was so good through the whole visit that the doctor wanted to keep her around to show the other kids how it's done. They even did a finger prick and she handled it better than I do! She is the coolest. And, her great composure was rewarded with her very first lollipop at the end of the visit. She chose a root beer-flavored one, which shows just how smart she is because that is totally the best flavor.

Left: Modeling that paper gown like it's her job. Right: Enjoying her lollipop!

For the record: Two-year-old Ellie is 35.25" tall (83rd percentile) and weighs 29 lb 2 oz (86th percentile). She's also generally adorable.

Saturday was Ellie's actual birthday. When she woke up, Eric and I entered her room singing "Happy Birthday," and we dumped a bunch of balloons in her crib. She was a little overwhelmed at first, but ultimately decided these balloons were a-okay.

VIDEO: Balloons for Ellie!

Happy birthday, Ellie!


After breakfast, we got dressed and took the official Two Year Photo.

I posted the OFFICIAL photo on my last post with our letters to Ellie, but this one was a close runner-up!

Then we ventured out in the nasty weather to Toys 'R Us, where we let Ellie run around and play with whatever she liked. We let her pick out a toy, and she ended up coming home with a Disney Princess coloring and sticker book.

"Raining!" says Captain Obvious Ellie.

Left:  I mean, I know I told her she could pick out a present, but I'm not sure we're quite there yet.
Right: She loved this "train 'brella!"; feeling so pretty in a "pindess hat"

Coloring in her new coloring book

We went home and got Ellie down for a nap. When she woke up, the skies had cleared, leaving some sunshine and puddles on our porch - perfect for an afternoon splash session.


Then, it was time for dinner. We ate pizza (one of Ellie's favorite meals - she ate three entire pieces!) while watching the Gators advance to the Final Four (Go Gators!). Then, it was time for cake. Ellie was thrilled with the whole cake part of the program! She loved the singing, the blowing out of candles, and, to our surprise, the actual eating of cake. She was just delighted with the whole thing!

VIDEO: Happy birthday, dear Ellie!
(If you're wondering what she says at the end, she says, "Happy birthday, Snowman! Happy birthday, Crab!" because as I have mentioned, she is in a constant state of pretend play these days. In that 10 seconds, she is pretending to be both Olaf from Frozen and Sebastian from The Little Mermaid.)

That is one happy birthday girl!

Top: Blowing out her candles! Bottom: Thoroughly enjoying her chocolate!

After some crazy cake-induced running around and a very brief FaceTime chat with Heather, it was off to bed for the birthday girl!

On Sunday, the weather was much-improved so we decided to take Ellie to the zoo. As it has been well-documented recently, Ellie is big on animals these days so we knew she would have a great time. Sure enough, she had so much fun that we made two loops around the zoo so she could see some of her favorite animals twice. We also made sure to check out the brand new Tiger Exhibit, which was very nice. They had a live band there which Ellie listened/danced to for quite some time. Other highlights: brushing the goats (she asked to "play [with] goats" for quite some time before we actually made it there), and the carousel ride (again, she asked to "ride horse" a million times before we actually got it done. The girl knows what she wants!).

So festive in her birthday t-shirt with the elephant on it!

I'm pretty bird-dumb, and I don't remember what these guys are, but there were tons of nests of them in this one single tree near the rhino exhibit. Just tons and tons of nests (see top picture to get an idea). It was pretty neat!

Sleepy lions

Various animals: rhinos, elephants, giraffes, zebras, jaguar and ostrich

Finally brushing the goats!

Hi, goat!

All of the tigers we've encountered recently have been most photogenic.

Ellie watched the tiger scratching his head, then followed suit herself!

Finally carousel time! Of all the wild animals she could have chosen to ride, Ellie opted for the carousel classic. She's a traditionalist like her mama.

As soon as it started moving, Ellie was just delighted. This is her real, honest face as soon as we started turning. I didn't tell her to say cheese, or sing some goofy song to trick her into a smile. This is really how excited she was!

After the zoo it was back home for some play, dinner and bed - the end of a great weekend with our sweet two-year-old!

Happy birthday, Ellie!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dear Ellie - Two Years

My dear Ellie,

You are two years old today! I'm not sure how that's really possible, but here we are. The other day I was looking back at baby pictures of you and I had a hard time comprehending that the little peanut in those photos is the same person as the sweet toddler I spend my days with now. You're growing into such a big girl!

This year has brought huge changes for you. When I wrote my last letter, you had a couple teeth, were uttering a few words, and we were positive walking was imminent for you. My, how you've changed!

One year ago you were primarily saying only "mama" and "dada." We were starting to teach you baby sign language and you had picked up a couple of signs. In seemingly no time at all, the baby sign language exploded and you were a signing fool for a while there. We became particularly familiar with your signs for "milk," "all done" and "more." You also learned a ton of animal signs - you love animals! But not only did you master a ton of signs since my last letter, but you have also phased them out. You speak more words than I can count now, including stringing many into sentences that seem to be more complex by the day, so you have no need for sign language to make your desires known anymore. You can ask for anything you want or need, comment on things, discuss memories, narrate your day and your play. Some of my favorite things to hear you say are: "Bless you, Mama" when I sneeze; "Mama come?" when you want me to join you on an adventure; "That's silly!" when something tickles your funny bone; and of course, "I love you." You have also started saying "I miss[ed] you" when I get you up in the mornings and it about kills me. You also say "Ellie so sad" after you cry which shatters my heart into a million pieces. Probably your most frequently-used phrase is "Mama hold you!" when you want me to pick you up!

I'm constantly impressed by how much you know and remember. It seems that every day you say something new and I find myself thinking, "where on earth did she learn that?!" You are not shy about asking what things are and you don't hesitate to try to repeat the word when we tell you (which means you say pretty tough words already, like "octopus," "pepperoni," and "macaroni"). It is also incredible to watch you processing and making note of your world and experiences. For example, if we ask you if you met Pooh Bear, you will think back to our meal with the Hundred Acre Wood characters at Disney World last month and say, "I meet Pooh! Meet Piglet! Meet Tigger! Meet Eeyore!" You seem to remember that experience and want to give the full story. You're also able to remember specifics about not only our daily routines, but also our weekly activities. For example, you can remember the differences between the different story times we go to. If I tell you we're going to the library, you tell me you're going to play with the dinosaurs (which you currently pronounce as "damon-dra-dur-durs," for some reason) in the library play area and get a sticker (from the librarian after story time). If we're going to Barnes & Noble, you tell me you're going to "make a crap" (meaning craft) and play with the trains. You recognize places as soon as we get in the parking lot and remember details about your last time there. As another example, when we took you to one of my doctor appointments once, Daddy gave you a bite of apple. The next time we took you back there, you asked for apple. We hardly remembered your apple experience, but you sure did! You are just so much more an active participant in your world now, which is so cool to watch.

You also love to play pretend these days. Not only do you act things out with your toys (pushing a train and saying "choo choo," feeding/changing diapers for your baby doll, etc.), but you like to pretend that you are different people/animals/things. You pretended to be various Disney princesses at first after our Disney trip, then you morphed into other Disney characters, and now it is basically a free-for-all. You will pretend to be everything from Cinderella to Daisy Duck to a train to a cat to a rhino to a lawn mower to a football. Sometimes, all before breakfast!

Your doctor says that an active imagination can be a good indicator of intelligence, and I believe it. You are so smart. In addition to all I've already mentioned, this year you learned your colors and shapes, are working on your letters and thus far, I've heard you count to 18 (it's possible you can go higher but are just holding out on me!). You love books and like when we spell things for you. You are always eager to learn, and you seem to learn very quickly!

Another major development this last year brought for you is, of course, walking. You started walking in earnest around 15 months old, right before we went on a big midwestern road trip. You walked just in time to help march in with the Peabody Ducks as Honorary Duckmaster at the Memphis Peabody Hotel, which thrilled me to no end. I will always associate your early steps with an image of you happily stomping your way down a Memphis street after we stopped for lunch on that trip. You were just so pleased with yourself and I was so, so proud.

And now walking has morphed into all kinds of things, including running ("so fast!" you say!), jumping and most of all, dancing. You love to dance, and you will do so whenever the mood strikes you. When we leave our Friday story times, we walk down a sidewalk with speakers in the landscaping that are always playing pop music, and it has become a tradition to stop and bust a move before heading back to the car. You wiggle and shake and spin and jump and I cannot get enough of it. It's funny and sweet and inspiring, the way you dance because the music moves you, without regard to time or place or audience. Passersby love to watch you, too, and I beam with pride when I see you put a smile on a stranger's face. People can't help but notice you and I love to see you bringing a little of the joy to them that you bring to me each day.

Another major milestone this year was weaning. You and I ended our nursing relationship just after the New Year, when you were 21 months old. It was bittersweet for me, really. I knew you were okay with ending that chapter, and really, I was, too, but it was still hard to actually draw it to a close. You handled it without missing a beat, though, and we replaced those close, snuggly moments with cuddling in the rocking chair, singing and praying together before bed. (You still suck your thumb, but we'll worry about weaning from that habit later!)

Speaking of bed, you finally started sleeping through the night this past summer, probably right after we returned from our midwestern road trip in May. Before that you were still waking up two or three times a night and your mama was tired. Now you are an excellent night sleeper (11-12 hours/night) and generally take one nap per day for two-three hours. Thank you for that!

I have mentioned both our road trip and our Disney trip a couple of times now, so it bears noting that you are an excellent traveller. This year you visited six states (both by plane and car) and five theme parks, and were a total champ about it. In fact, you sleep better on the road than you do at home, and you handle sightseeing days as if it were your normal routine. You seem excited by the new places and experiences and I sure do hope that is something that you keep with you through your life.

In other news, this year you grew about six inches in height, gained about 10 pounds, sprouted 12 teeth, and finally grew enough hair to warrant a bang trim and enable me to give you "piggies." You have loved: playing outside, the water (splash parks are a hit!), Sesame Street (Elmo in particular), your Cozy Coupe, playing peek-a-boo, animals (particularly cats), books, and music (you've even started singing!). Also important to note: we moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and you got a room of your own, where you love to play in the mornings and afternoons. As always, you took the move in stride and adapted quickly to your new environment.

To be honest, Ellie, you have grown so much this year that sometimes I have a hard time remembering you are still so little. As we near the alleged "terrible twos," I'd be lying if I said the whining and tantrums haven't increased a bit. I understand you're going through a challenging time, testing out your autonomy and figuring out how much control you have over your world. And sometimes I think I am unfair to you, because I expect you to process and respond to situations as an adult (or at least, an older child) would. It's hard for me to remember that really, you are still a baby who sometimes just needs her mama, not a big kid who can fully handle anything that comes her way. You just seem so grown up sometimes. When you're having a rough day, I do my best to remind myself that you are still just a little one and to cherish those moments. I know a day will come when it will take more than a little cuddle from your Mama to fix everything.

On a related note, I wanted to conclude this letter by sharing one of my favorite little anecdotal stories from this year. When we first moved to Jacksonville, Daddy was working long hours (teaching and coaching football) and you and I were left to entertain ourselves all day. Before we got our second car, we generally did this by taking walks around the apartment complex property. We made a habit of kicking off our walks with a visit to a stray neighborhood cat, who could reliably be found near a ground-floor unit around the corner from ours (the residents there put out food for him). In order to get there from our front door, we had to walk down the sidewalk for a short distance and then navigate some stepping stones that, suffice it to say, have seen better days. Those stones were cracked and broken and uneven, making for some treacherous ground - especially for a toddler who was still mastering walking in general.

Since you started walking, you have never been a hand-holder. You are far too curious, independent and eager to explore to be encumbered with the likes of parental hand-holding. So, you were generally running off ahead of me down the sidewalk towards those stepping stones. But when you reached the end of the sidewalk, you would stop for just a moment and reach your hand up in the air to grab mine so I could help you across the uneven ground. You never hesitated or looked up to make sure I was there first; you just knew that I was. Even with as independent as you always were, you knew that I was right beside you, ready, willing and able to help you with the uncertainty before you. That simple gesture meant so much to me each and every time, and I relished the opportunity to help you feel safe when you were unsure. Then, as soon as we crossed those stones and you were once again sure of your footing, you would drop my hand and run ahead once more.

Then one day, you didn't need to reach for my hand anymore. You could do it yourself. And all at once I was both overwhelmingly proud of your ever-increasing strength, coordination and confidence, and saddened by the realization that those stepping stones had become just another item on the ever-growing list of Things You No Longer Need Me For. I know that list will only continue to grow exponentially as you get older, bigger and stronger, but it was a very tangible reminder that my time to guide you and protect you is limited. I know that's good, and it's how it's supposed to be, but it can be hard for a mother to stomach.

But Ellie, I will always remember the feeling of your little hand grabbing onto mine as we marched forward onto those stepping stones, and I hope you will always remember it too, in one way or another. I hope that you will always know that no matter how big or strong or self-sufficient you are, whenever you face uncertainty, my hand will be there, right beside you. Don't hesitate; just reach out. Whenever you need me, I will be there to help. Always.

Now I have written all these words and I'm not even sure I have really conveyed how much I love you. Ellie, you have made my world such a bright, happy, joyful place. You make me laugh every day and our family would not be complete without you. It has been the greatest privilege of my life to watch you grow over the past two years, and all the words I could type could never fully express how proud I am to be your mama. I have loved serving in that role for these two years and I can hardly wait to see what the future brings for you and for us. You are one special little girl, and I will never understand how I got so lucky as to be your mama. You really are my sunshine.

Happy birthday, Lovebug. I love you.

All my love,

* * * * *

Dear Ellie,

Happy birthday again! And congratulations on completing as eventful of a year as you may have for the rest of your life! How do I even begin cataloguing the myriad milestones and memories I want to remember happened between my last letter and this one? And how do I avoid listing so many things that I end up obscuring the ones that matter the most? Before I even start, I need to admit that I am not entirely convinced this letter is supposed to help me remember your year or that you would even be interested in hearing such things. For instance, I am sure that by now you have gotten really good at walking, and it doesn't matter much that you started and began perfecting this skill in year two. You may or may not still get a huge kick out of running and jumping (side note - how awesome would it be if you actually are an Olympic track athlete?). I'm also sure you still speak in reasonably fluid sentences, identify colors and shapes, count past 18 consistently, and recognize most letters. You no doubt continue to feed yourself with silverware (though I assume you have added knives to the mix), pick out your own jammies (though you may not call them "jammies" anymore) and sit forward-facing in the car. So, rather than list the things you did this year, I will instead focus on my hopes and dreams for you, my dear daughter.

First of all, I hope you are still as immensely curious as you are right now; that you still love books and understanding new words and things and that you continue to learn from your peers when they aren't trying to teach you and from older people when they are.

I hope you still have strong opinions, though I hope they have developed beyond being about what you want to eat, who you want to hold or carry you or what you want to do or have done for you. It is essential to live your life with conviction and to believe in what matters most to you. Similarly, I hope you continue to be as passionate as you are now, though I hope you have stopped losing it whenever someone goes against your will or suggests you do something you do not want to do.

I hope you still dance when the mood strikes you and I hope it is almost as often as it is now. That you continue to be as sociable around other people as you are now but that you also maintain the ability to have just as much fun by yourself, though I certainly hope this will take place outside of your crib and at times other than when you should be napping.

I hope you try foods without throwing as big of a fit, but also that what you choose to eat is almost as healthy as it is now.

Finally, I hope you seek out new experiences whenever you have the chance and even sometimes when you don't. While you don't have to visit six states, five professional baseball stadiums, multiple beaches, Disney World and a famous golf course every year, I do hope you make it a point to travel sooner as opposed to later. People tend to regret the things they don't do far more often than the things they actually do.

Before I let you go try to top this year with your third, I need to mention the new baby on the way. As your mama and I are awaiting the arrival of your little brother, people seem to be making a big deal out of fathers wanting sons and mothers wanting daughters. Though this seems natural, I need you to know that I can't imagine feeling more fulfilled in life than I am at this moment with my family of three. You are and will always be my little angel and I love you more than I can begin to express. I would not dream of trading you for anyone or anything in the whole world.

Happy birthday, Belle!


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Our Spring Break Visit to Busch Gardens

Before I get into the "main events" of our spring break (namely, Ellie's birthday party and our babymoon), I wanted to briefly recap some of our other spring break fun.

Our biggest outing of the week was to Busch Gardens, where we spent some time on Wednesday. It was strange going to Busch Gardens without my sister being there performing (and when we passed the Madagascar show theater I half expected Ellie to ask for Aunt Heather), but we had a great time anyway and are so grateful to Heather for the passes, even in her absence!

Taking Ellie to Busch Gardens has gotten more and more fun each time we've gone, as she has gotten older and able to enjoy more of the experience. This time, given her recent excitement over the zoo, I knew she would be really into seeing the animals. Sure enough, we mentioned the animals to her when we left the house and she barely stopped talking about seeing the "amimals" for the entire way there. Her little voice would just pipe up from the backseat of the car, "See lions? See elephant? See zebra?" So cute.

Checking out the park map, and plotting the best course of action for maximum animal observation

And who are we to let down an excited toddler? So, animals were the main item on our agenda. We started with the gorillas and chimpanzees...

This guy looks like a wise old man

And this one is just relaxing, all super casual, enjoy his tasty leaf snack

...then we took the train (which Ellie was psyched about in itself) to see some more animals.

Clockwise from top left: Ellie and me on the train; some critters whose name I can't remember but they were posing really well; giraffes; ostrich eggs

After the train, we went on a search for even more animals.

She's loving it.

Crocodiles and hyenas and lions and hippos, oh my!

By that point, we were just in time for the elephant interaction demonstration, so we spent some time observing some pachyderms. Ellie later informed us that the elephants were her favorite animal of the whole day.

Ellie and Eric enjoying the elephants (alliteration!)

She just stood and watched.


I feel that his eyes are really tiny for such a large animal.

Then, we went over to the tiger exhibit. We made sure to stop at the tiger pop-up feature, which gave quite an unusual and up-close-and-personal view of one of the tigers!

He's laying on top of the pop-up window!

Ellie was a little unsure.

Really, the tigers were feeling quite sociable in general and we got some great face time with a couple of them.



Watching him pace

More posing

That concluded the animal portion of the day. We stopped to get some lunch and then went over to the Sesame Street area for some more "right up Ellie's alley" kind of fun. We were just in time to catch sight of a few characters out amongst the crowd, although we were just too late for posed pictures. We did manage to catch one of Ellie and Grover, however, during a very brief encounter. That encounter, brief as it may have been, made such an impression on Ellie that she spent the next couple of days pretending to be Grover.

She's starstruck. I can just hear her thinking, "he's touching me! He's touching me!"

Then, we rode some rides. Ellie really wanted to ride the carousel, so I took her on that, and it was a much bigger hit than last time. Remembering her love of the Dumbo ride at Disney, Eric took her on the flying elephants (she requested to ride the yellow one), and it was also a success.

She chose a lion to ride and kept saying, "I ride lion! I ride lion!" She even gave him a hug and a kiss, because she is the coolest.

Ellie and Eric on the yellow elephant

Then, we went for another character encounter, this time with Abby Cadabby. As usual, Ellie loved it. She ran right up to give Abby a hug, then plopped down with her as if they were just two gal pals about to spend a girls' afternoon together. You know, mani/pedis, gossip mags, coffee, that kind of thing. That kid, man. She's too much.

Ellie + Abby = BFFs

We really wanted to stick around for the next Sesame Street show, but unfortunately, we still just had too much time to kill and we needed to get Ellie down for a nap. (Well, we wanted to offer a nap. She very politely declined and opted to instead sing "Let It Go" from Frozen aloud to herself in her crib instead.) Regardless of actual nap occurrence, we wanted to at least give Ellie the option, so we made our way to the exit. Ellie wanted to finally pull her weight and carry some of our (read: her) stuff. If only she could really carry it, am I right?

Finally, she's transitioning from being just cute to being cute and useful!

We really had a great day and I was glad we were able to make that trip as a family. It was a great "last day" together before we separated for our babymoon!

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Morning at the Pool

We just got back today from a great spring break, which included Ellie's 2nd birthday party (say what?!?!) and a babymoon for Eric and me at Innisbrook Resort. So, I have more fun things to tell you about!

But first, I want to officially and finally wrap up all my Disney-related recaps. Technically, I'm done with the Disney portion of the program, but as you may recall, the weather was so nice on our last day at Magic Kingdom that we decided to stay an extra night. We booked a last-minute room at the Nickelodeon Resort and thanks to that decision, we were able to squeeze in some more evening park time, including a re-do of the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Good stuff!

Our decision also gave us a fun last morning in Orlando, spent at the hotel pool. Ellie is a water baby if I've ever seen one, and she loved the Nickelodeon Pool when we went last year. So, I was excited to give her a chance to splash at the splash pad and hit the water now that she's a little bigger (and actually walking, unlike last year!). As it turns out, she had no interest in the splash pad (just as well, as it was mostly in the shade and was pretty chilly), but she was ALL ABOUT the zero-entry pool. She was so excited about "Ellie 'wimming" and you could see the joy on her face as soon as she hit the water.

Loves it.

So happy!

Even when she slipped and did a little unexpected underwater swimming, she was cool as a cucumber. I scooped her right up, she coughed and cuddled for a minute, then she went right back to playing as if it never happened. So brave!

Comforting her after her dunk, although I was probably a lot more shaken up than she was

Back out into the water! Headed to the "deep end" with her Daddy's help

She would've been content to just sit there all day.

She didn't want to leave! Luckily, she's into towels lately (toddlers are weird), which helped the "get out, dry off and get dressed" process, otherwise we might have been calling the Nickelodeon Suites pool our new home.

"Ellie towel!"

After our pool morning we loaded ourselves into the car and drove back to Jacksonville, a drive during which I expected Ellie to pass out immediately. I mean, three days of Disney parks AND a morning of fun at the pool? I could barely keep my eyes open. As usual, however, she defied car-sleeping logic and was wide awake for the whole ride.

But that, my friends, officially wraps up our Orlando weekend vacation! What a great time!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Disney Day 4: Return to Magic Kingdom (This Time, With Sun!)

We got a much later start to our day on Sunday than the other days, as we planned for it to be our last day so we had to do the whole "pack up and check out of the hotel" dance. Our plan was to check out, hit Magic Kingdom one more time, stay as long as we (read: Ellie) could manage and then drive back to Jacksonville.

Our more leisurely start time allowed us to wake up refreshed and ready to go!

This little Minnie Mouse is ready for more Disney fun!

After checking out, we drove back over to Magic Kingdom for what we assumed was the last time. Instead of parking at the Contemporary Resort, this time we opted to go mainstream parking and take the ferry over to the park. Was it less convenient? Sure. But, it was a good thing we did that, because the ferry ended up being Ellie's favorite ride of the whole weekend. As soon as we disembarked at the park, she started repeating over and over: "Bye, boat! I love you, boat! Hug, boat! Kiss, boat!" and then proceeded to regularly ask if "I ride boat?" whenever we were at/near the entrance to the park. That kid does not forget anything, my friends.

Eric and Ellie on the ferry

We're coming, castle!


SUNday at Disney!

Do you see any clouds in the above picture? No? THAT'S BECAUSE THERE WEREN'T ANY. It was glorious. It was warm and sunny and exactly what I had been hoping for when we planned a spring Disney trip. Gone was the rain and the wind and the chills. Hello, Florida sunshine. We missed you.

Let's do this sunshine thing!

We had a couple of FastPasses to use that morning, and we planned to use our first one before making it to our 11:40 lunch reservations at the Crystal Palace (dining with Pooh Bear and friends!). So, upon entering the park we immediately returned to Fantasyland to Ariel's Grotto, where we started off our last day with one of Ellie's favorite princesses. As usual, her face just couldn't hide the joy and delight she so obviously felt:

Actually, this one isn't bad. She looks like she might almost be thinking about possibly smiling.

We still had a little bit of time to kill before lunch and there wasn't much of a line at Pete's Silly Sideshow, so we decided to pop in and meet Daisy Duck, one of the few main Disney characters we hadn't found yet. We got a little held up in the line, as the line moves from Daisy to Minnie and Minnie went on break, causing a back-up (during which Daisy put on quite a show). But, all we needed was Daisy so we went ahead and got her out of the way then skipped out on Minnie's station. Ellie loves Daisy (or as she calls her, "Daisy Guck") and she really had a great time goofing off with Daisy.

Daisy hamming it up for the crowd

Sure, Eric's arm is photobombing this picture, but look! A smile!

On our way back towards the Crystal Palace, we had to stop to try our hands at the Sword in the Stone. Sadly, neither Eric nor Ellie were destined to be the king of England in the fictional middle ages.

Great effort, though.

We arrived and checked in at Crystal Palace, but I had misremembered our reservation time so we were a bit early. We killed time hanging out on the porch, peeking in at what was to come, walking up and down the steps (this was Ellie's favorite time-killer), dancing and admiring the scenery.


Peeking in at the friends she was about to meet!

VIDEO: Ellie passing time with stair-climbing practice

It was during this waiting time that we got my most favorite picture of the entire trip:


Then, at last, it was time to eat. They took us in to the Crystal Palace and this time, we had an awesome table! We were right up against a window with a perfect view of the castle.

Welcome to lunch!

The view from our table

And right away, the characters started arriving. This character meal was one of the highlights of the trip for sure. Ellie has loved Winnie the Pooh since she was very small, and I was so excited to see what she thought of this. Answer: LOVED IT. Like, you don't have to take my word for it this time, because you can actually see it on her face. LOVED it.

It was nice that our timing worked out so that the characters were coming right around our area just as we were seated, so we didn't yet have food. That meant we could fully enjoy our visits with them without worrying about Ellie's messy hands or having her be trapped in a high chair. She was able to hug them and interact and play with them, which was adorable.

First to arrive was Eeyore, who was greeted with a hug and a smile. No fear there whatsoever!

Hugs for Eeyore

She was SO excited.

Next up was Pooh Bear, and Ellie gave him a hug so big, I thought she might not let go.

Best buds!

Then Piglet stopped by...

Cuddling with Piglet

...and then Tigger, who was the most fun of them all. He played with Ellie for quite some time, giving her kisses and making her laugh. He also had kisses (face licks, really, which was a smidge awkward) for Eric and me, and he played with Ellie's autograph mat after signing it. Also, he was the one "person" who signed who had a marker color preference! I had planned to give him green (sadly, I didn't have orange), but he insisted on purple. I had no idea Tiggers loved purple. Lesson learned.

Laughing at Tigger


Look at all those autographs!

After we greeted all the characters, we were able to hit the buffet. They had a nice selection and everything was pretty good. Ellie even ate a few things she wouldn't normally eat, so we'll chalk that up to a Hundred Acre Wood high or something.

Some of our lunch

After lunch we stopped for a quick family photo...

With a blue sky!

...then went to use another FastPass, for the Dumbo ride. Unfortunately, we didn't plan this very well: we all went on it at once, but what we should have done was take turns taking Ellie because she loved it. Her face doesn't show it in the pictures (shocker!), but she cried when we had to get off and kept asking, "again, Dumbo?" If given a little freedom in that general area, she would hightail it back towards the Dumbo ride, all the while shouting, "again, Dumbo!"

The flying elephant himself!

On the ride!

"Again, Dumbo?"

Someone let this poor child back on that ride!

It was at this point that we started to talk seriously about staying another night. We figured Eric could play hooky the next day and we could get a room for the night at the Nickelodeon Suites (where we stayed for last year's Sea World trip), which would allow us to possibly stay for the fireworks again that night and then spend the morning at the pool before driving back to Jacksonville.

Look at that face. How could we possibly make her leave the park on such a beautiful day? We had to stay longer!

Eric called Nickelodeon to see if they had any rooms available and if so, when the room would be ready. We figured if they could get us in right away (it was a little after 2:00 p.m.) we would just head over to the hotel so Ellie could nap. If they couldn't, we would hang out at the park until check-in and then play the nap idea by ear. The hotel representative Eric spoke to told us they had a room for us and it was ready right away, so we could come check in whenever. Given that the afternoon was wearing on, we decided it would be perfect to leave the park right away to check-in, get Ellie down for a nap and then return to the park that evening. So, off we went.

Holding on while riding the monorail back to the parking lot

Unfortunately, upon arrival at the hotel, the woman at the front desk informed us that no, we could not check in until 4:00 (it was 3:15 by this point, so we were 45 minutes "early"). She said the only way we could get in early was if we paid $50 extra to "upgrade" our room. Eric and I ended up going a little "good cop/bad cop" on her for that, with me reluctantly playing the Bad Cop/Mama Bear. My kid needed a nap and we were told we would have a room upon arrival, regardless of time! I told the associate that I understood the 4:00 check-in policy, but if they're going to stick to that policy than all employees should be aware of it and we should not have been told otherwise on the phone. During some back-and-forth I told her that we were disappointed, because we left the park early solely because we were told we could get in to our room right away, but now we would be spending 45 minutes sitting in their lobby. If we had just been given correct information on the phone, we would not have tried to come early and would've still been enjoying ourselves at the park. When the associate responded with a very dismissive "that's fine," I got pretty upset. It may be fine for her, but it's not fine for us to miss out on our vacation because they gave us bad information! But anyway, after a good bit of the good cop/bad cop routine, the bad cop won out and we found ourselves in the "upgraded" room for free right away. I hate having to do that sort of thing, but I was glad that in the end it paid off. Sadly, it put a bit of a sour taste in our mouths regarding the hotel, which is a bummer because we planned to return there for lots of future Orlando trips. But after having such a seamless, pleasant experience checking into our Disney resort four hours early (with no one even batting an eye), it made me miss that Disney service. That will definitely be something to keep in mind in the future.

But, the Nickelodeon hotel does have good suites for cheap and Ellie loves their pool. Our room this time had a mini kitchen, living area, master bedroom and kids' room with two twin beds. The kids' room didn't leave much space for Ellie's Pack 'N Play, so we decided to give Ellie the master bedroom for the evening and Eric and I bunked camp-style in the twin beds. With the giant SpongeBob mural staring at us. Romance!

Ellie kept saying we were at "Spongebob's house!"

Testing out the beds in the kids' room

Also, Ellie actually did take a much-needed nap, so all our insistence with the front desk paid off. Mama Bear for the win!

And not only did she sleep, but she slept a lot. We finally had to wake her in order to eat dinner (pizza from the hotel food court) and get back to the park in time for our evening plans, including a second attempt at the fireworks (remember, our first try was fogged out!).

When we arrived at the park, we first decided to just meander through some of the areas of the park we hadn't yet made it through. Most of our time had been spent in Fantasyland and immediate surrounding areas, as that seemed to be the location of the most Ellie/toddler-friendly attractions. But, we wanted to at least walk through the rest of the park, so we did just that.

Our first stop was a meet-and-greet with the fairies, because by that point we were autograph-hungry fanatics and hey, there was almost no wait. Ellie went into the whole thing not knowing anything about fairies in general or Tinkerbell in particular, but thanks to a little fairy movie that was playing while we waited, she became a Tinkerbell fanatic and now often pretends she is Tinkerbell.

Another "trust me" moment.

We also stopped for a Mickey ice cream bar, because you have to, right?

To quote Ellie: "Mickey ice cream yummy!"

By that time the Electrical Parade was about to start, but as we were arriving at the last minute, there really wasn't a good place for us to stand to watch it. So, we hung back and just waited for it to pass so we could be ready to grab another prime photo spot for the fireworks.


All went according to plan, and Eric once again found his perfect location and got all set up. I enjoyed watching the light show on the castle again.

The castle looking pretty in purple during the light show

The Frozen part of the show

And then, we finally got to see the fireworks! It was a beautiful display and the clear, fogless, rainless sky allowed Eric to get some really nice photos.

By the time the show was over, poor Ellie was beat. It was a really late bedtime for her, so we made our way back to the hotel. We had parked at the Contemporary Resort again (still using our Disney resort parking pass for the day), which meant our exit was speedy and easy, a much appreciated contrast to the hoards of people we saw heading for the monorail and ferry. We made it home quickly and put our tired little princess right to bed.

And that was our time at Disney! I'll wrap things up next week with a recap of our last morning in Orlando, but our days at Disney are officially in the books. It was really a magical vacation (so cheesy to say, but so true), and we made some wonderful family memories. We already can't wait to go back again!

The usual note: If you'd like to see more pictures from our second day at Magic Kingdom, click here.