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Reviews, Travelling with 5

Legoland hotel Windsor – review

If you want value for money, the Legoland hotel is NOT the place to stay

This week, I took my son to Legoland, as it’s his favourite place in the world. His school go back a week later than most, so we thought we’d take advantage of that, hoping it would be quieter.

Legoland hotel Windsor, review - A Free From Life
Image courtesy of Karen Roe/Flickr

He’s stayed in the park hotel before when he’s been with my husband, but this was my first time there and I was really excited about our little trip away together. It’s important for me, to have one-on-one time with my children if we can manage it.

We booked an adventure room at a bed and breakfast rate, with two days in the park and believe me, it was not cheap, even though it was out of the school holidays.

Accommodation
The room was a great size, with a separate bunk area for the children, including their own television. As fancy as a room may look though, a decent bed and mattress is what makes a hotel room for me. I don’t care if it’s adorned with Lego ornaments if the bed is rock hard and the pillows disappear to nothing when you lay on them.

I may be fussier than most when it comes to beds because of my back problems, but when you are paying through the nose for a room, I think it’s the least you can expect.

At the Legoland hotel, even my son, a skinny little nine-year-old, complained his bed was uncomfortable. I tested it out and it was like sleeping on concrete. Neither of us slept well.

Room facilities
My son had fun working out the code for the treasure chest in our room, in which was a prize of a small Lego pack. It’s a nice gesture for the kids, though personally, I think you should get more than that. We’ve been to themed hotels before where the kids have received their own welcome packs and loans of DVD’s. Again, it comes back to value for money.

There is a Legoland Channel on the room TV which my son watched when we returned to our room on the first afternoon. He was disappointed there were only a handful of shows playing on repeat and once he was through them (which didn’t take long), there wasn’t much else to watch.

I looked up the entertainment and movie selections on the menu, but you had to ask for those separately. I didn’t, as I presumed that meant they would incur an extra charge.

Dining
On arrival, I asked which restaurant it would be best for us to eat in, as both my son and I are dairy and gluten intolerant. He recommended the Bricks Restaurant, as it is buffet style, therefore more choice. He assured the staff would be able to help us and even make something specific, for example he mentioned they could do a gluten free pizza.

The reality was, they don’t do gluten free pizza, but they did offer gluten free pasta. I asked one of the catering staff what we could have and he simply handed me the allergy folder. This told me there wasn’t a great deal on offer for us, so I opted for the carvery and my son had pasta with chilli.

It cost me over £30 for both of us to eat and it was the worst carvery I’ve ever had.

When it comes to vegetables, there’s ‘al dente’ and there’s raw. The broccoli, carrots and cauliflower had barely seen a bit of hot water between them and whilst I wouldn’t mind a bit of raw veg in a salad, in a roast dinner – no thanks.

The breakfast was a little better. There was soya milk on offer and the cooked breakfast choice allowed us to have a decent plate full to set us up for the day. The only gripe I had about breakfast, was being told they were unable to toast some gluten free bread separately. Be warned if you are coeliac, as you cannot possibly use those toasters – they are the ones where you feed your bread in and it comes out of the bottom (usually barely toasted). The trays are full of crumbs and there is no way you could toast some gluten free bread without contamination. It’s hard to believe they don’t have a grill in the kitchen or even a toaster. They’re not expensive.

In the Legoland resort itself, it is difficult to find anything to eat if you have an allergy or intolerance. If we hadn’t been staying at the hotel, we would have needed to take our own food. For our lunch, we opted for the Sky Bar, as it was the only one open anyway. The menu there is small and mostly consisting of breaded things. I queried the menu, as it offered wraps with various fillings and had a symbol on there that said it was gluten free.

As it turned out, according to the allergy folder, the wraps aren’t gluten free, so I hope they amend this menu so as not to confuse anyone.

On the first afternoon, a lovely lady in the Sky Bar restaurant sorted us out some grilled chicken with chips and salad. She was very helpful and understanding and for someone with specific dietary needs, you can imagine how grateful you are when you receive service like that.

Unfortunately, when we ate at this restaurant the following lunchtime, it was a disaster.

We had a big plate of chips brought out to us but no grilled meat or salad. By the time we were three quarters through the chips, a waitress came over and said they were sorry they hadn’t cooked the meat yet and it was going to take another fifteen minutes as it needed to be cooked separately.

Whilst I am extremely understanding about the need to cook food separately in order to cater for allergies, and I’m more than happy to wait longer for my meal, I don’t expect to get my meal in stages. Would you expect that from a restaurant?

‘Here you go, Madam, here’s half of your meal, I’ll bring the rest out later.’

It wouldn’t go down well would it?

I said not to worry, we would just have the chips and leave it at that. Can you guess what happened next? We’d just finished eating the chips and out comes the meat and salad.

By that point I just wanted to leave!

Overall impression
You know why the Legoland Hotel is so popular don’t you? It’s obvious. For the kids, it’s amazing, for park access, it’s so convenient. It’s no wonder people are prepared to pay through the nose to stay there. You want to give your kids great memories to treasure, but it’s wrong, in my opinion, to take advantage of that by charging people lots of money and not giving them value for it.

If you stay at the hotel, you can get into the park at 9.30am ahead of the queues. That sounds like a great advantage doesn’t it? Except that hardly anything is actually open until 10am and half the park didn’t open until 11. In the end, we didn’t gain much at all for getting up and into the park so early.

Did you know Legoland have just recently opened another hotel right next door? It’s called the Castle Hotel and it is EVEN MORE expensive. I can only hope it’s better, considering the amount people are expected to pay in order to stay there.

For what it cost us, we could have gone to a luxury five-star hotel, where the focus is on quality and service. But, hey, that’s not the point is it?

And Legoland sure do know that.

Reviews

Catering for multiple food intolerances and allergies at Wagamama

Restaurants should look to Wagamama as an example of how to cater properly for those with multiple food intolerances or allergies.

Yes I know, I know, I moan a lot about how difficult it is to eat out when you have multiple food intolerances or allergies, but I’ll keep on moaning until the message gets through. And it seems that some people might actually be listening, well the manager at Wagamama Canterbury, at least. He contacted me to invite me over:

‘We’d like to show you how well we cater for people with food allergies and intolerances,’ he said.

I liked them already. With a confidence that what they’re doing is a positive thing, they were keen to prove to me that not all food service operations are equal in their approach.

‘I’m in,’ I said, given that I don’t go to Wagamamas, so had no idea what they offer.

As I avoid nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, potatoes) and no longer eat dairy, I wondered how I would get on. My friend who came with me doesn’t eat gluten, so between us, I expected we were going to be a challenge. Not so for manager Lloyd, who sat down with us and went through the entire menu.

Wagamama, like most restaurants, has a complete breakdown of every dish offered. They have one version for the customers and another, more detailed version for the management. There were several positives I’d like to point out that make Wagamama stand out against other restaurants:

  • The manager is the only person who takes with and deals with your order.

Lloyd, as I said, went through everything with us, perhaps in more detail than he might if we hadn’t have been there for this specific purpose. Either way, nothing was a problem and the reason for this is Wagamama’s flexibility when it comes to their dishes. There are several alternative options to their menu items, which means if you can’t eat one of the ingredients (for example, noodles in the Ramen because they contain gluten), they will swap them for something else (in this example, rice noodles).

A 'Free-From' Life
Image courtesy of Wagamama

It’s not enough to give a customer an allergen menu and expect that it’s enough.

My pet hate about eating out is that restaurants give you an enormous allergen menu detailing all their dishes and once you go through it, you find you can’t actually eat anything. Thankfully, Wagamama’s recognise this and make every effort to be flexible with their dishes.

  • The manager marks your place with your specific food avoidance item(s), so there is no mix up when it’s brought to the table.

This is another positive, because even though the manager is the only one dealing with the order, it’s still important, if not life-saving for some, to make sure the right order is given to the right person. With serious allergies, you can’t afford to mess this up.

  • They have a separate gluten free menu.

This is in addition to the full allergen menu and includes dishes that are specifically gluten free. Lloyd checked to make sure what we wanted to order was also dairy free, again this double, triple checking of everything shows how seriously they take things and also the level of training the staff have received.

A 'Free-From' Life
Image courtesy of Wagamama
  • The food is prepared in a dedicated area with a dedicated chef.

This I was very impressed with. You can see the food preparation area at Wagamama, as it’s completely open and with one specific area kept for preparing special orders, it’s reassuring. Lloyd explained we were likely to get our food in waves rather than all at once. This is because each order is prepared separately, with the surfaces being thoroughly wiped down between each one. Again, this shows a deep level of understanding and commitment to customer safety.

My overall impression of Wagamama was extremely positive and I would be happy to recommend it to anyone with multiple food intolerances or allergies. You feel looked after there and equally as important, are never made to feel as though you’re being awkward (we’ve all been there with this haven’t we?). We’re not a generation of overly paranoid individuals, we’re more educated about the food we eat and realise how ill it can make us. Perhaps in the past we just got on with it, ignoring the stomach pains and associated problems, but not anymore and it’s not just gluten that we’re avoiding.

Food service providers, if you’re listening, take a tip from Wagamama’s and wake up to what your customers need.

My one request, as I finish this review, is can you get more creative with some dairy free desserts? If there’s one thing anyone dairy free really misses out on, it’s this.

Baking, Reviews

Free From Fairy gluten free wholegrain plain flour

How to make gluten free bread - A Free From Life

I’ve been following the Free From Fairy’s blog for some time now. Having developed her own blend of gluten free flour that doesn’t contain rice flour, she’s used it to develop lot’s of scrummy looking baked goods, both savoury and sweet.

I’m not a fan of rice flour either, not just for the health concerns regarding its arsenic content, but also because I find it gritty and drying. I can see why it’s used in gluten free baking, but there are so many other lovely and tasty gluten free flours out there.

One of the first things I did when my son went gluten free, in addition to dairy, was to buy a bread maker. I can’t stand the commercial offerings and I knew I had to make something better. Oh boy, did I have some disasters – inedible bricks, poorly mixed loaves, too sticky, too crumbly, you name it. My kitchen was like a product development laboratory for a good few weeks until I found a combination that worked, but that combination was a good one and I’ve stuck to it.

Finally getting around to ordering some of the Free From Fairy’s flour, I decided to put it to the test with my recipe and do you know what? It worked a treat.

How to make gluten free bread - A Free From Life

In fact, I didn’t measure it (though was tempted) but it might have even come out taller than my own do (not that I’m obsessed with the size of my loaves or anything).

Anyway, this recipe is for a Panasonic S2500, though I’m sure it works with other Panasonic machines. I haven’t tried it with other bread makers, so I’m not sure if the recipe would need tweaking in order to work. I use the gluten free programme and the dark crust setting. If you don’t have the gluten free option, you can use a rapid bake setting. What this means, essentially, is that your machine will allow the bread to rise, then bake it off. The normal programmes include a rise stage, followed by another kneading called ‘knocking back’. If you do this to your gluten free loaf, you won’t get it to rise again.

Gluten free bread recipe:

  • 500g gluten free flour
  • 2 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 2 tsp xantham gum
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 80g olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp cider vinegar
  • 300ml water

Instructions:

  • Thoroughly mix all the dry ingredients.
  • Make a well in the centre and add the eggs.
  • Add the oil, vinegar and water.
  • Mix using an electric mixer with dough hooks until it forms a loose sticky dough. Note that it won’t be a workable dough as you would expect with bread. It should be wetter and stickier.
  • Pour into the bread machine pan and set the machine to the gluten free programme with dark crust.

If you happen to try this recipe in another bread machine, please let me know how you get on.

Reviews, Travelling with 5

Italy with the kids – Viareggio, Tuscany

A typical street of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Just a half-hour drive from Pisa airport, Viareggio, the second largest town in the province of Lucca, turned out to be our ‘city break’ with a difference.

A typical street of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

We just had our annual Italy fix in what started out with the intention of being a city break.

Having booked cheap flights to Pisa, I thought we would use it as a base to explore a little of the surrounding Tuscan region, somewhere we haven’t seen much of before. However, we soon realised that with temperatures reaching 30°C, it wouldn’t be practical or fun to drag three kids around areas of historical interest.

I explored the region a little more and discovered Viareggio on the Tuscan coast. It looked lovely and within easy reach of Pisa, so I based my search there. The most difficult thing about organising a holiday for a family of five is finding accommodation that will be big enough for all of you. It’s one of the most frustrating jobs that takes the pleasure out of my annual holiday search.

More often than not, when you look at hotels on line, you aren’t given the option to have more than two children and when you try to book an inter-connecting room, this is rarely guaranteed. This is one of the reasons why I will never risk booking two rooms in a hotel unless I’m sure that we can be together. I prefer, instead, to find somewhere that will suit the five of us and that obviously makes the search difficult.

Where to stay in Viareggio

I’m happy to say, that I found a hotel right on the sea front in Viareggio that offered a two-bedroomed apartment, complete with living area (with sofa bed) and kitchenette. I couldn’t believe my luck. The Palace Hotel, isn’t one of the largest in the area and it doesn’t have it’s own pool, however, the hotel has an agreement with a privately owned pool directly opposite, right on the beach, where you can pay for usage and also hire sunbeds on the beach, if you want them.

The Palace Hotel, Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life
The hotel, with its pretty, painted exterior

The hotel was beautiful, a pleasant surprise and the room perfect for our needs. My eldest daughter took the sofa bed, whilst the two little ones shared one bedroom and we had the other. Although we were at the back of the hotel and you accessed the apartments via a side gate, not through the hotel itself, we had two balconies and our room overlooked a lovely little tiled courtyard area. I’m also happy to report, that for the first time ever, I actually slept really well whilst on holiday. With my back problems such as they are, I always find when we go away the matresses are too hard or too soft or whatever, they just don’t match up to my own one at home and it makes for an uncomfortable stay. This time, I didn’t have that problem at all.

The staff at the Palace Hotel were so amazing. They couldn’t do enough for you and that adds so much to your stay, particularly given we have a child with dietary needs. At breakfast, my son had a choice of milks: almond, hazelnut, rice, oat and soya. There was also lacto-free milk on offer (though he can’t have that). They gave him gluten free cereals, gluten and dairy free bread and a choice of cakes (though not always dairy free). That, plus the fruit and Alpro soya yoghurt, meant that my son ate like a King every morning. He was more than happy.

Dining out gluten and dairy free in Viareggio

I did some research before we left home (as I usually do), to jot down the names of some restaurants that supposedly catered for allergies and when we arrived, we showed this list to the reception staff, who matched it up to their own list of recommended restaurants. Two of ours weren’t on the hotel’s list, but they booked us in one of them for dinner and directed us towards the other one for lunch.

We didn’t need to worry too much though, as most places in this area seemed well aware of allergies and happy to cater for them. It certainly takes the pressure off when you go out for meals, especially in an area where English isn’t commonly spoken. As long as you can say ‘senza glutine’ and ‘senza latosio’, you can’t go far wrong.

Our favourite places were:

Olive e Cena

The staff at this restaurant were fantastic and more than happy to swap the menu around in order to find something to suit, not only my son, but the girls too. This is the first Italian restaurant I’ve been to that has its menu on just two pages, but despite the simplicity, we didn’t know what the food was. A very patient waiter sat down with us to explain everything, then made sure we ordered something child friendly for the girls and gluten and dairy free for the little man. Not only that, the food was delicious.

Ristorante Casablanca

This was another restaurant where we had the waitress running backwards and forwards on our behalf to make sure we could order something suitable for our allergic one. We felt guilty, but ever so grateful at the same time and it was the reason we went back to this place a few times during the course of our stay.

Amaro

This place is expensive, but if you are a fan of meat, it’s worth a visit. Amaro is a Braceria – a grill – so that means simple, meat dishes, but with maximum flavour due to the quality of the meat. The steaks my husband and I had were so enormous, I don’t know what we were thinking when we ordered them. We could have easily shared. I felt like I was on an episode of man versus food. Gorgeous though.

La Casina

We had such a feast at this restaurant, having ordered a selection of dishes for all of us to share. This restaurant, being away from the seafront promenade, was also great value for money and well worth a visit if you are taking a walk through the pine forest and fancy a stop off.

We also found the best sorbets and granitas, including a dairy free chocolate version at Gelataria Etna. This may be one of the smaller gelaterias, slightly unassuming, but it’s family run, with the friendliest staff and truly delicious gelato.

Things to do in Viareggio

The beach and promenade

The coastline of Viareggio includes over 20km of sandy beach, each section privately owned and kitted out with sunbeds for hire. The sea, although appearing quite rough, actually proved safe for the little ones, as you can wade out for a sizeable distance before it even reaches your waist.

Alongside the beach is a wide pedestrianised promenade, providing 3km of shops, restaurants and cafes. What is lovely about this area, is that the road is far enough away from the restaurants for them not to be affected by the traffic noise.

The boulevard of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Hire a bike

There are cycle lanes everywhere in this town, including along the main promenade and cycling seems the chosen mode of transport for most of the people who live there. If cycling in the heat of the summer sun isn’t for you, there is a pine forest right in the centre of town that provides the right amount of shade for cycling in.

Cycling in the pine forest of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

The pine forest

The Pineta di Ponente was an unexpected find for us. Right at the end of our road, what looked merely like an ordinary forest and nothing more turned out to be a hidden gem in terms of activity. On entering the woods on the east side, we thought we’d come to a retirement community. Here, the oldies hang out at the shaded cafe, drinking coffee, smoking and putting the world to rights, whilst across from them, you’ll find a competitive game of something akin to short mat bowls being held.

The pine forest in Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Then, as we walked further into the woods, on the wide, tarmacked avenue, we came across an inflatable slide and play area.

Inflatable slide fun in the pine forest, Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Further on, we discovered children’s rides, amusement games, go carts and even a giant scalextrics. There is everything in here to keep your children amused for hours.

Go carts in the pine forest of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Giant Scalextric in the pine forest, Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

You will also find cafes and refreshment stops along the way, including these Ciambelle, we discovered at Gato Nero.

Ciambelle in Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

My daughters and I decided to hire a bike in the woods one day and we rode the whole length and back in just under an hour. The bikes cost 2 euros each, so it was well worth the money.

Visit the leaning tower of Pisa

As I mentioned, we didn’t book this trip with the intention of moving more than a few paces at a time. And it was right to think that way. It was so hot, that sight seeing would have been hard work. We did, however, take the children in to Pisa one early evening and going from Viareggio by train could not have been easier.

Pisa, Italy - a Free From Life
The leaning tower of Pisa – it really does lean that much

The journey, just one stop to Pisa San Rossare (not Pisa Centrale), took fifteen minutes, followed by a five minute walk to the famous tower and cathedral complex. We looked around the museum and cathedral, but didn’t go up the tower itself, before buying obligatory Pisa relics from the market and then heading back to Viareggio for dinner. Easy.

The verdict

To say we were a little taken with Viareggio is an understatement. As we’ve now been to Italy with the children a few times, they are becoming as obsessed with the country as we are. We all fell in love with this lovely town and it’s people and I have no doubt that we will return there.

My Travel Monkey
Health, Reviews

Koko Dairy Free review

Koko Dairy Free review - A Free From Life

Finding an alternative to dairy is not easy

Koko Dairy Free review - A Free From Life

I have a son who is dairy intolerant and at one time, the only real alternative was soya milk. Although he has that when we go out to a coffee shop or restaurant (because that’s usually all they offer), I don’t give him it at home. Soya contains phytoestrogens, which mimic the hormone oestrogen. Taken as a supplement by women of menopausal age, when oestrogen levels are low, it does not sit well with me to give anything containing phytoestrogens to my boy. Although the evidence to back up the effects of phytoestrogens on male fertility is weak, I would rather not take the risk.

So, what to do?

My son didn’t like almond milk, but he loved rice milk and I thought this would make a great alternative to soya, especially as you can buy it with added calcium. However, the risk of arsenic poisoning from rice products is so high, even the Food Standards Agency recommend that you don’t give rice milk to young children.

Thank goodness for Koko Dairy Free

When I discovered a dairy free alternative to milk that doesn’t contain soya or rice, I breathed a sigh of relief, especially as they have one with added calcium too. The milk is fresh and light, with a subtle flavour and can be used as a straight forward substitute to dairy.

The milk is available in 1 litres cartons, or packs of three 250ml individual cartons with straws, perfect for lunch boxes. Flavours include strawberry and chocolate and I recently utilised some to make this delicious alternative to ice-cream:

Koko dairy free strawberry and banana ice cream - A Free From Life

I confess to not buying the flavoured milks very often, so it’s a real treat when I do cave (usually when I have someone ‘helping’ me do the shopping!). I use the plain milk when I make porridge. This apple, pear and cinnamon one is a real hit in our house and has got us through the colder months:

Porridge with Apple, pear and cinnamon puree - A Free From Life

 

Dairy free spread

Last year, when I went to the Allergy and Free From Show in London, I discovered Koko Dairy Free were just launching an alternative spread. Of course, I snapped some up and couldn’t wait to try it. I’d tried using coconut oil as an alternative to butter in baking and found the results very different. Using a margarine is the next best thing to butter, but then you have the additional factor of using hydrogenated fats to worry about.

Koko Dairy Free review - A Free From Life
Photo Credit: Koko Dairy Free

Margarine is made by pumping hydrogen into oil to harden it. That’s hydrogenation and there are concerns over the health risks of consumption. Butter, used in moderation, is a much safer option, but what do you do if you can’t eat it?

I contacted Koko Dairy Free when I got home from the Allergy Show to find out how they make their spread and this was the response I received:

We don’t use any hydrogenated oils or hydrogenation processes in the production of Koko Dairy Free spread. The hardness of the product comes from two of the oils which are naturally hard under refrigeration, but which soften at room temperature. These are the coconut oil, and palm oil (from certified sustainable sources). They are simply blended with rape seed oil and sunflower oil in carefully chosen proportions to achieve the desired consistency under refrigeration and room temperatures.

Another sigh of relief breathed and another tick for Koko products. I can safely say that this spread works well in baking. I used it recently in this apple slice:

Apple Slice - A Free From Life

A new offering

It’s amazing what excites me these days, but I did genuinely jump up and down when I saw Koko have brought out a range of yoghurts. Again, the alternative is mainly soya-based, with the only other coconut yoghurt on the market being expensive.

Sold in packs of two 125ml pots, the yoghurts come in strawberry, raspberry, coconut and lemon and peach and passion fruit flavours. You can also get a larger, 500g pot of plain yoghurt. Again, the coconut flavour is subtle and the consistency is smooth and similar to that of ordinary yoghurt, as oppose to the thicker, Greek style. More importantly, from my son’s point of view, the fruit flavours are great and there are no ‘bits’.

I would like to thank Koko Dairy Free for sending us some of their lovely products to try. The opinions expressed in this review are that of my own and my son’s.

All I’d like to say to finish is can you make cheese?

Reviews, Travelling with 5

Tips for planning a trip to Disneyland

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Planning a trip to Disneyland Florida can be a daunting task. I know, because I’ve recently done it and I’d like to share a few tips to help make your trip run as smoothly as possible.

Booking

Are you going to go for a package holiday or book flights and accommodation yourself?

When we checked prices, we found a much better deal by booking separate flights and accommodation. Advanced planning meant that we booked everything a whole year in advance. Yes, you read that right, we booked as soon as we could get on there as that’s the only way to get the best deals.

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to hotels and villas in Orlando and around the neighbouring areas. Whether you want to stay on site or further afield is up to you and what sort of accommodation you are looking for. Disney hotel guests can get entrance into the parks an hour earlier than everyone else during what’s called ‘Magic Hour’, plus you can easily get to the parks via the monorail system or shuttle bus. Everyone else has to wait until offical opening times and if your accommodation doesn’t provide a shuttle transportation service, you have to make your own way there.

We stayed at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. This is not a Disney resort, but is only a short 10-15 minute drive to the parks, depending which one you were going to (it’s nearest to Magic Kingdom). Apparently, the hotel is built on the only piece of land that Walt Disney was unable to purchase. I chose this hotel for the accommodation it offered, as well as the location.

As a family of five, we always struggle to find accommodation big enough. Many hotels only allow up to two adults and two children in one room and will not guarantee that a second room you book will be interconnecting. I will never risk booking anything if this is the case. I like to know what we are getting before we get there.

The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek had a few options and we went for a King room, interconnecting with two Queens. This meant we had one room for us and the children in the other, with the girls sharing one bed and my son in a bed of his own. They had their own bathroom and we could shut the door between us so they could go to sleep earlier and we didn’t need to disturb them.

Overlooking a golf course, the setting is stunning and when relaxing by the pool, you feel a million miles away from the hectic theme parks. The hotel is ajoined to the Waldorf Astoria and between them, the two hotels have a number of different restaurants to choose from. Both have a pool, but the Hilton has a lazy river, particularly popular with the kids. In the evening, there was often a poolside Disney movie playing and during the day, craft activities. For the grown ups, the Waldorf has a spa.

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

The Waldorf is more upmarket, but the Hilton felt more relaxed and family friendly.

Getting About

There is a shuttle bus that runs to and from the theme parks and the hotel all day. If you want to get a cab, it’s easy to pick one up right outside the hotel door (the concierge will see to this for you). Cabs are reasonably priced and we used them a number of times, given that we were so close to the parks.

If you stay near to the theme parks, you don’t need to hire a car. We had an airport transfer arrange for us by the hotel and we booked one ourselves for the return trip. We also booked transport to take us to the Florida Mall for an afternoon of shopping.

For going further afield, car hire would be a good option.

Tickets

Take advantage of the ticket offers on this side of the Atlantic rather than waiting until you get there. It will be much cheaper that way. You can buy a seven day or fourteen day ticket to cover six parks (that’s four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot, plus two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach).

You’ll get an on-line confirmation, then on your first day, you can pick up tickets from the Will Call kiosks at the entrance to the parks.

Itinerary

This is probably the most daunting part of booking your trip. I like to know my trip is organised to an extent, but I don’t like the idea of every hour of every day being mapped out. It can feel as though you are doing that when planning your Disney trip, but I can assure you that any planning you do will be worth it to save the aggravation of queues.

First thing’s first – Download the My Disney Experience app

This will be your go-to app for the whole trip, believe me. You can link your Disney park tickets to this app, so it includes all your party’s details. Then you can use it to book FastPass+ tickets (more about those in a minute), dinner reservations and check queuing times, amongst many other useful things (location of characters, facilities and photographers).

Decide where you want to go each day

I initially had the idea that we would do one day in a park and one day off. I think that works well if you are staying further afield, but if you are closer, you might want to consider doing half days everyday, which is what we did. Here are the reasons why:

The time difference – being five hours behind meant that we were up and ready to go bright and early every morning and so able to get to the parks for opening time. This worked well to take advantage of the slightly quieter first hour. The disadvantage was that by lunch time, we were all shattered, so an afternoon lazing by the pool at the hotel was welcomed by all of us.

Busy time of year – we went at Christmas and although not too bad in the mornings, by lunchtimes the parks really did fill up and it can become a bit unbearable.

The weather – although unseasonably hot, we were experiencing weather in the high twenties/early thirties. The mornings started out cloudy, but warm and when the sun burnt those clouds away by lunchtime, it was hot, hot, hot – not conducive to traipsing round a theme park with children in tow.

Half days means you can spread out your visits over two days, so it’s less hectic/stressful/tiring. We had ten days altogether and here’s what our ininery looked like:

Day 1: Magic Kingdom

Day 2: Magic Kingdom

Day 3: Animal Kingdom

Day 4: Animal Kingdom

Day 5: Magic Kingdom (For a couple of hours, as it was Christmas Day – it was heaving though)

Day 6: Hollywood Studies

Day 7: Hollywood Studios

Day 8: Epcot

Day 9: Day off

Day 10: Home

As you can see, we only did one day in Epcot because we were getting ‘theme-parked out’ by then. We managed to do all the rides we wanted to do in the time we were there. One day was enough for us in this park. We also didn’t fancy going to the water parks. One was closed for refurbishment anyway, but we had a lovely pool with lazy river at our hotel and that was enough for all of us.

Look at the park maps

You don’t want to book three FastPass+ tickets that have you trailing from one side of the park to the other and back again, so plan to book them within the same area. For example, Magic Kingdom has four areas: Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland. If you look at a map of the park, you will see that it makes sense to split it in half, meaning that you can do Tomorrowland and Fantasyland on one day and Adventureland and Frontierland on the other.

Do the same with the other parks by picking out three rides or attractions that are close together.

Make a list of all the things you want to do in each park. Remember, you can book FastPass tickets for shows and even for seeing characters (in Magic Kingdom only).

Booking FastPass+ tickets

You can book up to three FastPass+ tickets per day. Each ‘ticket’ gives you an hour’s slot for a ride of your choice. Turn up at any time during this hour and you bypass the main queues. This service doesn’t cost anything and it is well worth doing, especially if you have young children.

This is another advantage to visiting a park over two days. You can book three FastPass+ tickets for each day and by doing so, you can cover most of the rides or attractions that you want to visit.

Book your FastPass+ tickets up to one month before you go

Set your alarm on your phone to make sure you remember to do this. Tickets go quickly, especially during busy periods like Christmas and once they are all dished out, that’s it. Using the Disney app, you can pick out your three rides or attractions and it gives you time slots to choose from.

If you have a lot of rides and attractions you want to do, my advice would be to book your three FastPass tickets from around 10am and do some of the rides you haven’t booked tickets for before then. Getting in at opening time and heading to the back of the park first, will ensure you get on a ride with minimal wait times and without a FastPass. We did this at Epcot with a ride called Soarin. When we got to this ride, the wait time was ten minutes and by the time we came out from the ride, the wait had gone up to 45 minutes.

Magic Bands

These are an optional extra, but well worth it, in my opinion. When you go to the Will Call kiosk on your first visit to one of the parks, you can purchase Magic Bands for each family member (around $12 each) and get all your ticket and FastPass+ information put on them.

Entrance to the parks and all the rides requires scanning of tickets or Magic Bands and for ease (and reducing the risk of losing tickets) the Magic Bands fasten securely around your wrist and all you need to do is touch it to the scanning machine. Each family member wears their own band, which contains all their ticket and ID information. You can use them on subsequent visits too (if you ever decide to go back), for up to ten years.

The Magic Bands also have another use. If you get any photos taken in the park, or on the rides, you can scan them to your band and keep them all in one place. At the end of your stay, you can purchase any that you want to keep, which leads me to another pre-purchase option – the Memory Maker.

Memory Maker – all your photos in one place

We bought this via the Disney app before we left the UK and at first, I wondered whether I had done the right thing. However, we ended our trip with over 300 photos, so I think I can safely say it was worth it. You can scan every photo from the rides you go on, plus in every park you’ll find official Disney photographers stationed at various points. If you don’t go to the first one you see as you walk in, you will find another one within a few minutes’ walk where there’s little or no queue and you can get a photo souvenir of you and your family. Every character photo taken can also be scanned to your band and linked to the Memory Maker.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not often that we get many photos of all five of us when we go on holiday. Usually, it’s one of us taking the photos of the other four, so in that sense, it was a great opportunity for lots of family portraits. Making use of the Memory Maker also meant that we got some surprise shots like this:

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

And this:

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Dining

I come to this section with a particular emphasis on catering for food intolerances. Regular readers will know my youngest can’t eat gluten and dairy. Whenever we go away, I spend a good deal of time researching suitable places where we can eat. You don’t need to worry about that when you go to Disney I’m happy to report.

We only ate in the parks once, opting instead for snacks, before heading back to our hotel. We found a ‘free-from’ kiosk in Animal Kingdom (opposite Starbucks, just before the bridge going in to Africa) and on the occasion we did eat, at the counter service eatery ABC Commissary in Hollywood Studios, I was able to order a gluten and dairy free children’s meal for my son.

The quick service eateries in the parks are fine if you don’t mind fast food. If you want to eat in one of the restaurants though, it’s best to book in advance, particularly if you want to experience a character meal.

Eating in the parks isn’t cheap either. If you can, take your own water and snacks. You can always refill your water bottles at one of the water fountains.

Where to eat

Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney) has a range of restaurants to suit all budgets and tastes. Undergoing extensive development, this area is set to double in size once it’s finished.

We ate here a number of times and anywhere we went to, we were asked if there were any special dietary requirements amongst our group. Following this, the chef (usually the head chef) would come to see us to talk through what we could have and help our son with his order. It was all very easy, never an issue and made eating out a relaxed and enjoyable experience.

My top picks

  • Bongos Cuban Cafe
  • Rainforest Cafe (there is another one in Animal Kingdom if you have difficulties getting into this one) – fun themed restaurant, where you are surrounded by sounds of the jungle
  • T-Rex – Dinosaur themed restaurant. Not for those wanting a quiet meal!
  • Paradiso 37, Taste of the Americas
  • Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC – if you can’t get dessert in your restaurant, treat yourself to something from here. You can even pre-order your baked goods to be delivered to any restaurant in any of the parks. We also ordered a gluten and dairy free birthday cake from here, which was delivered to our hotel.

Our hotel did a good job of looking after my son when it came to eating. On our first day, one of the chefs from the Harvest Bistro sat down with us and went through everything. They couldn’t have been anymore accommodating.

Highlights

There are so many great moments, that it would be impossible to list them all. Here are a few of our favourites from each park.

Magic Kingdom:

  • Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
  • Tomorrowland Speedway
  • Space Mountain
  • Peter Pan’s Flight
  • Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid
  • Splash Mountain
  • Thunder Mountain

Animal Kingdom:

  • Primeval Whirl
  • Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Festival of the Lion King
  • Dinosaur
  • Expedition Everest
  • It’s Tough to be a Bug

Hollywood Studios:

  • Lights, Motor Action – stunt show
  • Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
  • Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage
  • Toy Story Mania
  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (a favourite of my eldest daughter)

I swear, you have no control over your face when this ride sets off (it’s that fast!)

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

  • Star Tours – The Adventure Continues

My youngest son loved this. He also enjoyed the Jedi Training Academy

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Epcot:

  • Soarin
  • Spaceship Earth
  • Test Track
  • The Seas with Nemo and Friends
  • Project Tomorrow: Inventing the World

Of course no trip to Disney would be complete without meeting your favourite characters. We have shots with Buzz and Woody, Cinderella and Rapunzel, the Jungle Book crew, Monster Inc, Sophia the First, to name but a few. Our favourite had to be this pair though:

 

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

 

This has been an epic post, but it was an epic trip and deserved a full-featured write-up. If you have any tips you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments section.

 

Sharing for Monday Escapes

My Travel Monkey

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Reviews, Travelling with 5

Birthday celebrations in Orlando, ‘free-from’ style – Erin McKenna’s Bakery review

Gluten and dairy free birthday cake - A Free From Life

My son is a Christmas Day baby and we normally spend the morning opening Christmas presents and doing the Christmas ‘thing’, with the afternoon then reserved for Birthday. We have lunch at midday, with Birthday cake for pudding instead of traditional Christmas pud.

I usually make a cake because gluten and dairy free cakes are difficult to come by, so I was wondering what we would do for his Birthday this time, as we had booked a trip to Orlando over the festive period. To say I was over the moon to find out that Erin McKenna has opened a bakery at Disney Springs (formally Downtown Disney) is somewhat of an understatement. We first came across this bakery (formerly known as BabyCakes) in New York a couple of years ago, as it was somewhere I particularly wanted to take my son. Imagine, an individual who can’t eat gluten or dairy being able to walk into a bakery and chose whatever they wanted?

Babycakes’ products are completely allergen free and the only thing that has changed is the name. Now Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC has a branch in Orlando and this lovely little understated shop sells sweet treats that are free from refined sugar, wheat, gluten, egg, soya and dairy, plus they are vegan and kosher.

I ordered my son a chocolate frosted chocolate cake (may as well go all out I thought) and had it delivered to our hotel. What a surprise it was for him when our server brought it out, complete with candles and balloons, whilst they sang happy birthday to him (that was the hotel staff not the bakery people!).

Gluten and dairy free birthday cake - A Free From Life

The cake was moist and fudgy, plus not too sweet, which is just how I like it. Luckily, so did my son and whenever we took a trip to Disney Springs for dinner, we knew that we would have no problem getting him something for dessert (not normally an option when you go out). He can officially report that as well as the chocolate birthday cake, the chocolate donuts are amazing!

Gluten and dairy free birthday cake - A Free Fom Life

Reviews

Gluten free in London – Niche restaurant review

Gluten free in London - Niche Restaurant review - A Free From Life

A girls’ get together and a special birthday, what better excuse than to go to a restaurant I’ve been dying to try out ever since I heard about it.

Niche is a 100% gluten free restaurant near Sadler’s Wells theatre and Angel tube station in Islington. I’ve seen so many lovely reviews about this place and wanted to try it for myself and as one of our party also has a gluten free diet, it seemed a perfect opportunity.

As the Niche owners say on their website, it’s gluten free but you wouldn’t know it and they are right. There was no compromise in quality, size and certainly no bread with holes in it! The restaurant is small, with a cosy and quaint atmosphere – cafe style and relaxed.

There were six of us and we had a long table in the front part of the restaurant, which was like a private area. The staff were friendly and we couldn’t have asked for better service.

We ate burgers, steaks and homemade quiche, served with salad, fries, onion rings, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes. All were delicious and washed down with some Prosecco, made for the perfect start to the weekend.

Gluten Free in London - Niche Restaurant Review - A Free From Life

Of course you don’t have to be gluten free to eat at Niche and for those in the party who weren’t, all agreed that you would never know the difference. For those who have a hard time finding a restaurant that caters for their needs, it’s comforting to know that you can go somewhere like this and feel completely at ease. You don’t feel at all awkward or fussy and the staff and management fully understand. That’s a huge weight off your shoulders when you are eating out, I can tell you.

Gluten free in London - Niche restaurant review - A Free From Life

Not everything was dairy free, but they are working on offering more choices that are, recognising that dairy and gluten intolerance often go together.

I think that Niche is doing a great job and I sincerely hope that it gets to stay the distance. If you are ever in London, I recommend you check it out and show them your support.

My Travel Monkey