Category Archives: travel

Saving Money at Disney World

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The capstone on our Florida trip was Disney World. We had gone not all that long ago, and I had politely put in a complaint about accessibility issues at the park. They offered me free tickets to compensate us for our troubles, so we tried again a few months ago.

Things were mostly better this time. Far from perfect; policies at the park still do not give adequate access to the disabled. But I appreciated that they tried and that we only ran into one gnarly park employee this time around.

Aside from having an overall better experience, I did learn a couple things I wanted to tack on to last year’s Disney savings tips.

Balloons are exchangeable.

 

I spent an embarrassing amount of money on a balloon for one of the littles. I mean, it was pretty awesome. A balloon inside of another balloon–both of which have yet to pop.

The quality might be the reason why the balloon lady let me in on a little secret: you can totally exchange your balloon. If it pops or flies away, just bring your receipt and any balloon remains to the nearest person selling balloons to get a replacement.

Now, let’s say you bought your balloon at Magic Kingdom. The balloon floated away on your way to the car, but you’re not going to Magic Kingdom the next day. You’re going to Disney Hollywood Studios.

Doesn’t matter. Take your receipt to the balloon seller at Hollywood Studios and they’ll get a replacement with no hassle.

Yes, I was tempted to take my receipt to the balloon seller at Hollywood Studios to score a second awesome balloon dishonestly.

No, I did not follow through.

Eat before you go to the park.


Last time we went to Disney World, we tried to wake up early and get there as soon as the parks opened. It was May. It was muggy. Everyone got moody.

So this time, we left a little later in the morning, grabbing a leisurely brunch on the way there. One day we did pancakes in the timeshare (which was once again kindly given to us as a gift by a family member), another we hit up a diner, etc.

In turn, we grabbed one meal, generally at a quick-serve place, while we were at the park and stayed out past bedtime.

If we judge by happiness levels, this was a much better plan. Although another contributing factor may have been the time of year.

I mean, was I happy to pay $60-$70 for quick-serve food? No. But if I’m honest, the quality of food there was higher than what we would have gotten at the fast food joint I would have stopped on the way home out of sheer exhaustion. The price wasn’t ideal, but…

Budget-wise, it was a major win over last year. We ate far fewer meals at the park total, and I cut the character meals altogether. We had already done that once, and the hack I found to meet characters for free for sure at a scheduled time was employed heavily this time around. Calling it a hack might seem like a bit much, but after you’ve spent money on the character meals, it feels like one heck of a hack.

So we didn’t have to stress about meal plans, It also meant we weren’t rushing around to make our reservations because we didn’t have any. So. much. less. stress.

And so much less money.

Ordering professional photos.

Around the different parks, you’ll see opportunities to get your picture taken. Sometimes it’s with mascots, sometimes it’s just at a scenic park. We noticed a bunch of these especially in Animal Kingdom.

I don’t have the best camera on my phone and I’m not the best photographer, so this time I made sure to purposefully take advantage. I tried to bunch together all our professional picture taking at two parks so I could pay to buy the photos from the Disney app for each day. By only doing two days, I was able to save money over paying the “whole trip” price.

Unfortunately I did that last time. There were just too many great memories and pictures. But I did learn the bunching method from that experience.

Do you have Disney World savings tips?

What are your favorite Disney savings hacks? Leave them in the comments!

 

Exploring Calusa Culture at The Mound House

Blue text with brown drop shadow reading: "Learning about Calusa Culture at the Mound House   femmefrugality.com"; directly beneath text, there is a table sitting in front of a window. On the blue table top, which is labeled "Nature's Toolbox" along with some other illegible text, are several tools made out of seashells and wood.

While in Florida, I came across a sign when I was driving back from one of my many Walmart trips to my hotel on Estero Island:

Mound House
Archeological Site –>

I was intrigued. I don’t know that I have ever visited an archeological site before. Historical sites, yes. Reenactment villages, for sure. But an archeological site?

Something new and right up my alley.

When I got back to the hotel, I looked up some info and planned a visit.

Touring the Mound House

 

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The Mound House was built on top of a shell mound built by Calusa Native Americans over the course of 2,000 years. The house itself was built in the 20th century on the highest point on the island.

When they went to install a pool sometime around the 1950s, they realized how real shell mounds were. The residents found themselves digging into shells rather than earth, which had been arranged there specifically to provide high ground in the case of all-too-common regional flooding.

Today, you can go underground and see the excavation site, learning a bit about how Calusa society worked, how they recycled and how that recycling scrambles the dating of the shells when you’re going through them layer by layer.

 

 

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It was extremely interesting. We also got to try out replica weapons, including an atlatl–a mysteriously universal ancient hunting tool–along with some of the wildlife in the region including one bold heron who didn’t flinch as we walked by, less than a foot away.

After the official tour was over, we explored some of the exhibits upstairs. Here we learned about the history of the house, which was built by a local tycoon in order to inspire tourism to the island in my extremely watered-down version of history.

 

 

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The Shrouded History of the Calusa

But also the Calusa Indians, who lived in this region for millennia prior to Spanish invasions, have had their history extremely watered down, and in some cases completely eradicated. And not just in my retelling.

The tribe, whose name means ‘The Fierce Ones,’ were notorious warriors and did very well for themselves. When the Spanish came, they defended themselves heartily. But the introduction of new illnesses to the Calusa contributed in large part to their eventual extinction–at least as I understand it from the short tour I went on that one time when I was in Florida.

The little ones did get to try on replica masks, though. They got to learn about the weapons made of shells that these warriors used to assert their dominance.

 

 

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We also got to learn a bit about the religion, which ironically may have been preserved better than some other aspects of the culture with the introduction of literate Spanish missionaries. One aspect of the religion which I found particularly interesting was the idea that we have three different souls, and they all go different places (or stay) depending on their individual purpose.

We had so much fun and learned a ton. It was easily one of the best last-minute vacation experiences we’ve had as a family.

How much does The Mound House cost?

Visiting and getting the tour wasn’t the most frugal adventure ever (some of the things we did on this trip were free), but it also wasn’t crazy expensive and was worth every penny. Kids’ admission is $5 for children ages 6+, adults get in for $10 and students get in for $8 with an ID. Kids ages five and under do get in for free. Some of the tours won’t cost you more, but the most expensive one, which happens in kayaks, will run you $50/person.

Again, so worth it. Check hours and the tour schedule before you plan your trip, and you could set yourself up to see a replica carving demonstration, visit a touch tank full of the local marine life, kayak through the mangroves or learn more about archeology in a hands-on environment.

The place is magical.

Things I Wish I Had Done When I Was Younger

Such an emotional journey! It's easy to forget that today's excuses are tomorrow's regrets. I love the idea of weaving your dreams into your daily life.

My life has been anything but traditional. Most traditional life paths look like this–at least, if we millennials had gotten the opportunity to pursue the path our parents’ generation preached would lead to success:

  1. Go to college.
  2. Get married.
  3. Start a family.

I’ve been married a couple times now, finished school nontraditionally, and had kids before I got that degree.

None of those steps happened in order. But for the most part, I haven’t bemoaned the consequences. My journey has been unique, and it’s been one with plenty of opportunities for self-actualization.

That being said, lately there have been some opportunities I’ve become aware of that I totally wish I could pursue. If I didn’t want to keep the kids in this school district. If I didn’t have this business that I’m kind of in love with running.

And so I’m putting it out there on the internet that if you’re young and have relatively few responsibilities, go. Do these things. Or the things you dream of doing. Because right now is the time. As you get older, you will have more responsibilities. Sometimes these responsibilities are restrictive.

If you’re anything like me, you feel like your responsibilities are already enough at your age. And they are. I respect you for meeting them. But believe me when I say they will get heavier as you age. Sometimes that’s a beautiful thing. But sometimes it can prevent you from applying for a job in the jungle to work with orangutans.

Things I Wish I Had Done When I Was Younger

Get a job in the jungle to work with orangutans.

A pet interest of mine lately has become primatology. I never thought this would be a huge interest for me. Animals are cool, but I never felt particularly drawn to study them.

But go watch YouTube videos about bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. It’s incredible to watch these creatures, our closest cousins, go about their lives. Experience their emotions. Use tools. Care for each other.

So much of what we consider human can be observed in these practices. This, plus access to a language both species can apparently gain fluency in, American Sign Language (ASL), has my brain spinning lately. Especially as so many of the great apes are going extinct because of habitat destruction and the bush meat trade, both of which are caused by humans.

So when I saw an open position at a research outpost my heart soared and the immediately turned sour. Would I love to go work in the jungle to study one of the gentlest of the great apes–the orangutan?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

But again, kids. Business. These are also things I love and want to be spending time at, and both demand attention.

Why did I not do ish like this when I was younger? I think back and can point to a million reasons why, many of them related to my lack of college education at the time. I wish I had known more about grants and scholarships back then.

Live abroad.

I have very few excuses for not doing this. When I was extremely young, I did live abroad. But I was so young I don’t remember too much about it.

When I was college-aged, I could have gotten a job at a hostel or done work online. Apparently, I could have also volunteered as an orangutan researcher in the jungles of Indonesia. In a low enough cost-of-living area, moving abroad would have been more than feasible. But none of these possibilities even crossed my mind.

Study abroad did, though. That’s one thing that stings about not doing college traditionally: I pretty much missed out on study abroad opportunities. I still dream about them now, but pursuing a semester abroad at my age has a lot more complications as far as visas, childcare, and those children’s educational needs go.

I’m not saying it will never happen. But living abroad probably isn’t in the cards in the near future here. Doesn’t mean I’ll stop dreaming, though. 😉

Invested money into index funds.

Okay, so I didn’t know what the hell index funds were when I was younger. I wouldn’t find out about those until J L Collins introduced them to me when I was slightly older but still young.

And I thought you only had enough money to invest if you were rich. And I was decidedly broke, though I did manage to get together decent emergency funds from time to time.

But had I gone to college traditionally I would have graduated at the peak of the Recession. Stocks were so cheeeeeaaaaaappppp. I would have so much more saved for retirement now, but back then I didn’t even know how to open an IRA and robo advisors didn’t exist. I could be wrong, but I feel like you generally needed more to get started back in the day (which really and truly wasn’t all that long ago.)

But I can still help the orangutans.

Just because I didn’t do some of these things when I was younger doesn’t mean I can’t transfer some of the enjoyment I would get from them into my life.

I may not be able to go back in time and invest from the age of 18, but I can regularly save for my retirement today. Future me will be grateful I started when I did rather than waiting until later. The best time to plant a tree was thirty years ago, but the second best time is now.

I may not be able to live abroad at the moment, but I can bring the joy of travel into my kids’ lives by exposing them to it early via vacations and long weekends, building it into the budget all the while.

And I may not be able to go research orangutans in the jungle, but I can still help the effort to save them by donating to the research center’s cause.

Life doesn’t necessarily get worse as you get older. Your joy just changes forms.

 

 

Frugal Fun at the Wildlife Refuge

Definitely putting this on my to-see list next time I take the family on a trip down to Sanibel Island!

When I’m traveling, I’m not opposed to doing tourist-y things. But if I’m going to do them, I prefer to do them as affordably as possible. Sometimes you can’t avoid admission fees and exorbitant costs to experience once-in-a-lifetime activities, but I’ve gotten pretty good at finding frugal activities no matter where I go.

The recent Florida trip was no different. We were able to take part in two non-beach-related activities while we were in Fort Myers Beach: JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and The Mound House.

Both were really cool, and I’m going to let you in on all the deets of The Mound House next week. But today I want to tell you all about our low-cost trip to the wildlife refuge.

JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

national wildlife refuge

JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is on Sanibel Island. We were staying on Estero Island, but the trip over to Sanibel was pretty darn short.

When we got there, we headed into the visitor’s center, which has a ton of fun educational displays and activities about the local flora and fauna. It also features the history of the refuge and JN Ding Darling himself.

Also, the visitor’s center is free!

While we were there, we learned about the refuge’s app. It looked pretty cool, and was going to be super interactive for the kids on our self-guided tour, but the sun was super bright and we had trouble seeing the screen while we were outside.

No complaints about the warm weather. I’ll take not being able to see my screen over the snow I was trying to escape any day.

The Trails

black bird sanibel island

From there we hiked the trails. It was really cool. The first portion reminded me of our hike down the Mayan-maintained walkways of the Yucatan rain forest. We were on a raised platform among low trees with wildlife potentially lurking all around us.

We mostly saw birds, but we also saw fish and spiders as we made our way through the mangroves.

The second path we trekked was made completely of seashells where you’d expect to see gravel. We made it to an observation center where I finally was able to conceptualize the Laetoli footprints.

Costs

heron mud florida

Visit the wildlife refuge is incredibly affordable. Like I said, the visitor’s center is free. And the three paths you can walk or bike are pretty darn affordable, too. The Bailey Tract is free, and the Indigo Trail is only $1/person.

You can also do wildlife drive, which can be visited via foot, bike or car. It’s closed every Friday–which is the day of the week we visited–but you can catch it every other day of the week for $5/vehicle, $1/pedestrian or $1/bicycle.

Whichever path you take, I highly recommend the refuge as a quality activity that you won’t even know you barely paid for.

Catch it on Insta

I’m currently documenting this Florida trip on Instagram, including some more pictures of the refuge, so be sure to follow along!

Bowman’s Beach vs Estero Island

Pinning for my next trip to Fort Myers!

The first place we visited in Florida was Fort Myers Beach. We were there for the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Our hotel had a full kitchenette, which was great. The night before we picked up turkey, rolls and sides from Honey Baked Ham. The meal was amazing, super low effort for a holiday meal, and cost us around $80 total, which is about what we would have spent on groceries to cook that meal ourselves, anyways.

We did a lot while we were in the Fort Myers area. None of it was too crazy expensive. But the cheapest activity was hitting up the actual beach. We did two this time around, and definitely had a favorite when all was said and done.

Bowman’s Beach

sanibel island beach florida

Bowman’s Beach is on Sanibel Island. To get to Sanibel Island, you have to cross this massive, elegant, white bridge which rises over the most beautiful blue waters you’ve ever seen (as long as there’s no Red Tide.)

To get across it, you need to pay $6. They only take cash, which is super convenient in 2019. If you’re like me and almost never carry cash, their security cameras will record your license plate number, using it to locate your address and send you a bill.

All the way at the tail end of the island is Bowman’s Beach. You’ll drive by quaint shops and nature reserves to get there. When you arrive, you’ll be greeted by a massive parking lot. Nab a spot, pay for parking at the machine located in the middle of the lot, and start down the trail towards the beach.

About a quarter of the way down, there are restrooms and changing rooms. They were pretty clean for a public access beach, but you’re still going to want to wear flip flops at the very least. There were also some outdoor changing cubicles, too, and outdoor showers to rinse off after you’re done.

The rest of the hike is over beautiful white sand. It’s not crazy long, but the walk is definitely going to range from cumbersome to inaccessible if you’re there with anyone who has mobility issues.

When we got to the beach it was crowded. That wasn’t entirely unexpected; it’s a popular beach known for its shells. There was a barrier of them about halfway up the beach, and then another band of them for about 5-10 yards after you stepped into the water, after which you got to silky sand under your feet.

Honestly, they ended up hurting my feet more than amazing me. We got there in the afternoon so I’m sure it would have been more of thrill if we had gotten there first thing in the morning before things were picked over.

Bugs make me grumpy.

But I was also unusually grumpy, though I still tried to wear a smile. This may have affected my shell love. You see, there were tons of no-see-ums. They’re tiny little bugs that leave big, itchy bites.

These little guys loved me, and to top it off, I had some type of allergic reaction to the bites. The inflammation turned the cold I was almost over into bronchitis, which led to an Urgent Care visit. They got me the meds I needed and it was a free visit since I had already met my annual max deductible on my health insurance (yay?). But I’m definitely going to have some scars from those bites.

Last year when we went to Sanibel it was for a wedding, and we visited the beach via the family’s private property. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but I did also get bit to hell and back on that trip, too. There wasn’t enough calamine lotion in the world.

So for the bugs alone, I don’t think I’ll prioritize Sanibel as a destination in the future. That doesn’t mean I don’t fawn over its impossibly blue waters and white sand shores. But it does mean that I’m perfectly satisfied with seeing those same waters and beaches over on Estero Island where I don’t think I was bit once.

Estero Island

fort myers beach florida

Estero Island is in Fort Myers Beach. It’s a long skinny island with only one bridge back to the mainland. We stayed right about in the middle of the island, across the street from the beach.

It was glorious.

All the impossibly blue waters and white sand shores. None of the bugs. Enough people that if you needed help someone would notice and be able to call 911, but not so many people that you could hear the people next to you converse.

Granted, we were there during the week of Thanksgiving. We were also staying far enough down the island that I would imagine the crowds started thinning out before they got to us, staying closer to the bars and restaurants near the bridge.

Wanna hear something funny? We even found this huge cache of shells. It was amazing. I only thought to take a picture once we had cleared most of them out, but we brought them home so I got an after shot:

flordia shell cache

Which is better–Bowman’s Beach or Estero Island?

For me, Estero Island was the clear winner. There’s probably tons of people who would disagree with me. But the cheaper-than-Sanibel hotels, comparative absence of no-see-ums while we were there and the lack of feet-cutting shell beds won it for me.

Also, because we were staying on Estero Island, it was a cheaper beach because we didn’t have to pay for parking.