Off the Beaten Path in Venice

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since our trip to Italy! It was an incredible trip, and we’ve been reflecting back on those happy memories lately. We feel exceptionally lucky that we had the chance to go last year, and our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Italy and around the world that are dealing with the current pandemic. To spread some happiness, we’re finally sharing some of our tips from our time in Venice.

On final stop on our trip through Italy concluded in Venice! By this point, we have traversed a good bit of the country, taking in sights from the coast to the countryside and now the islands of Venice. While Venice is regarded as one of the must-see places while you still can (it sinks a little bit further into the water each year!), that brings its own challenges of being subject to over-tourism. We made it our mission to enjoy the major claims to fame for Venice, but also to seek out places and activities that only locals know about. Here are some of our tips to help you experience the other side of Venice:

1. Visit cicchetti bars in the early evening for the best small plates and drinks. Our first night in Venice, we booked an Airbnb experience with a local Venetian for a food and drink tour. (New to Airbnb? Use our link for a discount off your first stay here.) He took our small group around to several tiny local bars and introduced us to the concept of cicchetti. Essentially, these are small bites and drinks that you enjoy before a later meal – think of it as a Venetian happy hour! It’s a great way to try some of the traditional Venetian foods like sardines, polpette (fried meatballs), or crostini. And you have to have something to wash down your food, so ask for an ombra di bianco o di rosso which is the Italian equivalent of a small glass of the house wine. It’s getting harder and harder to find truly authentic Venetian restaurants on the island, so the cicchetti bars are some of the best ways to have a real taste of Venice. My favorite cicchetti was anything with fresh pesto, while Grant preferred the smoked fish or proscuitto. TLB Tip: If you are feeling particularly adventurous, try the sarde en saor – a traditional Venetian sardine dish!

2. Take the traghetto across the lagoon to say you’ve ridden a gondola without the expensive price tag. A gondola ride is the epitome of the Venetian experience, but we had heard so many stories about bad experiences or overpriced tours. We were wary to book anything and decided to save our money and forgo the ride, until we learned about the traghetto option. Essentially, the traghetto is a gondola without all of the fancy bells and whistles and it’s used as a ferry to get passengers from one side of the lagoon to the other. It’s a quick 2 minute ride, but for the experience on the water and for only 2 Euros each, we had a blast!

3. Bring your own water bottle to save money on the waters sold by the overpriced street vendors. You’ll find fountains and safe tap drinking water throughout Italy, so it’s super easy to fill up throughout the day if you have your own water bottle. Bonus tip: bring your empty bottle to one of the island’s bulk wine stores and they will fill up a liter for less than 3 Euros of one of their house wine! We ended up randomly discovering a location during one of our walks. It was a great way to try some local wine for cheap, especially if you are planning to be there for a few days.

4. Enjoying walking around the city, even if you don’t have a destination in mind. I’ll admit that while I’m typically good with directions, Venice was a challenge for me. With so many winding alleyways and bridges traversing the city, it’s easy to get turned around or lost. The good news is that the city is relatively small and very walkable. Our favorite times in Venice were when we just started heading in the general direction of our final destination, with no time constraints. We stumbled upon an amazing little bookshop that kept books in gondolas and bathtubs to protect the books during the flooding season which was so cool to see. Another day, we bought a vaporetto (water taxi) pass, and we took an adventure over to the island of Lido to visit the beach and went to Murano to see the amazing blown glass. We didn’t have any specific activities in mind when visiting both of these places, but it is so calming to be next to the ocean and to see more of Venice outside of the main island.

Is Venice on your bucket list for a future trip to Italy? What would you be most excited about?

Be sure to check out our other Italy posts about Sorrento and Florence!

Check us out on Instagram at www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells

72 Hours in Florence – What Not to Miss!

Florence was the second stop of our Italian adventure (check out our favorite parts of Sorrento and the Amalfi coast here if you missed it), and with so much to see and do in this historic city, we wanted to share some of the top things to do if you are only there for a few days. We arrived to Florence by train and had just 3 nights to explore all that the beautiful city had to offer before heading on to our final stop of Venice. Both Grant and I had been to Florence before – in fact, it was one of the places we visited on the trip where we met each other for the first time, so it holds a special place in both of our hearts! We did a little more research before arriving in Florence, just knowing that we would need to plan our museum visits and any reservations in advance. While it was a whirlwind of 72 hours and we didn’t even come close to seeing everything in Florence, these are the 3 things we recommend you prioritize for your visit here:

Artwork, Museums, Historic Sites – Florence is home to some of the most incredible art and history! The two most well-known museums are the Accademia and Uffizi Gallery. The Accademia is home to Michelangelo’s David and the Uffizi Gallery has pieces from the Italian Renaissance that artists that range from Botticelli to Caravaggio to Raphael to Titian. Both of these museums can have staggering waits if you don’t make an advance reservation. We opted to take advantage of the Firenze Card which is essentially a 72 hour “city pass” to over 70 Florence museums and attractions. TLB Tip: The Firenze Card is 85 Euros each, so take a look at the museums and attractions included (as well as museum opening times with many closed on Mondays) to decide if it’s a good fit for you! We picked up our Firenze Card after arriving at the train station and then were able to make our reservations for the Accademia and Uffizi at the ticket counter specifically for Firenze Card holders. In addition to these two museums, we also visited the Palazzo Vecchio Museum where we saw Dante’s death mask and several rooms that were included in the movie, Inferno. The Bargello Museum was a great option for anyone who loves sculptures (don’t miss Donatello’s David!). One place that I wish we had more time was the Pitti Palace and surrounding areas. This gorgeous palace was the chief residence for the Medici family and is home to incredible art and sprawling gardens. Despite a very rainy visit while we were in Florence, we were able to enjoy a walk around the Boboli Gardens and Bardini Gardens which overlook the Arno river and downtown Florence. The final place we wish we had gotten to visit was the Duomo – the iconic church in the center of town. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to book a reservation to view the church and no walk-ins are allowed, so we highly recommend you prioritize this reservation before you arrive if you wish to see the inside of the church.

Authentic Food – With all the walking and sightseeing, we definitely worked up an appetite in Florence! Pretty sure that our whole Italy trip was centered around two things – us viewing historic sites and eating! Since we were visiting three distinctly different Italian cities and regions, we wanted to make sure that we enjoyed the local cuisine in each city. From our research, we found that Florentine steak, wild boar pasta, and truffles are some of the Florence or Tuscan specialties. Our first night in Florence, we went on the hunt for the Florentine steak and La Fettunta did not disappoint! This tiny hole in the wall restaurant does not take reservations, so arrive early if you want to get a seat. In typical Italian fashion, we each ordered pasta as our first course and were shocked by the huge portion sizes! We tried not to fill up too much before tackling our 1.3kg steak. TLB Tip: Florentine T-bones are sold by the kilogram but often start at 1.2kg+ so be sure to ask what the total weight is before ordering; otherwise, you may end up with a surprisingly high check at the end of the night! Our steak was cooked perfectly (traditionally served medium rare or rare) and needless to say we were stuffed at the end of the evening! For our other meals around Florence, we tried to select dishes that included wild boar (pappardelle was fantastic at il Nuttino!) and truffles. I don’t think we had a bad meal with any of these options! Though, for anyone allergic to tree nuts – be forewarned that many truffle cream sauces are made with cashews. Finally, I can’t end our food highlights without mentioning some of the most amazing sandwiches from I’ Girone De’ Ghiotti. This was another tiny restaurant where you saw a good mix of locals and tourists grabbing a quick bite to eat. They have a set list of about a dozen specialty sandwiches or you can select your own combination of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and sauce. Not only was it super affordable (around 5-8 Euros per sandwich), but the ingredients were so fresh and the portion sizes were HUGE! We’ve been home for a few months, and Grant still talks about this place. So if the owners of I’ Girone De’ Ghiotti are reading this and want to build a location in Alpharetta, GA, hit us up to be your first USA franchisees!

Tuscany Tour – Finally, one of the best parts of Florence is the rolling countryside and endless vineyards nearby. So naturally, we had to make sure that we enjoyed some Tuscan wine! We looked up several different wine tours and ended up selecting one through Airbnb Experiences – our first time booking through here. TLB Tip: Never used Airbnb? Use our referral link here to get $40 off your first stay and $15 for your first Airbnb booked experience!

What an amazing day we had on this tour! Definitely a highlight from our stay in Florence! Roberto was a great host and gave us a behind the scenes glimpse into the true lives of winemakers in Tuscany. We were accompanied by his friend Leo who was not only a knowledgeable sommelier, but was also very personable and spoke great English. We loved getting to visit the co-op to get a behind the scenes look at how must winemakers produced their wine. Unlike the United States where most winemakers own all of their own equipment and produce their wine on-site, most Tuscan winemakers are producing quantities that are mainly for personal consumption. Because of this, they buy in to the co-op where they can all use the shared equipment during the harvest and bottling process rather than owning their own equipment.

After we left the co-op, Roberto and Leo took us to the beautiful Castello di Santa Maria Novella, a thousand year old castle that stands on the highest point between Florence and Sienna. The castle is privately owned and mainly used for special events, but still is home to a small olive grove and vineyards. We enjoyed some delicious crostinis with truffle olive oil produced at the castle along with Prosecco before we had the chance to tour the castle ground. I even braved my fear of heights and made it to the top of the castle parapet!

We ended our day at Roberto’s family home and vineyard, which has been in their family for centuries. We had a chance to explore some of the vineyards and take photos before going inside and being seated for an incredible meal. The table was filled with some of the best meats and cheeses we have ever tasted, and it was hard to not fill up on this first course! As we ate, Leo paired different wines for us to try and explained the difference between some of the local Tuscan wines. The wine was wonderful and the group was very helpful at accommodating any allergy concerns. We had a delicious meat sauce gnocci following our meat and cheese course, and the main course was truffle pasta with freshly shaved truffles! And as if we weren’t already full enough, we had a delicious lemon torte dessert too. All of the house wine was wonderful and we had the opportunity to purchase some at the end of the tour. We ended up buying two bottles of our favorite Chianti, but sadly had to leave one bottle behind when we were unable to check our bag at the airport (more on that story another time!) Luckily, they ship to the US, so we may be reaching out to order more! Definitely book this experience if you are looking for an authentic look at the wine of Tuscany and want a more intimate and personal experience.

What is your favorite part of vacation? Is it the food and wine, the historic places and artwork, or the countryside? It’s hard for us to choose just one in Italy!

Check out our Instagram for more posts to come: www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells

Must Sees & Eats in Sorrento

It’s been about a month since we returned from our incredible Italian adventure, and we wanted to share some of our favorite things to do and places to eat from our travels. Our first stop of the trip was to Sorrento, a small, cliff-side town on the Amalfi coast. Located about an hour south of Naples, we ended up taking a shared van shuttle to the city. Another alternative is taking the bus or the train, but we agreed that the simplicity of having a shuttle and time it saved was worth the additional cost. TLB Tip: Check out Viator or Get Your Guide for some shared transfer options that are affordable and easy to book! Before we started our trip, we knew we wanted to see authentic Italy, so we decided to book all of our accommodations at Airbnbs to live in more local areas and get tips from our hosts (New to Airbnb? Sign up with our link to get a discount on your first stay here!). Our Airbnb in Sorrento was nothing short of spectacular with views of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius from the porch, a block from the train station, and easy walking distance to everywhere in Sorrento.

To see more views of our Airbnb, check out Rossella’s listing here

Sorrento is home of limoncello, has incredible Neopolitan pizza, and is convenient to other cities along the Amalfi coast like Positano, Amalfi, and Capri. With only 3 nights in Sorrento, we wanted to make sure we did as much as possible to immerse ourselves into the culture of Sorrento. See some of our favorites and tips below for what to do and what to eat while you are in Sorrento!

Must Sees

  • Lemons – Sorrento is home of limoncello, so there is no shortage of lemons around the city! Be sure to stop by the public lemon gardens to see the hundreds of lemons the size of grapefruits or take a stroll down Corsa Italia to visit the many different limoncello shops. Our favorite by far was Limonoro. They had such a wide variety of limoncello, ranging from classic lemon and creamy lemon to melon or even pistachio flavored limoncello and other local treats. And the best part? They offered multiple samples right in the store, so we knew we would love what we bought! If you are planning to visit, let us know – we would like to place an order for some limoncello and they only take orders in-person from the store!
  • Marinas – Sorrento has two marinas – Marina Piccola and Marina Grande. Marina Piccola is the port of Sorrento, where ferries and cruise ships come into the city. It also has has a small beach and suntanning areas. The path down to Marina Piccola is not for those afraid of heights with its winding staircase down! But for about 2 Euro, you can take a short elevator ride down to the shoreline and back up again. The other marine, Marina Grande, is the fisherman village and home of some great seafood! About a 10-15 minute walk from Piazza Tasso, you find yourself strolling down a cobblestone pathway before emerging and overlooking one of the most beautiful views in Sorrento. And if you time your visit right, you’ll see the most amazing sunset with Vesuvius in the background. We spent two evenings in Marina Grande, so needless to say, it’s a must visit!
  • Amalfi Coast Boat Tour – With Sorrento’s proximity to so many incredible cities along the Amalfi coast, we knew we wanted to take a day trip to explore more. We did our research and decided that a boat tour sounded more fun than a bus tour (especially with those twisty, windy roads!). Most boat tours only take 10-15 guests per tour, so we took a gamble and booked our tour in advance of getting to Sorrento and kept our fingers crossed for good weather. Fortunately, we had a perfect day – a beautiful, sunny day and smooth water! Typically, boat tours offer two options – Capri or Positano and Amalfi. We both were looking forward to seeing as much as we could during our tour and enjoying our time on the boat, so we chose to visit Positano and Amalif (1.5 hours in each city) as opposed to the entire time at Capri (4 hours). We had a great experience with Capitano Ago’s tour! We were picked up in Piazza Tasso and on the boat by 9 AM. Once we “set sail”, our captain and skipper gave us some of the history of the coast and sites as we made our way around the coastline. We enjoyed some Peroni and a delicious Caprese sandwich before exploring our first city – Amalfi. The white houses create a stunning contrast with the rich blue Mediterranean, and we had a great time exploring some of the beautiful streets of Amalfi.
  • Our next stop was Positano, which was our favorite part of the day! The city of Positano is a true beach town, with the colorful buildings emerging out of the mist of the low clouds as we came into the harbor. We wandered along the beach with the quintessential Amalfi coast beverage – Aperol spritz! We loved climbing the {many} steps up to view the town from higher up and soaking in the Italian sunshine before our journey back to Sorrento. 10/10 recommend a boat tour of the Amalfi coast and next time, maybe we will get a chance to go to Capri as well!
  • Pizza Making Class – With Sorrento so close to Naples, the home of Neapolitan pizza, it was a requirement that we enjoyed pizza while we were here, and what better way to enjoy pizza than taking a pizza making class from Italian experts? We had a great time at Il Tirabuscio for our pizza making class! We learned how to make dough from scratch and that dough should rest for 24 hours before baking it (or else the yeast will continue to rise in your stomach and make you more full), and got to assemble our own pies before putting them into the oven. By far the best pizza we had in Italy (not to toot our own horns!), and we got to finish our meal by making homemade tiramisu and enjoying a refreshing limoncello.

Must Eats

  • Porta Marina Seafood – By far the best seafood we had our entire 12 day trip was here! Porta Marina Seafood is located in Marina Grande which overlooks the fishing village. We had heard about this restaurant and knew we had to check it out not only for the food, but also for the incredible sunset views. We arrived around 7:30 and were able to get a table outside overlooking the harbor where we could watch the fishermen bringing in their catch of the day and wait for the sunset. Despite Sorrento being a tourist town, Porta Marina had great prices – about 50 euros for a liter of wine, mussels and clams, and two grilled seafood entrees. If we could go back to Italy for one meal, this would be where we went!
  • Pizzeria da Franco – Our first meal in Italy was at Franco’s Pizza! Our Airbnb host recommended this local restaurant to us and luckily it was right down the street. While not a fancy place per se (think plastic silverware and pizzas served on metal trays), the food was delicious! There was a good mix of locals and tourists and plenty of different pizza options on the menu.
  • Torna a Sorriento Trattoria – This was one of the locations we had on our list to try while in Sorrento based on reviews that it offered a truly authentic Italian dinner experience and we were not disappointed! After walking {running} through a torrential downpour our first night, we arrived at Torna a Sorriento around 7:30. When we walked in, we saw that there was only 6 or so tables in the entire restaurant! The owner greeted us and asked if we had a reservation. We didn’t but he was able to make a table for us as long as we were able to be done by 9 PM. This was the perfect first dinner in Sorrento and some of the most reasonable prices – liter of house wine, prosciutto and mozzarella, bruschetta, lasagna, and two frutti di mare pasta for under 50 euros! The owner and his mother were so kind and inviting, making our first night in Sorrento a great start to our trip.

There is so much more to see, do, and eat while in Sorrento, and we wish we had more time to explore all this magical city has to offer! Are there any places we should add to our list for next time? Let us know in the comments below.

Stay tuned for more posts about our Italian adventure and follow us on Instagram at www.instagram.com/TheLocalBells

Our Spontaneous Trip to Clayton, GA

2019 has been flying by in a whirlwind, and we decided we needed a quick break to decompress at the end of March. We wanted to go just for a night and be somewhere that was fairly close yet felt far away. We narrowed it down to a few options and finally decided on the Beechwood Inn in Clayton, GA. About 2 hours outside of Atlanta right near the Tennessee line, the bed and breakfast is home to some of the best food we’ve ever had and one of our favorite vineyards nearby. So we packed our bags Thursday night, and hit the road after work on Friday.

With just 10 rooms, the inn is small enough that you get personal attention but relaxed enough to enjoy your time the way you want to. The innkeepers, David and Gayle, host daily “Wine Thirty” happy hours with guests and are quick to offer suggestions for activities and restaurants. Downtown Clayton is just a short walk away with some great little restaurants like Fortify and Fortify Pi. We learned that Clayton is best known for their “farm to table” food options, so you’ll find local produce, meat, and cheeses at almost every place you visit. The Beechwood Inn is no exception, hosting several farm to table dinner events on Saturdays each month.

While we didn’t get to enjoy one of their wonderful dinners this time, our breakfast Saturday morning was incredible! A full two course breakfast is included with your room rate, and the inn chef prepares your meal fresh that morning when you wake up and come down to the dining room. Grant has a tree nut allergy and they were very helpful to accommodate that as well. We started off with coffee and fresh squeezed peach juice before beginning our first course of baked apples and a chocolate chip cherry scone. The second course was french toast, thick cut bacon, and fresh food. I think it’s safe to say we didn’t leave the table hungry!

Not only is Clayton known for their farm to table food, but they also have a small but growing population of vineyards and wineries nearby. Grant and I’s personal favorite is Tiger Mountain Vineyards. The vineyard was started by the Ezzard and McMullen families in 1995, with an emphasis on European varietals and 100% of grapes grown on property. Most other Georgia vineyards import certain grape varietals in from other local vineyards or even from California, so it’s unique to find a winery that grows and uses only their own grapes. And even more than that, Tiger Mountain wines are by far our favorite Georgia based wine! And even the critics agree with us, with the vineyard accumulating over 195 awards for their wines over the years.

They have a wine tasting option offered daily ($10), which is a great way to sample many of their different varietals. Our favorites are the Mountain Cyn and the Rabun Red, made with the Norton grape that is the only grape indigenous to North America. The vineyard often has live music on the weekends with light bites of local cheese and crackers to enjoy with your wine. If you are looking for more of a meal, their Red Barn Cafe has lunch options that include your wine tasting for free! While I wasn’t able to convince Grant to sign up for the Tigerwine Tasters wine club (this time), they have a great wine club option if you want to get some great wine at an great discount. Most of their bottles are under the $30 price point to begin with, but wine club members get free tastings and an additional 20% off all wine purchases. You do have to commit to purchasing 2 cases of wine in a 2 year period, but purchases can be made in increments instead of all at once. It’s probably a good thing the vineyard is a 2 hour drive for us or we might be in trouble!

So there you go! If you are looking for a quiet getaway outside of Atlanta with some of the most authentic food and wine options, consider Clayton for your next mini trip. And if you can’t get to Clayton and still want to try the Tiger Mountain wines, the Atlanta area Whole Foods stores carry an assortment of some of their top varietals. Have any other great weekend trips from Atlanta that we should consider for the summer? Let us know below in the comments!

Follow along with us on our Instagram at www.instagram.com/TheLocalBells.

Top 5 Tips for Planning the Best Disney World Vacation

Late last year, Grant and I took our third trip together to Disney World, and it may have been our best visit yet! In a previous post, we talked about our tips for saving big money on your trip (read how we saved over $1,000 here!), and now we’re going to share some of our best Disney planning tips. It may be a bit cheesy, but the planning of a Disney trip and the anticipation is one of my favorite parts besides the vacation itself! My Monday-Friday job is in market research/consumer insights, so researching and organizing are some of my strongest skills – and ones that are put to good use when planning our Disney vacations! Here are some of the tips and tricks I use when we start our planning process:

  1. Decide when you want to go: Everyone has their own opinion on when to visit Disney World, and now with their variable ticket pricing, it’s more important than ever to decide what works best for your vacation and budget. The past two visits, we’ve decided to go right after Thanksgiving to take advantage of a free dining promotion and experience Disney World during the early part of the Christmas season. The weather is typically great and crowds are definitely thinner than the peak times of year, so it’s been one of our favorite times to visit. If you are undecided or just overwhelmed with when to visit, I have a few great resources that I use (especially in other aspects of planning). Mousesavers has a great collection of the different Disney room rates and tracks promotional offers if you are searching for the best deal. If you are more concerned with visiting when it’s not as busy, I love the crowd calendars at WDW Prep School – they are especially helpful when you get to the point of planning your FastPass+ selections. One of the best parts of booking a Disney vacation is being able to spread out the payments. They only require a $200 deposit upon booking, and trips must be paid in full 30 days prior to your trip. If you plan a year in advance for a $3000 trip, you spend only about $250 a month to pay for your trip. TLB tip: If at all possible, try to plan your Disney World trip at least 180 days out to take full advantage of all of the planning resources. If you are making a room only reservation, you can do that up to 499 days in advance!
  2. Research dining options and be ready to make reservations: Coming from the wife and husband that can barely decide where to eat dinner on the weekend, it seems crazy that we pick where to eat at Disney 6 months in advance! There are over 130 restaurants around Disney World, Disney Springs, and the resorts, and many don’t take walk-ups during the busy season. If you have your heart set on popular favorites like Cinderella’s Royal Table, O’hana, or Be Our Guest, you better be ready at that 180 day mark! TLB Tip: When you book a vacation package with Disney, you are able to make your dining reservations for your entire stay (up to 10 days) on the 180 mark. Basically, this gives you the flexibility to book all of your reservations at one time, rather than having to book each day of your vacation separately on the 180 day mark. TLB Tip: Reservations open online at 6 AM EST, so be ready with your list ahead of time! If you can’t get the times or restaurants you want right away, don’t give up hope! MouseDining’s dining reservation tracker will alert you when a reservation frees up for your specified time.
  3. Plan for FastPass+: This can make or break a Disney vacation, especially during peak crowd times! Each day that you have a park ticket, you are allotted 3 FastPass selections at one park. Guests staying on property can select rides or attractions that they’d like to visit 60 days in advance (those off property have 30 days advance) starting at 7 AM EST. FastPass+ will give you a designated time to visit and bypass the main line – almost like a reservation! For popular rides like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Avatar Flight of Passage, this is a huge time-saver! Be forewarned, all parks except for Magic Kingdom have a tiered FastPass selection process, so you won’t be able to select FastPasses for all the big ticket attractions (for example, Soarin’ and Test Track are both Tier 1, so you’d have to choose between those two). Disney’s website has additional details about FastPass+ here. TLB Tip: Once you have used your first 3 Fastpasses, you are able to add another Fastpass one at a time for the remainder of the day! As soon as you scan into your third attraction, go ahead and open up your My Disney Experience app to see what is available – you never know, you may find an ellusive Slinky Dog Coaster Fastpass!
  4. Consider special ticketed events: There are two big special, ticketed events that happen at Disney each year – Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (August – October) and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (November – December). While we’ve only been to the Christmas party, we’ve heard great things about the Halloween celebration too! The parties can be a little pricey, but you have access to Magic Kingdom beginning at 4 PM on the day of the party (no other park ticket required). By 7 PM when the party officially begins, crowds will start to clear out and you get to enjoy significantly shorter wait times for all of your favorite rides! Plus, there are some great snacks and character meet and greets included with the party, and it’s a great way to get excited about the holiday season.
  5. Double check park hours and confirmations: Once you get about 2 weeks out from your trip, it’s time to double check all of your information! I like to keep an Excel spreadsheet with everything we need (FastPass selections, park hours, dining reservations). A few weeks before your vacation, Disney will finalize park hours on the app and website. I like to check these especially when we have early breakfast reservations to see when parks officially open. I also typically call the dining reservation line to make sure that any allergies or celebrations have been noted on our reservations before we get there. TLB Tip: If you have a dietary restriction or allergy, Disney is incredible at accommodating and providing options! Just let your waiter know when you sit down, and most restaurants have an allergy friendly menu guide which makes it so simple, even for buffets!
Planning spreadsheet example with our dining plan allotments, reservations, and FastPass+

So there you go – our top 5 tips to planning the best Disney World vacation! We are already counting down to our next visit, which is TBD! Any other tips that you recommend for our next trip? Keep up with us on Instagram at www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells

We Saved Over $1,000 on Our Disney World Vacation – And So Can You!

Back in November, Grant and I celebrated our first anniversary at the happiest place on Earth – Disney World! We’ve had the opportunity to go three times together (2015, 2016, and 2018), and each time it gets even better! This was our second time with the “Free Dining” promotion, and this time, we tracked all of our spending to see if it actually saved us money. And after tallying every dollar spent on our resort, tickets, and food, the grand total was over $1,000 in savings compared to if we had paid for every thing at full cost! And if you include our flights that we paid for with points and a gift card, that total goes up to nearly $1,400 that we saved!

So, how did we do it? Unlike grocery shopping or online shopping where you can use a myriad of coupons or promo codes to get some great deals, Disney itself really only has a few ways for you to save on a vacation: a room discount, package discount/special offer, or by using your Disney Visa card rewards. But there are a few other tips and tricks to save and stretch every dollar for your next Disney vacation!

Here are the steps we took to build up these amazing savings:

  • Free Dining” Promotion – The first time we took advantage of the “Free Dining” promotion was in 2016, and we stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort. We stumbled upon the promotion when were were planning our trip and were lucky enough to snag a reservation with the offer. This time, we knew to be on the lookout for it, especially since it’s historically been offered for the same time of year (promo becomes available in late April for bookings in the fall/early winter; I like to keep track of historical promos here). We managed to book at Coronado Springs this time for a few days after Thanksgiving, the best time in my opinion to get in the Christmas spirit and go during a cooler time of year. TLB Tip – there are rumors that “Free Dining” will be going away after Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opens. BUT if you are looking to plan a Disney vacation this summer, they have “Free Dining” available July-September, so book while you can! The promotion nearly always sells out, but make sure it’s the right choice for you and your family:
    • Ticket Requirements – There are ticket requirements (Park Hopper and typically at least 4 days) and you aren’t able to bundle with other offers, so sometimes a room only discount can be better (deluxe resorts sometimes have discounts up to 35%!). For us, we knew we wanted the Park Hopper option and planned to be there 5 days and 4 nights, so the promotion fit perfectly for our vacation. When looking at the room only discount for the same time period, a 20% discount at Coronado Springs would only save us about $200, so we opted for the free dining package instead.
    • Different Meal Plans Included – Only the Deluxe resorts get the full Disney Dining Plan (1 quick service, 1 table service, 2 snacks per person per night); Values and Moderates get the Quick Service Plan (2 quick service, 2 snacks per person per night). With this trip being an anniversary trip, we definitely wanted to make sure we had some table service options. Although we were staying at a Moderate resort, Disney allows you to upgrade your meal plan for the difference in cost, which was well worth it to us! This way, it basically feels like an all-inclusive vacation (aside from tips). If we hadn’t had free dining this trip, it still would have been worth it for us – we would have saved a couple hundred dollars by purchasing the meal plan this trip.
    • Make Dining Reservations Early! I cannot emphasize this one enough, especially for the Disney Dining Plan with table service restaurants. Disney opens the booking window 180 days out for dining reservations, and if you are staying on property, you can make reservations for all days of your vacation at that 180 day mark. And if you want to eat at some of the most popular restaurants like Be Our Guest, you’ll want to be on the computer right at 6 AM EST to book those! Keep in mind that the cost of the Disney Dining Plan is $75.49 per person per night, so if you really want to maximize the benefits of “free dining,” you’ll want to look at menus and plan to try to spend over $5 per snack, $18 per quick service meal, and $41 per table service meal (the break even amounts if you paid for the plan out of pocket). We highly recommend Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club (all you can eat crab legs!) and Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for some of our favorite table service meals. And Be Our Guest is the only quick service location that requires reservations for breakfast and lunch, so we love being able to plan for a great meal for less time than a typical table service meal.
    • So. Much. Food. So would we really eat this much food if we weren’t on the dining plan? Probably not. The two snacks per person each day was a bit aggressive, and we ended up using quite a few on our last day with the Goofy candy to take home. But it was great to be able to try some new restaurants and food that we wouldn’t normally order. TLB Tip – Starbucks drinks count as a snack credit, so go ahead and order that $7 Venti Frappuccino that you know you can’t resist! And new to the 2018 (and still for 2019) dining plan was the addition of a specialty beverage with each meal. It made every meal feel like a special treat, and definitely not what we would have done if we were paying a la carte!
  • Sam’s Club Gift Cards – One of our top travel hacks for planning and paying for this trip was purchasing discounted Disney gift cards from Sam’s Club. When you make your initial reservation, Disney only requires a $200 deposit that is refundable up until 30 days from your check-in date, which gives you a ton of time to save along the way and pay as you go. Sam’s Club currently offers discounted gift cards that save you about $7 every $150 in gift cards you purchase. When we paid with our Discover card, there was a 5% cash back bonus for purchases at club stores, so we were able to save even more! We booked our trip in April, so we had about 7 months to save and purchase gift cards along the way. Disney’s website makes it very easy to use gift cards and make payments along the way, with only a $20 minimum on payments.
  • Disney Chase Visa Card – While definitely not the best card in terms of the cash back (1% on all purchases), cardholders sometimes get access to longer promotion windows or other perks. We put some of our work and personal expenses on this card and pay it off every month, so over the past few years it accumulated to a nice amount for our souvenir and extra expense bucket. Cardholders also enjoy 0% APR on Disney vacations booked with your Disney Visa for 6 months.
  • Airline Points – Orlando is a fairly easy drive from Atlanta, but still would take up a good bit of our vacation just in traveling back and forth. With some of our work travel over the past year, we were able to accumulate enough points to book Southwest flights for our trip – about $400 if we had paid out of pocket. With just an hour flight between the cities and having access to Disney’s Magical Express, transportation was a breeze and at no additional cost to us!

Interested in seeing our cost breakdown? We would have spent a whopping $3,400 if we paid out of pocket for everything included in our last trip (resort, tickets, food costs)! Here’s how things broke out if we were to pay completely out of pocket with a meal plan and no discounts versus a room only discount versus what we actually paid:

Cost completely out of pocket$3,433
Cost with no discounts & Disney Dining Plan$2,969
Cost with 25% room only discount & Disney Dining Plan$2,708
Actual costs (with “free dining” & all savings)$2,263

So what are your favorite ways to save for your Disney vacation? Comment below for any other ones we should consider for our next trip!  

Thanks for reading more tips and tricks from our Disney trip to come! Be sure to check out our Instagram for more: www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells.

Tiki House Beach Getaway Part 2 – Food

You can’t go to the beach without enjoying some amazing seafood, so we made it our mission to find some great places for dinner the three nights we were on our beach vacation last month.

One of the best parts of visiting the beaches on the Florida Panhandle is the distance from Atlanta. We made the trip down Thursday morning, and arrived before lunchtime to explore the Rosemary Beach area before checking into the Airbnb. Our first stop was  the Havana Beach Rooftop Lounge at The Pearl hotel. With the breathtaking view of the Gulf Coast, it was the perfect spot to toast to the start of vacation! They have a great happy hour starting at noon ($5 glasses of wine and $5 beers), but their food menu was quite pricey.

We continued our quest for seafood the first evening by visiting Pompano Joe’s Seafood House at Pier Park. The Pier Park area is home to a variety of different restaurants and shops – perfect if you’re not sure what you want to do that evening! The best part is that it’s right across from the beach. We had a nice table outside, away from the loud hustle and bustle inside the restaurant. We had a reservation at 5:45, and it was already slammed by the time we got there! While slightly more expensive than your typical beach dive, Pompano Joe’s had great portion sizes. With a fish entree, you got vegetables, another side like rice and beans, and hush puppies.

Our second night, we went for the views at Barefoot on the Beach, rather than solely food. We sat outside on their huge patio with an awesome view of the beach and ocean. The service here was a little sub-par, but if you are there to just relax and take in the views, it’s a nice place to still enjoy the beach without being on the beach and covered in sunscreen. They had a few Happy Hour drink specials and a good selection of seafood options on the menu. We highly recommend doing one of their seafood baskets, either blackened or fried. You start off with a side salad, get a large portion of shrimp, and another side, so you definitely won’t leave here hungry!

Our best dinner hands down was at the Saltwater Grill. Unlike most places that typically only had Happy Hour drink specials, Saltwater Grill also had specials on some of their most popular entrees before 6 PM. And best of all, your order just had to be in by 6 to get the deal. The food was so good that we honestly didn’t snap too many pictures before digging in! We recommend the Creole Redfish, the Prime Rib, or the Seafood Cappellini if you are there for their early bird specials – and you end up saving up to $10! They also had some great drink specials, with $6 martinis, $5 glasses of wine, and $4 mixed drinks. And while this restaurant wasn’t on the beach, they had a huge aquarium that wrapped around the bar area, so you still got the tropical feel of being at the beach.

And to end our vacation, we couldn’t leave without visiting Thomas’ Donuts for some of the most incredible donuts! Well worth the long wait in the sun to dig into these.

Any places we missed this trip that we should put on our “must visit” list for next time in the Panama City Beach area? Share with us below in the comments! 

Follow along with us on Instagram at www.Instagram.com/thelocalbells 

Tiki House Beach Getaway Part 1 – Accommodations

After a very busy May and most of June, we are back from a much-needed beach trip for some rest, relaxation, and vitamin “sea.” Grant and I had talked about taking a trip to the beach this summer for a few days, but initially ran into issues because most beach rentals only rent by the week during peak summer season. After scouring VRBO and Airbnb, we finally found a house that checked all the boxes for our group of 6: 3+ bedrooms, walking distance to the beach, and budget-friendly for a 3 night stay. And best of all, the owners didn’t have weekly rental restrictions, so we booked it and waited with anticipation for the trip to finally arrive!

TLB Tip: Airbnb now has a rental split feature that allows you to divide the cost of the rental across all people in your party. It makes it so easy to get everything paid for without the hassle of Venmo requests. If you are a new user, be sure to use our link to sign up and get a $40 travel credit!  

After a quick lunch and trip to Publix, we finally arrived at the Airbnb, fondly dubbed the “Tiki House of PCB.” In actuality, the house set in between Panama City Beach and Rosemary in the quieter Laguna Beach area. The Airbnb hosts, Jeff and Ana, were there to greet us and give us a quick tour of the house. We were impressed by how clean the house was, and Jeff let us know he had just finished cleaning the pool as well. For a ranch, the house was surprisingly big with 4 bedrooms sleeping up to 11 total people. A major plus was the fact that there were two King beds and two Queen beds – we’d had a hard time finding homes that had this many “normal” size beds! The house was decorated in a “tiki” Polynesian style, with the garage converted to a Tiki game room and the outside pool shed also incorporating many of those island vibes as well.

Having a pool in the backyard was an awesome addition to the property. When it started to get too hot at the beach around 3 o’clock, it was the perfect spot to come back to. And if you ask Grant, his favorite part was the color changing pool lights for the evening swims! It was great to have access to a beach cart and beach chairs through the Airbnb, which helped considerably to tote everything to the beach. For $150 a week, the hosts also had a golf cart if you preferred a faster mode of transportation. TLB Tip: If you prefer to sit in the shade, be sure to bring your own umbrella! We only lasted a few hours at a time in the direct sun, so an umbrella would have helped tremendously.

The location was great, just a 10 minute walk to public beach access. We got down to the beach around 10 every morning and never had a problem finding a spot, even at the peak of summer. The house was only a few miles away from the Pier Park dining and shopping – but be warned – traffic could make the short 5 miles take 30-45 minutes during the dinner rush.

All in all, we had a great stay at the Tiki house! Size, location, cleanliness, access to a full kitchen, private pool, beach chairs, and keyless entry were huge positives. A minor inconvenience was a problem with the water and septic in the Master bedroom, so we had to make due with only one bathroom and shower for the entire weekend. Additionally, while it was great to have access to a full kitchen, there was kind of a hodge-podge cookware. If you need a frying pan for eggs, we recommend bringing your own! And be sure to pick up a bag of ice on your way in, as the freezer didn’t have a working ice maker. Check-out seemed a little early too (10 AM), which made it tough if you wanted to enjoy a little more beach time before heading home. Other than that, we would definitely recommend this home for groups that are looking to have a low-key vacation with all the comforts of home just a short distance to some of the most picturesque waters and delicious seafood.

To see the full Airbnb posting for the Tiki house, take a look here.

Stay tuned for more about some of the great food we had at the beach! Follow along with us on Instagram at www.instagram.com/TheLocalBells

Local Eats: Food Truck Edition

A few weekends ago, we had the opportunity to attend the Children’s Charities Denim & Diamonds Benefit at Shannondale Farms – an awesome evening to raise money for an even better local cause! One of the most unique parts of this event was the food options for the evening. Instead of your usual buffet or plated dinner, they had “Food Truck Wars” featuring six different local food trucks. Each served up a small sample of their specialty and guests had the opportunity to try as many as they wanted! Participating trucks included Cousins Maine Lobster, Big C’s Chicago Kitchen, Sunshine Alchemy, Smokin’ Mo’s BBQ, Just Loaf N’ Po Boys, and Chef Q’s Soul Shack. Take a look to see some of the best small bites from the evening:

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Some of the best Connecticut lobster rolls we’ve ever had from Cousins Maine Lobster food truck!

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Chicago Style Italian Beef from Big C’s Chicago Kitchen

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Jambalaya and Crawfish Dip with Chips from Just Loaf N’ Po Boys

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How many beignets are too many?

And as if one night of food trucks wasn’t enough, we spent Sunday afternoon exploring downtown Alpharetta at Truck and Tap and Smokejack BBQ!

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Rooftop patio at Truck and Tap Alpharetta is makes for the perfect afternoon!

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Couldn’t resist trying the loaded tots from Cousins Maine Lobster truck

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Beer and food truck options change every day at Truck & Tap Alpharetta

We continued our food tour of Alpharetta by heading to Smokejack BBQ in downtown Alpharetta.

Queso at Smokejack BBQ

Fried pickles and spicy mayo sauce from Smokejack BBQ

We definitely recommend checking out some of the local food trucks! With so many unique offers you can’t find anywhere else, it’s a great place to go to try something new.

Follow along with all of our adventures on Instagram at www.instagram.com/thelocalbells

Top Springtime Dates

It is finally starting to feel like spring in Georgia! Fingers crossed that the beautiful weather stays and we get to enjoy more of these warm and sunny days. With the days getting longer, we’re excited to enjoy some of our favorite outdoor places and events in the coming weeks. Here are some of the springtime date activities that we are looking forward to most.

Zoo Atlanta – Who doesn’t love the zoo? We love getting to learn more about all of the amazing animals at Zoo Atlanta and typically try to go at least once a year. Spring is great before it gets too hot and humid during the summer months. If the heat and crowds aren’t for you, they have a lot of awesome evening events throughout the year, like Sippin’ Safari and Brew at the Zoo (coming up Memorial Day weekend!).IMG_1409

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Taste of Alpharetta – It’s been awhile since we’ve gone to this, but we are making plans to attend this year with it being walking distance away for us! On Thursday May 3rd, downtown Alpharetta shuts down for over 60 local restaurants to set up booths offering small plates and drinks of some of their most popular menu items. You can purchase tickets for the food and drink items, and it’s a great way to try a taste of so many great restaurants. Plus, there will be live music throughout the evening!IMG_2100

Barnsley Gardens – If you want an escape from the hustle and bustle, a trip to Barnsley Gardens in Adairsville may be just what you need. From their beautiful pre Civil War manor house ruins to their championship golf course to their gorgeous new Inn, it’s the perfect weekend or day trip from Atlanta! The Woodland’s Grill and Beer Garden are perfect to enjoy the nice weather and they have several walking trails if a picnic is more your style.

What are your favorite springtime dates that we should add to our list this year? Follow along with us on Instagram at www.instagram.com/thelocalbells