Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Swimming with dolphins at Discovery Cove, Orlando

I'm not sure if you'll have noticed that we had the most amazing holiday recently (I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it, ahem). Florida, sunshine state, Orlando, centre of thrills and entertainment.

There's so much to tell that I haven't really known where to start, but I thought it was about time I did, before it all became a very distant memory. If you're not in the mood for happy, sunny photos, look away now. Two weeks of excitement, and happiness, spending time with family and managing to relax just a little. I'm hoping to write a few separate posts to cover most of the experiences we had, but I decided to start with the BEST day ever.

Discovery Cove is one of four parks owned by SeaWorld Parks and is very different to the other fast-paced experiences you will find in Orlando. It is billed on their website as a 'one-of-a-kind experience' and we definitely agree with that. We swam with dolphins, watched otters whilst swimming in tropical warm water, mooched along the lazy river, saw exotic birds close up and snorkelled with shoals of fish, rays and sharks (which were luckily behind some very thick glass!).

There was a small queue to sign in and register when we arrived at about 930am. You can arrive from 715am and presumably avoid a queue, but despite the girls being up early, it's always a struggle to get out for us. It was a lovely environment to wait in though, and friendly staff, so no hardship. We were given an early slot of 1015am to swim with the dolphins, which seemed a shame as we missed the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on site. Mental note made to get up earlier next time - all food and drink for the day is included in the entry price so it didn't seem fair to miss out on any! I'm sure we could have requested a different time if we'd have realised; as it was we were very excited and keen to get on and meet the dolphins.

We'd been unsure beforehand whether Sophie would enjoy swimming with dolphins; children are allowed to take part from the age of 6, and Sophie was 7, but with hindsight we made the right decision not to book for her. The dolphin session involved standing in cold water listening to information and watching the dolphins before a swim (pull!) with them, and Sophie would have struggled to stay still and focused for so long. So she went off with daddy and Bampi for a snorkel with fish instead while Nana, Tilly and I turned up for the main event.

After picking up our swim vests, snorkel and mask, we were sent to watch a short instructional video with details of what to expect from our encounter. Safety rules were stressed such as no jewellery (apparently it really distracts the dolphins). Then we waded out just above waist deep in a cold water cove (hence the name) with a group of about 10 others. Four groups were in the cove at any one time, and one trainer and a dolphin was 'assigned' to each group. 

We were talked through lots of information about dolphins generally, and specifics about our particular dolphin, such as the fact that they all have individual tail patterns, a bit like a fingerprint. We were allowed to gently stroke the dolphin after being told never to touch the blowhole (which is very sensitive). They are highly trained and could do things like whistle on demand if we pointed our fingers in a certain way, or wave flippers at us if we waved to them. So cute! A couple of the dolphins showed off their jumping abilities, which was an amazing sight.

Next we got our chance to 'swim' with the dolphin, which basically meant swimming out into slightly deeper water, then grabbing the dolphin's fin as it approached and being pulled back to the shallow area. For younger visitors, there was no need to swim out further and tread water; the dolphins would still do a pick up and 'pull' from the shallow area. Finally there was chance to kiss our new friend. The wide smile on our eldest girl's face is a sight that will be etched in my memory. A very special treat for three generations!

The rest of the day was just not long enough; so much to do and see that we'd have liked to stay longer. We snorkelled in the Grand Reef where lots of tropical fish swam freely between our legs, and we watched the manta rays swishing past very close by at feeding time. 

We meandered around the lazy river, jumping out to view all the exotic birds in the aviary, and we pootled about in the very warm water pool where we also spotted otters and marmosets. Lunch was delicious and plentiful, and the whole day was the most relaxed I have felt in a long while.


We took an underwater camera with us too, which I'd recommend; not the easiest to use and as you'd expect the snaps are not the best quality, but the girls had such fun playing with it in the water.

It's not a cheap day out but it is a very special one. You can choose a day resort ticket without the dolphin experience, although my advice is you may regret it. Apart from all food and drink, you also get included in the cost an unlimited 14 day pass to Sea World, Aquatica (their waterpark), and Busch Gardens in Tampa. One of the many highlights about Discovery Cove is that attendance is restricted to around 1,300 guests, so it always feels calm and relaxed.

There may be many people who don't agree with animals in captivity at all, but what we saw here were well loved and cared for animals, with trainers who knew everything about them and treated them well. A totally magical day out for us, which we would highly recommend.

Let's Talk Mommy

Disclaimer: we were given a reduction on ticket price in order to experience what Discovery Cove had to offer, and to write an honest review of the park. 
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Monday, 29 June 2015

Harry Potter: Sweets and Treats Tour

Wow. Several people have mentioned to me how fabulous the Warner Bros Studios and Harry Potter set tour is, so I shouldn't really have been that surprised when we went along last Thursday after school. It is totally amazing, a magical place. I loved the Harry Potter books and films, but wouldn't say I was a fanatic, just a fan. No-one could fail to be impressed with what has been created for the Studio Tour though.

My 10 year old girl and I were invited along to a preview of the upcoming 'Sweets and Treats' feature which will take place this summer. From 20th July to 6th September, visitors will be treated to displays and demonstrations showing how props and real bakes were created for the films. Techniques used to construct delicacies such as the floating pudding from the Chamber of Secrets and Gillyweed from the Goblet of Fire will be shown in the Ministry Munchoes kiosk from the Order of the Phoenix. Butterbeer ice cream will be available to purchase for the first time, as well as frothy tankards of this delicious drink.

We enjoyed playing the #realorfake guessing game - see if you can tell which is which from these items shown below? You'll have to leave me comments if you want to know the answers.... 

Here's a top Harry Potter fact for you - film makers created slugs out of orange flavoured jelly so they didn't taste so bad for Ron when he was throwing them up in the Chamber of Secrets!

After our demonstrations, we were left to wander the rest of the attraction, and saw such delights as the Night Bus, Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express. Our favourite part was the green screen action where you can ride in the car or on a broomstick - photos and videos at extra cost of course, but an amazing souvenir.

If you want an inkling of just how fabulous this place is, then watch my video montage below, which shows only a small amount of what there is to see. 

Maybe you'd like to keep it all as a surprise though, and book your tickets now?! I'd definitely recommend it. Tickets must be pre-booked and are available at www.wbstudiotour.co.uk or by calling 0845 084 0900.

Disclaimer: we were invited along to this event for free; all opinions are honest and our own. 
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Thursday, 25 June 2015

Three cheers for modern technology!

Just have to share with you a 'tears streaming down my face' moment from this week thanks to our youngest darling...

Talking in person rather than on a telephone is one of those things which is generally easier for children with autism - conversational skills don't tend to be their strong point. It's not often that Sophie will even say hello to either set of grandparents (who both live too far away, boo!) on the phone - but my parents struck gold yesterday and caught her at a time she was happy to chat.

It took some prompting from me; I set up the Facetime to ring in between her video watching on the ipad so as not to interrupt. There was still initial reluctance, and a fair bit of hiding under the duvet before she was tempted out to speak (top tip: tickling hands coming over the FaceTime camera are always a winner!).

Once engaged though, Sophie just decided that she was in the mood to chat, and my parents got full updates on Kirby (latest craze game on the WiiU) which I'm sure they understood none of. As they sat on their sofa at home watching her, Sophie rabbited on for a good 15 minutes whilst I took the chance to catch up on chores. Then I heard Sophie suddenly decide that she needed the toilet.

I raced down from upstairs, slightly concerned that I might find her sharing that delight intimately with my parents, but what I found was an empty playroom and the view in this picture. What you can see is the ipad propped up on the sofa, with great care, so that my parents could watch the television while she was gone! She had even chosen a DVD specially for them - the delights of Roly Mo.

You know how some things can just tickle you? Well, I laughed until I cried. You probably had to be there. The best bit of it all though was when she told me that she didn't want to say goodbye to them because she wanted the company. Awwww.

So we turned the ipad around and it felt more like they were in the room with us. Thank you FaceTime - isn't modern technology a wonderful thing?

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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Stampy deserves a Knighthood!

This really was not a planned or scheduled blog post, and lord knows I've got enough of those on the to-do list, but I just had to shout out a quick, and very huge 'Thank You' to Stampy.

No, not our cat Stampy. I mean the man who our cat is named after (yes really, it's true). The very nice (very rich, though that has no relevance to him being nice) Mr Stampy Longhead. Or Longnose, I'm never quite sure which it is.

I feel like I know him personally, though we've never met. Over the two years, or probably longer, his voice has boomed out around our house most days... in fact, if I'm honest, I can't remember a day without him. Our autistic girl plays his videos over and over, and I'm eternally grateful that he has made so many of them. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

For the uninitiated, Stampy is an English YouTuber who gained fame worldwide by uploading videos of himself playing the game Minecraft every day. He has nearly 6 million subscribers and has had 3,668,849,707 views of his videos on his Stampylonghead channel. Minecraft can be played on various platforms, and in our house is played regularly on the XBox, PC, iPad and Hudl. We even had a Minecraft themed 9th birthday party last year:

In January 2014, at the age of 8, our eldest girl made her own animation of a Stampy video game and asked me to tweet it to him. I did, and the next day he had placed her in his Love Garden (it's not rude, honest!). She has now had over 68,000 views on her video, figures I could only dream of on my channel! I love that Stampy interacts with his young fans and appreciates their creativity. Here is her animation:

Stampy is well known in the autism community; I think it's fair to say that lots of autistic children (and probably adults) seem to have a special ability when it comes to Minecraft. Both of my girls love this game, and both have created amazing worlds of their own, but it always struck me how quickly our younger girl picked it up. She has tried to teach me, on occasion, but I've failed miserably to become an expert. When I couldn't even figure out how to get my character up the stairs in her house, she was laughing uncontrollably. Stampy has helped guide her through all the options in the game, and gently encouraged her to be creative and excel at something.

Stampy's real name is Joseph, and having seen him do a 'real life' interview once or twice, I can tell you that Joseph is a lovely young man. A man I would dearly love to shake the hand of, and maybe even hug. More than that, I'd like to hug his mum, who has clearly done a great job at this parenting lark, even if at some point she didn't think so.

You see, this young man has done something for which I think he already deserves a knighthood. He has used his fame and his considerable social media reach to help others. He could have 'turned to the dark side' and moved on to broadcasting adult games, as some of his counterparts already have. Instead he has been involved with creating a new educational channel for YouTube, called  .

There seem to be two strands to this new channel; one is set in a Minecraft world with the original Stampy following quests, but learning along the way. The other is called 'I Wonder' which is a brand new animation filled with exciting facts. The second episode of I Wonder was all about planets, hooray - one of our youngest girl's favourite topics:

I have so much admiration for people who can see the bigger picture like this, who realise than they can help others. Our little girl has already learnt so much from these new videos; they engage her in a way which her mainstream school setting can't offer. All hail modern technology!

So now that I've introduced you to the delights of Stampy and Minecraft, there is just one more thing left to say.

Stampy, we salute you!

Do you have any experience of Minecraft? Have you watched the new videos yet? Would love to know what you think about this phenomenon!

oh and p.s. here's a pic of our very own Stampy cat doing some yoga!

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Siblings {June 2015}

Behind again, sigh. So much to write, so little time!

Also, so many pics to choose from on a siblings front. June is birthday month for our youngest though, so instead of going for the best photos, I'm going for the story to tell. I was told this weekend that no photo is better than a bad photo... but it's my blog, so I'm breaking all the rules!

This one was on the birthday morning, after Sophie had unwrapped the My Little Pony DVD from her big sister. She just flung her arms around her to give her a big hug to say thank you, so no time for a posed, or even in-focus, photo! It's the sentiment that matters though.

These were before and after the gymnastics party, with the special MLP rainbow cake not yet cut. The final one shows the two girls playing happily together with the same present they both got from a dear friend - a make-up book! They were so pleased to be able to share tips.

Finally, not a siblings pic but just because I'm actually quite proud of getting all seven colours into it, here is the rainbow cake! Ta-dah!

dear beautiful
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Sunday, 21 June 2015

RealTimes Ultimate Family Moments Competition via BritMums Live

My birthday treat this year was to spend the weekend in London, attending the BritMums Live blogging conference along with over 700 other bloggers. The chance to mingle and chat with grown-ups without having to break off to provide food or clothing, or tidy up mess, bliss!

The best bit about it was definitely getting to catch up with some old friends and familiar faces, and the chance to meet some bloggers I've chatted with online 'in real life (IRL)'. The worst bit was probably not getting enough time to have long chats with many of them, and only being able to manage a fleeting 'hello' to some lovely ladies who I'd rather have sat down over a bottle of wine with. On top of that, there were so many other new faces there that I just didn't get chance to blink at - I still think my idea of a Blogger Speed Dating session should have been taken up by the wonderful (but busy) organisers!

As it was, we got to know some better than others by breaking an official Guinness World Record together on the Friday evening. I am now the proud owner of a record breaking medal, yay! One of life's ambitions ticked off and extra impressed points donated to me by eldest daughter. We wrapped 51 mummies (lots of toilet roll, all recycled) in the space of 3 minutes, aren't we clever?! The previous record was 50, and we had 18 mummies disallowed due to gaps which were too wide... I personally made sure there were no gaps on our mummy, who was the rather gorgeous Ella of Deliciously Ella fame.

(I'm sure I learnt in one conference session that photos should be landscape and that it's better to use no photo than a bad one. I just love to break the rules....)

Another highlight of a conference like this is the chance to talk to a variety of brands about blogger interaction. Some companies are very switched on to blogging and realise that word of mouth is one of the best and most lucrative forms of marketing, and this year I was enthused by the great guys on the RealTimes stand who were promoting a new app.

Their app 'automatically creates beautiful and engaging visual stories from your photos and videos, helping you capture and share life's adventures with no effort'. In other words, in a flash you can create a heart-warming mini movie from a group of photos on your phone or mobile device. Definitely a winner for me, I'm all about photos and videos (even if I haven't quite had the time to learn the skills properly yet!).

I was shown an example and it looked so easy that I downloaded the app there and then. The app selects 'happy moments' based on a groups of photos from a certain timescale and merges them into a mini movie. You can then customise your story by adding more photos or changing the music etc. It is SO easy, I promise, try it out! At the end of the conference I came up with this little movie after just 10 minutes of altering the first suggestion put together for me by the app:

One of the great features of this app is that it converts your videos straight to the necessary format for sharing, whether that is Twitter, Facebook or blog post. They've thought of everything!

RealTimes are currently running a competition to win a VIP family experience for 8 to stay overnight in Port Lympne's Animal Reserve. All you have to do is download the RealTimes app from the App Store, Google Play or at www.real.com, then create a shareable video montage of your 'Ultimate Family Moment' using this app. Finally, share it to @realtimes on Twitter, quoting #RealTimes. Entries must be received before 20.07.15 and full terms and conditions are at uk.real.com/britmums

Of course I couldn't resist the chance to enter this competition too, and would like to share with you our recent 'Ultimate Family Moment' - my mum's 70th birthday party. Please do let me know what you think of these little clips in the comments below - and Good Luck with the competition!

Disclaimer: I have not been paid or specifically asked to write this post; these are my own opinions and I honestly love this new app!

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