Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Adventures in (Rugged) Space-A Military Travel


John has been active duty for a little over 12 years now and we have been married just over 11. In that time we had always heard about Space A travel for military, we had friends who were adventurous and just showed up at an AMC terminal and "went wherever an open flight was going". Japan, Germany, Iceland, Hawaii... whatever! Pack flip flops and a parka because you never know! We never did that as a young married couple with few responsibilities. Before we knew it we had busy jobs and a few kids and the idea of just showing up at an airport ready for anything was... yea, not gonna happen.

Until now.

So there we were, flying over the Pacific Ocean in a plane full of orange netting and ominous "DANGER" signs everywhere. Several layers of hearing protection, winter coats at the ready, closed toed shoes, and a countdown clock on my husband's iPhone. Hawaii or bust!

We started thinking about Hawaii this summer because it is a fairly common route out of California. Military planes transport parts and people across the ocean and often have seats available for military members and their families. It is a neat perk, but it isn't guaranteed and requires quite a bit of patience and willingness for things to not go quite as planned. Or not go. Type A persons need to pack their Xanax. If you have kids, include a bottle of Tequila.

We started researching flights out of Travis Air Force Base and North Island Naval Air Station about two months ago. We watched the flight tendencies (it seemed that most flights went out Thursday through Saturday) and the roll call reports (how many people "competed" for a flight vs. how many got on), and the types of planes that were flying. We decided to try out of Travis because they seemed busier and to have bigger planes going in and out.

However, I started to get cold feet after our trip to Disney last week. It was a fun long weekend but Disney drains the life out of you quickly and I was longing for a few quiet days.The idea of driving 6 hours to Oakland, California and hang around an AMC terminal for several days just sounded like sheer torture.

Occasionally when doing research over the months I would notice flights out of Hickam AFB (in Hawaii) to Point Mugu (where my husband is stationed, we live about 15 minutes from there). Point Mugu Naval Air Station is a very small air base, so to expect much coming and going from Hawaii is silly. But because of how exhausted I was feeling, yet how guilty I felt to say no to my husband's "I want to go to Hawaii" puppy dog face, I asked him to call the terminal at the National Guard squadron to see if they might have a flight going to Hawaii in the next week or two. If I'm honest I truly believed it was fruitless and didn't really worry about it working out.

Serendipity. We got home from Disney on Monday evening, John called the guard squadron on Tuesday morning, and lo and behold, they had a flight leaving from Mugu and going to Barber's Point in Hawaii on Thursday. One of the National Guard squadrons had just returned from deployment and they were flying a few C-130s over to Hawaii full of families as a homecoming perk. So, we crashed that party.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm pretty darn type-A. The idea of going on a vacation to Hawaii in the summer without a single reservation or plan was terrifying. However, life is an adventure and you only live once. I packed like a mad woman on Wednesday, emailed my best friend's parents (who thank goodness are a retired Navy family and totally on board with Space A spontaneity) to see if we could stay at their home in Honolulu, and showed up at the terminal dressed for Alaska yet headed to Hawaii.

When I suggested to my husband that call the guard station, I was fully expecting we would be flying to Hawaii in a typical jet engine aircraft. Never in a million years did I think John would come home and tell me that yes, we could likely get to Hawaii from Point Mugu, but it would be in a C-130. A prop. A loud, slow, work horse of an airplane that is not designed for comfort, but rather, for combat. I would need to prepare to be very cold. I would need to have lots of hearing protection; we couldn't talk at all on the seven hours flight. **record scratch** Seven hours. I moved to California and thought I got closer to Hawaii, yet we would be chugging across the Atlantic at a snail's pace. Essentially eating the dust of flights leaving LAX two hours after us.

But it's free! No TSA! Yes, I know, I fear you will think I am complaining and I'm not. I'm just trying to put you in my state of mind. Vacation weary, mom of 3 and 5 year old, one day notice for a very adventurous flight over lots of ocean. I was just a tad worried. Totally "first world problems", but still on my mind.

Here are some pictures of our Hercules Hawaii Adventure:
Many thanks to the 146th California Airlift National Guard unit for letting us join their post-deployment fiesta!
Kate and Connor ready to go!

Approaching the two C-130s from the Channel Islands terminal. Santa Monica mountains in the background.
Getting on the plane. Jump seats with cargo netting and seatbelts that reminded me of puzzles you get in vending machines.

Connor got to hang with the flight crew during the flight.

Typical commercial jets now are so cramped that the C-130 was actually more comfortable than coach. People had hammocks that they hung in various locations (I was totally jealous of those smart people), a young family had their baby sleeping in a pack 'n play in one of the more open areas, and there was room to spread out and sleep. I could even have my Kindle on during takeoff and landing! Glorious! It was truly a very laid back atmosphere despite the "Anti Hijacking" brief we got and the realization that if we the plane lost pressure we wouldn't get one of those civilized air masks that are released on commercial jets, we would get this:
A turkey bag, aka EPOS. **shudder**

Overall, when considering the cost to get there this way ($0), it was absolutely worth the sound discomfort. Plus, the few times Kate and Connor got whiney it wasn't a big deal because nobody could hear them. Including me! In the end, it wasn't cold at all, and the feather down jacket I dug out of a box in our garage was completely unnecessary. If you were at the Pearl Harbor NEX last Thursday and saw a glazed over person in sweat pants, long sleeves, and sneakers looking like I had time traveled from another climate completely? That was me.
All completely worth it for this:
If you are interested in Space A travel from your location, the best place to start is here: It lists all of the terminals worldwide, and if applicable their own websites, Facebook pages, phone numbers, instructions on how to sign up, and basics about the base (basically, are you landing in Siberia or Manhattan?). Typically, it is easier for retirees and non priority travelers to get seats during the less busy months (October-April). We learned quickly that some Space A terminals are better than others at being transparent about their operations and the realities of getting a seat. We really appreciated the ones that gave roll call reports of the daily flights like this one from Travis AFB: 
A typical daily roll call for flights out of Travis AFB

A typical active duty family traveling on leave (without orders) is a category 3. The rest of the categories can be read about in the spacea link above.
In the end, my only wish is that John and I had taken advantage of this long ago and long before we had children. It really is a unique opportunity to see the world without spending gobs of money. Plus, even though we experienced the rugged version of space A travel, I know that my children will remember this flight to Hawaii more than any other flight they have taken. Unique experiences should be grasped and appreciated. I don't think any of us will forget our time on the mighty Hercules any time soon.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Reluctant Mom's Review of Disneyland


Keep calm, have a (strong!) martini, plan Disneyland.

As someone that didn't grow up with Disney nostalgia pumped into my veins, the idea of planning the quintessential "Disney vacation" made me race for my migraine medication. "The Happiest Place on Earth", you say? "The longest lines on earth" is what my cynical mind replied. Especially in July. On a weekend. This was the Hunger Games of vacation planning and all of the blogs and websites I read, with cutesy names like "MouseSavers" and "Allears" (get it?), and lots of pixie dust floating in the background, made me sweat.

I like to think I know pressure and stress. Our family has moved four times in the past three years, I have applied to and completed a graduate degree, I've even walked countless families through the FAFSA process, but planning this vacation made me nervous. I asked a "harmless" question about Disneyland back in February on my Facebook page. It rendered something along the lines of 1,462 responses (not really, but close) with paragraphs in almost every reply. The only question that has ever gotten more responses on my FB page was one asking about "everyday red wines" at Trader Joes. Thankfully my friends know that wine>Disneyland.

Anyway, the message I was receiving was that a Disney "Vacation" is really a Disney "Battle". A battle for positioning (where you stay), strategy (arrival time, fastpasses, shows, characters), and spending ($$$$). It truly is crazy how much you can over plan one of these trips. We only stayed for two nights and went to the parks for two days, but we had maps and folders and pins (happy birthday! first visit!), checklists, and an archived set of FB messages and emails I had received with friends so that we could win experience Disney.

So, now that I sit with a large glass of wine pondering my most recent 72 hours, I am reliving all of the moments and misses in my head. Here was our reality:

The planning? Yep, you have to do it. Especially if you plan on going during high season or when the crowds are going to be particularly heavy. I'm so happy that we learned to get Fastpasses for "World of Color" (California Adventure's evening show) early in the morning, and even happier that we learned that Fastpasses for that don't make it impossible to retain passes for other rides. It is confusing for a Disney newb to traverse the Fastpass gauntlet (they aren't always near the rides they are for, the times you are eligible for them aren't totally clear, and the fact that you can have two at a time only sometimes makes it dizzying). Plus, at least for World of Color, if you don't have a Fastpass you will be sitting in a ditch somewhere with a view of a hedge. It will likely be a well maintained hedge, but not the amazingly beautiful show that is World of Color.

And so here is where my heart grows soft for Disney. Their showmanship? Breathtaking. I truly believe you get your money's worth inside Disney parks. We saw World of Color on the first night and Fantasmic the second and my jaw was practically on the ground both times. Well done, Disney. You could win over even the most frigid Disney skeptic with those performances. The parks are incredibly well maintained and the rides and shows are cutting edge. Even the throwback rides like Dumbo and Peter Pan's Flight have been spruced up over the years without ruining their nostalgia. There is a silent army that is constantly cleaning and crowd managing and fixing minor issues and it truly does appear to be effortless and seamless and "magic". My daughter, who's 5th birthday was the reason we went to Disneyland, felt truly special. She was probably wished a happy birthday 500 times this weekend by various staffers and ride loaders and characters.

At the advice of so many friends we decided to splurge and stay within the Disney Resort. We chose the Grand Californian Hotel which actually has a private entrance to California Adventure and is technically on property.  Both mornings we were right at the gate at 0700 sharp when they opened for the "extra magic hour" (an extra hour in the park for those staying in one of the three resort hotels) and at about 1pm after lunch we would go back to our room for a nap and to rest before heading out for the evening. The flexibility to come and go from our room easily and as we pleased made the vacation much more pleasant for everyone. With the park opening so early and the shows not ending until close to 11 PM, I believe that the "nap factor" was worth the cost of staying at GCA.

The highlights for us:

Kate seeing the princesses for the first time.

The face John caught on camera of Connor "enjoying" the Radiator Springs Racers ride. (I swear he loved it, but oh my, that face!)

subliminal marketing where the speakers look like Mickey Mouse ears?

Other highlights were the shows mentioned above, the healthy food options around the park (try the kid's "Power Pack" for an inexpensive yet healthy and filling meal), the quick loading of rides that kept lines down to reasonable levels during the busy season, and the friendly and accommodating staff. It was glaringly apparent than customer satisfaction is an "at all costs" effort. I learned this the hard way when I accidently "lost" (it slid off the jeep) my backpack on the Indiana Jones ride. It was my fault, but the manager of the ride was ready to give me meal comps to cover the money I didn't have access to for the 60 minutes it would take them to retrieve it. I got my backpack back pretty quickly; the biggest price I paid was my pride due to my husband's heckling.

Bottom line: It was pricey, but it was a blast!

Would I want to get married there or honeymoon there or spend every.single.vacation there? Hell no. Nope nope nope. Give me Hawaii of the Greek Islands or Rome. But I do see the value in planning a trip to Disneyland and am happy that I made the effort for my daughter's 5th birthday. John and I joked the whole time that "they better be making memories, dammit!" Seriously, it isn't a simple day trip unless you are nearby and going on a Wednesday in February (but not President's Day!). It was magical for my kids, and honestly I don't think any parent would begrudge another for wanting their children to have a wonderful trip once in awhile.

Other items we did and how we liked it:

Character Dining: We had lunch at Ariel's Grotto on Saturday and breakfast at Goofy's Kitchen on Sunday. The food at Ariel's grotto reminded me of wedding food (you know, fancy on the menu, but nothing spectacular in reality). HOWEVER (and this is a BIG however), getting to see most of the Princesses in an hour without standing in a single line was ahhh-mazing. Kate got photos and autographs from Ariel, Cinderella, Princess Aurora, Snow White, and Belle while we ate lunch. She did miss Ana and Elsa (we didn't even tell her about the Frozen reception and it's 3 hour wait), but was happy with the classics. We probably saved three hours of time by doing this so I'll forgive the "meh" mahi mahi and the "dry" tri-tip that John had.

As for Goofy's kitchen, it was a pretty amazing buffet breakfast. At 9:30 AM they had breakfast and lunch set up. Tons of options and their coffee was mercifully good. The food was much better than Ariel's Grotto and we got to spend some time with Goofy, Donald Duck, Pluto, Dale (of Chip 'n Dale), and (randomly, in my opinion) Princess Jasmine.

Grand Californian: Beautiful hotel, great service, comfortable beds (thank God!). The "turndown" service was extra fun because they would arrange the kids' toys while we were away. It made us all smile when returning to our room late at night.

We didn't try the restaurants or the pool (no time!) but everything looked beautiful.

I bought the book The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2014 by Bob Sehlinger and I appreciated the maps and lists and checklists. He is a bit too gung ho for me (note, I am a reluctant and cynical Disney goer), but I appreciated his ability to critique rides and restaurants with some non sugary sweet standards.

Special thanks also to my BOB Duallie stroller. John wanted to sell you earlier this year because our kids were "too big". HA! Have you heard of the "Disney sleep"? I hadn't, but my friend clued me in and it is absolutely true. We have had this stroller for almost 4 years now and it was absolutely worth it's price tag in this weekend alone. If you have kids under 7, bring a stroller!

An extra special thanks to my "Magic Maker" Tara Radulski ( at Off to Neverland Travel for helping me war-plan this crazy whirlwind weekend. She made all of my reservations (with military discounts in mind!), gave me advice, and ultimately saved my Fastpass soul because without her advice sheets I would have been toast. She even sent us autograph books which my daughter has filled to the brim and I would have never known to purchase those. Her services are free-to-you and I highly recommend her for your planning needs!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Around the Sun with Katherine

Dear Kate,

I cannot believe you are five. Something about five years old makes you seem like such a big girl to me. The baby is gone, the chubby cheeks and fat little feet that come with toddlerhood have vanished. You are growing up, and while I look at pictures from when you were a baby and wish I could smell that baby hair and kiss those baby cheeks one more time, I am so thankful I get to watch you grow up.

You are a very focused, smart, and curious little girl. You absolutely love gardens and the critters that live there. When we go on walks, we have to stop every 10 feet to pick up the latest snail or ladybug or beetle. You worry that I might step on something and you will cradle the smallest creature with the care of a surgeon and absorb the details before carefully placing it back into a safe space. You are artistic and love anything to do with markers, crayons, paint, chalk, yarn, and stickers. My back patio is decorated in your bright creativities, and since it hasn't rained in California in about six months, I am happy to say that your chalk creations are probably here to stay.

You love books, you love pink, you are absolutely giddy with excitement if I agree to paint your fingernails or spend extra time carefully braiding your long blonde hair into a new masterpiece. You love your family and I know that being away from those who you love is the hardest part of the military lifestyle for you. That said, you make friends with ease. Last night on the playground you happily invited a bunch of new girls over to the table for cake. And before that, I watched as you approached a new friend and gave her a flower you had picked on the walk over.

Your sixth year is going to be full of new adventures and people. In about 6 weeks you will start Kindergarten, and with that a whole new world will open up for you. You're so ready, and I'm so excited to walk that journey with you (and will likely need a few strong mimosas to let you go that first day).

I hope you always keep your loving and curious nature. I hope you always know how much that dad and Connor and I love you. Happy birthday, Katie-bug. May the next journey around the sun be as fun as the last.

Love, Mommy

Photo bombed! :)

 Sorry to squish your face, we simply can't help it!

Hi, I'm Jill!

Hi, I'm Jill!
Extrovert. Mom of two. Wife of a cute Naval Aviator. Lover of wine. When I'm not chasing my two kids around town you will find me writing, taking too many photos, and researching the ten future areas the Navy could potentially (but probably won't) PCS us. We are fish out of water, landlocked at 7,000 feet. For now.

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