Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top 10 Rides of Disneyland 2011

Disneyland (and Disney California Adventure) cannot be experienced in a single day.  The industry standard is at least 3 days, 3 long days.  Between rides, shows, parades, and shopping, it is hard to know where to begin and what to skip when time starts running short.   Choosing a top 10 list was almost impossible.  After three fun-filled but long days at Disneyland and Disney California Adventures, I had each member of our family name their favorite two rides (with no repeats).  Here is our list of the best of the best:

The Three-Year-Old:  Mickey's Fun Wheel (the giant Ferris Wheel in DCA)
                                    Peter Pan's Flight

The Seven-Year-Old:  Splash Mountain
                                    Space Mountain

The Nine-Year-Old:  Star Tours
                                  Indiana Jones Adventure

The Eleven-Year-Old: California Screamin'
                                     Tower of Terror

Dad's Pick:  Pirates of the Caribbean
                    Its a Small World

Mom's Pick: Toy Story Mania
                     The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (but I could be talked into changing to Big Thunder Railroad depending on which kids are with me)     

And these were only our favorite rides.  Some of our favorite attractions included--Jedi Training, Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, World of Color, Fantasmic, Its Tough to be a Bug movie, and of course, meeting Mickey in his house (just to name a few).  Frankly, it would be difficult to do all 10 rides, a couple of 4D movies, a couple of character meets, a break at a playground, the parade, and the evening show (either fireworks or Fantasmics) in a single day, especially if you plan on shopping, eating, and taking little ones to the bathroom.

The big surprise was that 4 of the 10 rides on our list were for rides in DCA.  Certainly something to keep in mind when planning future vacations.  I assume when Cars land opens, my almost 4-year-old will not even want to go to Disneyland but insist he spend all his time in DCA.

So what is your favorite ride?  Which ones will you pick and which ones will you skip?  Time will run short (even in the slower season), so have a plan that includes a few favorites and don't worry when you have to skip some of the attractions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

3 Common Sense Tips for Holiday Travel

With many of us hitting the road and the skies during the next week, here are a few common sense tips to make traveling a little easier.

Tip #1--Check the Weather

This should be obvious, but many of us get so locked into our plans we forget to take the weather into consideration.  One memorable year, an uncle of mine insisted on leaving as scheduled despite a severe storm.  The consequence--he was stranded on a shutdown 1-80 in Wyoming.  He ultimately made it home a day late--same as if he had waited until the storm was over before leaving.  If flying, make sure to check before you leave for the airport and keep in mind that layovers can be problematic because of weather delays.

Tip #2--Be Prepared

Because of weather, traffic, or other delays, you need to be prepared for extra hours on the road (or in the plane).  Nothing is more miserable that running out of diapers while hours from landing or wading through slow snowy traffic with hungry little ones.  One Christmas, our direct flight was re-routed through a midwest city adding a layover to our trip.  We were lucky it only cost us a few hours and nothing more serious (especially since we were flying with a toddler).

Tip #3--Keep Your Sense of Humor

I have posted this tip before, but it is worth repeating (especially for myself).  As a big planner, schedule maker, type A personality, I often have to tell myself that someday it will be funny.  Someday, it will make a good story.  Find your inner peace.  From delays, to breakdowns (car or children), to the item you forgot to pack, a sense of humor can help you avoid a lot of problems while traveling this season.

Happy Holidays and Happy Travels

Monday, December 19, 2011

Legoland--It is Not about the Rides

It is Not about the Rides

In case you didn't read the title--Legoland is NOT about the rides.  Though Legoland does have enough rides to fill an entire day (and then some), the rides are not unique (with a couple of exceptions), aimed almost exclusively at the 4-9 age group, and frankly your child would be equally happy going to a local amusement park--at least as far as rides go.  Also, the ride policy on kiddie rides is borderline absurd.  On some rides, children under 48 inches must ride with a guest over 55 inches (that means an adult or teen must ride with a 6-year-old on kiddie rides).  This policy is not just for roller coasters (which would make sense), it is for rides like the Safari Trek, a simple jeep car ride along a track.  Babies are not allowed to ride in laps on many rides making it particularly difficult for families with multiple young children (we have 3 children under 48 inches).  Ironically, our under-48-inches 7-year-old who could not ride Safari Trek without an adult could drive the Volvo Cars by himself on a course that does not have a track.  Uh. . .
What it is About

But it really doesn't matter.  Why?  Legoland is NOT about the rides.  So what is it about?  The legos, of course.


The first thing you should do is sign up for a Mindstorms Class (first come, first serve) for children 9 and up with an adult.  Despite signing up in the morning, the classes are usually taught mid-afternoon.  This was by far the best hour my oldest children spent on vacation.  They worked as a team with my 9-year-old programming, my 11-year-old building the robot, and Dad could not have been prouder.  Such a robotics class was unimaginable a couple decades ago.


Be sure to spend plenty of time in miniland including the boat tour where the drivers offer fascinating facts about the models and the hundreds of thousands of legos it took to create them.  Lego builders have quite a sense of humor.  I could not stop laughing when I saw mini figs cleaning out the ears on the Mt. Rushmore statue or the number of Santa figures crashed in various positions subtly throughout the displays.  The number of legos used is overwhelming as is the sheer number of scenes from famous cities to Star Wars to full sized statues throughout the park.  Some are even intwined with the trees, bushes, and buildings.  The Dragon Coaster is a must see attraction as it has a few all-lego scenes in the beginning of the ride before shooting off on a small coaster track.  Also keep your eyes open as you move through the park.  Lego displays are around most corners and some are not highly visible.

Building, Creating, Playing

The third thing you should do is plan enough time to build with legos (or duplos).  Building stations are located throughout the park, built into some of the ride lines, and a major feature at the duplo playground area.  Across the park is another large lego, duplo, hero factory, and mindstorms creation area.   With thousands of pieces available, you and your child will have the opportunity to build something you may not have enough pieces for at home.


For our children, a few minutes at the playground is always a must.  For little ones 3 and younger, the duplo village is enchanting and time well spent. Older ones may like a brief time to run through the wolf themed playground by Castle Hill especially if lines are long, though this playground is similar to any large park. While there, be sure to ask the attendant for a crown made from park maps.  Also, on hot days, there are two interactive water areas, one in the Duplo village for little ones and another at Pirate Shores for school aged kids (11 and under).

Planning Your Time Wisely

A mindstorms class, exploration of miniland, and building time should take at least three hours. Add lunch, potty breaks, a little shopping, and a few minutes at either or both playgrounds, and you only have a few hours for rides and shows.  So please plan carefully, especially off season when the park is only open for 7 hours.

If You Do Go on Rides

Okay, time to catch a few rides--it is an amusement park after all.   Unique to Legoland is a claw ride called King's Tournament where guests can pick the intensity of the ride on a scale from 1-5.  Riding with my middle children, I only experienced a 2 which was an enjoyable and wild enough ride but completely  unlike a coaster.  Legoland also offers kid powered rides (like modern paddle boats).  Sky Cruiser with its view and whimsical feel is the most popular.  Another ride favorite is the Volvo Driving School where children control their own vehicles on a classic driving course--no track, no bumping, where children actually negotiate turns, stop at red lights, and signal.  A surprise favorite was the Adventurer's Club where children walk through scenes trying to find hidden keys (more of an attraction than a ride). As you can see from this list, even the best rides at Legoland are more about exploration than entertainment.  Because the emphasis is on exploration, this is the only amusement park I intentionally refuse to rush around frantically trying to go on every ride.

The Aquarium

If you are staying for multiple days are have aquarium loving children, check out the very small Sea Life Aquarium located practically within the park.  In addition to all the animals you would expect to see in the tanks, the lego builders have added clever lego creations for the fish to explore.  Indoors and easily seen in an hour or two, this might be perfect for your family especially if you have the misfortune of touring the park on a busy or hot day. The Aquarium is an additional cost and our family found we did not have enough time to visit it anyway.

The Water Park

The water park is small and often crowded.  So unless you are staying for multiple days, I recommend you spend your time elsewhere, especially around Pirate Shores or the Duplo splash area where children can cool off and get wet without the added cost (the water park is not included in the general admission price) or time visiting the water park requires.

Word of Caution

Because Legoland is more about learning and exploring than going on rides, it should cost less than your local amusement park.  Be sure to find significant discounts such as free children tickets with purchase of adult tickets, 2 days for the price of 1, online discounts including 5 days for the price of 1 on rare occasion, etc.  Our tickets averaged around $35 a person for one day admission.  Most of the complaints I have seen about Legoland are when people have paid full priced, have more adults, teens, or toddlers rather than elementary aged children (ages 4-9) in their group, and only slightly enjoy all things Lego.  Conversely, if you are a Lego enthusiast, this just might be the happiest place on earth.

For the Lego Geek

If Legos are always under your Christmas tree and building is more fun than roller coasters, then don't miss Legoland next time you visit Southern California but be sure to find a discount.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

5 Different Ways to Tour Disneyland

One Place--Multiple Vacations

It has become an American icon--Disneyland (or Disney World).  Even budget conscious large families often plan at least one trip to a Disney property.  It's magical.  It's memorable.  Parades, Fireworks, Rides, Characters that come to life.  It is also long lines, long days, and quite a blow to the bank account.  Entire books are devoted on how to beat the lines, the heat, a cranky toddler, etc.  And I recommend you read one before going on your trip.  But to get you started, here are my 5 ideas on picking the right the tour for your family.

Idea #1--Its All About the RIDES

For some families, Disney is all about the rides.  And lets face it, some of the rides are pretty spectacular and unique filled with the latest in Disney technology and magic.  If your family's primary goal is the rides, then you need to follow a few simple steps.  Tour off season and in the middle of the week.  Get to the park before it opens so you can park and go through security.  Take advantage of fast pass. Did I mention you need to take advantage of fast pass. Eat before normal meal times.  Ride lines go down during the parade, so be sure to hit major attractions then.  Consider touring during slow holiday times when few if any rides are closed and some rides like Its a Small World and Haunted Mansion are in unique holiday splendor.  For the left side of the park, go straight to Splash Mountain and work your way back to the main gate.  For the right side of the park, go to Star Tours first and then collect fast passes for the other major attractions while enjoying Fantasy Land.  Then use the fast passes in the afternoon.  As new attractions open each year, be sure to read the current year edition to ride beating books.  Also, you will want to download an app that lists wait times. Expect a very rushed day and long hours but multiple rides (maybe even your favorites more than once).

Idea #2--Its All About the Characters

If you child is there primarily to meet their favorite Disney characters, here are a few tips.  Characters hang out in the main square frequently at the beginning and ending of each day (at Disneyland) and throughout the day next to the Bug'a Life theater in DCA.  Feel free to hop the train first thing and go to Toon Town to meet Mickey and any other characters who might be about (often Pluto, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Chip and Dale).  Other characters have scheduled locations--most notably the latest princess is stationed in Fantasy Land (often an hour wait so get there early) and Mickey in his house in Toon Town (wait times vary by season and day).  Be sure to check out the flyer at the beginning of your day to see if any other characters are scheduled for a meet and greet.

The real bang for your buck is the character dining.  I have written entire blog posts on how to eat for less on vacation, so when I saw the price for character dining, I almost passed.  I am so glad we didn't.  It was money well spent.  Because we get free breakfast at our motel, we did Goofy's Kitchen for dinner.  The cost for my family of 7 was $175 including tax and tip (Costco occasionally offers discounts) and that provided us a complete buffet with both adult and kid friendly food (pb&j pizza).  We leisurely got to meet 7 characters including photos and autographs during our 2 hours of dining.  They had two mini-dance parties where are 7-year-old entertained the restaurant by break dancing.   If your child wants to meet a specific character, feel free to ask your waiter.  If you have little girls, the princess lunch at DCA is a must.

Be sure to have your autograph books and cameras ready.   We found buying our 7-year-old an official book to be a good idea.  He drew each character next to their autograph and plans on turning it into a scrapbook.  Fortunately, he had the characters sign every other page.  His prized autograph--one of the army men from Toy Story 3 that was performing a drum number in the street.

Idea #3--Its All About the Shopping

Disney has changed significantly in the last few years.  Downtown Disney now offers more variety of merchandise then the parks.  Consequently, after hunting through the parks for a few items, we ended up finding them easily at 11:00 pm on our last night in the downtown district.  Serious shoppers should still check out the Star Wars store and New Orleans Square within the park.  Don't forget to check your receipt for coupons often good during morning hours only.  Meanwhile, the Downtown district offers an impressive Lego store, crystal shop, large emporium, build your own remote control race car, Build-a-Bear, Disney 365 (for tweens including make-overs), beignet shops, and so much more.  Be sure to plan at least a couple hours here for the casual shopper and a whole day for the serious shopper.  My husband's favorite part was the Best Buy kiosk that sold all sorts of electronic products including a juice pack for the iPhone.

Idea #4--Sampling it All

It is impossible (or nearly impossible) to do and see everything.  The restaurants, rides, shows, playgrounds, and parades are very diverse.  During our trip, lines were short to nonexistent (often less than 5 minutes) and we were at the parks for three days for a total of 37 hours plus another 6 hours in the downtown district.  We still did not go on every ride and we certainly did not get to sample all the cuisine Disney offers.  For families that want to balance the attractions, dining, character greets, shopping, fireworks, etc, my best suggestion is to get a map and let each person in the family circle two rides (three if you have a small family) for a total of around 10 rides.  Then do the rides in order (clockwise or counter clockwise), give yourself time to watch a show or parade, shop, meet Mickey, and catch the evening fireworks and Fantasmic or World of Color shows (the evening shows are worth your admission ticket alone).  Include a character dining experience and you have a good 2-day Disney trip planned with a little of everything without too long of days or too rushed of a feeling.

Idea #5--Splitting Up

Especially if you have a large family, you may want to split up for all or part of the day.  A tween may find two hours in Fantasy Land to feel like a jail sentence.  Similarly, a toddler that spends hours in his/her stroller while older ones ride roller coasters will be equally bored.  Splitting up can make everyone happy and then you can meet back together for parades, shows, family rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, or to switch the parents.  Similarly, groups can split up briefly.  For example, older kids can go on Splash Mountain while the little ones ride adjacent Winnie the Pooh or older kids can go on Star Tours while younger ones ride neighboring Buzz Lightyear.

What Disney Tour is Right for You?

One of the reasons that Disney is so enduring and magical is that it offers something for almost everyone.  Just spend five minutes looking at all the famous mouse ears to choose from--R2D2 ears, wedding ears, pirate ears, classic black ears, holiday ears, princess ears, baseball hat ears, mad hatter hats, and on and on.  So figure out what type of Disney experience is right for you and then plan your vacation with that in mind.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

5 Electronics for Happier Road Trips

Beyond the Calculator

Back in the old days, my family use to pack a small game suitcase that contained a few dice games and some travel versions of classics like Connect 4, Chess, or Trouble.  Most of these games were for down time at the motel.  We mostly read in the car or played car games like the abc street sign game.  The closest thing we had to electronics was when my oldest brother brought a scientific calculator along to do his algebra homework.  Oh, how times have changed.  Now we would never travel without our favorite gadgets.

#1--The iPad

The favorite electronic device among the children (and probably the adults) is the iPad.  Before leaving, we carefully decide which movies to store on the device and always download a few new free game apps to explore.  The screen size is large enough for two kids to share while watching a movie or playing a game.  It is also lightweight with no game or dvd cases to worry about.  Long battery life, earphone plugs, music, games, movies--what more could you want from one device?

#2--Nintendo DS

When our children were little we bought Leapster.  Though a good product and a fraction of the price of the DS, we found our children quickly outgrew it (we prefer the DS for children 5 and up and for younger siblings who have watched DS play). For a long time we owned two. A little Mario went a long way during our Yellowstone vacation when the kids felt like they had reached their elk enjoyment quota.  It also works well on road trips and is fairly compact.  The only downside is we constantly have to look for the stylus.

#3--The iPod Touch

Somewhere around 10, our children outgrow the DS and move into the iPod Touch phase.  The endless apps expands the device beyond a DS.  Many classic games are available for $2 which is much cheaper than the travel versions with a lot less hassle.  Many games are free.  Our older children are good at finding wifi locations (McDonalds and the motel in particular) to connect with the web (music, Netflix, email).   It also doubles as a camera which can save you money if you add the price of a DS with a point-and-click digital camera.

#4--The iPhone (or other Smart Phones)

In the olden days (5 years ago), we actually packed a portable DVD player and bought a new DVD to entertain the kids.  Now, we just download a new movie onto the iPhone.  The advantage is that you do not want to take an entire iPad into amusement park but you always have your phone with you.  We find a tired 3-year-old will watch a movie in a pinch.  The trick is to use the iPhone as a rare treat.  And for adults, the iPhone provides invaluable apps like the iGuide for Disneyland, GPS, calling road side assistance, email confirmation of your motel reservation, etc.

#5--Audiobook and Music

Maybe it was the way I was raised, but I love hearing a good book read aloud.  It passes the time during long road trips--especially road trips that provide such scenery as never ending sagebrush or cornfields.  It also brings our family together as we listen to the same book on the car speakers--often a Harry Potter book.  For our younger children, music is highly requested and the right songs can make everyone laugh and relax.

Add to your Packing List

Road trips are a time to embrace technology.  So let everyone plug in a for awhile and enjoy.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Disneyland Tip--Watch Classic Disney Movies Before You Go

The Expectation

My friend went to Disneyland a few years ago with her kids who were then 7, 6, and 3.  They were so excited.  But when they got to Disneyland, they realized their kids had never seen Peter Pan, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, or Dumbo, much less Mr. Toad or Sword in the Stone.  Not only did their kids not really understand the rides in Fantasyland, but the children had been expecting rides from their favorite movies--Beauty and the Beast, Cars, and the Incredibles. They still had a wonderful, even magical time, but my friend badly wished she had a few well planned movie nights before they left.

The Reality

Disneyland (and California Adventures) have tried to incorporate more recent movies into their their parks by either creating new rides or revamping old ones including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Tarzan, Monsters Inc, It's a Bug's Life, Brother Bear, as well as have character appearances from recent shows.  Most notably, DCA is scheduled to open an entire Cars land in 2012.  But you should prepare your children if their favorite Disney movie does not have a ride.  

The Tip

To prepare for our trip, we watched a different Disneyland movie each Saturday night for a couple of months.  We usually made popcorn and sometimes even had candy (Halloween helped with that). Watching my youngest kids see Dumbo for the first time was amazing.  During the lullaby, my three-year-old climbed into my lap and started swaying back and forth.  The older kids loved Sword and the Stone (wizards are popular) and Tarzan.  Hands down, the family favorite was Peter Pan. My oldest two kids also read a simplified version of Tom Sawyer (they are now eagerly awaiting a trip to the island playground) and Wind in the Willows (Mr. Toad's Wild Ride).  They could not believe they got credit at school for reading what they considered Disneyland fun.  Depending on the age of your children you will definitely want to see the Toy Story series, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, It's a Bug's Life (there are several rides associated with this one movie), Pinocchio, Dumbo, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid (multiple rides), any Winnie the Pooh, and something Mickey Mouse.  Other movies you might want to watch (and this list is not complete) are Sword in the Stone, Star Wars, Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tom and Huck, Brother Bear, Inspector Gadget, the Muppets, Monsters Inc, and Indiana Jones (we did not watch all the movies on this list).  

Certainly Disneyland can be enjoyed without seeing every movie associated with each ride.  Splash Mountain continues to be the most (or second most) popular ride in the park and it is virtually impossible to find a copy of Song of the South.  Similarly, my children love the Pirates of the Caribbean ride even though they are too young to watch that movie series.  Other popular rides are not associated with any movie like Matterhorn, It's A Small World, and Space Mountain.  So, do not feel like you must see every movie.  


So go ahead and let yourself have some family fun with a movie night and you just might have a better Disneyland experience as well.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mayflower II--Climb Aboard the Most Famous Ship in America


When most of us think of Thanksgiving, we think of the Pilgrims.  Hats with buckles, Squanto, baskets of maize, and, of course, the Mayflower.  One of the best historic sites in America is the Mayflower II and Plimouth Plantation (located a few miles apart) in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The Thanksgiving story depicted in elementary school textbooks and portrayed commercially is often quite different from what historic texts reveal about this famous story.  A more accurate representation found at these sites is both humbling and enlightening and will change the way you look at the founding of our country.

The Mayflower

Many Americans (including myself) often imagine colonial America closer to how it was in 1776 and fail to realize how truly primitive the original colonists lived in the early 1600s. A common reaction when people first see the Mayflower II (an exact replica of the original ship) is how small the ship actually was.  How could it possibly cross the Atlantic or hold well over 100 people (roughly 102 passengers and another 25 or so in crew)?  Entire families travelled then lived for months in spaces smaller than an office cubicle.  We herded our family of then 4 kids into a flimsy three sided space and realized that everyone could not lay down simultaneously because it was so small.  While changing a simple diaper on the tour, I realized how horrific the sanitary conditions would have been, how quickly germs would spread, and the abundance of mice and bugs. Because the ship landed in November, crew and passengers lived on the  tiny ship during the long winter spreading disease among each other until half had died.

1600 Technology

Another amazing part of the tour is the scientific instruments and maps of the era.  The crude compass that  failed briefly in the middle of the ocean.  Maps developed largely by fisherman that depict somewhat accurately most of the American coastline and almost nothing of the interior. The intricate pulley systems used in the sails and to transport cargo.  Historians often debate whether the ship intentionally sailed "off-course" to Cape Cod rather than its original destination of Virginia or did the ship truly get lost in the storms.  After seeing such crude instruments, the latter seems highly probable (though this historian is still a little skeptical).

The People

You begin to wonder why anyone would have actually signed up for such a voyage.  The textbooks tell us of religious freedom but less than half the passengers were actually Pilgrims seeking religious freedom and none of the crew were.  Actors depict actual people from the time and often site adventure and lack of opportunities in Europe as reasons for going on such a perilous voyage.  This is a great opportunity to ask questions about period clothing, diet, perils of the first winter, weapons of the era, the varied occupations of the passengers, etc.  There are also plenty of hands-on activities for the children with period costumes to try on, corners of the ship to explore, and interactive exhibits.

The Rock

The Plymouth Rock is also located next to the ship with the date 1620 clearly carved to symbolize where the Mayflower landed.  This rock, which is largely legend, has been iconic in America since the mid-1700s and has been protected and displayed on the beach for almost 100 years.  The area is a coastal park with picnic tables and is a great place for your children to play after their extensive history lesson.

Tip about children

School aged and younger children will be unable to comprehend how small this ship actually is, how primitive the maps are, what it means to half the population die, to imagine living with 100 people.  To them, the ship is an exciting adventure to explore, like camping.  Don't be surprised if your sons shouts pirate command while standing on deck or your daughter talks endless about the costumes.  Having fun at historical places and at museums is fabulous.  And though they may not fully understand everything now, this can be extremely educational to adults and teens and makes history come alive to younger children.

History Comes Alive

If you have a chance to visit the Mayflower, you will leave with a profound wonder of how any of the early colonists could have successfully navigated the ocean and survived aboard for eight long months.  And if you are lucky enough to have a Mayflower ancestor, you will be even more inspired by the trip.

Monday, November 14, 2011

One Rule for Stress Free Traveling

The Holidays

Holiday traveling is an exciting time filled with family, food, presents, and perhaps a little stress?  As a type A personality, I love to plan.  I compare motels, make packing lists, pick clothes, make reservations, and write daily itineraries.  I love getting the kids involved.  What do they most want to do?  What snacks do they want to pack?  I try to include their favorites and give them a general idea of what to expect--the first day will be a long car ride, Grandma is taking everyone to the movies on Christmas Eve, no whining during family pictures.

When Plans Fail

Though proper planning generally gives me happy, successful vacations including bargain prices and attention to everyone's preferences (whether that is more motel swimming time or an extra ride on Dumbo), planning can only go so far.  Children get sick.  The weather changes.  The car breaks down.  The motel pool is closed because of a bad heater pump.  By the end of vacation, you may be well past any plans and heavily improvising.

The Rule

So, what is my rule for a stress free holiday vacation?  Keep your sense of humor.  There are very few situations that cannot be fixed with a box of wipes and a good sense of humor.  Little children in particular will look to you to assess how they should feel when the unexpected happens.  If you are relaxed and laughing, they will be too.  Most mishaps result in a good story to tell later--our honeymoon plane broke down so we spent most of the night at the airport and had no luggage for the first three days of our honeymoon.  Some end up less consequential then they first appeared.  For example, my little brother came down with a terrible case of heat stroke one year so we didn't leave the motel room until the evening.  At first, it looked like we were going to be missing all day at the amusement park.  In reality, when we got there around 5 p.m., lines were significantly shorter, we stayed almost until midnight, slept late the next day and had a wonderful time.  Now, many guide books actually encourage families to take breaks in the afternoon and return to their motels.  Guess my family was just ahead of the curve.  Another time, one of my children bumped his plate at a restaurant causing a domino effect ending when my plate splattered onto my shirt.  My shirt was ruined.  The sauce would never come out.  The absurdity of the situation made me laugh which made all the kids giggle.  Later, when they were asleep in the motel bed and I realized that my shirt, soaking in the bathtub, was beyond hope, I was a tad bummed.  It was a cute little shirt.  Then my husband reminded me that this meant I got to go to shopping. Oh, I love happy accidents.

Lighten Up

So during this holiday season, lighten up.  Planning can make vacations go smoother, but bumps will still happen.  Laugh it off.  It usually isn't that important and you will laugh about it later.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Disneyland Success Tip--The Timing

Its the Happiest Place on Earth.  Its magical.  The name alone puts a smile on your face.  Its Disneyland.  For many families, Disneyland is the BIG vacation they dream about, plan, and save for.  Our family has been planning a Disneyland trip for about two years.  So you can imagine the squeals of delight when we presented each child with a printed ticket at the dinner table last night.   So, when are we going?

Timing a Disneyland vacation is very important, very important.  Summer months can be hot with long lines.  Holiday weeks are similarly crowded, at times reaching maximum capacity (!).  Throughout the year, various rides are closed for maintenance. So if you have a favorite, be sure to check before you book.  Ticket prices fluctuate, but are often cheaper at the beginning of the year and most expensive in the summer.

Want a miserable time?  Be sure to go the first Saturday in July (4th of July weekend) during a heat wave, paying maximum price for maximum lines.    

We are planning on going early December.  Disneyland is decorated for the holidays in quality Disney style complete with parades, fireworks, and specialty shows (like Fantasmic).  And though Thanksgiving week and the last two weeks of December are more crowded than even the summer months, the first two weeks of December are fairly quiet.  As for ride closures, usually none are scheduled between Thanksgiving and New Year's.  Motel rates are reasonable with plenty of vacancies.  The weather should be mild (though you always risk a cold front or storm).  The catch?  We are pulling the kids out of school.

Other good times to go are during October when the park is decorated for Halloween, mid-September which is usually the least crowded time of the year, and any time in the Spring except the two weeks around Easter and Spring Break.  Have to go in the summer because of school or work schedules?  Go the first week of June or the last week of August and make sure to take advantage of any early morning admittance, stay until closing, and rest during the insane afternoons.

I also recommend you go for more than one day.  There is just too much to see or do and trying to pick among your favorites will be almost impossible.  Going during a weekday (preferably Tuesday or Wednesday) as well as a weekend day (preferably Friday) allows you to take advantage of more shows and later weekend hours one day as well as the short lines and smaller crowds on your weekday.

So enjoy the happiest place on Earth during the happiest time of the year!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Motels for Less

Budget Motels

With a large family, motels are always expensive and we always have to get a family suite.  Because we are often traveling on a shoestring budget, I have learned which brands are usually good deal and which ones just don't make the cut.  We all like to stay in posh accommodations, but here is my top pick for budget motels (less than $125/night in most cities for a family sized room).

My Favorite

Comfort Inn is usually the best bang for the buck.  When I am planning a vacation, I always check their website first and use it as a baseline.  They usually offer a higher quality breakfast than other discount motels (some even offer eggs, bacon, and sausage) in addition to large selection of carb classics (cereal, toast, bagels, pastries, waffles, muffins, juice, milk, etc).  By not having to buy breakfast, especially one that offers protein, I save significantly.  I have also always found Comfort Inn to be clean (as far as motels go) with reasonable customer service.  Because each one is different, you may find a few bad apples or one that is having an off day (we stayed in one where the swimming pool was too cold to use).  But in general we have been very satisfied with quality and price.  I also like many of their sister properties, most notably Comfort Suites.

My Tricks

I definitely recommend checking before booking any motel.  After skimming through several reviews, you will know exactly what a motel is like.  Also, negotiate the price.  Call the motel directly (not a 1-800 number) or watch for internet specials.  Most motels will negotiate and you can save a lot (a few will be hostile in which case, hang up, and book online or take your business elsewhere).

When You are Willing to Chance It 

Some of our best bargains have come when we didn't have a reservation and we started calling around 4 as we continued driving.  Some motels were willing to deal and deal big.  A water park motel located in Amana, Iowa was grossly under booked when we driving through.  We stopped in and were able to get a family suite including water park admission for under $100.  I don't expect that to happen again, but it will be great if it does.   If you are traveling in the Midwest or Old Northwest or Western Pennsylvania, the number of motels that offer water parks is incredible.  So, you might want to call around and see who if offering a deal.  There is a risk, however.  Sometimes smaller towns will be booked (regional softball tournament, a business retreat, etc).  In which case, you may be driving to the next town and not checking in until 10 or 11 at night.  That is why I recommend you start calling around 4 so you can generally avoid that problem.

Why are You Staying in a Motel

You should also book a motel based on why you need one.  If you are checking in at 10:00 pm and will be leaving after an early breakfast (which we have done when on a cross country drive), than you just need a basic, clean room preferably with a free breakfast.  If you will be spending a good part of the day at the pool (or water park), will be using the room to nap children (you will want fast internet and a decent tv), and want to relax (perhaps at a hot tub, exercise room, or game center), then you need to make your reservations accordingly.

Happier Stay, Happier budget

Motels are expensive but do not have to be budget breakers.  Spend just enough to get the amenities you are looking for, be sure to negotiate the price when you book a room, and don't try to be too cheap--you don't want to end up in a dirty room that ruins your whole vacation.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

5 Secrets for Happier Family Road Trips

Road Trip

Just saying those two words, road trip, can conjure up images of flat tires, screaming babies, and car sick kids.  Add to that a constant stream of "Are we there yet?" and "I have to go to the bathroom" and most parents shudder at the thought of family vacation.  Exactly when does the vacation part happen?

With the cost of airfare, road trips are often the only option for families trips.  But they do not have to be dreaded events.  Some of our precious times have been on the road.  Here are some secrets to a happier road trip.

1--During road trips, you can never have too many snacks (or wipes) in the car.  Our favorite snacks include licorice (chocolate tends to melt), granola bars, nuts, goldfish, grapes, and fruit snacks.  If we are bringing a cooler, we also pack frozen gogurts and string cheese.

2--Get everyone on the same schedule.   Nothing makes road trips more miserable than constantly stopping.  Though some unscheduled stops will happen, try to keep them to a minimum.  When you have to stop for gas or a meal, everyone should go to the bathroom and run around a little.  Also, limit drinks in the car to prevent extra stops.

3--Use electronics wisely.   One of our best memories is listening to a Harry Potter audiobook while driving cross country.  It made miles of corn fields go much faster.  Individual electronic time can also be a good thing especially if you have a wide age range.  A portable dvd player for an afternoon movie can be a life saver with little ones.  So can an hour of kid music.  The multiple iPhone/iPad apps and the Nintendo DS provide endless game and educational options.  But keep it in balance.

4--Pack high quality books, toys, and games.  My absolute favorite is the Rand McNalley Road Trip series.  Those books provide hours of endless entertainment (and are highly educational).  We find a stuffed animal for smaller children, matchbox cars, and little ponies to fit easily into small backpacks and provide hours of fun.  Many books recommend buying dollar store toys as surprises to open along the way.  I have never found this to work with the exception of a puzzle for the motel or a matchbox car for my younger boys.  Quality over quantity is the trick with car toys.

5--Play family games in the car.  Nothing beats the license plate game.  Every year it becomes a contest to see if you can see more than last year and finding the elusive states.  Another great family car game is naming all the states, presidents, or countries.  Got smarty-pants-kids, make them learn the presidents in order.  Littler ones will love to guess an animal based on a few clues--it has no arms and legs and Mommy is afraid of it.  Have a few minutes of silliness, sing a few camp songs.  Can't do that on a plane.

So grab the kids and head out.  Road trips can be a happy part of the vacation.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Niagara Falls--Add it to your Bucket List

The Expectation

There is a reason that Niagara Falls is featured in several tv shows and movies--it really is that spectacular.             Our tour of the falls actually began an night when the falls are lighted with pastel colors.  After arriving in the evening, checking in, and letting the kids swim in the pool for an hour, we went to look at this natural wonder.  It was impressive, but a little cheesy with the pastel lights (meant to mimic the perpetual rainbow at the base of the falls during the daytime).   I thought maybe I was tired or having an off day.  It was cool, very cool, but not spectacular.

The American Falls  

The big deal came the next day.  I didn't realize that I had only seen a small portion of the falls at night--the American falls.  In the daylight, the American falls are impressive and large.  They can be viewed from the a lookout bridge, explored through the Cave of the Winds Tour (where you can touch the falls), and viewed from above from both the state park and goat island.  As promised, a rainbow is almost always visible at the base of these falls.

The Horseshoe

The really big deal is the horseshoe falls.  Numerous gallons of water flow at a rate up to 68 miles per hour with such ferocity it is impossible to believe that anyone has survived going over the falls.  The view of the horseshoe is as magnificent as any I have seen including the Grand Canyon and perhaps the most amazing view in the United States.

Goat Island

Goat Island is really where you will spend the bulk of your time.  It has the larger parking facility and is home to the Top of the Falls Restaurant as well as the best view of the horseshoe falls and the top of the American falls.  You will want to leisurely walk along the path and enjoy the immensity of the sight.

Maid of the Mist

For families with young children and a budget, I recommend Maid of the Mist boat tour instead of Cave of the Wind (if you have to pick only one).  Maid of the Mist includes access to the bridge lookout and some viewpoints at the base of the American falls.  The real tour is the boat ride which passes the American Falls (have your camera ready) and takes you as close to the base of the horseshoe as possible without being sucked into the Devil's whirlpool.  The noise is deafening as is the immense power of the falls.  Water sprays the passengers who are wearing tour issued ponchos.  Absolutely breathtaking.

New York vs Canada  

The New York side of Niagara is very small and has an industrial feel.  A few restaurants, a few shops, a few street vendors.  The Canadian side has a Vegas feel with amusement rides, neon lights, and plenty of casinos, nightlife, food, and fun.  Niagara Falls is also a state park not a federal park with only a small museum and gift shop compared to the larger ones that you see at federal sites such as Yellowstone.

Bucket List

If you haven't seen the falls, you need to add it to your bucket list.  Be sure to include a meal at the Top of the Falls Restaurant, go on one of the tours, snap tons of pictures, visit Canada, stop by the visitor's center museum to discover who has survived a trip down these enormous falls.  It is truly an amazing view and natural wonder.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mt Rushmore--American Icon

The Dream

As a child, I ALWAYS wanted to go to Mt. Rushmore.  It was the icon of America; it appeared in several cartoons often with a cartoon face added to the landscape.  It is located in South Dakota which was important because in all our years of vacationing, we never saw a North Dakota license plate. It was the one elusive plate; surely we would see one in neighboring South Dakota.  Unfortunately, we never went while I was a child.   But I am happy to say I have been there now and it was even more amazing that I expected.

The Black Hills

I grew up in the Rocky Mountains and thought I knew the beauty of tall mountain trees, meadows of wild flowers, deer running through the picnic tables, and majestic views.  The Rocky Mountains are stunning, but I was completely surprised by the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. The beauty of these hills are captured at Custer State Park, located next door to Mt. Rushmore.  If you have a few hours and are a wildlife lover, this is the place for you.  We only had time to drive through the main loop and saw buffalo a few feet from the car, several types of deer, elk, and antelope, and wild burros.  My husband is a shutter bug and wildlife lover, so this was his favorite part of our two-day trip.  Also, this area is known for its geology.  For the more adventurous, there are several caves worth exploring including those found at Wind Cave National Park.  Rock collectors will want to visit the various rock shops and buy a few souvenirs.  For those who plan on spending more than a weekend, there is a myriad of national parks and monuments, wild west museums including historic Deadwood, water parks, a reptile zoo, storybook island, bear world, and more.  Very family friendly, small Western town feel.

Mount Rushmore--The Experience

Mt. Rushmore is an intensely patriotic place.  The large visitor's center explains the vision of the sculptor.  This monument is meant to showcase America's unique freedom as it unfolded through the generations beginning with George Washington during the Revolution, to Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence and  expanding our borders, to Abraham Lincoln who held us together and ended slavery, to Teddy Roosevelt who began the progressive era and America's power through projects like the Panama Canal.  Even if you believe these are Not the 4 greatest men in American history or even the 4 greatest American presidents (remember the monument was started in the 1930s), it is still a stirring place that symbolizes the incredible blessing of American freedom and democracy.

Beyond the visitor's center is the outdoor hall of flags.  With all 50 states displayed on either side, this walk evokes the size and grandeur of the United States.  Rangers frequently offer educational games for children to learn more about the states and their flags.

And then you see it.  Majestic, amazing, moving.  You can't help but just stare and take a picture and stare some more.  A large outdoor theater hosts an evening program that should not be missed, even with little children. The ranger program includes a tribute to the four presidents featured, an explanation on how such a monument was carved (before modern power tools), and a patriotic presentation including honoring members of the audience who have served in the military and a group singing of the national anthem.  Did I mention it was moving and intensely patriotic?

During the day, visitors can stroll along the boardwalks that offer different viewing spots of the monument as well as a replica of Gutzon Bolgrum's sculpting studio.  This walk does include plenty of stairs and is approximately a mile long loop.

Though an icon worth seeing, the actual monument is smaller than expected and the entire tour of Mount Rushmore only takes half a day (I recommend going for a few hours during the day and again at night for the ranger program and lighting of the monument).   It is one of the few vacations you can do on a long weekend if you are not interested in exploring the other national parks in the area.

The Memory

Now when I see Mt. Rushmore on the wall of Chuck-E-Cheese with an extra cartoon face or watch (with my kids) an episode of Phineas and Ferb where the two title characters re-carve the mountain, I smile broadly because I have been there, seen that.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

5 Items Mom Should Pack But Probably Didn't Think Of

The Packing List

Once I had three kids, I had to start making packing lists.  I usually started them a couple of weeks before the trip and then would add items as I thought of them.  And still I would forget something--sunblock, a camera, my phone charger, pjs, a swimsuit.  On one memorable anniversary weekend, my husband wore sneakers with his suit to our fancy dinner.  I also realized that some items would have come in handy if only I had thought to pack them--a roll of paper towels on a car trip, a travel game when the heated motel pool wasn't working, breath mints (you don't really need an explanation for that one).  From all my mishaps, here are a few items I think every mom should pack.

#5--Keep a pair of socks for each person somewhere handy in the car.  Many fast food restaurants require socks at their play lands (as do some children's museums, roller skating rinks, bowling alleys, etc.).  Because we wear sandals in the summer, we never had socks.  After fishing a pair for each child out of suitcases more than once, I finally just kept a pair per person in the glove box or in the driver's door cubby.  

#4--For "large" vacations, buy disposable cameras for children aged 5-8.   I have always just let my children take picture with a children's digital camera or take a few clicks with mine.  I still plan on doing that for weekend camping trips or day trips.  But for the extra special occasions (like Disneyland), letting  children in this age group have their own camera without the worry is well worth the money.  Not only will your child be thrilled, but you will get insight into how they see the world--what did they pictures of? I have found children under 5 will beg to take pictures but are better off with a child's digital camera so they can take multiple out-of-focus, low quality pictures that are easily deleted (just pack extra batteries).  Children 9 and older are generally old enough to have a point-and-click digital camera (as cheap as $60) which is about twice the cost of a disposable camera including the cost of developing the film.  

#3--Nail Clippers are a woman's pocket knife.  They can be used like scissors to clip tags, to clean nails, as a file, or to clip a hanging toe nail (guaranteed if your vacation takes you to the beach or involves a lot of walking).  It is a helpful little tool and slips right into your make-up bag.

#2--Keep a spare set of earphones in your purse.  Something I would have laughed at a decade ago, I now keep a set in my diaper bag (they weigh nothing) but have come in handy more than once.  When the toddler has had it, I can plug the earphones into my iPhone and let him play a few games.  When my tween has forgotten hers, she can borrow mine.  When I need a little break on the road trip, I can just plug myself in for a few songs.

#1--Pack some Pocket Change, actual coins.  I have found between motel laundry machines at midnight to machines that stretch and stamp a penny to a vending machine at a rest stop to a toy at a restaurant table (lining them up, sorting, spinning the coins), pocket change is a must on vacation.

Bonus Note:  If traveling with a beloved stuffed animal, pin a note with your name and cell number to the animal.   Most strangers will gladly reunite a ragged stuffed animal with its child (they may even be willing to mail it to you).

So when you are making your packing list for your next vacation, try some of these suggestions and see if your vacation goes a little smoother.  

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kings Dominion vs Busch Gardens--Smackdown

Located an hour apart are two major amusement parks--Kings Dominion, just north of Richmond, Virginia and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia.   Despite being in close proximity, these amusement parks are very different.

Kings Dominion

Kings Dominion has a massive number of children and family rides, close to 30--especially all things wheels including cars, trucks, jeeps, bumper cars, and driving school rides.  It has two kiddie roller coasters (and several more intermediate ones) and boasts a splash playground, perfect for hotter days.  There is plenty of shade and lines are short in the kiddie area.  There are enough rides to last for hours. And children under 3 are free.

Family rides are more spread throughout the park including a must see 4D Spongebob movie, log flume ride, a laser blaster ride, dinosaur exhibit and more.  Use this time to let little ones sleep in the stroller while your older children participate.

Adults and teens will love the thrill rides with 11 coasters (including an indoor black coaster), a canyon rapids ride, a drop tower, and rides that spin and spin, there really is too much to see and do in a single day.

And don't forget the water park.  With plenty of slides, a wave pool, splash pad for the little ones, and beach chairs, this is a great place to relax, cool off, and people watch.  Tweens that do not care for thrill rides, will find this the best part of the park.

If you live close enough, the season pass is an incredible bargain--especially since the park is open in the spring and fall.  Otherwise, look for discounts or buy online.

Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens is a completely different experience.  Built on a unified European theme, the look and feel of Busch Gardens is more Disneyana and less like a traditional amusement park.  The shops offer a European feel with plenty of beer (this is Busch Gardens).

Two children areas are offered--Sesame Street Forest of Friends and Land of the Dragon.  They are located in separate parts of the park and are smaller than their Kings Dominion counterparts.  Busch Gardens offers several kiddie classics including a kiddie coaster, a kiddie log flume, and both wet and dry play areas.  The major difference is the presence of Sesame Street characters.  For children who live to see Elmo or Cookie Monster, Busch Gardens is the definitive choice.  But for children who have grown out of Sesame Street, Kings Dominion is the better option.

For Adults and Teens, Busch Gardens offers several excellent roller coasters including Apollo's Chariot--a hyper coaster and the Alpengeist.  Lines might be long, but for additional fee, guests can buy a quick queue pass.

The real star of Busch Gardens is the animal attractions and shows.  Though the shows rotate, their usually is a 3D movie, a family show involving amazing pet stunts, and one with a celtic flair (often Irish dancing).  For families that enjoy more shows and fewer rides or simply need a break from long lines and hot days, Busch Gardens will not disappoint.

The one drawback is that Busch Gardens does not include a water park.  Water Country USA is affiliated with Busch Gardens but is a drive (not walk) away and is a separate fee.  Though an excellent water park in its own right, it is a separate experience and cost.

The Smackdown

In my opinion, Kings Dominion wins this round.  For locals, the choice is obvious-- season passes are inexpensive and Kings Dominion offers a wide variety of attractions in one location.  For the tourist, Kings Dominion is still the better choice with cheaper tickets and an inexhaustible list of rides, not to mention a water park.  

So spend a day at Kings Dominion especially if you are visiting historic sites like Williamsburg or Washington DC and need a day of fun.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bryce Canyon--Best Family Hike

Bryce Canyon National Park is a very popular vacation spot.  Why?  The view is spectacular, the camping is plentiful and well managed, and there are several easy to moderate hikes making Bryce very family friendly and interactive.

The View

Known as hoodoos, these unique rock spires form a spectacular view.  Bryce Canyon offers an extremely dense collection of hoodoos with some spires rising a staggering 10 stories.  It is no coincidence that the best lookouts are called Sunrise, Sunset, and Inspiration Point.  A few spires standout from the group including our son's favorite--Thor's hammer.  Though the views are always breathtaking, at sunrise, sunset, or with a touch of snow are particularly amazing.

The Camping

Bryce has two major campgrounds, both operate on a first come, first serve basis.  The inability to reserve a campground in advance can be a little unnerving.  We camped during the annual geology festival on a summer weekend and had no problem finding a camping site (the numerous motels were fully booked).   I do recommend arriving by 5 at the latest when camping.  You want to make sure there will be a space available (and in the extremely unlikely chance that one is not, you have enough time to make another arrangement), you want to have plenty of time to set up camp, and you want to explore the park a little--either at the visitor's center or watching the sunset.

I really enjoyed Bryce Canyon's campground.  It was close to the main area--general store, lookout point, and visitor's center.  It offered showers and clean bathrooms that had flushing toilets, water spouts, and a soaker sink for dishes or laundry.  Also, my husband was thoroughly impressed that he had internet access at our camp (I am not sure I see that as a plus).  My only real complaint was that the campgrounds were densely packed so there was little to no privacy.

The Hiking

Bryce offers several easy and moderate hikes (as well as strenuous hikes for the more adventurous).  As a family with both a three-year-old and at a then two-month-old, we hiked the Navajo Loop, a 1.3 mile moderate hike that is extremely well known in the park.  Leaving from the Sunset Viewpoint, take the right trail winding through the heart of the hoodoos.  At the bottom, walk through a narrow passage as the cliffs rise several stories in the air on both sides (like an open air tunnel).  Finally loop back around to the less impressive, but easier side to hike up.

This was one of our family's favorite hikes.   It changed the experience from looking at a view to interacting with that view.  

The hike took less than 90 minutes, but I insisted each child carry a bottle of water.  Because we are use to high altitudes and a dry climate, we did not need that much water, but we saw several adult hikers that were struggling and looking enviously at our children's water bottles.

Bryce also offers other easy hikes including the rim trail, a waterfall hike, and fir forest hikes. Also be sure to check out the visitor's center to learn more about the geology and wildlife of Bryce, watch the short film, and explore the museum.

Why should you visit Bryce Canyon? One Word--Hoodoos

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

5 Free (or Almost Free) Kid Favorites in Boston

Boston--a little of everything 

Boston is an amazing city.  It has some of everything.  Far more than you could ever hope to see in one trip.   Part of Boston's charm is that it has several venues for adults, for kids, for the whole family. Boston has history, the bay, museums, sports, shopping, music, breweries, cannolis.   If you include the surrounding area, your options almost become limitless (beaches, Lexington and Concord, John Adams tour in Quincy, Newport mansions in Rhode Island, Six Flags, I could go on and on). Unfortunately most of these hot spots are relatively expensive--the aquarium and whale watching, most museums including the highly rated Science Museum and Fine Arts Museum, a Red Sox game at Fenway, some of the stops on the Freedom Trail, not to mention parking, shopping, and restaurants (you have to try the lobster).  However, we did find some of the cheaper sights.   Here are our favorite five free or almost free hot spots in Boston when touring with children.

Favorite 5

1--The Subway and Ferry Ride 

Especially if your kids live in a place that does not have a subway system, the subway is a major highlight.  My children particularly enjoyed that the subway went both under and above ground providing them with plenty of tunnels and views.  Inside one of the tunnels is a "movie" where pictures have been drawn along the wall.  At subway speeds, those individual pictures blend into a movie similar to a flip book.  After initially finding their legs, my children also tried subway surfing where you stand in the aisle and try to maintain your balance as the train turns, slows, speeds up, and stops.  You do need to be careful entering and exiting (mind the gap) and try to surf safely.  We found most fellow subway passengers to be friendly and delighted with our children's excitement but we also made sure we practiced manners, particularly during crowded times. And in Boston, children under 11, ride for free. Adults can purchase a week pass which is very economical if you want to make multiple stops or will be touring for more than a day or two.
Probably more enjoyable than the subway was the ferry that crosses near the Aquarium to Charlestown where the Freedom Trail ends at Bunker Hill and the USS Constitution.  Not only is this a cost effective way to get to the end of the Freedom Trail, but it gives you a fantastic view of the harbor from the Boston clock tower to Old North Church.  (This also a great place to pick up discount t-shirts from the street vendors).

2--Boston Common  

This 50 acre park is a landmark in itself (and a subway stop).  The best part is the frog pond where children can wade in the summer in a foot or so of water (unfortunately it frequently closes largely because of weather).   Nearby is a large playground with features for tots as well as older children.  On the other side of the park is a whimsical bridge, the "Make Way for Ducklings" statues, and the swan boat ride (which does charge a fee).  The Common is also home to a few historical sites including a large statue of George Washington, smaller statues primarily depicting various wars, and is the spot of the original stocks and hanging tree from colonial times.  A carousel was recently added (which also charges a fee).  Be careful to check the weather and the event schedule before going.   I also recommend you bring a picnic which seems to be a crowd pleaser at my house.

3--Parts of the Freedom Trail

The Freedom Trail is a well known walk through Boston that covers 17 sites.  Some of them are free, some of them are kid friendly.  Others are not. Before going, familiarize yourself with the stops and prepare your children ahead of time.  Take their ages and interests into consideration when deciding which parts to do.  My children's favorite stops were Boston Common, Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill, and the USS Constitution, although they were willing to go to most of the other sites, many of which we only stayed at for a short time.  The Granary Burying Ground located next to Boston Common was an unexpected surprise.  This graveyard holds Sam Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere, victims of the Boston Massacre, Mother Goose (did you know there was a woman behind the legend?) and other historic figures.  It was very moving for me and an incredible teaching moment.  As you continue on the trail, be sure to point out the hop scotch by the Benjamin Franklin statue in honor of early American public schools.  You will want to hit Faneuil Hall (also called Quincy Market) around meal or snack time (okay, that means this stop will not be free or almost free).  It is a food court on steroids and shopping mecca.  Point out the grasshopper weathervane on top used as a spy symbol during the Revolution and a symbol of wealth.  Have your boys stand next to the bronzed shoes of Larry Bird (they are as big as clown shoes).   Across the bay is the USS Constitution (see below) and Bunker Hill.  Find a burst of energy, the Bunker Hill monument is a mere 292 stairs to the top in very humid air.  My older kids raced to the top and I followed about 10 minutes behind with a 16-month-old in arms.  The views are spectacular not to mention the bragging rights.

4--USS Constitution and Museum

One of the last stops on the Freedom Trail, this Naval ship dates back to 1797.  Still operated today by the Navy, the free tour of this ship is one of the best I have ever been on--funny, full of facts and stories, with plenty to see both on deck and below.  Wait time varies and the holding area is outside so avoid going in the heat of the day or during heavy storms.  Adjacent is a wonderful museum (with a suggested donation).  The main floor is mostly geared towards adults with short explanatory films and exhibits.  Upstairs is a mini children's museum.  Children pretend to be enlisting in the Navy or Marines 200 years ago.  They can scrub the deck, works the masts, cook in the mess hall, see the life of an officer, swing in a hammock, shoot the cannon, see how the ship survived the pirates, and much more.  Our then second grader rated this higher than the expensive and famous New England Aquarium.

5--The Children's Museum Discount Day

The Boston Children's Museum is one of the best in the nation and only costs $1 per person on Friday evenings.  Yes, it will be crowded.  Yes, you will want to stay until closing at 9:00 which will mean a late bedtime.  It is well worth it.  Climb through the 3 story puzzle sculpture, explore Arthur's world, play a new game, have fun in the bubble room, dance on the lighted floor, explore the Japanese house, and delight in Peep's World sand and water tables (just name a few of the exhibits).  We only saw about 2/3 of the museum in the 4 hours we visited!  Parking on discount days is impossible so be sure to take the subway.

Other Options

Many museums (not just the Children's Museum) offer a free or heavily discounted day, so be sure to check their websites.  Although, families with young children might want to pass.  A short drive from Boston also has other family friendly venues particularly the beach (though some charge a parking fee or small beach access fee) and Lexington-Concord National Park (a family friendly must see).

Grab Your Sneakers

As you can tell from the list, Boston involves a lot of walking, standing, and climbing stairs--A LOT.  So be sure to grab your sneakers.  But leave most your money home for a day or two and enjoy the cheaper side of the city.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Las Vegas for Kids

Can you really take kids to Vegas?

We all think of Vegas as an adult's playground.  But we love this city for family vacations as well.  Here are some of our favorite kid friendly spots.

#1--Circus Circus--Clearly the most family friendly major hotel/casino in Vegas is ultra cheap (as low as $30 a night).  To entertain the kids, they built the Adventuredome, an indoor amusement park at a reasonable price with plenty of rides, 4D movies, and clown shows.  But be aware the noise level can be excessive (it is indoors after all).  You can also head upstairs to see the free circus acts and play the midway games.  With acts every 20-30 minutes, you can pace yourself on the games and catch a few acts (no amateur hour here).  Savvy midway players will recognize guaranteed win games like lucky ducks which means your child will win a small stuffed animal.  We spent roughly $30 and 3 hours.  For our money, we saw 7 circus acts and won 8 stuffed animals.  On the other side of the hotel is a magic shop where very well trained salesman magicians will perform several tricks (that happen to be available for purchase in the store).  My husband is a big magic fan, so this was a must stop.  After watching several tricks and looking through the store, we finally bought a fairly cheap wand trick which the kids have played with for over four years now. If you are really into magic, definitely check out other venues (Vegas is a magic haven).  But if you are already at Circus Circus and just want a little something, this store is for you.  Finally, the buffet is definitely a kid favorite.  This is a place that has a million promotions, specials, and coupons.  So make sure you get a discount on just about everything.   There is a reason this is a bargain spot.  The hotel is old and distanced from the other major hotels on the strip (you will need to drive or ride the bus down to the other attractions). And with all the kids in this place, I recommend packing hand sanitizer.

#2--Bellagio Fountains--Enchanting to both adults and kids alike.  Our younger ones often subconsciously bend and sway in imitation while they watch.  We try to catch the fountains at least twice, once during the day and the other at night.  They are that good.   While here, slip inside and see the blown glass ceiling sculpture as you walk toward the conservatory.  Here is Vegas finery with a changing seasonal display featuring indoor fountains and a botanical garden carefully created by 140 horticulturalists.  Then take a quick side trip down the hall to see the chocolate fountain and chocolate shop.  Like a Food Network show come to life, this shop features several show pieces created exclusively out of chocolate including a fountain display (this not your average fondu fountain).

#3--Mirage Volcanos--aside from the Bellagio fountains, this is one of our favorite outdoor shows.  Fire and water combine to make this a memorable event (though perhaps a little too memorable for toddlers--"big fire" as one of our kid's said while clutching my pants).

#4--McDonalds across from Bellagio--Children will surprise you.  After our vacation, our then four-year-old said this was his favorite spot.  It doesn't even have a play land.  Why did he like it?  It is two stories.  He loved eating upstairs.  Since our visit, we have confirmed this with other restaurants--upstairs is a winner.

#5--M&M World--You can spent a couple hours in this four level store devoted to the beloved candy.  The big attraction is a free 3D movie featuring the m&m characters.  Then let the shopping begin.  This store has everything at every price point--pencils, plastic tumblers, gourmet flavors, candy dispensers, clothes, jewelry, magnets, to very expensive collectibles.

#6--FAO Schwarz and Caesars Palace--Despite being an upscale shopping mecca, this place is great for children.  The larger-than-life entry way begins the magic followed by hallways filled with large statues ending with the Zeus statue and fountain that comes to life with a mini-show.  Though the plot is difficult for children to understand as are the speaking statues, the special effects are absolutely magical to a child (can't see a show like this is your mall at home).  Close to this is an aquarium sized fish tank where divers are seen regularly feeding the fish.  Adding to the excitement, you can walk all around the tank with plenty of seating (a good resting place for tired little ones).  The other magical spot is the FAO Schwarz store with the famous large floor piano.  Everyone loved hopping from note to note as they tried to play simple melodies without losing their balance (finally all those hours of piano practice paid off). This Vegas gem sadly no longer exists.

The Opportunities

On one of our trips, our then third grader was studying the Romans in school.  She was delighted to get her picture taken with one of the numerous statues inside Caesars Palace and bring it for show-and-tell.  Not to be out done, our then first grader insisted we take a picture of the pyramid since he was learning about the Egyptians.  By the end of the day, we had also discussed the Eiffel Tower and Michelangelo's work replicated inside the Venetian.  As one friend said, "if you can't afford Europe. . ." Aahh, the educational value of Vegas.

The Take Away

Las Vegas has plenty to keep children entertained and this list was exclusively comprised of attractions located on the Strip.   Even if you are just passing through, a day in Vegas can add a lot of magic to your family vacation.