Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Mom's Must Have Book for Road Trips--Rand McNally's Are We There Yet?

Road Trips

Road Trips with children can be stressful, I mean eventful.  We were in the car a mere thirty minutes before our seven-year-old asked the infamous question, "Are we there yet?"  My favorite car boredom busters that don't require a plug or batteries is the backseat book series by Rand McNally.

Are We There Yet?

For the older crowd, ages 7-11, Are We There Yet? is an amazing book filled with puzzles, games, songs, mazes, mini-mysteries, crosswords and more.  This book is challenging and lengthy enough to fill several hours.  After completing most of the book, our children insisted on keeping a copy just for the song lyrics which are now a tradition on any trip that takes longer than 45 minutes.

Activity Book

For the younger group, ages 4-8, Best Travel Activity Book Ever is filled with simpler puzzles, mazes, coloring pages, dot-to-dots, and games.  Pass the crayons, please.  Our then five-year-old could not finish this thick book during our vacation and enjoyed doing the harder mazes throughout his kindergarten year on rainy days.

Games, Games, Games

Currently harder to find is Coast to Coast Games, aimed at ages 6-9.  This is also a very engaging book with a good dose of geography and riddles mixed in with puzzles and games.  For a road trip that covers several states, this would be a very good choice.  It definitely showcases the diversity of America.

Rand McNally also offers a Kids' Road Atlas.  Though some parents may like this book, I find it far inferior to the other books and do not recommend it.

Having Fun without being plugged in

As technology becomes more available and cheaper, I am always glad for an option that doesn't require a plug or batteries.  I have found these books to be cheap (less than $5.00 on Amazon or eBay), and very engaging for my children (not to mention educational).  A must have for any significant road trip.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

5 Unusual Disneyland Tips You Probably Haven't Heard

Our family is planning a Disneyland vacation for the upcoming holiday season.  We have not been for a few years and never during the holidays, so I have been reading extensively about what is new, what not to miss, and how to enjoy the park with a baby.  Here are some of the more unusual tips you probably have never heard:

Tip #5--Earplugs--for children or adults with sensitive ears, earplugs (which soften but do not completely eliminate noise) are an inexpensive and easy solution for the louder rides and theater attractions.  They can also be used on the drive to Disneyland.

Tip #4--Shy Nursing Mothers can try nursing more secretly in the theaters (Muppet Vision 3D, Captain EO, Its Tough to be a Bug etc.).  There is a baby station on Main Street, but visiting it every three hours to feed a baby is unrealistic.  I recommend using a cover and simply sitting on a bench with the stroller parked in front of you.  But maybe I'll try the theater next time.  

Tip #3--Ways to save money on food include wear tight clothes, visit during a religious fasting period, and eat ramen type noodles for dinner in your motel room using a coffee maker or microwave.  Really people???  I don't think I will try these.  The best two tips I saw for saving money on food was to eat breakfast in your motel (find a motel with a continental breakfast or stock your room with boxes of cereal, nutrigrain bars, protein shakes in the ice bucket or mini-fridge, etc) and order ice water from counter service restaurants (the water is free at those locations) rather than pricey sodas.

Tip #2--Tie an old sock to your stroller, especially if you rent one at Disneyland.  The thinking behind this is that strollers, especially identical ones, are easily mixed up (either accidentally or intentionally).  Also, cast members regularly clean up stroller parking areas by lining up strollers which moves them around a bit. That can be confusing when you try to locate your stroller which has been rearranged in a line of similar ones.   Bringing a cheap item to tie around the handle can easily differentiate your stroller like a bright scarf or an old sock.  Why an old sock might be better?  It might better deter other patrons that intentionally swipe a stroller (either because their own stroller was swiped and they do not want to get a new one from the rental center or they are looking for a stroller without having to pay to rent one).  

Tip #1--Geocaching--turn teens loose on a geocaching  adventure (see  There are several of these high tech treasure hunts to choose from at Disneyland, California Adventures, and the Downtown Disney District.  Your teen can even leave a travel bug and see where it goes long after your vacation ended.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hawaii is for Adults--California is for Kids

My husband went on a business trip to Hawaii (Oahu).  I tagged along.  It was everything I thought it would be--romantic walks on the beach, hula dancers, swimming in a waterfall, seeing Pearl Harbor.   It was a wonderful second honeymoon, but I would not bring the kids for a future family vacation.  Frankly, Southern California would be more fun for children and much cheaper than Hawaii. 

What Hawaii is best known for is the beaches and ocean.  I spent hours walking along the sand.  I swam in the ocean and let the waves crash on me.  But these were not little waves.  As a grown adult, I found the waves large.  They also crash extremely close to the shore.  Wading in shallow ocean water was not really an option.  I could stand on the edge and let the large waves hit me (usually waist high or higher) or I could swim out a little and float in water so deep I could not stand.  As a seasoned swimmer, it was heaven, but there was no place for small children to play enjoy the water.  Also, there are no seashells on the beaches.  My favorite ocean excursion was snorkeling.  It was like sticking my head into a large tropical fish tank.  It was amazing to see brightly colored fish swim inches from me and to see a myriad of coral.  But I cannot imagine trying to help my three- or five-year-old navigate the fragile and sharp coral reefs with masks.  Similarly, surfing would be fine for older children but not the little ones.  And Scuba diving is definitely out.

Another highlight was Pearl Harbor.  It was deeply moving.  Powerful.  My husband's grandfather (who married us and was influential in our lives) was a pilot in WWII.  We toured the aviation museum connected to the Pearl Harbor Memorial.   I could feel the debt we owe that generation as I wandered through the exhibits.  The impossible odds.  The miracle we call the Battle of Midway.  But hardly an exciting activity for my younger children.

From luaus that lasted late into the night to hiking to the top of Diamond Head crater to shopping at the flea market,  children would find Hawaii to be boring and exhausting.  Though some venues have child friendly activities like Dole Plantations, the aquarium, or the Polynesian Cultural Center, the bulk of Hawaii's allure can only be experienced by adults and teens.

After considering the cost of flying to Hawaii (and the length of the flight), most families would find that the money would be far better spent in a place like southern California.  With a myriad of amusement parks, world class animal parks, and child friendly beaches, California may offer more bang for the buck for kids under ten.

So save Hawaii for the grown-ups and leave California for the kids.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

3 Tips To Help Keep Your Sanity at an Amusement Park

Some of my best memories as a child are going to the amusement park.  The anticipation.  The rides. The  forbidden food.   As a parent, I find the long hours, hot sun, and noise to be a strain on my patience and sanity.  Here are three tips I have learned (largely the hard way) to help me enjoy this special treat as much as my kids.

Tip #1

Plan, Plan, Plan, but be flexible.  Before I go to an amusement park, I look at the park map online and plan out the day.  When do we plan to arrive?  When do we plan to eat?  When do we plan to leave?  Then I make a rough plan that includes all of our favorites rides and in what order are we doing the park (left to right, clockwise, straight to kiddieland, etc).  But the plan is merely to prevent me standing in the middle of the park frustrated as I try to decide where to go next or leaving the park only to hear every child tell me that I skipped their favorite ride.   Being flexible is extremely key.  Children may change their minds once they see a ride in person.  Often rides take longer than anticipated so we shorten the plan or skip some rides to move on to others.  An unplanned snack and rest time may be necessary. Never try to see and do everything.  That is a recipe for a stressful, frustrating day.  I find the bigger the amusement park, the more planning and prioritizing is necessary.  

Tip #2

Friends or additional family members can make the day far more enjoyable but you need to have realistic expectations.  We have gone with friends and spent most the day together.  It was heaven.  The moms stayed with the younger  children in the kiddie park.  The kids loved riding with both siblings and friends depending on the ride.  As moms, we talked and could swap kids for bathroom breaks.  Also, one of us could ride while the other watched the baby.  The dads were free to go on the roller coasters with the oldest kids for a couple hours and we enjoyed family rides together.  Another time, after an hour, our friend's children were very unhappy and wanted to move on to a different part of the park.  My kids didn't want to move on because this was their favorite part.  We split up and never managed to reconnect.  Not what I planned, but no hurt feelings.  We simply did what was best for our own families and didn't have unrealistic expectations of each other.  

Tip #3

Beating the Midway Games.  I have to thank my husband for this tip.  He introduced me to guaranteed win games often in the form of a duck pond game.  For $5, my middle three children each picked a duck from the pond and each won a stuffed animal prize.  One of my children described it as his "favorite ride."  They proudly carried their prizes all day and it replaced the need for me to buy other souvenirs.  Another guarantee win is the ball and cup game where the ball always lands in a colored cup.  Most cups are of the same color that corresponds with a small prize.  A favorite of my husband, he once let our then two-year-old toss the ball.  It landed in the grand prize cup--a cookie monster taller than he was.  It is a favorite story and memory in our family.

So enjoy the day.  Keep expectations realistic.  Relax and be flexible.  Keep two advil in your purse.  Have fun and remember you are making memories. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Parowan Petryoglyphs

One of the hidden treasures in Utah is located just off of 1-15.  The Parowan Gap (about 25 miles north of Cedar City) holds one of the most extensive collections of Native American petroglyphs.  This amazing site holds dozens of pictures including an impressive calendar map, animals, trees, and numerous shapes.

This area is held sacred by many Native tribes including the Paiutes, who are believed to be descendants of the people who created this rock art.  The gap itself, a narrow passage between two large rock formations, is a rare geologic wonder and natural observatory adding to the spiritual mystique. To see this art in its original location is nothing short of spectacular.  Believed to be at least a thousand years old and likely much older, this place is a very rare glimpse into ancient America.

This unplanned detour took us an hour (including taking multiple pictures and reading the signs and brochure).  It was my husband's favorite part of our trip (often the best parts are surprises) and the kids enjoyed guessing what the pictures depicted (like a diving board).  Quite an amazing place.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Camping vs. Motels--Pros and Cons

I was raised by a mom who thinks discount motels are camping. She hates bugs, heat, cooking, and dirt. She want a break on vacation--restaurants, housekeeping. After years of enjoying motel vacations, I went on a camping trip with my husband and 5 children. I discovered the fun of camping, but I also understood my mom's point of view.

Camping Pros

Hands down the best part of camping is being together as a family. We set the tent up as a family. The older children learned the basics of making a fire. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows together. We told ghost stories. We had plenty of time to hang out free from modern distractions. We worked and played together.

Camping was much cheaper than staying in a motel. With a family of 7, we either have to get family suite or two rooms. Even with a free breakfast, motels are usually half the cost of the vacation. Instead, gas was the single biggest cost on our trip.

Camping also brings us closer to nature, to some type of peace with the world. We hiked, explored, watched the stars, saw wildflowers and wild animals. At this trip, we were at the Grand Canyon and were among only a handful of Americans. Most the visitors were European. They gave up works of men like the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, and Windsor Castle to see a work of nature. There was something for the soul in seeing a wild buffalo herd, a sunset, a pine forest.

Cons (i.e. my mom's point of view)

Camping does involve dirt and bugs. When we got home, we had several loads of laundry spanning three days. Most my pictures involve dirt smeared play clothes, ponytail hair, and band-aids. Fun, but hardly glamorous.

Camping involves a lot more work, a lot more work.  Setting up and taking down the tent, cooking meals on a propane stove, cleaning up meals, building a fire, dashing into the tent when it rains. It also required more planning before we left and cleaning up (remember all those loads of laundry) when we got home.

Camping can be more affordable than staying in a motel but not necessarily. The initial cost of buying a tent, sleeping bags, and other camp gear including firewood, camp stove, lantern, can be expensive. Many campgrounds have a fee associated with them.  Also, camp food may not be much cheaper than a fast food restaurant. A smaller family may find camping to be almost the same cost as a motel.

The Best of Both Worlds

I loved camping, but I do not want to camp for every vacation.  Nature and no electricity are a nice weekend, but so are amusement parks and motel swimming pools.   

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Top 5 Lessons Learned from Camping at the Grand Canyon

I haven't been camping since I was a teenager.  So, I asked my husband if we could pack up the kids and go.  He was game.  I had never seen the Grand Canyon and it was only a day's drive away.  So with 5 kids (including a 2-month-old baby), we went. Here is what we learned:

#5--Camping requires significantly more trunk space.  By the time we packed a tent, 4 sleeping bags, padding to go under the sleeping bags, a cot, small propane stove, and lantern, there was no more room.  We still had to pack clothes, pillows, diapers, jackets, food, first aid kit, etc.  By the time it was all done, it was a tight fit.

#4--Family Time is a wonderful thing. With all electronic toys left at home, we had plenty of time for all the stuff we never have time for.  Ghost stories, watching a sunset, star gazing, chasing chipmunks, playing cards, swinging in the hammock, hiking, roasting marshmallows. 

#3--The North Rim vs. the South Rim.  We live closer to the North Rim and considering the children asked "how much longer" when we had only been driving for 30 minutes it made sense.  The North Rim was almost deserted with only a handful of other visitors.  We easily found seats at the observations deck even during meal times (pizza with a world class view).   We were able to enjoy nature more and not fight crowds, traffic, or noise. Perfect. On the other hand, there is no city or even town near the North Rim.  A couple of stores, a lodge with a few restaurants including pizza, a few cabins, and a campground.  If you want to do something other than look at the view (like golfing or shopping, the North Rim is not for you).

#2--Unexpected Surprises.  Some of our favorite parts were not planned.  My husband loved seeing petroglyphs which we saw on the way back after passing a sign on the freeway.  We saw a herd of buffalo including a few babies.  Our boys were fascinated with chipmunks and squirrels.

#1--The View at the Grand Canyon.  Breathtaking.  Spectacular.  Enormous.  As we stood on the observation deck, the canyon extended as far as the eye could see in three directions (the parking lot being the fourth).   We walked to various lookout points where cliffs fall away from the path on both sides.  Unbelievable.  Larger than a picture can capture.  Stunning.  We were lucky enough to see it at sunset with a rainbow.  Memorable.