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.