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.