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.