Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Taking Kids to Yellowstone--10 things to see and do

My husband loves Yellowstone National Park, it's probably his favorite national park.  I have to admit, it offers a stunning variety of things to see and do.  But it is a lot of driving (which can be hard on little ones).  It also takes several days making it a vacation in itself rather than a weekend or a stop along the way (I think that is why my husband likes it so much).  National reviews frequently pit Yellowstone against the Grand Canyon as the two best parks in the states and possibly the world.  The argument is always the one hit breathtaking grandeur versus the multiple unique features Yellowstone offers.  And Yellowstone offers a staggering number of things to see and do.  Here are some of our favorites.

#1--Mammoth--ever changing, these hot springs sculpt step like formations into the soft limestone.  The hot springs flow differently from moment to moment much less year to year, so you will never see the same formation twice.  Even the colors change.

#2--Old Faithful--Erupting every 60-90 minutes (be sure to check the schedule in the visitor center), this is the most famous of the geysers at Yellowstone.  Along the boardwalk are several other geysers, many of which erupt most days.  Down the road is my husband's favorite, Grand Primatic Spring.  The sheer size of this geyser is incredible with plenty of colored and boiling pools to see as you explore this area (little ones should be strapped in strollers, tightly tethered, or in a sling as this area is very dangerous for those who wander a few steps off the boardwalk). Yellowstone has roughly 60% of the world's geysers with miles of boardwalks to wander.

#3--Upper and Lower Falls--with multiple viewing areas, these grand falls with incredible elevation drops have inspired artists and tourists alike.  Keep your eyes open for large birds (such as eagles) and their nests.

#4--Swimming at the rivers--Yellowstone boasts two swimming holes which quickly became our kids' favorites.  The first is by Mammoth and is where the Boiling River meets the icy Gardner.  Parking is near the 45th parallel sign (a fun fact in itself).  The walk is close to a mile but is more of a nature stroll than a hike.  The fun of this place is finding the spot where the two meet to form warm water.  The other spot is along the Madison River in western Yellowstone.  Though a little chilly (even in July), this spot offers a large stretch to play with plenty of shallow shoreline.  There are changing rooms in the bathrooms and be sure to bring your own towels.

#5--Wildlife--Buffalo, elk, and deer are frequent sights with bears, moose, and eagles (or other large preying birds) a possibility.  And, of course, the baby animals are adorable.  The Lamar Valley (in the northeast) and Hayden Valley (in the east) are great areas to see the elusive bears.  Watch for people with scopes set up (many of them will let you take a peek).  The Madison River and Yellowstone Lake also offer good wildlife viewing opportunities.  Did I mention elk love the Mammoth area?  Frankly, it is hard to visit Yellowstone without seeing wildlife.

#6--Visitor Centers--The fact that Yellowstone offers 3 major visitor centers (each with a different emphasis) shows how varied and large this park really is.  For museum kids (like mine) that like to learn, explore, and touch, these visitor centers provide an incredible education and an air conditioned break from walking along boardwalks or riding in the car.  Some even feature a junior area for younger children with plenty of hands-on opportunities.  Ambitious families can do the junior ranger program (which is more difficult to earn here because of the vast park size) including attending a ranger program (which can be highly enjoyable).

#7--Chief Joseph Plaque--this is one of the many hidden gems of Yellowstone (the petrified trees, horseback riding, the obsidian cliffs, the 45th parallel line sign are other great ones).  This particular plaque made my list because it highlights the peoples of Yellowstone.  Learning of Native Americans growing up, I had heard the story of Chief Joseph but as an adult I could better appreciate the cat-and-mouse game between the army and his people through the canyons and geysers of Yellowstone (with 2000 horses).  As you drive through, be sure to stop at a few of the signs to learn what most people miss.

#8--Firehole Drive--Another of my husband's favorites, this loop is located in the geyser basin and takes you to some of the lesser seen geysers.  Many are small with plenty of variations in color and size.  The sheer number of geysers you pass as you drive (and you are welcome to stop and stroll along the boardwalks) is impressive.  This is also a nice way to stay in an air conditioned car, not waking the sleeping toddler, and still enjoy Yellowstone.

#9--Hiking/Nature Walking--Like most national parks, a few hikes allows a more intense exploration of nature.  Yellowstone offers plenty of family friendly hikes including the miles of boardwalk along the geyser basins, Norris, and mammoth, hiking to observation points of upper and lower falls, the mud pots, the artist paint pots, the boiling river walk (with swimming at the end), and too many to list.

#10--Mud Pots--As if geysers, grizzly bears, and waterfalls were not enough, watching boiling mud that smells like a boys locker room is truly something else.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Top 10 Attractions at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter

Though most blogs will tell you to visit Harry Potter at the end of the day when crowds have died down, I knew I wanted to be there for several hours, so that meant rushing early in the morning.  Because we went in May (off-season), we only had moderate crowds (around 20 minute waits for most major rides).  And I am glad I didn't wait until the end of the day because we were there for 5 hours including lunch.  There is just too much to see and do to try to rush through the last two hours before park close.  Afterwards, I practically wanted to frame my receipts--The Three Broomsticks, Dervish and Banges, Honeydukes, Filch's Emporium.  It was the best commercial day of my life which is why I have a top 10 list for this park within a park.

#1--The Castle-- I forced myself to walk to the castle past the enticing shops, into Filch's emporium, through the locker room and right into the inside line for the castle (the outside line is technically for the lockers though sometimes employees force everyone to wait in it).  Why didn't I need a locker?  With a baby, we were always using the parent swap, so all our bags just hung from the stroller throughout the day with one parent or the other (everyone else will need to store their bags and with too few lockers, that can add to your wait times).  If you think the castle looks extraordinary from the outside, wait until you see the inside.  Knowing I wouldn't have time to do it twice, I took my time moving through the tour, allowing impatient groups to go ahead.  There are mandrakes in the greenhouse, potions in Snape's dungeon, a sorting hat, and more.  And then there is the ride at the end of the tour.  Shaped like a broomstick, you fly through various of intense adventures from the book (I only screamed when the giant spider moved).  My only disappointments is the ride is very jerky (more than one patron has lost his butterbeer on the ride) and the interior castle is dark enough that it is difficult to make out all the fine detail or take good pictures.  As for the mom swap room--air conditioned with a continual loop of Potter movies.

#2--The Hogs Head--this is my Potter hack.  No need to stand in the blistering heat in a 45 minute butterbeer line.  Simply waltz into the Hogs Head and order at the counter from a "gruff" barman.  It comes chilled or frozen and you will probably want to sample both to see which you like more (I prefer frozen).  Normally we drink water at amusement parks to save money, but  here we splurged and let each child order their own (twice, once at the beginning of our Potter day and once at the end 5 hours later).  Well worth the money.  If you have bags on the stroller, go ahead and order one in a souvenir cup as a special memory (since storing it the rest of the day won't be an issue).   Fortunately, our daughter found a recipe to replicate it at home.  We also tried pumpkin juice (from an outdoor cart) which was only okay.  Soda is not served at Potter World, but milk, juice (besides just pumpkin), and other approved Potter beverages like butterbeer are available.

#3--Ollivander's--a demonstration (show) rather than a ride, this magical shop allows one lucky participant to test out wands.  The actor is extraordinary and sweetly spoke to my son (who had not been chosen for the demonstration) and helped him pick a wand as well.  At $30, the wands are pricey but good quality with a staggering variety (both named wands like Hermione or Bellatrix as well as generic wands).  Both my sons picked generic wands and my only complaint is that they do not sell a Mrs. Weasley wand.  This shop is connected to the owl post which will stamp and actually mail your postcards from Hogsmeade.

#4--Shopping--I spent over an hour going through the different shops looking at the shirts, toys (sneakascopes and the monster book of monsters are both big sellers), stuffed animals, wands, cups, movies, quidditch supplies, books, scarves, robes, and more.  The stuffed animal collection had my son enchanted--Buckbeak, Scabbers, Hedwig, Pigwidgeon, Fluffy, Fawkes.  There were plenty of items for each of the houses at Hogwarts and my favorite shirts--muggle and wizard ones (since I married a muggle).  Outside the shops were dazzling animated window displays.  The only problem is that the shops are small (authentic to the books) which makes them hard to navigate especially with a stroller and easily overcrowded.  Filch's Emporium, which is the only exit to the castle ride is constantly wall-to-wall people.  Also note, the stores along Universal's Citywalk carry many Potter items like wands for those wishing to pick up their items at the end of the day.

#5-- The Three Broomsticks--with the triangle symbol of three brooms, this cafeteria style restaurant is the obvious lunch stop.  On a nice day, eat outside with a spectacular view of the lake and other islands.  Kid meals (and frankly adults meals as well) are reasonably priced and the menu reflects a British diner--fish and chips, shepherd's pie, cornish pasties.  This is not fast food with fairly large portions (I couldn't finish mine but then again I had already had two butterbeers).  And you can't eat at The Three Broomsticks anywhere else. For Potter nuts, this is a must-do for lunch.

#6--Honeydukes--We spent a good deal of money here (in part because my daughter has a cooking blog with a review of Potter foods).  We were full from our Three Broomsticks lunch so with the exception of a cauldron cake we packed these items into our suitcases.  The Chocolate Frogs are gigantic and the most fun item to open and collect the cards but the chocolate is low quality and they are so large you can only buy one or two (let the fight for the cards begin).  The Sugar Quills were gigantic lollipops (perfect a week later, at home).  Every Flavor Beans were probably the crowd favorite with a good mix of delicious and disgusting flavors (ear wax flavor, anyone?).  And Peppermint Imps were surprisingly delicious (wish we had bought an extra box of those).  Our only real disappointment was the cauldron cake which was like an okay cupcake.  They also sell a wide variety of other sweets including non-Potter related goodies like fudge.  Though butterbeer was my favorite Potter treat, a few purchases in Honeydukes is a must (did I mention how much we liked the Every Flavor Beans and the Peppermint Imps?).

#7--Flight of the Hipogriff (Hagrid's Roller Coaster)--Meant to simulate Buckbeak's flight, this junior roller coaster was my 4-year-old's favorite ride in Orlando (including all of Disney World).  In addition to being a great junior coaster, the line loops past Hagrid's Hut and Buckbeak's nest.  This is also the only ride younger children (but no toddlers) can go on at Potter World and there is no playground.  I recommended the talking at Lost Continent or Seuss Island to entertain little ones while older children experience the rest of Potter World.

#8--Twin Dragons--These full sized roller coasters (must be 55 inches to ride) are different from each other so both should be ridden. Unlike the fairly tame flight of a hippogriff, these coasters represent the power of two dragons--one Hungarian, one Chinese. Though they are no longer synchronized with the illusion of crashing into each other, these roller coasters still offer full sized thrills (the fireball was our favorite).

#9--The Hogwarts Express--at the entrance is the engine of the train with its own platform--9 3/4.  Be sure to grab you photo with the conductor at this iconic scene.  Lockers are also located here if you want to store your luggage.

#10--Moaning Mrytle (and other little touches)--Potter World is magical with incredible attention to details including snow on the rooftops, animated wanted posters of Sirius Black, and a famous ghost in the bathroom--Moaning Mrytle.  Not only girls can hear her complaints as she splashes in and out of her toilet, but the boys get enjoy this ghost as well.

A Note for Muggles

Those who are sadly not Potter fans will probably find this island overcrowded and easily completed in a couple of hours (I recommend the twin dragon coasters, castle ride, and a butterbeer to anyone visiting Universal even if they have never read a Potter book or watched a Potter movie).  These guests (known as muggles) should visit this island at the end of the day when crowds have likely thinned.

As for the rest of us, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a well designed amusement park that quickly fills up and provides hours of enjoyment.  From rides, to shopping, to food, this is one of the most amazing and magical places ever created allowing fans to step into the books in an extraordinary way.  You will not want to miss it on your Orlando vacation.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fire Knife Dancers--Hawaii's Best Secret

When you think of Hawaii, you think of white sand beaches, surfing, hula girls, and a luau.  But the best part of any show is the fire knife dancers (as seen in this youtube video).  And no one knows fire knife dancing better than the Polynesian Cultural Center.

At their evening production of Ha Breath of Life, the PCC pulls out all the stops with world class dancers (including Tahitian dancers who are often a bigger crowd pleaser than the hula), music, and fire knife dancers (!!!).  These men are daring as they sit on a bonfire wearing long grass skirts, twirl double ended fire batons, balance the fire on their feet, swallow it, and "play tricks" on the other dancers.  Highly entertaining pyrotechnics that will leave you gasping and wishing for more.

And for a 2 day engagement, you don't have to go to Hawaii to see the show.  It is coming to Utah at the West Valley Cultural Celebration Center.  And tickets are only $10 (far cheaper than the Hawaiian price).  Many of these dancers are students at BYU Hawaii and are trained and costumed better than anywhere else in the world.  

My only complaint is the plot only exists as a segue between dance numbers (though some audience members may appreciate a storyline rather than a dancing variety show).  Frankly, fewer dance numbers and double the fire knife exhibition would be perfect (but probably overly taxing on the fire dancers).

Regardless, the fire knife dancers are worth the ticket price alone.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Universal Islands of Adventures--My #1 Orlando Park

Disney World was amazing--a-maze-ing.  But it is NOT my favorite park in Orlando.  That honor goes to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter inside Universal's Islands of Adventures.  I consider the mere 5 hours I spent at Wizarding World to be the happiest commercial time of my life.  And the rest of the day wasn't too shabby either--Seuss, the Hulk Coaster, river rafts, playgrounds, and a little shopping.

The Experience

Universal has all the magic of Disney (one of only a few theme parks that can make that claim).  And frankly, Harry Potter World is so engrossing it outstrips Disney--which I didn't believe was possible. The attention to detail is amazing from the Hogwarts train, to Moaning Mrytle in the bathroom, to the window displays, to every flavor bean, to room after room in the castle.  From the moment we stepped into Suess Island on our way to Potter and through the rest of the park, I was continually immersed into the experience each island offers (with 4 boys, superhero and dinosaur islands were also impressive).  Another big advantage is Universal's appeal to families with a wider range of ages.  With larger coasters and more intense rides for older kids (like Spiderman), to several deluxe playgrounds and Seuss Island for little ones (and most toddlers prefer playgrounds to rides anyway), your entire family can be happily entertained (a major complaint of Disney World is teens are bored at the Magic Kingdom and younger children are uninterested in Epcot and few families feel good about the money they spent to see Animal Kingdom).

The Pricing

Another advantage of Universal is the pricing--not only are park tickets cheaper, but so are meals.  Whether you want an all day meal pass (not valid at Harry Potter), or just want to dine where you like, meal prices are often cheaper and kids meals are much cheaper compared to Disney (though portion sizes may also be smaller).  On the other hand, Universal is not know for fine dining (outside of Mythos) and Harry Potter treats including chocolate frogs, butterbeer, and pumpkin juice are expensive necessities.  All in all, we spent the same at both parks but only because we heavily indulged in Potter foods including several candy items we took home.  Fortunately, we learned how to make butterbeer at home.

The Shopping

I also enjoyed the shopping along CityWalk which remarkably resembles California's Downtown Disney (a more intimate shopping experience than the Orlando equivalent).  Open later than the park, it offers all the shopping with plenty of specialty stores including Potter merchandise without the hassle of carrying your purchases through the park. It also is a manageable size so you can shop as part of your day.  For those who want to shop within the park, there are plenty of specialty shops.  I wanted to frame my credit card bill after vacation because it listed such shops as Honeydukes, Filch's Emporium, Zonko's Joke Shop, and Cats, Hats, & Things.

My Big Complaint

My biggest complaints was the lack of a free fastpass system.  Unless you stay at their resort, fastpass costs the same as the park ticket (making it much cheaper to stay on-site).  After much debate, we decided this was not an option for our family and had to plan our day around the lines.  One of the obvious problems with this is that the water raft rides (there are 3 of them) are best in the middle of the afternoon, when you want to get wet and take a break from the heat. That is also when those lines are longest.  Other lines were relatively long throughout the day including most of Seuss World and the Pteranodon Flyers, though we generally waited less than 30 minutes for most attractions.

And though this should be obvious, for those who are not familiar with the characters/movies/books/comics that inspire the islands, this theme park will not be very magical.  So those who have never read a Harry Potter book or watched a Marvel superhero movie, this may not be your thing.  And though my husband has watched all the Potter movies, he spent his time entertaining our toddler by the talking fountain in Lost Continent and in Seuss Island because he did not want to spend more than an hour in the somewhat claustrophobic Potter World (the poor muggle).

Future Wizards

This park was so amazing that I have a top 10 list for the entire park as well as a top 10 list just for Harry Potter.  And as my younger children grow and begin to read the Potter series, I have a feeling, we will plan another visit to this incredible place.

Monday, July 2, 2012

10 Favorite Family Books on Vacation

Tell me what you read and I'll tell you who you are

Maybe it was the way I was raised.  At the end of most vacation days and while on long road trips, my mom (or brother, because he didn't get car sick) would read a book aloud.  Several genres were covered, but most memorable was my mother reading every Little House on the Prairie book aloud (Farmer Boy is still my favorite).

So it isn't really a surprise that books are a big part of our vacations--though we often prefer to get the audio version for car rides instead of having me (the mom) read out loud.  On our vacations, each child packs a reading book, an activity book (with puzzles, mazes, games, etc.), the diaper bag is filled with board books, my husband packs his kindle, and I always have a book for myself, and, when possible, an audiobook for the family to enjoy.

When it comes to road trips, a good book can make the miles pass far more quickly and create an amazing time together.  A bad book could makes those same miles unendurable (think Dora).  The trick is finding a book that both kids and parents will enjoy.

#1--Harry Potter--With seven books in the series, you can drive cross country more than once and never run out of story.  Even our preschool aged children have listened to the first few books while our elementary aged children were enchanted.  I have read the entire series three times and just finished the third book with my third child.  I am still captured by the story and love watching my younger children hear each book for the first time.  The audiobooks are well done and the reader uses multiple voices to add more magic to the story.  Hands down, this is my first choice to keep everyone happy on a road trip.

#2--Rand McNally's Backseat Books--these activity books are wonderful to keep kids busy, happy, and learning.  Younger kids (ages 4-7) will enjoy the Best Travel Activity Book Ever with simple mazes, dot-to-dots, and other puzzles in this black-and-white coloring book.  Older kids (ages 7-12) will love the full color Are We There Yet? book with complicated games, silly songs, interesting factoids, and puzzles.  Coast to Coast Games is also excellent, but I would avoid the Kids' Road Atlas which has far fewer games and puzzles than the other books in the series.

#3--How to Eat Fried Worms and Freckle Juice--for families with younger children (ages 4-8), these books are shorter, simpler, and silly but still give parents a good laugh along with their kids.  Be sure to pack some gummy worms or a little freckle juice in the car and your kids will never forget this road trip.

#4--Little House on the Prairie Series--based on the opening paragraph of the post, you knew this would make the list.  My favorite two books in the series are the first one, Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy (the story of Laura's husband's childhood).  From Pa staring down a bear to Ma churning butter to Christmas being only a stick of candy and a doll, your whole family will discover how families survived in the frontier.  This series is especially good when driving through America's heartland.

#5--Dr. Seuss--On a recent trip, we had The Lorax on our iPad.  This made the book interactive--almost like an electronic pop-up book.  iTunes also offers other classics like Green Eggs and Ham and the Cat in the Hat. After finishing listening to the iPad story, my children begged me to read Fox in Socks (a tongue twister book that gets the whole family laughing).  My personal favorite is the 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and what is more fitting for vacation than Oh, The Places You'll Go.

#6--The Great Brain and Indian in the Cupboard--aimed at school aged kids, these books teach about ingenuity, daring, and making tough decisions. The characters are often mischievous (that's part of their charm) and the stories are fast paced.  These are two classics from my childhood.

#7--Percy Jackson and the Olympians--another fantasy book mixing modern times with ancient Greek legends.  This adventure series follows a less-than-perfect boy on his quest with frightening monsters and impossible opposition.

#8--Fablehaven--this fantasy series is about a brother and sister and their adventures on a magical preserve.  With plenty of mystery and magical creatures, this book has plenty of imagination as well as the ups and downs of sibling relationships.  Both children make mistakes and have to pay the consequences as well as decide what is really important.

#9--Snow Treasure--this adventure book is about a group of children outsmarting the Nazi's. Though not a holocaust book, this story depicts another ugly truth of an invading foreign army. Who wouldn't be rooting for the children through all the twists and turns right up until the unexpected ending? And though hard to prove, the story may actually be based on true events.  

#10--The Giver--a Newberry Winner, this negative utopia book will keep your kids guessing and provide an incredible teaching moment to discuss the value of individual human life, the role we play in our communities, and the role of government.

Of course, families with older children can enjoy more mature books like The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, or Ender's Game.  Because we still have preschoolers in the car, those books will just have to wait.

So in addition to a few electronic devices and a snack, grab a good book on your next family vacation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Best 10 Places to Take Kids in Salt Lake City

I absolutely love the summer because I finally have time to play with my kids and not worry about homework, school activities, or bedtimes.  My kids range in age from 1-12 and we have a budget, so making our twice weekly outings fun and affordable can be a challenge.  Beyond exploring different parks (and Salt Lake offers some amazing ones), here are my favorite places.

#1--Pass of all Passes--We snagged these passes for only $10 (though they often come on sale between $20-$30 and we will likely renew them next year at that price) and they include a year of Seven Peaks water parks (in both Salt Lake and Provo), both Trafalga locations (Lehi, Orem, and Sandy) and other goodies such as Real Salt Lake soccer games, and the Tracy Aviary (Mondays only).  The Seven Peaks location in Salt Lake is reasonably crowded and practically empty in the morning during pass only hours.  The only catch is you do have to add parking and tube rental to your pass (for $30) to fully enjoy the park.  For a full sized waterpark, this is quite the deal.  It offers several waterslides including a water coaster, a kiddie pool, splash pad, and lazy river.  The rope swing is popular as are the toboggan sled slides.  When the summer is over, we plan on visiting Trafalga monthly where my children particularly enjoy mini-golf and laser tag.

#2--Classic Fun Center (Sandy location)-They have more deals than any one blog post could cover.  Be sure to read through the specials on their website to decide when to visit.  For single attractions, Tuesday night is perfect unless you want to roller skate, than go Thursday.  For unlimited attractions visit on Wednesday after 5 but for the best waterpark deal, come before noon.  Or just buy the Summer Pass (coupons will get you a pass for $10 a person but it costs an additional $1 per attraction on future visits).  Their water park is geared for kids under 9 including 4 medium water slides, 3 inflatable water slides, and a kiddie pool with 2 baby slides. The best part is the you can hold a child on your lap while going down the slides.  The water park also only has shallow pools, so it is safer for families with multiple children (no wave pool or lazy river).  Classic also allows scooters and trikes on their roller rink and offer a wedge (for an additional fee) to help preschoolers learn to skate.  In addition to the roller rink is an oval course for more experienced skaters with ramps and obstacles.  They have an amazing indoor inflatable area (with slides, obstacle courses, and a bounce house), Laser Tag, dimecade, and the Jungle, (a tube area including zipline, ball pit, swings, etc).  My kids often beg for the Blast Zone where you can shoot each other with hundreds of soft balls or escape down the steepest slide imaginable.  They also have locations in Orem and Layton but attractions and pricing vary.

#3--Children's Museums at Discovery Gateway (in Salt Lake) and Ogden's Treehouse Museum--Discovery Gateway provides a ball exploration room and mini city on the main level where children (geared at the under 6 crowd) can wear costumes and pretend to be anything from a farmer to a construction worker.  The mailboxes with letters and carrier costumes are a real hit as is the construction site, grocery store, and water table.  Upstairs, older children can enjoy creating in the art room (make a comic strip, shoot a still frame movie, etc) or the block room with emphasis on building, engineering, and physics (multiple types of blocks, paper airplane designs, and puzzles are available primarily geared at school aged children. Many of the upstairs exhibits require children to be able to read.  There is also a news tv set and a helicopter to explore. The Treehouse Museum emphasizes bringing books to life and has several fairy tales from around the world to explore.  They also have a castle room, a baby doll room, dinosaur room, barnyard/cowboy room, train room, a one room schoolhouse, and an oval office (and probably a few rooms I forgot).  Several books are available along side toys and costumes in every room so you can read to your child as part of play.  As you can see from the list, the two museums are very different and most children would enjoy a visit to both.  In the Summer, the Treehouse Museum offers a free admission day one Saturday each month.

#4--Dinosaurs--Utah is dinosaur country and there are museums across the entire state.  In the Salt Lake region there are three major museums.  The Ogden Eccles Dinosaur park is largely outdoors with life sized statues of dinosaurs carefully arranged along trails.  In Salt Lake, the Natural History Museum of Utah (at the University of Utah) is a new state-of-the-art facility with exhibits on Native people, rocks and minerals (much of Utah has roots in mining), and dinosaurs.  The collection is staggering with plenty of interactive exhibits including an exploration room for littler ones.  Free days are offered periodically, but tickets are difficult to get.  In Lehi, the Museum of Ancient Life (part of Thanksgiving Point) offers one of the largest collections of dinosaurs anywhere.  The museum is designed chronologically starting with a look at the stars and moving through the eras (including the famous Jurassic era to the woolly mammoth of the Cenzoic era) ending with a pinned butterfly that became extinct only 50 years ago.  This museum has plenty of interactive exhibits including a toddler room, an extensive sand/water table, and a dinosaur bone dig.  For dinosaur lovers, this museum is ideal (and indoors).

#5--West Valley Rec Center--The Salt Lake area hosts many recreation centers owned by the county or individual cities.  Most are excellent and offer a variety of activities from batting cages to rock walls to swimming pools.  My favorite is the West Valley Family Fitness Center for three reasons.  First, it is cheaper than the other rec centers I have visited (40-50% cheaper for my family).  Second, their indoor swimming facility is a good balance for families with a large range of ages.  It includes a water slide that school age children can enjoy (because of the relatively shallow landing area), a toddler slide, water fountains, and current pool.  Older kids can also enjoy playing in the lap pool and shooting a few water hoops (the best swimming facility is located in Kearns but is difficult for families with multiple children under 5 and is largely outdoors).  Third, the center offers an award winning children's exploration area that houses a pretend grocery store and kitchen, a large space themed tube and slide area, an 8 foot hoop basketball court, a block room (geared at toddlers), a reading nook, video games that require some exercise including Dance Dance Revolution, and more.  The center also has foosball and ping pong (my older children's favorite attraction) and a bouldering wall.  With so many things to do, we are often here for 4 hours.

#6--Discount Theater--Located at 5400 S and Redwood Rd, Showstar 6 offers first run movies for only $3 on Mondays.  Add a large popcorn and two large drinks (with unlimited refills) for only $14.  With a family of 5 kids, unlimited popcorn and drinks at that price is a bargain, though we sometimes go to the movies without the treat.  This theater is family friendly and the only place I will take a toddler.

#7--Hogle Zoo--My children actually don't like the zoo but a lot of my friends go here weekly.  With several upgrades in the last few years, Hogle Zoo has a lot of impressive exhibits.  Newly opened Rocky Shores has sea lions, otters, seals, and polar bears (!!!).  The Asian highlands houses big cats and has a hidden Grandma's house (a small room with Chinese everything to explore and escape the heat).  The Elephant Encounters includes a baby elephant and a life size statue that sprays water out the trunk.  The zoo has plenty of other animals including primates, a reptile house, wolves, giraffes, and more.  Add in the train ride (a must do), carousel ride (must skip because of the price), and a playground.   The only catch is the price--either buy a season pass (it is less than the cost of 2 visits) or go on a free day (offered only in the winter months but well worth it because the animals are often more alert than in the hot summer months).

#8--Thanksgiving Point--Located in Lehi, Thanksgiving Point has 3 major sections.  The animal farm includes plenty of barnyard classics to see and pet, a wagon or pony ride, an interactive farm play area, and a toddler playroom inside the admission building.  The Gardens are legendary and are divided into the main gardens and the Children's Discovery Garden.  The main garden includes the largest man made waterfall in North America and is impressive with multiple viewing angles behind and in front of the falls (I cannot emphasize how impressive this is).  The gardens also contain a beautiful European fountain, a secret garden, a koi pond, and thousands of flowers (just to name a few).  It is truly spectacular especially during tulip season.  The Children's garden includes two hedge labyrinths (my son like to re-enact Harry Potter book 4 here), a discovery area (with blocks, wooden instruments, sand box, etc), bear caves, bug exploration, and a Noah's Ark splash pond.  The most popular attraction is the Museum of Ancient Life with an impressive number of dinosaurs (as featured earlier in the post).   The price tag can be hefty, so look for coupons or members who can get you in for half price.  Locals go on Tuesdays in August for only $2 per person per attraction.

#9--This is the Place--Patterned after Colonial Williamsburg, This is the Place Heritage Park contains dozens of homes and shops dating back to the pioneer settlers starting in 1847.  Many are staffed by period costumed tour guides that offer incredible insights into the lives of the people and craftsman who lived in Utah over 150 years ago.  From the schoolhouse to the governor's house to the blacksmith to the barber shop to the hospital staffed by female doctors from the 1870s (move over Dr. Quinn), visitors get a peek at the occupations and family life of early settlers.  Add in a train ride that circles the park, a "pirate" ship and gold panning area for the kids, a craft station, pony ride, petting zoo, small playground (with frontier playhouses), this place is educational and fun.  Two words of advice--go on a moderate day instead of a hot one and be sure to have your little boy get a "shave" by the barber (he may even throw in a leech treatment).

#10--Millcreek Canyon--This canyon is a family favorite.  With several picnic sites, a creek, and plenty of hiking trails, our family often comes here for a wiener roast, a nature walk, and some time to relax (away from the tv).  It also is cooler in the canyon making it a great escape from the summer heat but you may want to bring your jacket in the evening.  There is a minimal fee per vehicle (around $3) and the canyon is popular on holidays and weekends.  This is also a great spot for family pictures.

Salt Lake offers plenty of options for families--museums, fun centers, the great outdoors, and the air conditioned indoors.  Many places offer discounts and coupons and others are inexpensive.  So, grab your kids, and enjoy one of these places today.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Typhoon Lagoon vs Blizzard Beach

The Water Park

The motel pool is often the vacation highlight for our younger children, so it shouldn't be a surprise that the waterparks at Disney World were also family favorites.  They offered a needed break from the heat, crowds, and long days of walking and touring the parks.  We were very surprised at how empty the waterparks were (fewer people than the local water parks at home).  And the parking was free (unlike the $14 charge at Disney World's 4 main parks).  Given the choice, I would absolutely pick a waterpark over Animal Kingdom (even if your kids are animal lovers--keep reading to find out why).  You really need a chance to park your stroller and take a break after long days at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios.

So, there really is only one problem--which water park is better, Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach?  Our family is split evenly on this issue.  My husband and I and our two youngest (ages 4 and 1) like Typhoon Lagoon better--much better.  Our three oldest children (ages 12, 10, and 8) prefer Blizzard Beach.  So what makes them different?

Typhoon Lagoon

Hands down, this park offers the better kiddie area (for those 5 and younger).  The kiddie pool was easy for adults to negotiate with their children, offered more shade, and was surrounded by a mini beach where kids could play in the sand.  It also featured a cave, multiple water slides, waterfalls you could climb up, spray guns, and an area for toddlers with hoses and bitty slides.

Mom and Dad's favorite was Shark Reef with snorkeling and surface scuba tank.  The snorkeling (including the gear) is free and you actually snorkel with sharks (!!!) and dozens of tropical fish.  Life vests are available for school aged children (or those who can't swim).  Some kids find snorkeling difficult (two of ours found it to be tricky), but swimming with sharks is unforgettable. Surface scuba is available on the other side of the tank (no certification required) and includes approximately 45 minutes of aquarium exploration without the hassles of snorkel gear.  I consider that on my top 10 list for cool things a $20 bill can buy.  I was actually swimming with sharks, several of them, and big enough ones to make me gasp a little.  Small children can explore the tank through a "sunken" ship and look through the portholes.

The wave pool is also amazing.  Every 90 seconds, an ocean sized wave crashed through.  Even in the kiddie end of the wave pool, the waves are big enough to knock toddlers over.  Clearly meant to mimic the ocean, the wave pool and surrounding sandy beach provides a day at the beach without the drive or hassle.  The wave pool is so impressive that surfing lessons are taught before park hours for an additional fee.  Kid meals are served in sand buckets for a reason.  There are plenty of sand areas around the wave pool and kiddie pool to dig and build.

Sadly, the park only has a handful of medium sized water slides and no area for older elementary kids to play (they had one little part by the wave pool with two unimpressive slides).  The only redeeming water slide is the Crush n Gusher which is actually 3 water roller coaster slides, 2 of which require a double tube.

Blizzard Beach

This water park offers a gondola ski lift type ride which in itself is amazing.  At the top of the lift is a family raft ride unlike any I have ever seen.  This ride is long with enough thrills to keep everyone happy. The best part is toddlers (but not infants) can ride with their parents.  Hands down my favorite slide at either park.

Though this park offers an unimpressive kiddie area for the under 5 crowd, it has an amazing tween section for the 6-12 crowd (under 60").  Ski patrol, as its called, includes a zip line, obstacle course, and medium sized slides.  Our children loved this area and spent half their day here.

When its time for slides, Blizzard Beach offers several medium to large ones including racing and twisting slides using mats or rafts.  One favorite was the toboggan racers which look more intimidating then they actually are.  Lying on your stomach, face first, you race downhill skeleton style but at speeds slower than you might first expect. And for the truly brave, there are 2 classic drop slides that guarantee a wedgie.  Ironically, they offer no slides to compete with the Crush n Gusher coaster.

But be sure to skip the wave pool--it is tiny with an extremely rough bottom.

The Ice Cream

Both water parks offer similar lazy rivers and Blizzard Beach has a cartoon alligator house where the alligator sneezes through the chimney spraying guests--very fun.  Both parks also have a pail of ice cream (around $10) which is large enough to feed 4.  Just carrying it through the park makes heads turns and everyone enjoys scooping through the multiple layers.  I consider this a must-eat attraction.

Take a Break

So which park is better?  Depends on your family.  For me, a day snorkeling at the beach is just about perfect, so I would pick Typhoon Lagoon every time.  But I know my kids would vote differently.  Either way, be sure to take a break and cool off at the water park.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Where to Find a Cannoli in Salt Lake City--Caputo's Market

In Boston's North End, you can't help but notice that suddenly everyone walking past you has a white box, tied with string, marked in blue letters "Mike's Pastry."  With a line usually out the door and rows of goodies, especially marzipan and cannolis, most people veer off the red brick Freedom Trail to buy a box for themselves. It happened to us--twice--and our oldest still talks about their store (three years later).

So, I was delighted to find an Italian market and deli in Salt Lake City that served tempting fare to rival any Boston establishment.  And yes, they do sell cannolis.  Award winning Caputo's, with three locations in Utah, is a specialty market with fine chocolate, cheeses, olive oils, deli meats, and more.  Two things set this market apart--the quality and the education.

Caputo's offers many classes from beer to cheese to chocolates to cooking.  My husband and I tried the Intro to Fine Chocolate class and loved it.  His favorite was sampling drinking chocolate and I couldn't get enough of the Armedi Chuao.  We took home several additional chocolates to try and love Utah owned Amano (especially the Guayas).  The advantage of the class is you learn the difference between grocery store chocolates (even more expensive dark chocolate sold at grocery stores) and fine chocolates.  The class offers different types of fine chocolates to sample (such as citrus, earthy, coffee, floral, etc) as well as different brands so you get a good idea of what is available.  Because Caputo's boasts of the largest and most exclusive collection of fine chocolates, it will take more than one class to sample your way through their extensive collection.  

Fine Chocolate Experience Infographic
Source: Caputo’s Deli

We have stopped by since the class to sample pastries, cheese, meats, and sandwiches.  All of their food has been delicious.  If your mouth is watering, be sure to check them out at www.caputosdeli.com to see their full selection including a list of classes or at www.caputoschocolate.com with detailed descriptions about their chocolate collection.  And if you live in the area, stop by.  Their staff is knowledgable and friendly, they will happily show you around the store answering questions and making suggestions, and they offer all sorts of samples.  It is also a great place for lunch.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

5 Uncommon Secrets (Life Hacks) to Disney World

Disney World is large--so large that the guide books are often close to a thousand pages.  So beyond the list of well known favorites (which is a long list indeed), what are some less common insider tricks worth knowing about? On our 2012 vacation, here are our 5 favorite life hacks for families.

#1--Club Cool--located in Epcot near Innoventions, this is a kid's dream come true.  Inside this air conditioned (!!!) store is FREE unlimited sampling of coke flavors from around the world.  Our kids tried a sip from every country and then filled their cups with their favorites.  A word of advice, be sure to stand near the garbage when sampling Italy--you may want to spit it out. Fortunately, that was the only must-skip drink. Our favorites included China, Israel, and Mexico.  We loved this place so much, we had to come back.  Where else can you drink unlimited soda for free in air conditioned bliss at an amusement park?

#2--Sum of All Thrills--located inside Innoventions at Epcot, you design your own roller coaster and then ride it (not to be confused with Test Track).   Four claw-like robotic arms can be programmed to move in almost any direction including upside down.  Each person programs their ride first choosing from various options including inversions, corkscrews, and steep hills.  You also choose your speed and the simulator experience (jet, bobsled, roller coaster).  My children's advice--plenty of speed and corkscrews.  Then you get to ride in your creation.  Because this ride is indoor, it is easy to miss and often has a short line. This is Epcot at its best--creativity meets math and science thanks to cutting edge technology.

#3--Harmony Barber Shop--located at the very beginning of Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, this shop is the perfect alternative to the high priced Bippity Boppity Boutique.  Baby's First Haircut is a house special and includes a certificate and mouse ears.  But the real secret is in the colored gel.  For boys, they will spike the hair in any color (or combinations of color) and add a mickey silhouette in the back.  Girls can have their hair brushed into a variety of styles (pony tail, french knot, pig tails, etc.) and have their hair striped with the color gel (or combination of colored gels). And don't forget to have these hair artists use the gel to add a flower, heart, or mickey silhouette. From a punk rocker look to a princess glitter look, they can do just about anything.  And all hair styles are finished with a generous sprinkle of pixie dust (you can also stop in and get a dusting of pixie magic for free).  Be sure to make reservations, though walk-ins are welcome.  And for only $7.50, you won't be disappointed.
#4--The "hidden" playgrounds--Some playgrounds are well marked on maps and highlighted in travel guides (most notably Tom Sawyer Island at Magic Kingdom and The Boneyard at Animal Kingdom).  But other, smaller playgrounds abound.  At Mission: SPACE in Epcot, a space themed tube and slide area exists for little ones while older siblings enjoy the ride.  Older kids and adults can also participate in a space video game played in two teams.  For families enjoying ride swap (baby swap, mom swap), this is a great indoor place to play and wait.  Spaceship Earth and Journey Into Imagination with Figment both end in an electronic interactive play area (our favorite was a virtual operation game).   Splash Mountain (in the Magic Kingdom) also has a small area for toddlers.  I regularly recommend taking a break and enjoying a playground.  And though the larger play areas should be on your must-do list, these hidden playground offer a moment of escape especially for little ones that cannot go on a ride.

#5--Snorkeling--offered at Typhoon Lagoon, Shark Reef allows you to actually swim in the aquarium with the help of snorkeling gear.  The tank houses plenty of tropical fish and sharks!  And though touching isn't allowed, you will come face to face with schools of fish.  Those still working on their swimming skills can wear life jackets while kids under 5 can observe the shark tank from the portholes of a "sunken" ship.  Its a touch of Disney magic in a waterpark.

One of the great things about Disney is that there is unexpected magic around every turn.  And what you didn't plan or wasn't on your must-do list might end up as one of your favorites.

Monday, June 11, 2012

10 Food Budget Ideas on Vacation

When planning a vacation, I often find that food is my single biggest expense.  With a family of 7, food is often more expensive than our motel or gas or even our park tickets (it can even rival the cost of plane tickets).  Trimming a couple hundred off the food budget can add an extra day into the vacation plans or pay for a special splurge.  So, without resorting to putting everyone on a crash diet the week of vacation, I have 10 tips to trim the fat out of vacation food bills.

#1--Stay at motels that offer free breakfast.  A large number of motels offer a complimentary breakfast which can range from stale donuts to hot buffets.  Checking motel websites and reviews can usually help you steer away from the stale donut motels.  Even if you choose to eat one or two breakfasts out, you still save plenty on the other days.  Alternatively, stocking your motel room can also work if you have a fridge and microwave, but I prefer the motel continental breakfast.

#2--Pack your own snacks--Not only does this make economical sense, but it is necessary with small children.  Toddlers in particular can get hungry at odd times or refuse to eat unfamiliar food (and the restaurant version of mac and cheese will probably be very unfamiliar).  I like a can or two of soda and a few sweets for my husband and I (usually for the evening when the kids are in bed). I also keep a sack of kid favorites including granola bars, fruit snacks, pretzels, apples, etc.  In the mornings, I place snacks in each child's hip pack.  Then they can eat throughout the day without a lot of hassle or expense.  These are lifesavers at amusement parks but also work well at the beach, on airplanes, during hikes, etc.  Be sure to throw in a new surprise item each day like a piece of gum, a frozen gogurt, or a ring pop.  You can also supplement meals with snacks you have packed.  For example, I usually bring a couple of bags of chips in the car and save them for when we get take-out at a deli restaurant.

#3--Use coupons--This is less hassle than you think.  Many restaurants offer coupons on the back of their receipts including Burger King and some of the stores at Disneyland.  So the first day you pay full price but a few days later, you can use your coupon.  I also like to pack a few coupons for national chains like Subway that come in my normal Sunday paper.  Gift certificates occasionally come on sale at Costco or online.  Last December, my neighborhood grocery store was offering a reward point system on gift certificates that equated to a 10% savings.  Combined with some 2-for-1 Subway coupons, my family of 7 ate lunch for under $15.  Many places offer a loyalty card with free meals and insider coupons.

#4--The Pizza Option.  I discovered this one evening when we didn't want burgers, couldn't afford a sit down restaurant, and were in a small enough town that pizza was the only other option.  We ordered two mediums (one supreme, one cheese) and some breadsticks (around $30) then took it back to our motel to eat.  Not only was it a nice break from traditional fast food, but there were leftovers.  The kind of leftovers you could eat cold the next day for lunch (trying doing that with burgers or fries).   Combined with a few snacks I already had on hand (like fresh fruit), the pizzas provided two meals for the price of one.  Huge bargain and everyone was happy, especially since this was a high quality pizza and not some $5 cardboard special.

#5--Meal Sharing--This is a major part of our vacation lifestyle.  Sometimes I buy 2 meals for my oldest 3 children to share.  Other times, I buy a two scoop ice cream cone (served in a cup) for 2 kids to share (at a fraction of the cost that 2 separate 1 scoop ice cream cones would cost).  My husband an I often split and appetizer and an entree (instead of two entrees).  At fast food restaurants, I usually only buy a couple of combo meals (large sized) which provides enough fries and drinks and then buy a few a la carte sandwiches (burgers/chicken sandwiches) and very rarely buy individual kid meals.  Not only does this save money, but I found that everyone wanted to try a bite of each other's food anyway.  So this was just taking the idea one step further.

#6--Buffets--though often thought of as expensive when compared to a fast food dinner, buffets can be extremely cost effective with a little planning.  An early buffet dinner (around 4) is often discounted to the lunch price and allows families to eat a snack lunch instead of paying for a full priced lunch knowing they will get a hearty dinner.  This works amazingly well if breakfast was hearty and a little late in the morning.  Buffets also offer unlimited drinks and allows everyone to pick their own food (so no restaurant battles, drinks are often included, and you can eat unlimited dessert).  Even when eating at a traditional dinner time, buffets are still often cheaper than sit down restaurants.  And lets face it, you can't eat fast food every meal of vacation.  For families with children, be sure to watch for buffets that offer extremely reduced prices for kids. We once ate at a buffet that was only 99 cents for kids under 12.  The price of our buffet dinner for our then family of 6--a mere $24 including tax and tip!  Vegas in particular has a sliding scale for food prices whereas Disney charges children 10 and up at the adult price.

#7--Save dessert for a snack (either mid afternoon or late evening)--nothing adds to a restaurant bill like ordering dessert.  But vacation is a time for a little indulgence and the summer heat will leave everyone wanting ice cream.  Instead of ordering pricey desserts after lunch or dinner, save them for snack time.  Not only is it more cost effective, but everyone will perk up mid-afternoon with an ice cream cone, funnel cake, or candy.

#8--Drink Water--bring water bottles and refill them at drinking fountains (especially at amusement parks). If you follow suggestion 1, you are already having juice/milk/coffee/hot chocolate at breakfast.  And if you are using suggestion 6, you are getting soda at dinner at least a few times during your vacation already.  However, non-buffet sit down restaurants often charge a premium for soda but offer water for free (including most sit down restaurants at Disney parks).  So, that is the time to order water.  Of course, most people want at least some soda and if buffets are not part of your vacation plan, you can purchase some for the motel room (using the ice bucket or fridge to keep it cold) or purchase an extra large drink to share (our family finds a 32 oz is enough for the two adults to share and another 32 oz is enough for 4 kids--not teens--to share).  At amusement parks, avoid buying a 17 oz bottle from the food carts.  They often charge the same as a 32 oz fountain drink from the fast food counters just steps away.  Some parks offer refillable mugs at a great value.  Families use to sharing a cup can particularly benefit from the savings (our family often has two cups--1 diet, 1 regular).  And though soda and vacation go together, no one needs to drink soda every day. So try to buy it when it is going to be most enjoyable and affordable.

#9--Kids Meals--Some places have extremely discounted kids meals (free or 99 cents) and they often include a drink which allows me to get cheap milk for my kids compared to ordering milk a la carte (and toddlers need milk).  We have used this technique at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday night (where kids eat free with a paying adult). They also have a play areas which is handy during road trips. My friends ate at IHOP on free kids night and found the meal cost them less than a fast food restaurant had the night before. Other restaurants will allow two of my younger kids to share a kids meal (outside of fast food, I find kid portions tend to be large at both amusement parks and sit down restaurants).  However, other places overcharge for the kids in which case we usually share 3 adults meals among the 7 of us.

#10--Splurge on Experiences not Food--We all want to eat a special meal once or twice on vacation (a tavern at Colonial Williamsburg, character dining at Disney, perhaps the Rainforest Cafe).  But how do you pay for it?  Use the other techniques to save money, like coupons, pizza, or meal sharing, for the first few days, and then plan a splurge.  Instead of plopping down at the most convenient sit down restaurant, spend that money on a dining experience that will last long after the food is digested.  I find it is difficult to feed my family at a sit down restaurant for under $75.  So instead of just picking any place that looks good for dinner, I can talk the kids (and my husband) into pizza tonight (for less than half the price) and treat them to something magical like a tepanyaki show the next night (the two nights together should equal the same as eating at two boring sit down restaurants both nights).  On a tight budget--use my other tips to save money all week, and plan only one magical meal.  Some of our most powerful vacation memories have been around food--like butter beer at Universal's Harry Potter or lunch at the American Girls store with Grandma.

Satisfy Your Tummy and Your Wallet

One of the best parts of vacation is not having to cook every meal.  But you still have to feed everyone's tummy without breaking the bank.  With a few tips and a little planning, you can satisfy both your wallet and your tummy while on vacation.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pin Trading at Disney World--Bring it On

Pin Trading is Too Expensive--Isn't It?

I have seen the lanyards and pin before.  I thought people were crazy.  The cheapest individual pins were around $8 and even starter kits with multiple pins were "bargained" priced around $4-5 a pin (but you have to purchase the entire set for around $20).  And then I watched in stunned silence as a mom desperately searched the bins on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for her son's missing lanyard while screeching at the ride attendant that it was worth over $200. Now that sounds like a happy vacation.  I refused to let my children even look at the pins in the stores.  I was not going to give into the insanity.

And then I read a clever article on a couponing website recommending what should have been obvious--eBay.  For less than a $1 pin, I was able to buy a set of pins for my oldest three children including Disney themed lanyards.  We also put a single pin on my 4-year-old's shirt and let him trade as well.  All the fun, none of the stress.

2 Reasons You Want Used Pins

I am glad I bought discounted pins for two reasons.  Though my children never lost their entire lanyards, they did manage to lose a couple of pins--likely from not having the backs on tight enough or perhaps they snagged on something.  At a $1 a pin, we simply tried to be more careful and moved on with little to no fuss.

The other reason you don't want to spend a fortune on a special set of pins is that they will trade the pins. That is what the pins are for. I thought I was overly clever finding a set of Star Wars pins on eBay for a $1 a pin (two of my boys are huge fans and we were at Disney World during Star Wars weekend). The result--one of my boys traded all of his Star Wars pins as he found other ones he wanted more. For the price I paid, though surprised he didn't keep at least one Star Wars pin, I really didn't care. They were his pins to trade and re-trade as he wanted.

The Experience

And that is exactly what my kids did.  They would collect one thing like bowling pin villains and then trade those when something else caught their fancy like puffles (from Club Penguin).  By the end of the first day I was patting myself on the back.  Everyone was having so much fun and it added a nice distraction from the heat and lines (you never knew when you should see a cast member and stop everything to make a trade).

The Pay-Off

And then things got better.  After the first few trades, I saw my children begin to weigh their options more closely.  Some of my kids tried to find pins that had special meaning (either favorite characters or rides).  Others treated it like a sport trying to find matching pins.  I also watched in amazement as my children interacted with various cast members, especially those from foreign countries.  They asked about unusual pins they saw and proudly showed their own favorite pins. And because cast members will trade any pin, there is no hassle, haggling, or heartache.  Also, certain pins are cannot be purchased.  You can only get them by trading with the cast members (they have hidden mickeys in the corners).   Other pins are no longer being produced and still others are special editions.  So collecting, trading, and finding a special one are all part of the excitement.

I recommend at least 10 pins per kid age 5 and up.  I also found out that Mom or Dad will probably want a set as well (your kids will love trading with you and encouraging you to collect one type or another).  With a little planning, this may be one of your favorite Disney traditions.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

7 Reasons Disneyland is BETTER than Disney World

Can Disneyland really be better?

Our latest trip to Disney World was an amazing vacation--AMAZING.  I loved Epcot.  And the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the most magical commercial vacation moment of my life (and did I mention I loved Epcot?).  I could easily write about the ways Florida was better than California (warmer beaches, Epcot, Harry Potter, NASA).

But when I was on Disney property, I was surprised how much I was missing Disneyland. Could Disneyland really be better?  Here are 7 reasons that might make you think twice about which Disney is the best.

Just to be clear, this post is comparing both Disney parks in California (Disneyland and Disney California Adventures) against the 4 main parks at Disney World in Florida (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios).

#1--The Weather (really this should be reasons 1-3).  Except during a heat wave or the hottest two weeks of the summer, Disneyland is cooler with fewer chances of rain showers.  I have never used a mister bottle at Disneyland but bought one within an hour of being in Florida.  I have never used a poncho in California, but packed them knowing they would be necessary in Florida (and they were).  I stopped at a few drinking fountains in California, but I had to circle them like must-do ride attractions on my Florida park maps. And in the most lady like way possible, I would not only drink from the water fountains but I would stick my face in them to cool off.  Heat stroke anyone? I am also sure that I have never sweated more than in Florida.  As for family pictures, my hair was always in a ponytail and my make-up had long since vanished.

#2--The Walking.  Disneyland in California is a lot of walking--6-7 miles per day on average.  And for a family with young kids, that means pushing around a double stroller for 6-7 miles and carrying a baby while in line.  The real shock--Disney World in Florida was DOUBLE that amount.  We averaged around 12 miles a day and we were trying to take things easy.  I faithfully wore my fitbit to track the steps and miles we walked.  I never walked less than 20,000 steps or 10 miles any day of our Disney World vacation regardless of which park we visited.  My daughter actually wore out her shoes at the Magic Kingdom and we had to buy a replacement pair just to finish the day.  Not only were the rides and attractions spread out more within each park at Disney World, but they were also spread out over 4 parks instead of California's 2.  Doing the math, that means my family walked almost 4 times as much during our Disney World vacation (and yes, I got two blisters).  I cannot even imagine having the time or energy to hopper around Disney World.  The parks are simply too massive.

#3--Fantasyland.  There is an obvious reason why Disney World invested in a massive expansion of Fantasyland opening throughout 2012.  Florida's current Fantasyland is too small.  But even with the new attractions (including a second Dumbo ride), Magic Kingdom will still be smaller than Fantasyland and neighboring Toon Town at Disneyland.  Add to that the opening of Cars land at Disney's California Adventures, and the gap is only increasing.  To make matters worse, Fastpass times are now being enforced in Florida so the Magic Kingdom loses a lot of its magic with long lines for relatively few rides.  I think my 4-year-old said it well when he asked where was the Matterhorn, Minnie's house, and Casey's train?

#4--Pricing.  To some extent, this comes down to where you live.  For our family, Disney World is 2-3 times more expensive largely because we have to fly to Florida. Though I consider Harry Potter (which isn't a Disney property) to be well worth it, I do NOT think that Disney World is 2-3 times more amazing than Disneyland.  For families that live equidistance from the two coasts, Disneyland should be a cheaper option. When comparing prices, a potential hidden cost is that Disneyland (and California Adventures) can be done in 3 days, whereas Disney World cannot.  Families wanting shorter vacations or days to do non-Disney properties will have an easier time in California (such as visiting the beach, Legoland, SeaWorld, Universal, etc.).  California also offers a Citypass combining Disneyland with other area attractions at a huge discount. Florida does not offer a similar deal.  A shorter vacation can not only save money but can cause less burnout.

#5--Planning and Touring.  Disneyland requires some planning.  For the most popular dining events (such as Blue Bayou or a character dining), a phone call a few days in advance is a good idea, especially during peak seasons.  Also, a general touring plan of the park is critical (I have entire blog posts on different touring ideas).  But where Disneyland can be planned in a couple of weeks, Disney World requires months of planning--months.  A table at the castle can be booked a full six months ahead of time and people do call at midnight to make reservations. In fact, reservations are recommended for a variety of things from baby's first haircut at the Harmony Barber Shop, to Chef Mickey's, to surf lessons at Typhoon Lagoon.  With 4 parks, Disney World also requires significant attention to detail when making your touring plans (deciding which rides to do in what order including when to arrive at the parks and when to see shows or collect autographs).  Disney World does offer more characters within the parks, so if collecting autographs is important, plans should include a significantly reduced number or rides.  Despite trying to take things easy, it is almost impossible not to default into exhaustion level commando style touring at Disney World.  The increased size of the parks makes it difficult to move quickly from attraction to attraction and significantly slows the process for acquiring and using fastpasses.  I thought I saw a lot of stressed out parents at Disneyland, but the adults at Disney World were far more frazzled.

#6--Downtown Disney.  This is where less is more.  At California, Downtown Disney is adjacent to the parks and can easily be incorporated into the day either as an afternoon break or in the evening.  The Lego store is a must as is a take-out order for beignets.  Tweens will adore the 365 store which also offers make-overs.  Casual shoppers can easily enjoy a 2 hour shopping trip buying a few odds and ends to complete their Disney experience. It is more like a second Main Street with the magical feel of Disney. (And speaking of magic, only Disneyland offers a magic store on Main Street).  Florida is a whole different animal.  Florida's Downtown Disney is separate from the parks and practically requires its own day (or at least half a day).  Once again it is double the walking of California's version and felt more like a traditional, very large, outdoor mall with a few unique Disney stores.  Not nearly as magical, intimate, or fun.  Our children tired of it quickly and it was much harder to find the type of stores we wanted.  More expensive, more time, less fun.

#7--The People.  Maybe it was the weather or the week we were there, but I have read others make this same argument.  Disneyland is laid-back California style.  It hosts fewer crowds and has a less busy, more intimate feel.  I found both the staff and other tourists are more friendly and relaxed at Disneyland.  Though there were also plenty of friendly people in Florida, I was a little shocked at how poorly adults acted during Star Wars Weekend at Disney World's Hollywood Studios (or among some of the Potter nuts at Universal's Islands of Adventures).

You Really Can't Go Wrong

Really, both Disney locations are magical experiences.  Picking which one is better is like picking your favorite character.  And the truth is, you want to visit both because each park has its own unique attractions (did I mention only Disneyland has the Matterhorn or that only Disney World has Epcot?).  So which one do we want to do next time--maybe a Disney cruise.