Thursday, February 23, 2012

Top 5 Family Vacations Every Child Should Experience--in the USA

Beyond Having Fun

Vacations are a special time when children are allowed to experience new things.  They can be some of the greatest moments of their childhood, some of their happiest memories.  They do not have to be expensive and you do not need a passport.  Here is my list of 5 family vacations that will change your child's life.

#1--The Grand Canyon or any National Park--I have visited several and am always amazed at the number of international visitors, especially from Europe.  These families have traded some of the greatest man made works to see America's intense beauty.  The Grand Canyon in particular, but other parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Redwoods, the Smokies, Niagara Falls (technically a state park), and many more are nothing short of miraculous.  Add a camping trip to one of these sites for a truly magical experience.  Having your children unplug and watch the stars, eat over a campfire, see amazing wildlife, and hike to stunning vistas (many parks offer easy 1/2 mile hikes for families with young children) is priceless. There is something soul filling in these vacations.

#2--DisneyWorld or Disneyland (or another major amusement park if you refuse the Disney brand)--Completely opposite of national parks is Disney Magic.  Probably the most expensive domestic family vacation, there is a reason Disney continues to make top lists--their parks are some of the happiest places on earth.  Watching beloved characters come alive, going on magical rides and roller coasters, watching high quality shows, and fighting Darth Vader is like stepping into a dream come true.  Here is where imagination becomes reality.

#3--San Diego, Myrtle Beach, or any beach destination--San Diego and Myrtle Beach in particular are good locations for families because they offer miles of beach in addition to a variety of other entertainment.  Little ones love to play on the sand for hours while older ones enjoy the ocean, collecting seashells, and perhaps trying a little boogie boarding.  Many beach towns also offer amusement parks, museums, aquariums, shopping, golf, and other attractions to round out a vacation.  Seeing the ocean for the first time can be unforgettable.

#4--Winter Vacation.  Because of school in particular, Americans often vacation only in the Summer or during Spring Break.  A winter vacation one year, especially for tween aged children, can be a stunning experience.  A snow vacation with skiing, ice skating, snowball fights, tubing, and hot chocolate can provide children with a new view on the outdoors. Salt Lake City brags of the best snow on earth with Olympic venues to experience at a reasonable price.  But a long weekend at a snow filled destination closer to home can still provide a lot of Winter magic at an affordable price.

#5--Mt. Rushmore, Washington D.C. or other major historical site.  Mt. Rushmore provides the beauty of the Black Hills, the opportunity to experience some of America's greatest caves, and is a profoundly patriotic site.  A couple thousand miles away is Washington D.C. with the Presidential monuments and Smithsonian impressively teaching about the great legacy of American freedom.  Other sites which might be closer to where you live include Boston's Freedom Trail, New York's Statue of Liberty, the Alamo in Texas, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Alcatraz in San Francisco, Space Center in Houston or Florida, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas, and the list could go on.  These places make history come alive and give children a sense of America's greatness and their own place in continuing that freedom for future generations.

Deeper Experiences

In addition to relaxing and having fun on your next vacation, try one of these ideas to broaden your child's experiences, feed their imagination, and create powerful memories that will last a lifetime.  Let your child connect with nature, appreciate America's history and beauty, or realize that dreams really can come true.  It might be some of the best money you ever spent.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

5 Tips to make Special Memories on Vacation with your Kids

We really do not go on vacations with young children to relax.  We go to build MEMORIES.  With that goal in mind, here are my favorite 5 tips to create those special moments that will last long after the vacation is over.

#1--Plan a little special time with each child.  We all want to feel special and be the center of attention, even if it is only for a few minutes.  While using the baby swap passes at Disneyland, I quickly realized my older children were all vying for the extra ride with Mom (or Dad).  So they had to take turns carefully thinking through which ride they most wanted.   Having my 7-year-old drag me onto Tower of Terror was priceless.   On a cross country trip, I spent time with one child each evening.  One got extra alone time with me at the motel pool.   Another wanted an ice cream from the fast food restaurant adjacent to our motel.  Camping is especially rewarding because their is plentiful time to spend with each child--hiking, playing a game, swinging in the hammock under the stars. Amid all the chaos, be sure to spend a few magical one-on-one time.

#2--Take pictures and actually print them out.  With digital cameras we can now inexpensively takes tons of pictures.  Children love cameras, so be sure to let them take a few as well (it will surprise you what they want to photograph).  When vacation is over, be sure to print a few pictures out.  Perhaps your child would like to make a small scrapbook or hang a collage on his wall.  These make the memories last.  Most of our children have a Chuck-E-Cheese picture of themselves with a relative hanging by their beds (their choice).  We also hang a picture of each child in our kitchen from a recent vacation.  They love looking on the computer at pictures of themselves and then choosing one that captures their special moment.

#3--Buying the right souvenir.  This turns a memory into a physical object.  One of my sons has an entire stuffed animal collection and he can proudly tell you where each one was acquired--the New England Aquarium, the Amana Colonies gift shop, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, etc.  My daughter has charms from various locations.  My other son a stretch penny collection (notice that most of these are inexpensive).   As a child I collected postcards because they were cheaper and in focus compared to a film camera's pictures.  I then wrote a memory on the back, often misspelled.  Probably the best quarters I ever spent.  As for amusement parks, we usually let the kids play a no-lose midway game. One time my then two-year-old won a grand prize that became the focal point of the toy room for three years and is still a family favorite story.

#4--Do something new.  The highlight of our Yellowstone trip for one of our children was eating at a tempanyaki restaurant.  Meanwhile my other son thought Old Faithful was more extraordinary than Niagara Falls.  Often I am surprised at what is a favorite, so I intentionally try to offer my kids a wide variety of experiences.  The beach on a very cold day was amazing for my then three-year-old who had never seen the ocean and loved the unending "sandbox"; how about camping, a museum, or historic site (their eyes were popping at Mt. Rushmore and the Grand Canyon).

#5--Break the rules.  Everyone likes to let their hair down and children love it when mom lets them break the rules.  Perhaps it is having ice cream for lunch or spending an hour at the motel pool past bedtime (think of it as good exercise to compensate for that ice cream lunch).  One of my friends always has a crazy hair day on vacation or a mismatched clothing day (especially on a car trip day).  Just be smart about which rules to keep and which rules to break.

As you can see from my list, making special memories are often NOT the expensive part of vacation but are the most rewarding.  So take some time to create memories that will last long after the vacation is over.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Christmas Magic at Disneyland--5 Holiday Extras

There really is no wrong time to go to Disneyland, but there are some better times to go. Any time when lines are low and crowds are small is a good time.  Mild weather compared to July heat is another good time.  How about some added holiday magic? Try mid-October when Disney villains come to life during the Halloween season complete with stunning Fall decor.  Combining all three--short lines, mild weather, and extreme holiday magic--are possible in early December, when Christmas magic adds a new dimension to the already impressive Disney landscape.

Because of the number of guests during Thanksgiving week and the last two weeks of December (Christmas to New Years in particular), Disney takes the holiday season to new heights in their park.  They have very few rides closed for refurbishment (sometimes only one or none) and an impressive number of shows even on the slower early December weeks.  So what is different at Disneyland during the holidays?

#1--Its a Small World--The outside is strung with thousands of lights while winter scenes are projected onto the outside building walls during certain times.  The inside has a complete renovation as native holiday decorations are added to each scene and primarily "Jingle Bells" is sung repeatedly during the ride.  The outside is stunning after dark and is a must see.  (Also the area outside this ride is the best place to catch the Christmas Parade).

#2--Haunted Mansion becomes the Nightmare Before Christmas--for lovers of the movie, this ride will not disappoint.  Characters from the movie also frequent New Orleans Square if you want a rare Jack Skellington autograph or photo.  For those not as enthusiastic about the movie, this is still an amazing experience--a Haunted Mansion with spooky holiday decor--monster wreaths, snakes popping out of presents, holiday jack-o-lanterns piled into Christmas tree shapes.  Truly an eye-popping one-of-a-kind haunted house.

#3--The Christmas Parade--Disney is known for their parades and the Christmas one adds to the magic--in addition to the numerous characters and floating movie scenes are several holiday exclusives including toy soldiers, dancing snowflakes, a toy factory complete with wrapping machine, and Santa in his sleigh; (two great viewing areas are by Its a Small World or the steps of the Main Street Railroad).  Also do not miss the nightly firework show (be aware that Fantasyland is closed for several hours during both parade and firework shows).  As a finale, SNOW falls onto Main Street.

#4--Decor, Disney Style--Main street begins with a gigantic Christmas tree (approximately 60 feet tall) fully decorated are the shops and arches.  Catch Mickey and other characters wearing their Christmas sweaters or grab some Christmas mouse ears for yourself.  Impossible to miss is Sleeping Beauty's Castle transformed with snow capped turrets and strands of lights.

#5--Santa--What would be Christmas without Santa as well as some live reindeer at Big Thunder Ranch's petting zoo.  By going early in December, you may also find a few unique presents--Mickey earrings, Disney's version of Candyland, the entire Star Wars store, etc.

For a truly memorable trip, Disneyland during the holiday season is unforgettable.  Perhaps you should add some pixie dust to your next Christmas.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

12 Sanity Saving Ideas When Traveling with In-Laws

Both my husband and I come from large families and we have been fortunate enough to vacation repeatedly with our respective in-laws.  Our children consider some of these trips to be their most magical because they had cousins to play with, doting grandparents, and loving aunts and uncles.  Who doesn't want to have a sister-in-law to laugh with while watching toddlers at the beach, to stay up late playing cards, or split the cost of a condo rental?  What about bonding with your niece over an ice cream, listening to Grandpa tell a story, or swapping children at the pool.  But once in awhile, even the most loving families can challenge your sanity--a poor choice of words, a fight between two cousins, not enough sleep, sibling rivalry (and I am not talking about the kids).  Here are 10 tips to help you next time you have a long weekend planned with the in-laws:

1--Repeat the phrase "inner peace."  Repeat the phrase "inner peace."  Take a breath.  Strike a yoga pose.  Absolutely try not to lose your temper.   Remember your happy place and go there in your mind (my daughter pictures herself petting our cat).  Count to 10.

2--Exercise.  This is especially helpful if you are angry.  Go for a run, swim a few laps, lift some weights, do pilates.  After 30 minutes sweating to your favorite music, you will feel like a different person.

3--Pack Emergency Chocolate.  My friend prefers Dove because the wrapper also have a positive message that lifts her mood.  I prefer peanut butter m&ms for a little emergency and fudge for larger ones. You may also want to pack some emergency foods for your kids--I consider a few dum-dum suckers essential for traveling with my three-year-old.

4--Nod and Smile (a lot).   Seriously, be the bigger person.  Try not to take a comment the wrong way or too personally (even if it was meant that way).  Instead, think of this as a learning experience.  Instead of a comment on your parenting, think of it as a tip on something to try in the future.  Give the other person the benefit of the doubt (they are likely under a lot of stress as well).  Be kind and patient with each other--after all you are family.

5--Repeat "I am a good parent; I am a good person."  When your kids are misbehaving and you seem to be unable to please a critical in-law, you may get your ego bruised and feel like a failure.  Then you become unhappy and defensive.  Reminding yourself that we all have bad moments and bad days (even on vacation) can give you some perspective.  Trust yourself, think about the "suggestions" from your family members, and remember, you are a good person.

6--Watch "Everybody Loves Raymond" episodes.  Laughter is the best medicine.

7--Keep your sense of humor.  Take events in stride.  Things will go wrong.  Plans will change.  Staying up late to play those family games will cost you the next day.  Kids get sick.  Laugh when you want to cry or shout and lighten everyone's mood.  You will teach your children a profound lesson and have good memories instead of regrets.

8--Bring an escape hobby.  Perhaps it is a good book or an app (mine is Tetris).  Maybe you need a craft, write a blog, or be a shutter bug.  Go shopping, collect seashells, text your best friend.  The list is endless.

9--Two Words--Passive Aggressive

10--Keep expectations low (especially for your kids).  With extended families, plans often change quickly or misunderstanding over schedules can jeopardize your most anticipated event.  With low expectations, a sick baby, a cancelled event, an attraction you can't participate in, too much time or too little time with extended family is not a problem.  You simply roll with the punches.  Try not to spend too much money on these type of vacations so your expectations can remain low.

11--Decide on a reward for when the vacation is.  Perhaps you deserve a manicure, a facial, or a new shirt.  Plan a lunch with your friends a few days after you get back (the ones that will give you tons of compliments).  Week long vacations may entitle you to a new pair of shoes or a massage.

12--Gratitude.  A little gratitude can change your perception.  Write a thank-you and mention a special moment that happened; bring a small goodwill gift for the other families and distribute them during an opportune moment.

Extended family vacations can be some of the happiest memories in your and your children's lives.  But remember a few tips if you find yourself losing your mind during these memorable vacations.

Disclaimer:  This list is meant to be generic and should not be considered a list based exclusively on my or my husband's in-laws.