Thursday, March 29, 2012

Legoland's Top 10 Attractions

Legos are a big part of my family--they appear on Christmas wish lists, completed kits decorate the mantle, the kitchen table is covered in them every Saturday morning.  I have often joked that we could build our own mini-land in the backyard and charge admission.

So when our family was planning a trip to California, a stop at Legoland was high on the must-do list.  At a fraction of the cost of Disneyland (discounts are always available and occasionally are as good as 5 days for the price of 1), our family had an amazing time.  And like all good amusement parks, our favorites include both rides and other types of attractions.  Here is our top 10:

#1--Dragon Coaster--this ride has a few opening scenes made entirely out of legos.  You will want to ride it twice to catch all of the incredible detail.  After that, hang on as the coaster shoots out of the castle and twists along a track.  This intermediate size coaster only requires you to be 40" to ride.

#2--Knight's Tournament (Claw ride)--this one-of-a-kind ride allows you to set your own intensity.  I rode it with my son on the second lowest setting and thought it was powerful and still fun.  My oldest tried to wildest setting and it was her favorite ride (you can't pay me to go on that setting).  Loading is incredibly slow, but younger ones can build in the nearby duplo gazebo.

#3--Hideaways Playground--my children love playgrounds and enjoy exploring at their own pace.  With lots of hidden lego displays, winding tunnels, and slides, this playground is a perfect break in the day.  Staffers also can turn park maps into crowns delighting younger guests.  This playground is much larger than the duplo version so it is more enjoyable to school aged children.


#4--Miniland and Coast Cruise--the best way to begin miniland is with the family boat cruise where the pilot provides information about these creations as you travel incredibly close (the dinosaurs are built from hundreds of thousands of lego bricks).  And don't forget the sense of humor as little lego men clean the ears on Mt. Rushmore.  After the ride, slowly walk through miniland (it takes at least an hour).  The cars move through the city streets, jokes abound on the buildings (we saw plenty of Santas crashed in unusual places), and Star Wars had incredible detail (be sure to peek in the trees for hidden Ewoks).

#5--Mindstorms--first stop of the day should be to sign your older kids up for a Mindstorms class.  Here they will put their programming skills to the test as they program their robot to do a series of tasks.  Teachers carefully instruct but allow plenty of exploration.  The class is free but be careful, at $300, the temptation to buy a kit at the end could make this an expensive experience (the kit is cheaper at amazon http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001USHRYI/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=stnal-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001USHRYI


#6--Duplo play stations-throughout the park and in some ride lines, there are duplo play areas with plenty of bricks to keep young hands building.  Combined with the traditional building area, a lot of the fun is in building with practically unlimited pieces.  My motto about Legoland is it is more about experiences and less about rides.
#7--Kid Powered Sky Cruiser--this unique ride is powered by you--put those feet on the pedals (or hands on the crank as there are a few versions of this ride).  Like old fashioned paddle boats, kids light up as they make it go.

#8--Volvo Driving School--these cars are not on tracks which is why kids go wild to drive, making turns, stopping at lights, and avoiding running into each other.  They are really just power wheels in a mini city, but my kids talked about it for weeks.

#9--Adventurer's Club--this easy-to-miss exhibit takes you on an indoor walk where you have to find the hidden key in each scene.  Lego kids love puzzles and find this activity irresistible as they search each scene trying to collect all 7 keys.  A nice indoor break.

#10--Lost Kingdom Adventure--Mixing video games with rides, your goal is to shoot as many targets as possible.  Of course, everyone is vying for top score.

Please note, we went on a very COLD day and did not participate in any activities that would get us wet. I would assume that some of our favorite activities would have been in the Pirate Shores area if we had vacationed in the heat.  Also, this list is for Legoland only and does not include attractions from the water park or aquarium.

If you have lego builders in your family, this affordable destination has plenty to offer.  What will you build today?


Thursday, March 8, 2012

4 Favorite Products when Traveling with Baby

How can a baby this small need so much stuff?

Over the last decade, the number and quality of baby products has exploded--Moby wraps, Bumbos, Baby Einstein.  Because I like to pack as light as possible, including my diaper bag, I keep my must-have list to a minimum. Obviously baby will need extra clothes, diapers, perhaps baby spoons, bibs, and a blanket. Beyond those common diaper bag items, here are my 4 favorite products when traveling with a baby.

#1--Umbrella Stroller.  A stroller is always necessary, but why do I like the $20 version the best?  It takes up practically no room in the car, shuttle, or subway.  It is so lightweight you can pick it up with baby inside and carry it up a flight of stairs (you would be surprised how often that happens).  Many come with a basket and sunshade (which can also be purchased separately).  They are cheap enough that a rainstorm or a muddy camping trip are not a big deal (not to mention that you do not have to worry about someone taking it).  They are also surprisingly strong--we have frequently had a preschooler hold a toddler on his lap during day trips to the zoo or amusement park.   Of course, for certain trips or with two very young children, a double stroller may be necessary.  Once again, I look for a relatively inexpensive, durable, compact stroller.  My favorite is the sit n stand type which often sell between $80-$120 (designed for two children of different ages).

#2--Baby Sling.  I prefer a sling to any other carrier for babies between 5-12 months.  The sling is essentially a double folded durable piece of fabric that securely holds a baby in an upright position on your hip.  I have worn one for hours and was less sore than with any other carrier (I have to use one longer than 3 hours before I even begin to feel sore).  I own two from sevenslings.com.  They are inexpensive if you use a sales code such as valpack.  They also fold flat so you can slip it into your diaper bag (unlike most other carriers which are too bulky).  For younger babies I prefer Baby Bjorn.  Baby carriers allow you to be hands free and take a baby where strollers cannot go (such as hiking, the beach, restaurants, or crowded locations).  They also are great for babies that tire of the stroller or has an older sibling that is monopolizing the stroller.

#3--Snack Trap.  This is a miracle idea that keeps baby entertained for hours (6+ months).  The snack trap prevents cereal pieces from being broken into crumbs, prevents spilling, and provides your baby with a puzzle box.  Toddlers love trying to fit toys into the cup and exploring how the lid works.    

#4--Pacifier (and be sure to pack a few extras).  I will never forget watching my baby's pacifier slip through the mesh on a sky ride.  I had an extra one back at the motel, but none in my diaper bag.  Never made that mistake again.  I also keep an extra in case one needs to be washed.  Even if your baby does not usually take a pacifier, you may want to consider one for plane rides (it helps with ear pressure) or as a teether.  And the styles now available are almost endless--cute sayings, buck teeth, animal prints, sport themes, you name it.

What is your must-have baby item?


Thursday, March 1, 2012

5 Things You MUST Know before you go to DisneyWorld



With many of my friends planning trips to the happiest place on earth during spring break or later this summer, I wanted to share 5 things you MUST know before you go.

1--Fastpass--This is a system that is tricky to understand but saves an amazing amount of time once you get the hang of it.  Popular rides have a ticket kiosk that will give you a fastpass ticket available later that day with a time frame to use the ticket.  Do not be fooled.  The ticket is valid for the rest of the day beginning at the time stated on the ticket.  Example:  Splash Mountain fastpass time 12:05-1:05 means that you can get a fastpass ticket for a different attraction at 12:05 and you can use the Splash Mountain ticket any time that day starting at 12:05.  The best way to utilities fastpass is to have one person take all the tickets to the kiosk to redeem passes and continue to do so throughout the day as your times become available.  During my last trip to Disneyland, I collected passes while waiting for other activities (like before the parade started and then another one after it ended, while my older kids and husband were on a roller coaster and I was with the baby in stroller parking, and during lunch).  The result--at 5:00 p.m. I had fastpasses to Star Tours, Space Mountain, Autotopia, and Indiana Jones.  I also got fastpasses for everyone in my family, even the children too short to ride, so I actually had enough fastpasses for two sets of Star Tours.  Be sure to collect them as early as possible and collect a new ride as soon as you are allowed.  Just have one member of your party (the one with the most energy that is old enough to handle the job) get the passes while the rest of your party continues doing what you were doing.  My family did not even realize I had collected them during our day.  As this advice became more popular, Disney began enforcing the ending time frame starting in March 2012.  It is still a good strategy to have one member of the party collect fastpass tickets for everyone but timing is now far more complicated.

2--Time--If you are going during a busy time then take advantage of the early morning and late nights.  Off season travelers will have fewer crowds but also shorter hours that the parks are open (sometimes as short as 10-6).  Peak travelers may see parks open from 8-midnight or even earlier on the busiest days. During peak times, be sure to be at the park when it opens (preferably 10 minutes earlier).  Then leave after lunch and come back in the evening for fireworks, Fantasmic, and shorter lines.  By spending 4-5 hours in the morning (say 8-1) and then another 4-5 in the evening (say 7-midnight) you will still get 10 hours of Disney magic without the burnout.  Besides, ever see the sunrise over the castle?


3--Pins (and other souvenirs)  We haven't done the pin trading, yet. It looked too complicated and expensive.  But we are going to try this year.  The answer--eBay.  You can get pins for less than $1on eBay.  Afraid of mystery pins?  Don't be.  Your children (or you) are just going to trade them anyway--that is the whole point of it.  Disney employees are trained to trade with children any pin so take the money out of it and let your kids have some fun.  Some souvenirs are best bought outside the park including your first set of pins, costumes, and stuffed animals. But other items are better bought at the park--like the iconic ears.  Try to find the bargains rather the money holes.  Balloons are absurdly overpriced but a mouse lightsaber (which also lights up with 2 C batteries--hint, hint) is priced the same as Walmart.  For $30 you can buy ears or a shirt, a princess or star wars toy, an autograph book or kids plate or earrings (or something pre-bought like pins or a stuffed animal), and a treat from the candy shop.  We bought our three-year-old a set of Toy Story matchbox cars.  Priced at least 3x a normal set, I consider it money well spent.  It was his only souvenir and he plays with those cars practically every day and they make me smile when I see them.  


4--Character Dining  Stop reading and make a reservation now.  It is an amazing experience for kids--a major highlight.  The majority are buffets which means if strategically planned, they can be less expensive than they seem at first glance.  They take 2-3 hours, so plan accordingly. I prefer dining in the resorts on a day I am not in a major park such as a day spent at the water park or beach so I am not choosing between character time and ride time.  Also, the dining allows you skip many of the character meet and greets within the parks that can have very long lines. So you are really getting a lot of bang for your buck.  The exception to this is some of the princess dining is only available within the parks especially eating in Cinderella's castle which is magical in and of itself. Dining there at breakfast allows you early admittance to the Magic Kingdom (if you eat and greet fast enough) so it still does not significantly cut into your park touring time.  If you have little girls, think of it as the same price as Disney on Ice and go make that reservation.

video

5--Think twice before you buy Hopper tickets--Hopper tickets are more confusing than fastpass.  So let me try to explain the costs and benefits.  If you are staying at a DisneyWorld resort, you will want to take advantage of the extra magic hours.  Consequently, you may want hoppers, especially if you are going when parks will be open until 1 a.m. on those magic hours.  Otherwise the cost may not be worth it.  For a trip I am planning, the Animal Park closes at 7, so I wanted to hopper to Epcot or Universal, both of which close at 9.  The cost of upgrading to a hopper is roughly $50 a person.  Between travel time and dinner, $50 a person for at the most 2 hours doesn't make sense to me (others would argue you spend $50 a person for a 2 hour Disney Broadway Play or for Disney on Ice tickets).  For $10 a person, we can get an extra day at Epcot of Hollywood (plus motel and food), but for the size of my family, that is the better deal.  Another option is the water park option (same price as the hopper) but allows you to hopper from water park to main park or go to a water park on a bonus day (for example a 4 day ticket with water park option means you can go to each major park--Magic Kingdom, Hollywood, Epcot, and Animal, one day each and spend a fifth day at Typhoon Lagoon, and a sixth day at Blizzard Beach, and a seventh day at Typhoon Lagoon with a character dinner since the water park closes at 5, and an eighth day golfing or at DisneyQuest while mom shops Downtown Disney).  A 4 day hopper gives you 4 days at the 4 main parks spending time going back and forth with no bonus days at the water park. But if you only have 4 days to spend, are not a water park fan, and are eligible for magic hours, you might find the hopper money well spent.  So, it all depends on your time frame and preference.

Have a Disney MUST know tip?  Please let me know.