Celebrating the best family travel year ever

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago today—August 20, 2013—our wandering pod embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives: a five-month relocation to London.

Our stay in the U.K. kicked off what has been the greatest stretch of travel in our lives. Over the course of the last 12 months, we Villanos have logged nearly 400,000 (air and car) travel miles as a unit, touching down in England, Ireland, Canada, Hawaii, Florida (specifically, Walt Disney World), Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and more.

The best part: We’ve done it all together.

I’ve had fun over the last few nights going back and looking at posts and pix from this time last year. There’s this post, from two nights before we departed. And the photo that accompanies the entry you’re reading now; the pic was taken at 3 a.m. London time on the night we arrived—after both girls woke up for the day (damn you, jet lag!). Then, of course, there is this piece, from two days after we arrived.

(Interestingly, we ditched the pram in that post for a sturdier one we bought in London. We still use the “London buggy” every time we fly.)

It’s also been fun to remember the highs and lows of a year of family travel. My favorite high: A week of dodging raindrops and chasing geese in the Lake District, toward the end of our run in England. My least favorite low: The night Little R kicked me out of bed at The Ahwahnee (inside Yosemite) and insisted that I sleep on the floor—making it the most expensive campsite of all time.

Throughout these adventures, I have deepened my appreciation for the world, for embracing new things, for the privilege to leave home for a while. I’d like to think the girls have experienced similar growth.

Even if all this travel hasn’t changed my kids, exposure to it certainly has sensitized their little brains to the notion of exploration. Will I be disappointed if they grow up to be homebodies? Not at all. But something tells me that after a year like the one we’ve just had, curiosity will come naturally to them.

What will the next year bring? From a practical perspective, the next 12 months of travel likely will look very different; with both girls in school (and L in Kindergarten five days a week), our opportunities to escape as a foursome may dwindle. Rest assured, we’ll find ways to get out and about. There are places to go! There are people to see! Most important, this travel thing is what we Villanos do best. Here’s to another great year.

Family travel rights in the sky, part 1

We should see this together.

We should see this together.

Our flight back to SFO from Walt Disney World Resort (well, really from MCO) earlier this month was one of the worst family travel experiences in recent memory. I had checked our seat assignments hours before our 9 a.m. departure and the four of us were sitting together—L with me in one row, R with Powerwoman in the row behind.

Then, 90 minutes before our scheduled take-off, the airline split us up, and put R by herself.

Normally something like this would just be an inconvenience. But in the case of our family, it was a REALLY BIG DEAL. Because R is 2.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in. About 90 minutes before we were scheduled to take-off for a 5.5-hour flight back home, United Airlines split up our family and sat the 2-year-old passenger all by her lonesome.

You can imagine my shock when I saw the change. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than the last few weeks, you probably also can picture the outrage. Normally in these types of situations I go all “Johnny Brooklyn” and curse and wail and rant and rave and speak so excitedly little bits of spittle come flying out of my mouth.

This time, however, especially because the kids were RIGHT THERE, I kept my cool, and repeatedly (and respectfully!) requested that the flight attendants put my family back together.

In the end, to the airline’s credit, they managed to get us back to 2-and-2. They didn’t solve the problem until ten minutes before takeoff, but, technically—and to be totally fair—they did ultimately solve the problem.

Still, the entire debacle got me wondering what our rights as family travelers really are.

So I started digging. And I started making phone calls. And I started talking to experts. The reporting effort is still ongoing, but I wanted to report the first part of my findings ASAP. So here goes:

  • Currently there is no federal regulation requiring airlines to keep together families with confirmed seats. I thought for sure the FAA would regulate this. I was wrong; that agency only oversees family travel issues as they pertain to child safety seats. The folks at the Department of Transportation have some guidelines for airlines to follow about the ages of unaccompanied minors, but there is no formal law on the books that they enforce either.
  • In this vacuum of legislation, airlines establish and enforce their own policies about keeping together families. These policies vary widely.
  • United’s formal policy on the subject indicates that the airline will do whatever it can to keep families together. At the same time, the airline has a policy that stipulates no children under the age of 5 are allowed to travel unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. When I pressed a spokesperson to explain how separating a 2-year-old from her family would NOT be in violation of the unaccompanied minor rule, he suggested that because our daughter was ticketed with us, technically this was not a violation of the policy.

Obviously there is much more research to be done. Once I have spoken with every major airline and every major industry organization, I’ll compile my findings into an easy-to-read post. I may also put together an infographic or chart that helps explain these disparate policies.

So far, at this point in my reporting, I know this:  There’s nobody at the national level looking out for us family travelers, and we have very limited recourse when we feel we’ve been wronged.

Personally, I think that needs to change. Quickly. And forever. What’s your take?

The aftermath of a family trip

The aftermath of a TFP, on my bed.

The aftermath of a TFP, on my bed.

We family travel bloggers spend a ton of time writing about what happens on and before our adventures. Often, we overlook the stuff that happens AFTERWARD.

I’m not talking about the recalibration of sleep schedules or the return to normal eating habits (“No, honey, you may no longer have French fries with every meal”). I’m talking about the process our children go through as they reintroduce themselves to the stuff they left behind.

In our house, the routine is almost always the same: The morning after a big trip, the girls gather in one room for what Powerwoman and I like to call a Toy Refamiliarization Party (TFP). They set up a bunch of blankets on the floor as if they are about to have a big picnic. Then they collect all of the very best toys that stayed behind. And they play with all of them. At once.

You can imagine how chaotic this can get; the girls have a fair number of toys.

Sometimes the TFP comprises mostly dolls and stuffed animals—these are my favorite iterations because they’re pretty quiet (and they involve a healthy dose of imagination). Other times—such as this past week, after a 6-day jaunt to Walt Disney World—the TFPs feature musical instruments. And, as you can imagine, these can get f-ing loud.

My wife and I endured a good 20-minute chunk on Monday (we got home Sunday) during which neither of us could hear ourselves think.

The girls, however, had a blast, banging on xylophones, keyboards and drums.

No matter how loud they are, we love the TFPs in this house. For starters, they are a great way for the girls to re-acclimate to their surroundings after being away. They also help Powerwoman and me save money; by rediscovering toys they’ve had for years, the girls feel as if the old diversions are new again, thus postponing our need to buy additional stuff.

Herein lies the rub. Next time you’re on a family trip and your kids bug you about souvenirs, resist. Instead, quietly remind yourself how much they’re going to love spending Q.T. with their “old” toys once you get back home. Any family can have a TFP, you know. Thank goodness for that.

With which “old” toys are your kids usually most excited to play upon returning from a big family trip?

Disney World for preschoolers, day by day

The girls meet Elsa.

The girls meet Elsa.

We returned earlier this evening from our 6-day, 6-night visit to Walt Disney World Resort. Yes, we had a blast. Yes, we saw a ton. Yes, it was hot. And, to be honest, all four of us are COMPLETELY exhausted.

Rather than recap our week in a long narrative here, I’d like to redirect you to a travelogue-style rundown about the visit that I wrote for the Expedia Viewfinder blog. The idea behind this piece was simple: After writing a base post on our first night at the resort, I submitted one summary every day thereafter.

The post highlights a number of experiences, including a princess breakfast at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall; pint-sized toilets at Baby Care Centers in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios; and our super-cool Magic Bands that obviated the need to carry credit cards or cash.

That said, my personal favorite day was the day we were treated to four hours with a VIP Tour Guide.

(A close second was Saturday, when we discovered the top-secret, indoor, and air-conditioned playground on the standby line for Dumbo: The Flying Elephant.)

To be frank, we enjoyed everything we did. And we’d do it again in a heartbeat. And so should you.

What are your favorite things to do at Walt Disney World?

Put down the damn phones

This is easier than it looks.

This is easier than it looks.

Walt Disney World is a place where magic happens. It has rides and castles and roller coasters and soft-serve ice cream. At any moment, you might spot (someone dressed in a mascot-sized costume of) Marie from the Aristocats or the Beast (from Beauty and the Beast) or even Doc McStuffins. Especially when you’re there with your kids, dreams can quite literally come true.

Please, then, tell me: Why on Earth were the vast majority of people at the park on a summer Tuesday wandering around while staring into their smartphones?

I mean, I know the park has invested a ton of money into this great new app, My Disney Experience, on which you can organize Fast Passes and check wait-times for rides. And I know we all have become obsessed with Facebook and Twitter (heck, even I file stuff on social media from time to time).

But, seriously, three out of every four families we saw today were walking around with their heads down, totally ignoring each other.

I like to call people who do this Cell-Phone Zombies (CPZs). And the zombies were everywhere. In Fantasyland, which recently reopened after a historic expansion. On Main Street, where there is never a shortage of things to see. Inside the Be My Guest restaurant, which sits INSIDE THE BEAST’S CASTLE. Hell, even on the bus back to our resort, at least 75 percent of the passengers were CPZs.

The scene was so egregious, so ridiculous, that even Little R noticed.

“Da-da, why is everyone looking up Ellie Goulding songs?” she asked, a reference to the fact that playing deejay is one of the only things I actually do on my phone in front of the girls.

(ICYW, my response was, simply: “Mickey Mouse loves Ellie Goulding, too, honey.”)

This isn’t a rant against Disney World; this parks are better than ever, and whether the girls are behaving or not, we’re having a blast living in the moment. Instead, I’m calling out my fellow family travelers. Visitors to Orlando! Disney World is awesome and y’all are lucky to be here! Now put down the damn phones.

Really, it’s a lesson we parents can apply to any family trip: Be present. Sure, it’s nice to document our group vacations with photos, and, yes, it’s great to text with people back home. But unless something’s urgent—or unless you’re Annie Leibovitz, for crying out loud—stop being a CPZ, know when to get the technology out of the equation, and interact with your kids. They’ll be better for it in the long run. And you know what? So will you.

How much time do you spend staring into your mobile device when you’re on a family trip?

A great precursor to Walt Disney World

Garden Grocer, send up our stuff!

Garden Grocer, send up our stuff!

After this weekend, the four of us are headed to Walt Disney World (the one in Florida) to try out the new Magic Bands service and investigate some of the recent preschooler-oriented upgrades at some of the parks. We’re staying at Disney Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, in a 1-bedroom villa with a full kitchen. Our goal: To save a bit of money on food, instead of paying top-dollar for every meal at restaurants or inside the park.

At the suggestion of a friend, our strategy to achieve this goal is using Garden Grocer, a grocery ordering-and-delivery service that promises to have your supplies waiting in your room for you when you check in.

The interface itself is similar to the online grocery services we used when we lived in London—you shop virtually, put stuff in a cart, and select a specific date and time range when you check out. Item-by-item prices were comparable to what you’d find in a high-end supermarket. The company also charges a one-time delivery fee of $14.

To me, this fee is worth the 60 to 90 minutes it saves me from having to dash out to the Publix as soon as we (fly across the country with two children and) check in.

(It’s also roughly the cost of two pretzels and a soda inside the parks.)

I placed my inaugural order about an hour before I published this post. Will this service work? Will Garden Grocer deliver the convenience it promises? How much money will we actually save? I won’t have any of these answers for you until Monday at the earliest, but you better believe I’ll report them here. Stay tuned.

To what extent have you used grocery-stocking services when you travel with kids?

Pro-potty parity for family travel

Yes! A changing table! In a men's room!

Yes! A changing table! In a men’s room!

You don’t have to be political to support equal access to baby changing stations in public facilities. The reality is that we dads often lack changing tables in men’s rooms, and when we’re away from home (or traveling) with a diaper-wearing child, the oversight can be a real pain in the ass (pun intended).

Adding insult to injury, of course, is this: Moms usually have changing tables in women’s rooms.

I’ve grumbled about this for years, even making a point of photographing changing tables in men’s rooms when I see them, just to document small wins (see accompanying photo; thank you, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay). Now other people (men and women alike) are doing something about it, in the form of a bill in the California State Legislature known as SB1350, or the “Potty Parity for Parents Act.”

The effort, which has been gaining national attention all summer long, aims to ensure that public facilities for changing babies’ diapers are equally available to both men and women in California.

Specifically the Act would require a baby changing station to be installed in the men’s restroom if one is being installed in the women’s restroom, or requires a diaper changing station to be included in a family restroom that is available to both men and women.

The bill, which targets places such as museums and other publicly funded spots, is being sponsored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park/Long Beach).

Personally, I’m proud to proclaim I’m pro-potty parity. Though our girls have grown out of diapers, passage of the bill truly would make a difference in the lives of millions of family travelers each year. When I consider the impact something like this could have on a national level, I see an entire nation of happy baby-bottoms. Also, we dads never would have to change our babies’ diapers in the trunks of our SUVs again.

Apparently there’s a public rally in support of this movement on Friday. I won’t be able to attend (it’s in Long Beach, down near L.A.), but rest assured: I’m on board. And if you’re a dad and you travel with diaper-aged kids, you should be too.

Where do you end up changing your child’s diapers when there are no changing tables to be found?

Shining spotlight on a new local gem

Fishing at the CMOSC.

Fishing at the CMOSC.

Because this blog deals with family travel on a general basis, I usually try to keep the focus as broad as possible. Sometimes, however, I can’t resist writing about local stuff. Especially when I’ve profiled that local stuff in a major metropolitan daily newspaper.

Case in point: the new Children’s Museum of Sonoma County (CMOSC), which I spotlighted in my most recent family travel column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The playground portion of the facility opened in March and the girls are OBSESSED. In fact, the day after my story about the place was published, we became members. I’m certain we’ll be headed there at least 2-3 times each month.

Things we love: the water play area, which comprises a series of water tables and a river from which kids can pluck plastic fish; the art studio, which hosts a different themed project every day; the organic garden, from which kids (under appropriate supervision) can pluck fruits and veggies; and the giant building blocks, with which kids can build giant Rube Goldberg-type machines.

Personally, I also love that after I called them out about it in my piece, the museum added a shade sail.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff we’d change about the place, too. One of the biggies: The museum has way too many rules. You can only eat in a certain spot. You can’t be barefoot. You can’t play *in* the river (you have to stand on a bridge).

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend taking the family the CMOSC. Perhaps the best plan is to combine your visit with a trip to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which is next door. There’s even an In-N-Out Burger down the street for an impromptu lunch. California Wine Country isn’t just for grown-ups anymore.

Fantasy family travel amenities at 30,000 feet

This girl needs a Play-Doh bar.

This girl needs a Play-Doh bar.

I was amused to read (in Conde Nast Traveler) this past week an interview in which Richard Branson quite seriously sounds off about the virtues of a “kid’s class” on planes. He describes the (hypothetical, at this point) zone as being minded by nannies who (presumably give mom and dad a break and) watch kids during a flight. He also pontificates on the roadblocks—namely, what the hell an airline would do in the event of turbulence (or an emergency) when kids must return to their respective seats.

The whole bit got me thinking: If I could design my own on-plane family travel amenities, what would they be? Here are a few items on my list.

Aft water-play area
All kids love water play. Heck, when my kids come upon a water play area at school or a park, they can stay busy for hours. With this in mind, water play at 30,000 feet would be a PERFECT way to keep kids busy on long flights. Tired of watching Frozen, honey? Go to the water table. Feeling grimy and overheated? Go on and splash around. I even know some adults who would like to kill a few hours at an attraction like this one.

Play-Doh bar
Once families are free to move about the cabin, a great diversion would be a bar that serves Play-Doh. Not for eating, of course. For playing with. The bar could offer 6-8 different colors on each flight. And because airlines would require passengers to play with it AT THE BAR, cleaning up the inevitable Play-Doh balls would be a cinch. Hell, my kids would be so into this idea, I’d be willing to play $10 a jar for the stuff. [As a variation on my original theme, I’d also pay a premium for Play-Doh the girls can use in their seats.]

Jelly bean service
In-air dining options are so…pedestrian. It’s always the same old stuff! Especially inside those “Kids packs,” which usually come with a granola bar, some form of applesauce, a Slim Jim and other glorified camping food. Why not have Jelly Belly sponsor a special “Jelly Bean Service” during which flight attendants walk the aisles peddling jelly beans to families and those travelers who are kids at heart? Yes, I recognize it might not be wise to actively give kiddos sugar highs in mid-air. But with well-thought related resources, this could be a win for everyone involved (especially the airline).

Bouncy house
I know, I know, the logistics of engineering a bouncy house on a moving plane probably would vex the greatest minds of our generation. But THINK ABOUT IT—even if an airline limited entry to four kids every five minutes, youngsters could quite literally jump out all of the nervous energy for the duration of the flight. Someone even could discover a way to harness the kinetic energy from all those jumps and use it to power on-board water filters or WiFi or a cookie oven (free cookies!).

Branson, my man, are you listening?

The harsh realities of spotting fish

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

There’s a saying in poker that goes like this: “If you can’t spot the fish [a.k.a., the worst player] at the table, it’s probably you.” Something very similar could be said about family travel—when you can’t spot the most poorly behaved child on a plane or at a resort, it’s probably yours.

This isn’t a platitude, people. It’s not me waxing philosophical. It’s truth. It’s reality. It happens to every traveling family at one time or another. It happened to us. On our vacation to Maui earlier this month.

As amazing and perfect as she is, our Big Girl, L, is incredibly sensitive to disruptions in her sleep schedule. As a result, the poor thing spent portions of our trip being a wildwoman. She hit. She scratched. She screamed. She kicked. She said horrible things about how she wanted a new Daddy. At times she even lashed out at her Mom (this is akin to the Dalai Lama dropping an f-bomb).

In short, my kid had a few bad days—just like every other 5-year-old in the history of 5-year-olds.

For us, managing her during these episodes was trying and exhausting and exasperating and awful. For other guests of the hotel, however—people who don’t know her or us—the scene was full-on hell.

These people gave us eye rolls. They tossed dirty looks. Some shook their heads in disapproval. One night, when L was grunting like a gorilla because she didn’t want to pee before bedtime, a neighbor actually shouted, “Shut the hell up!” from his lanai.

To be honest, I sort of don’t blame the guy.

I also don’t feel bad. Kids are kids. When you travel with them, sometimes it gets ugly. As parents, we can try our best to manage these situations when they arise. But at some point, you just have to deal.

Many parents “deal” by not taking their kids anywhere. That’s not an option for us. And it never will be.

Instead, we simply take things as they come. On good days, those days on which everyone behaves, Powerwoman and I kick back and watch the girls and smile squinty smiles and whisper to each other how lucky we are. And on bad days, those days on which a stranger tells our kid to shut the hell up, my partner and I try our best not to snap at each other, and to remember that, despite the drama at hand, life’s still pretty great.

Sometimes we fail—we’re human, after all. Sometimes it’s so stressful that one or both of us ends up crying in the bathroom. And sometimes we wonder why we even try to travel with such young kids.

Here’s the thing. Sure, we question. Yes, we doubt. But we never waver from our commitment to show our kids the world. Traveling with children can be tough—we’re the first ones to admit it. But even when our kids are the fish at the table, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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