The coolest playground on Earth

The park for "off-leash kids."

The park for “off-leash kids.”

In many ways, we build our family travel around playgrounds. We try to fly through airports that have child play zones. On road trips, we plan our stops in cities with play structures about which other parents rave. When we finally settle in a destination, we always ask the hotel concierge—or people who work in local toy shops—for directions to the best park.

Heck, when we spent last fall in London, we explored the entire city by playground-hopping from one neighborhood to the next.

Naturally, then, when I read about a kick-ass new playground (like some of the ones profiled in this Travel + Leisure roundup), it piques my interest in a big way.

This is why I was so intrigued to hear about the new Terra Nova Rural Park in Richmond, British Columbia. The playground recently reopened after a major renovation—an upgrade that reportedly cost upward of CAN$1 million. Early reviews say the place might be the best playground on Earth.

Highlights of the new spot include a tandem zipline, a 30-foot-tall treehouse and a hill specifically designed for rolling down. There’s also a sand play area, a water play area, a meadow maze, and something called a “log jam,” which is designed to replicate the sensation of walking across a series of beach logs.

Reports indicate that city officials designed the park to mimic nature, and that they solicited input from kids. The city is marketing the park as an “adventure play environment” for “off-leash kids.”

In short, this place sounds like an amazing spot around which to plan a trip.

The park opens formally Sept. 27—the last Saturday of the month. We weren’t planning to go back to British Columbia any time soon. Now, however, we might have to rejigger our schedule to check it out.

Where are some of your favorite playgrounds and why do you like them so much?

A key to good naps on family trips

Knock, knock...

Knock, knock…

If your family is anything like my family, good naps for the kids are hard to come by on family trips. General excitement, unfamiliar sleeping environments, and jet lag often work together to disrupt even the most necessary of afternoon siestas. To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when one of our girls actually does doze off, something inevitably wakes her up.

This why I am currently obsessed with the Knock Nanny, which debuted at the 2014 ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas this week.

In a nutshell, the product is a universal doorbell cover that gives would-be sleep disruptors a stern-but-loving warning about waking the sleeping kid. The covers fit perfectly over doorbells at most vacation houses. They also fit nicely over many (but not all) doorbells inside luxury hotels.

Think of the product as the modern take on a handwritten note you’d tape to the door.

Because the Knock Nanny physically covers the doorbell, however, there’s no chance a would-be child-awakener can wake up the sleeping babe.

The device has 27 available decals you can affix to the front—stickers with cute slogans designed to give people the message to keep it down. Most of the slogans are PG; stuff like “Please knock softly,” and, “Shhh! Baby Sleeping.” I also like the one with tiny star icons that says, “Future Star Sleeping Inside.”

Perhaps the best thing about the Knock Nanny is the price: No matter where you buy it, you can get it for less than $6. Not a bad investment for a nap or two on your next big trip.

What are your secrets for getting kids to nap on family vacations?

Soaring above Las Vegas as a family

The High Roller at night, summer 2014.

The High Roller at night, summer 2014.

Most of the time, my two main beats as a journalist—family travel and Vegas—exist in separate spheres.

Sometimes, however, the two come together in odd and wonderful ways. Such as the latest news about the High Roller, which, at 550 feet tall is the world’s largest observation wheel.

Late last month, the folks from Caesars Entertainment (which owns the wheel and the surrounding open-air mall, The LINQ) announced that the High Roller will open for 90 minutes one day a week exclusively for families with young children.

Dubbed the Family Hour Package, the program will allow riders with kids 12 and under to ride the wheel between 10-11:30 a.m. every Saturday in a family setting free of other (read: potentially wasted) customers. The package is priced at $49.95 and is available every week. According to a press release, it includes:

  • Two adult tickets
  • Three children tickets
  • Three High Roller binoculars for guests to keep
  • Three Juice drinks from the Sky Lounge

Having been up in the High Roller a handful of times since it opened in late 2013, I can say this: The package is a super deal. Juice drinks alone probably retail for $18 during regular business hours, which makes the ticket prices of approximately $32 for five people a steal.

The folks at Caesars told me families also can use their ticket stubs from Family Hour Package to receive discounts for a show at The Quad (a hotel that is set to change its name to The LINQ later this year).

My advice? Do the wheel, then wander west up the LINQ toward the Strip, stopping at Sprinkles cupcakes for a morning jolt or Hash House a Go Go (inside The Quad) for heaping portions of eggs and potatoes for brunch. On your way, stop in at the Polaroid Fotobar and print out some of the pictures you took up on the wheel. Even in Vegas, there’s nothing like a souvenir you can touch and hold.

Managing differing expectations on a family trip

Believe it or not, this was fun.

Believe it or not, this was fun.

Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, in New York, I spent most of my free time on the beach. As often as possible, I’d ride my dirt bike there from my house, park the bike and walk up and down the beach, ogling marine mammals, hunting for shells, wading in the waves, and more. I enjoyed this ritual so much, there were entire days when I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Naturally, then, when I became a father, I wanted to share this experience with my daughters. The only problem: They wanted to create beach experiences of their own.

The first time I learned this lesson was this past winter; on a visit with L to our favorite local beach to see some seal pups, all she wanted to do was walk in the nearby river and toss rocks (at birds and whitecaps) in the surf.

I was reminded of the same lesson again earlier this week, on a trip to the very same beach with R.

My plan was modest at best—in one hour, I was hoping we’d walk along the shoreline, check out some kelp and look for whale blows in the distance. The baby had other designs: All she wanted to do was sit on her bottom and sift through handfuls of sand for shards of beach glass.

At first, the discrepancy between expectations was adorable: R is so wonderfully independent, it was a pleasure to see her exerting free will so demonstratively. But when it became clear that my little girl wasn’t willing to budge ONE BIT, I started wondering about the degree to which I should be driving the day.

The questions came quickly. What’s wrong with this kid? Is she ill? Why the hell doesn’t she want to explore more of this place? Could she *hate* the beach?

Self-doubt crept in next. Is it too hands-on to drag her on a stroll down the beach? Will forcing her to look for whales prompt her to hate whales (or the beach, for that matter) forever? Am I a terrible father if I make her do something she obviously want to do?

I gave myself a few minutes to think over these questions. Then I made up my mind. And I did nothing.

Against all instincts, I let R experience the beach the way she wanted to, scratching at the sand like cat in a litter box. After a few minutes, R looked up at me and invited me to stop staring out at the ocean and join her. So I did.

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to accept that this was the way my kid and I were going to spend our day at the beach. Ultimately, I had no choice but to accept it. And I’m glad I did.

If I’ve learned anything in five years as a father, it’s that family travel often forces us to balance our kids’ expectations and our own. Most of the time, we parents know best. Sometimes, however, it’s important for us to recognize that our kids simply may not want what we want for them, and adjust accordingly.

Next time I take my kids to the beach, I hope they are willing to give me even five minutes to experience the place the way I’d like to. If they do, great. If they don’t, in the scheme of things, that’s great too. So long as we’re there together, so long as my kids recognize what a special spot the beach can be, I’ll be happy with however the day plays out. More than anything, that’s my job as their Dad.

Maximizing fun for family adventurers

Terra Darts. Just one of the many cool things about the REI Kid Pack.

Terra Darts. Fun!

Earlier this year, a friend of mine hipped me to some family-friendly excursions from REI Adventures. I did some digging and it turns out the tour operator has a handful of trips specifically designed for families. These multi-day trips go to a handful of faraway places including South Africa & Botswana, Thailand, the Greek Islands, Machu Picchu, and the Great Smoky Mountains (to name a few).

Every kid on these trips also receives a custom REI Kids Adventure Pack.

I’m not going to write about the trips themselves—my kids are too young to experience them (with one exception, the minimum age starts around 8) and, quite frankly, you can learn plenty about them by clicking through the outfitter’s site.

After obtaining a sample Kids Adventure Pack, however, I am delighted to share more about the awesomeness of that.

First, of course, is the pack itself—an REI-branded Flash 18 minimalist daypack that turns inside-out to double as a stuff sack and has a safety whistle built-in to the sternum strap. Inside, my sample came with an REI kids active wear t-shirt, a travel journal, REI-branded postcards, and an achievement award that is presented to kids upon completion of their adventure.

My sample pack also had two kick-ass games: 1) Terra Darts, a Seattle Sports lawn darts game (you fill the darts with pebbles) that you can play just about anywhere, and 2) Pass the Pigs, a craps-like game in which the dice are tiny pigs (you get points based upon the positions in which the pigs end up after you toss them).

Apparently, games vary per pack, though I’m not sure any other games could possibly be cooler than the ones I received. I also really liked the pack itself; I used the sample as a daypack on a hike with L and R this week and it worked great. To be fair, however, I found the postcards to be pretty lame. Isn’t the whole idea of postcards to purchase cards from your faraway destinations and send them to folks back home as souvenirs?

Bottom line: The REI Kids Adventure Park kits are a win.

I admire REI Adventures for offering family-oriented excursions in the first place. Beyond that, equipping kids who take these trips with special backpacks designed to maximize fun is genius. I only wish my girls were old enough to take on one of these adventures. We’ll just have to wait until 2019.

What do you bring with your kids on trips to help maximize fun?

You know your kid flies a lot when…

They survived turbulence in the sky for this (at Walt Disney World).

They survived real turbulence for this (at Walt Disney World).

We had an earthquake here in California Wine Country yesterday. A big one. Even though the epicenter was about 40 miles from our house, even though it was a few miles below the surface, our house shook pretty significantly. Thankfully, we didn’t experience any damage.

We did, however, have quite a laugh, thanks to L, our Big Girl.

It all centered on her description of the experience. This was her first real earthquake, but she wasn’t scared. She wasn’t freaked. She really wasn’t even tired (considering the quake woke us all up at 3:20 a.m.). Instead, my kid likened the quake to the only other kind of uncontrollable shaking she has experienced in her five years on Earth. She called it “turbulence…in the ground.”

At first, Powerwoman and I just laughed at how clever our daughter’s assessment was. Then, when we really started thinking about it, we were blown away.

The context! The internalization! The subtle expression of love of family travel! It was awesome. It was exhilarating. And it provided further proof that those jaded idiots who claim kids aren’t capable of remembering ANYTHING about family travel until they’re five or six are just that—jaded idiots who like to hear themselves talk.

Our kid has experienced turbulence in the sky. She remembered what it felt like. And last night, when the earth shook us all like eggs in a frying pan, she called upon that memory as a byproduct of association.

The whole thing seems like a ringing endorsement of family travel to me. Let’s just hope she doesn’t have the opportunity to break out her simile again anytime soon.

A perfect (and throwback) mid-flight diversion

Our Dum Dums bracelet. FTW.

Our Dum Dums bracelet. FTW.

Because our family spends so much time in the air (literally), we’re always looking for new diversions for the girls in mid-flight.

We discovered a new one on our flight home from Walt Disney World resort earlier this month. The technique mixes a take-off and landing treat with a “skill” that I learned as an 8-year-old, attending summer camp on Long Island, in New York.

I taught the kids how to make bracelets out of Dum Dums lollipop wrappers.

The Dum Dums part was a no-brainer; we’ve been feeding the kids lollipops during take-off and landing for the better part of the last 14 months or so in an attempt to mollify the effects of cabin pressure on their little ears. The bracelet part was a bit more of a stretch; I found myself sitting with six wrappers on the way out and started folding them into bracelet parts—a skill I learned 30 years ago this summer.

In terms of technique, the process of making these bracelets is similar to basket-weaving—you fold the wrappers down into tiny little rectangles, then you manipulate them so they interlock. Because the wrappers are coated in wax, the rectangles form a surprisingly sturdy chain.

At first the girls had no idea what I was doing. The bracelet wasn’t big enough for them to conceptualize what it would look like, and they couldn’t understand why I didn’t just throw the wrappers out.

Gradually, however, as we consumed more Dum Dums and the bracelet got longer and longer, it evolved into a really big deal. L became obsessed with my color patterning, R proclaimed herself the master of quality assurance and tried (unsuccessfully) to break the thing at every turn.

Our project didn’t only keep us busy; it also attracted the gazes of seat neighbors and flight attendants alike.

(One flight attendant said she hadn’t seen the craft in “at least 40 years.” She gave the girls free wings.)

By the time our flight home from MCO landed at SFO, the bracelet was long enough for the girls to wear. Since then, they’ve shared it nicely, and it has become their go-to jewelry of choice. The kids already are asking about whether we’ll make a second bracelet on our next flight. As of now we don’t have any family air trips on the books. The answer, however, always is yes.

What are your favorite artsy mid-flight diversions?

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?

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