An elevator your kids will talk about for years

Little R, enjoying Duplos inside the park.

Little R, enjoying Duplos inside the park.

Little R and I have been going through LEGO withdrawal all week this week, as we spent last weekend at Legoland California Resort and had an “awesome” time.

I’ll get to some of the details of our trip in a handful of pre-holiday posts next week. For now, I want to focus on the single best thing about our experience on site: The elevator at the LEGOLAND Hotel.

Yes, people, our favorite thing about the visit was an elevator.

This wasn’t just any old elevator. It was a Disco Elevator. With disco music that alternates depending on your destination. And flashing lights. And a disco ball. And a dance floor. Time and time again, every single person who asks R what she liked best about our visit, hears the same response: “The disco elevator.” It truly was THAT cool.

Every time we entered the elevator, it was playing standard elevator muzak—“The Girl from Ipanema” or some such smooth jazz. But when we pushed our button (we stayed on Floor No. 3) and the doors closed, the elevator transformed into a scene out of Saturday Night Live.

Lights went down. Disco music (or the LEGO theme song, “Everything is Awesome”) came on. A disco ball on the ceiling rotated. Laser spotlights zipped across the elevator walls.

It was impossible NOT to boogie to this scene; R and I obliged every time. (See YouTube video below.)

I know some might think this sort of gimmick is silly (or, worse yet, maddening). But as a dad who has ridden in countless elevators with his kids, I can tell you that the elevator made the simple (and often monotonous) experience of getting from the lobby to our room fun. And that set the tone for the rest of the trip.

My kid likely will be talking about the Disco Elevator for months. Yes, there were other things we liked at Legoland California. But that elevator was, without question, simply the best.

Inattentive parents no longer most annoying air travelers

Being "inattentive," en route from SAN to STS.

Being “inattentive,” en route from SAN to STS.

Here’s something worth celebrating: “Inattentive Parents” no longer are the most annoying air travelers, at least according to the second-annual Airplane Etiquette Survey from Expedia (a client of mine).

The survey, released today, revealed that “Rear Seat Kickers” replaced slacker moms and dads in the top spot in the 2014 poll. For family travelers, this gives the haters one less thing to throw in our faces the next time we fly.

(Though you could make the argument that most of the rear-seat kickers are kids.)

It also means there’s a brand new reason to talk about airplane etiquette, especially as it pertains to families.

One of the most colorful parts of the discussion revolves around “Seat Back Guy,” that passenger who unapologetically and repeatedly reclines his seat on you. This is irritating for all passengers, but it is particularly irksome for family travelers (as we need all the space for the kids we can get). In short, one aggressive recliner can make even the shortest trips with kids miserable.

I’ll never forget the trip on which some dude tried to recline his seat back toward L. My older daughter, who was maybe 4 at the time, let the guy have it, yelling at him for “invading my personal space!” until the dude sat back up.

It might be one of the best family travel moments of my (short-lived) career.

Of course another engaging part of the discussion on airplane etiquette is an analysis of what constitutes “inattentiveness” among parents. When R threw a temper tantrum on the flight home from San Diego last weekend, was I being “inattentive” by not stopping her but letting her work it out? Or does “inattentive” describe the mom who is pounding nips of vodka while junior runs up and down the aisle?

The survey, which catalogued opinions from 1,000 Americans, didn’t specify on these subjects, but we only can imagine.

Anyway, if you’re interested in airplane etiquette—or you’ve thought about how you might be more considerate the next time you travel with your kids—give the study a read. Also, check out Expedia’s fun (and easy-to-navigate) infographic on the subject.

What kind of air traveler do you consider to be the most annoying passenger?

Turning family travel disaster into fun

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

You probably have heard a saying about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. As a family traveler, I embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly.

My commitment was put to the test today on what amounted to a 15-hour travel day to fly 600 miles after a weekend in SoCal (and Legoland California) with Little R. Yes, the day was exhausting. Yes, in the scheme of things, it was wildly irritating. But I learned some valuable lessons about being prepared, staying positive, and never letting the kiddos see you sweat—lessons that forever have changed the way I’ll approach parenting on a family trip.

So when our flight from San Diego to Santa Rosa circled the Santa Rosa airport nine times to wait out bad weather, I dug deep into my (literal) bag of tricks and gave R a brand new sheet of Melissa & Doug reusable stickers. And when R decided (and threw a tantrum because) the on-board toilet was too high for her to use, I simply reassured her that if she couldn’t hold it in and she wet her pants, I had a change of clothes ready to go.

(ICYW, she held it, then fell asleep.)

Later, when the pilot announced we were running out of fuel and needed to divert to Portland, Oregon, I made up a story about how our plane had been hand-selected by Queen Esmerelda to come and visit her kingdom of Portland and how this was a great honor bestowed only on the luckiest of passengers.

After we deplaned, when R started losing her bananas in the rebooking line, I handed her blank paper and crayons, and asked her to draw the gate agent a special thank-you card—a card that not only got her an entire sheet of (really awesome) Alaska Airlines stickers in return, but also made the gate agent smile (something I didn’t see the agent do very much in the 45 minutes of yelling she received from other passengers on our flight.)

Upon learning that we’d have to wait four hours in Portland, I told R that Queen Esmerelda sent us a credit for the gift shop, and allowed her to pick out $20 worth of toys (she got a stuffed pony, among other things).

I improvised in other ways during the wait, too:

  • When we happened upon an empty gate, we played football with my hat.
  • At another empty gate, we pretended to be airplanes and ran around in circles for a good 20 minutes.
  • Thanks to a Facebook tip from a friend, we took the moving sidewalks down to an area with kids’ games and spent 45 minutes playing with those.

Oh, and when R had to use the bathroom (always a dicey proposition in our family when “magic-eye” automatic flushers are involved), I pretended to take a call from Queen Esmerelda, who “directed” us to a special family bathroom where R was able to get totally naked, spend quality time on the toilet, listen as I read her a few books on the Kindle, and do more than her fair share of business (if you know what I mean).

After the flight back to San Francisco (on which R watched “Peppa Pig” shows the entire time; at that point in the day, I was more than happy to relax my screen-time restrictions), I even tried my best to turn the ordeal of a one-way rental car into something fun: We pretended the AirTrain to the rental car facility was the Monorail at Walt Disney World Resort, and I let R select the car (she chose a “sparkly silver” one).

On the way home, before the kid passed out in the car, I asked her about her favorite parts of the trip. Her response: “Today was really fun, Daddy.”

To say this comment made me happy would be an understatement. (Actually, I started crying the moment she said it; thankfully it was dark.) It was clear that my kid didn’t consider the ordeal a pain in the ass because I never gave her a reason to do so. To R, it all was just another part of our trip; a wonderful perspective that taught me a ton about parenting, traveling, and, quite frankly, myself.

So often when we travel, our kids feed off of us. They take cues from us. They read our body language. If we wig out, they wig out. Which is precisely why we always need to stay cool and take everything in stride.

Sure, our day today was COMPLETELY exhausting. And, yes, the delay was wildly inconvenient (in more ways than one). I’m sure I’ll be feeling the effects of it all throughout the course of the week. Thankfully, however, my 3-year-old will not. In my book, given the circumstances we overcame, that is the sign of a family travel victory.

What have been some of your worst family travel experiences, and how did you cope?

The one-bag experiment

Our reality for the next three days.

Our reality for the next three days.

Little R and I head out tomorrow for a weekend trip to LEGOLAND California (and to see family), and I’m going to try and fit all of our stuff in one carry-on bag.

I’m subjecting us to this challenge for one very important reason: I’ve only got two hands, and somehow I’ve also got to bring my laptop bag (technically, it’s a work trip) and R’s Britax Roundabout car seat, and I need to guarantee I’ll have a free hand as we get ourselves from the airport to the rental car facility.

On the front end, the logistics of this strategy seem easy-peasy. We arrive at the Charles M. Schulz Airport near our house in Santa Rosa, California. We check the car seat. I wear the big daypack on my back and the small laptop bag (it’s also a backpack) on my front. This leaves me with both hands to navigate the TSA checkpoint and corral R when she gets feisty.

On the back end, at San Diego International Airport, the plan is only minimally different—backpacks will go on the same sides of my chest, car seat bag will go in my left hand, and R’s hand will go in my right.

Yes, I know I’m insane. Yes, I’m sure I’ll probably regret this choice when I’m dripping with sweat on the rental car shuttle. And, yes, I’m sure something completely unforeseen will happen (and cause me to curse out loud) and I’ll be forced to rethink everything on the fly. But the way I see it, at least at 12 hours before our time of departure, I’ve got no other option.

Still, all of this planning has me thinking about some bigger-picture considerations:

  • To what extent can I—and we, as family travelers in general—downsize our load to maximize efficiency when traveling with kids?
  • Why do we as a society think roll-aboard/wheelie carry-on suitcases are so great?

Of course I also have been fixating on the reality of single parents who travel with their kids: How on earth do they do it, especially when they’re traveling with more than one?

I’m guessing I’ll have some answers to these rhetorical questions by Sunday evening. In the meantime, between now and then (but especially between now and Friday around 10 a.m.), if you have advice you’d like to share about these issues, please do. And wish us luck!

Great read about family travel, world affairs

One of Julie's incredible photos from Mexico City.

One of Julie’s pics from Ayotzinapa protests in Mexico City.

I’m lucky to have some super-smart and super-talented writer friends. That means I get the privilege of knowing the people behind some pretty powerful and amazing and thought-provoking pieces. It also means I get to share their work when the work warrants sharing.

The latest example of this phenomenon: An epic essay for The New York Times’ “Motherlode” blog written by New York City-based pal, Julie Schweitert Collazo.

Julie’s article touches upon everything from family travel to world affairs—in particular attempts to cover protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Mexico City, Mexico. The story inspires readers to think about how to discuss sensitive issues with kids, and sparks further consideration about how we as traveling families can guarantee our children learn about the world from the stuff we experience with them on the road.

In short, especially if you strive to inform your kids about current events, I consider it a must-read.

For more of Julie’s work, check out Collazo Projects, a site that showcases some of her diverse portfolio and doubles as a personal/professional blog. Julie, who is a mother of three, often writes about family travel in this forum (sometimes in Spanish, too!), and always offers a perspective worth considering.

Making travel games their own

Yahtzee!

Yahtzee!

Little R has been under the weather this week, and Powerwoman and I have been scraping the bottom of the barrel of activities to keep the girls busy. This afternoon’s game was a real zinger. I like to call it, “Look through Daddy’s Old Camping Stuff!”

It was a curious scene. The three of us took over the garage. The girls opened up two lawn chairs. Then they sat and waited to “inspect” my old bags for “treasures.” Over the course of the new Taylor Swift album (this is how we measure time), we found a 10-year-old water filter, about 12 corroded AA batteries, an unopened canister of bear spray, and my long-lost Leatherman.

We also found a box of some old travel games, including magnetic Tic-Tac-Toe, magnetic checkers and travel Yahtzee.

Not surprisingly, this was the stuff the girls liked best of all.

R couldn’t get enough of the magnetic goodies; she kept taking the tiny pieces, putting them on the metal frame of the lawn chair, and watching them stick. L, on the other hand, was all about the Yahtzee. She asked me how to play and listened intently as I explained the rules. Then she announced that she didn’t like the official rules, and was making up her own.

What followed was a tutorial in “Yahtzee According to L,” or YAL. Forget playing for a Yahtzee or a Full House; in L’s game, you rolled the dice, counted them up, and practiced writing your numbers on the scorecards.

Over and over and over again.

At first I tried to help her understand the REAL rules, reviewing them here and there to see if I might catch her interest. After about 10 minutes, I realized this sort of instruction was a waste of time; L loved the game, but she only loved it on her terms, and that was the way it would be.

By dinnertime, my older daughter was talking about how she was going to bring YAL on our next road trip (to Lake Tahoe), how she was going to play it “for the entire drive,” and teach it to everyone we met at rest stops along the way. Joking, I told her she could introduce the game to everyone in and around the lake. Her response: “How many people live there, Dad?”

Regardless of whether our Big Girl becomes the next Milton Bradley (I’m not talking about the former Cleveland Indians’ centerfielder here, people), the YAL incident reminded me of a valuable lesson: When it comes to kids and travel, we parents need to allow their imaginations to run wild.

Put differently, the rules by which my kid wants to play Yahtzee don’t matter at all. What does matter is that she actually wants to play, and that she’s excited about doing so on our next trip.

This means she’s already looking forward to our next adventure. Which is a win from the start.

Girlification of a legend

Necklace in a cup holder, 2014.

Necklace in a cup holder, 2014.

My truck—a royal blue 2001 Nissan XTerra—has been with me through some pretty serious life moments.

I bought it while living in New York on Sept. 4, 2001, which means the two of us spent our first week dealing with the aftermath of the terror attacks Sept. 11, 2001. It was the vehicle I took to pick up my wife on our first date (of course she wasn’t my wife back then). The truck moved me across the country to Seattle, then down the Pacific Coast to the Bay Area. It off-roaded for weeks in Montana. In more than 13 years in my possession, the SUV also has served as my tent for more than 100 nights in the woods.

All these years, I’ve thought of the vehicle like an old friend, a manly man, sometimes even more masculine than little old I. This week, however, after a short road trip with the girls to the southern end of the Bay Area, I safely can say the truck is more girly than ever before. I’m not talking about “girly” in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sense; I mean girly, as in, frilly and sparkly and stickery and just full of really little-daughter type stuff.

In short, the truck has become a symbol for how much fatherhood has altered the way I live my life.

Exhibit A: My rear windows.
In years past, the filth on the outside of these windows was like a badge of honor, a bulging bicep that announced to the world: I AM TOUGH. After our family roadie, my back windows are covered with stickers—everything from Hello Kitty to random birthday cakes. There’s even a “Visit Montana” sticker I got at a press event. Definitely not an amalgamation that conveys toughness.

Exhibit B: My cup holders.
A lifetime ago, the two cup holders near the main gear shifter provided safe haven to gas-station coffee cups, empty cans of Red Bull and nondescript Styrofoam dip cups. This morning, I looked down and spotted L’s broken turquoise Cinderella necklace at the bottom of one of the holders. The other one was dotted with tiny speckles of glitter.

Exhibit C: My trunk.
My truck used to house supplies for the zombie apocalypse: an Earthquake survival kit, jumper cables, solar cell phone chargers, first aid kits (the one built into the trunk is not that great), and more. Today, everything back there fits around the buggy, and my first aid kit has been downsized to a tiny box of band-aids with a tube of Bacitracin. (Also, there are some empty fruit-chew wrappers.)

There are other examples of “evolution” but these three will suffice. The girls have taken over my truck. To paraphrase the Borg, from Star Trek: I will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Does it bug me that my trusty truck isn’t as macho as he once was? You bet it does. But when I think about what’s driving all of the changes to my lifestyle and my truck, I always take a step back, look around, and quietly give thanks for the two young humans who firmly have established themselves at the center of my world. Stickers on windows and necklaces in cup holders are temporary; the bond I share with those kids will last forever. That’s more important than any set of wheels.

One-on-one-travel, take two

Can't wait for one-on-one travel with this girl.

Can’t wait for one-on-one travel with this girl.

A few years ago, when L was the only child in our family, I made a big deal (privately and publicly, on the predecessor to this blog) about traveling solo with just her.

We took a number of trips just the two of us. The biggest of the bunch: An epic sojourn to Beverly Hills so she could gaze upon couture dresses at fancy boutiques and get inspired to sketch some fashion of her own (she was big into art even then).

In general, there are dozens of benefits to one-on-one travel with kids. The individualized attention. The unobstructed bonding time. The out-of-the-ordinary dynamic. Logistically, however, with two little humans running around (and two very different childcare schedules), this dream is a bit more difficult to attain. How will Powerwoman and I massage the wounded ego of the child who stays at home? How do we balance childcare when one parent and one child are out of the equation? These are the kinds of questions with which we grapple.

Not that the self-doubt slows me down. On the contrary, I just booked the first one-on-one trip for me and R—an early December escape to SoCal to visit family and report a story about Legoland California.

Our plan is simple. Fly down, check in to the Legoland hotel, and spend the day with family on Friday; while away the entire day in the park on Saturday; fly home Sunday. Considering how much R loves theme parks and LEGOs and meeting new people (and airplanes and Dum-Dum lollipops on airplanes), I’d say we’re in for a good time.

Not that the plan could have played out any other way; we couldn’t have taken L, even if we wanted to. For starters, she has school on Fridays, and we would have had to pull her out (which Powerwoman and I agree is not a good idea right now). More important, after this past summer’s back-to-back Hawaii and Disney World trips, L declared that she didn’t want to fly for a year, and Powerwoman and I don’t want to force the issue. (This is most definitely another blog post for another time, folks.)

Yes, it’s a bummer we all can’t travel together on this adventure. At the same time, it’s a treat to be able to bask in solo travel time with only one of my kids. I think one-on-one travel time with each child is an important part of life as a parent of multiple children.

Finally, after three years, I’m delighted to give R that chance.

To what extent do you prioritize one-on-one travel with your kids?

Babysitter directory that might change your life

Please. Someone. Come watch these maniacs.

Please. Someone. Come watch these maniacs.

I’m not going to lie: Whenever Powerwoman and I take the kids on vacation, we’re hesitant to use sitters we don’t know.

Most of the time, we talk ourselves OUT of it, allowing our overriding lack of familiarity with the sitters in a particular destination (as well as our own neuroses about who is watching the girls) push us into inaction.

Translation: We rarely go out when we travel with the girls. Ever. And the few times we’ve actually used nanny services, we’ve been basket cases the whole time.

Naturally, then, earlier this week, when one of my favorite family travel blogs, Trips + Giggles, launched a brand new hotel babysitter directory, both my wife and I were stoked.

With the service, Juliana Shallcross, my buddy who runs the site, created a list of babysitting agencies in more than 20 cities across the United States. Her list comprises sitters who are often recommended by luxury hotels; she actually worked with luxury hotels to screen candidates and grow the list. The sitters on there now are people with whom she would trust her two girls (who are roughly the same ages as L and R).

Which puts my mind at ease.

In her announcement post, Juliana was careful to lay out parameters of the service. She notes that, because of liability concerns, most hotels cannot make the sitter reservation for you, so it’s up to you to call the agency and find out their pertinent info. She hipped readers to what rates and cancellation policies they can expect ($20-$25 per hour, 24 hours’ notice, respectively).

She even went so far as to recommend that travelers call the babysitting agencies themselves, at least two weeks in advance, and find out as much as possible about the sitters. A direct quote from her site: “Agency directors understand how nerve-wracking it can be for parents to hire sitters, so a good agency director will take the time to answer all of your questions. All of them.”

The catch (if you want to call it that) to all of this: In order to gain access to the directory, you have to sign up to become a member of Trips + Giggles (which, by the way, is free).

On the fence about joining? I’m a member, and I’ll tell you this: If being a part of the Trips + Giggles community brings you peace of mind the next time you and your partner want to have a date night on a family trip, I say it’s worthwhile. I know we’ll be using the directory the next time the four of us travel together.

Getting real about Disneyland

L takes on Disneyland, like a boss.

L taking on Disneyland, like a boss.

As fun as it might seem to take the kids to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” a.k.a., the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, the experience can be exhausting, too.

That’s the gist of my latest piece for the Expedia Viewfinder blog, which published today.

The story, titled, “Daddy does the Disneyland Resort,” outlines precisely why a trip to see the West Coast Mouse can be so tiring—especially for dads. Among the reasons I outline in the article: physical demands of walking all over the (500-acre) place, psycho-emotional demands of keeping kids happy in line, and under-hydration (even in winter).

In the article, I also list a number of ways dads (and moms) can avoid what I liken as the “Disney stupor” the next time they visit.

Among my solutions here: Utilizing Rider Switch, embracing technology, and, of course, drinking booze (Which you only can do in Disney California Adventure Park).

The blog post itself was based on “research” Powerwoman and I conducted on one of our last visits to the theme park, back in 2012. At that time, L was 4 and R was 1. (Now, of course, L is 5 and R is 3; though my philosophy on approaching the visits hasn’t changed much.)

Perhaps my favorite part of the effort is the main picture, which captures L walking through Downtown Disney like she owns the place, and Powerwoman pushing R in the buggy with abandon. Check it out!

What are your tips for surviving theme park visits with *your* young ones?

 

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