Dishing tips for Trips + Giggles

Power, indeed.

Power, indeed.

It’s always fun to share family travel tips with other experts. That’s why I’m especially excited to share a Q&A I did with my buddy, Juliana Shallcross, the gal behind Trips + Giggles.

In the piece, I offer a number of creative options for keeping kids happy and entertained during family trips. Perhaps my favorite hack: Progressive Storytelling, a fun and no-tech game that the four of us played at least once a day on our recent trip to the San Juan Islands.

I also used the opportunity to share some news: Our pod is expanding this November when we welcome another daughter into the mix. (Stay tuned for more on this, obviously.)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognize some of the other tips—Perler beads for hotel rooms, window clings on long plane trips, Dum-Dums for take-offs and landings, and Rory’s Storycubes for more creative fun.  For a complete transcript of the interview, click here. And if you’re not currently reading Trips + Giggles, add it to your list.

Seattle Center = Family travel heaven

The. Best. Playground. EVER.

The. Best. Playground. EVER.

After more than two weeks away from home, we closed out our 2015 summer road trip in style today with six hours at Seattle Center, an entertainment hub (and former World’s Fair fairgrounds) on the north end of downtown Seattle.

Without question, it was one of the best days of our trip, with a seemingly never-ending number of kid-friendly attractions to keep L and R interested.

From our hotel—the Hotel Monaco downtown—the fun began on our approach; instead of taxiing or walking to the area, we took the Seattle Monorail, which travels about a mile from a shopping mall in the heart of the city to the middle of Seattle Center. Aboard this futuristic train, the kids felt like they started their day with a ride. (FWIW, the monorail was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, too.)

From the Monorail station, we walked about 100 yards to Seattle Center’s newest attraction: the Artists at Play playground.

The centerpiece of this playground is a giant climbing structure designed for kids a bit older than ours—L got scared climbing up the ladder to one of the structure’s rope bridges and had to come down. Still, with swings that make music, smaller climbing structures, and a handicapped-accessible merry-go-round, the park had plenty to offer for younger kids.

(Also, there was a shave ice stand, so my girls were stoked.)

Following a hard hour of playing outside, the kids were sweaty and hungry, so we took them into the Seattle Center Armory, which has been repurposed as a food court with plenty of kid-friendly options for lunch.

Next, the kids led us to the ground floor of The Armory, where they spotted peers playing at the Seattle Children’s Museum. We’ve been to a number of children’s museums over the years and this one ranks among the tops. The girls loved an exhibit that challenged them to build their own forts using household materials such as pillows and sheets. They also enjoyed a 30-minute session in the “Imagination Studio,” an art studio with an unlimited supply of paint, crayons, and crafts.

We ended the day experiencing the most famous Seattle Center attraction: the Space Needle. On the elevator ride up, they likened the tower to the lookout from “P.A.W. Patrol,” a Nick Jr., cartoon with which they’re obsessed. From the top, more than 600 feet above the ground, the kids marveled at cars and ferries and buildings below, and oohed and aahed at the view of Mount Rainier, which seemed to float on the horizon to the south.

By the time we got back down to ground level, the kiddos were spent and in need of some serious Down Time back at the hotel. We barely scratched the surface of Seattle Center—the area also is home to the EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center, and Chihuly Garden and Glass.

Now we know we’ll be back.

Tinkle practice

Calm before the accident.

Calm before the accident.

Like most girls, L and R are *huge* fans of the Disney movie, Frozen, and they love the line in the song, “Fixer Upper,” about going “tinkle in the woods.” In practice, however, the kids actually are quite terrible at actually going tinkle in the woods. And they’re not getting better any time soon.

Powerwoman and I were reminded of this on two consecutive outings this week.

R’s bladder failure happened first, after an ill-advised cup of milk and an unexpectedly long beachcombing trip along Orcas Island’s Crescent Beach. One minute we were plodding along the shoreline looking for beach glass, the next minute, she announced she had to pee, pulled down her pants, squatted to go, and peed all over herself.

L’s tinkle-castrophe occurred the following day while we were watching whales (we did a lot of that). This scene played out in similar fashion: Sudden need to urinate, pants at the ankles, and a valiant squat attempt, followed by soaked flip-flops and undies.

In R’s case, the issue was inexperience; because she’s only freestyled once before, she doesn’t really know how to do it. L’s case, the culprit simply was stubbornness. The child thinks she is the Serena Williams of pee-holding; instead of forcing her to recognize her own limits, we have decided to let her learn them on her own.

Together both experiences reminded Powerwoman and me of an underappreciated family travel truth: Even a little pee versatility can go a long way.

How will this epiphany change our travel practices? In the immediate future, I’m guessing, not that much. Down the road, however, especially before our next big road trip, you better believe my wife and I will work with the kids to help them get better at tinkling in the woods.

I’m sure the path to enlightenment will be rocky. I’m sure we’ll wet a lot of shorts along the way.

Ultimately, of course, the goal is to empower our daughters to go with ease, whenever and wherever they feel they need to go. To paraphrase the famous World Cup slogan: I believe that they will pee.

A case for patience on the family trip

The scene before the storm (and the Orcas).

The scene before the storm (and the Orcas).

We came. We saw. We weathered one of the biggest tantrums of 2015. And we experienced magic.

There’s really no other way to describe tonight’s experience at Lime Kiln Point State Park here on the San Juan Islands. The outing had it all: Smiles, tears, shrieks of terror, and screams of joy.

In the end, the experience was a classic case study about the yin and yang of family travel, a picture-perfect snapshot of how bad can become good, a fitting demonstration of why we moms and dads must practice patience above all else.

The night began around 4:30 p.m., when Powerwoman and I decided it might be fun to pack a picnic dinner and head to the park for a little whale-watching. This spot, on the west side of San Juan island along Haro Strait, is renowned as one of the best places in the islands to see Orcas from shore. We had heard reports of whales on that side of the island and thought we might get lucky.

We packed a dinner. We drove to the park. We got to the trailhead. We started hiking. For the first few minutes, everyone was happy. R was singing. L was counting clouds.

Then, at the picnic table, as we broke out our meal, disaster struck: BEES! HARASSING US!

My wife and I didn’t mind the little buggers. The girls, however, FREAKED OUT. R started flailing her arms and moaning. L started crying uncontrollably and shrieking like a banshee. Just as Powerwoman and I started contemplating pulling the rip cord and heading back toward the car, the whales arrived.

In that moment, we were faced with a dilemma: Flee the situation to pacify the children or stick it out to pursue our objective of seeing whales? After much deliberation, we decided to stick it out.

The moments that immediately followed that decision were horrendous. L’s anxiety prompted blood-curdling screams—shouts so loud some onlookers wondered if they should call the cops. R, in an attempt to flee a nagging bee, lost a flip-flip into the ocean (thankfully I was able to retrieve it without injuring myself).

Gradually, however, once we put the food away, the bees stopped swarming, and the girls’ terror dissipated, too. As the kids calmed down, more whales came. And more. And more after those. Some surfaced no more than 30 feet from where we were sitting.

After about 30 minutes of whale crossing, it became clear we were witnessing something pretty rare: An entire pod of Orcas passing by “together.”

In response to this spectacle, the kids’ moods changed completely. Instead of yelping in terror, they were cheering for more whales. Instead of yelling, “Bees!” they exclaimed, “Another dorsal fin!” every time one surfaced in front of us. Instead of insisting that we go home, they were begging us to stick around for more.

When we finally did leave, in the car on the way home, the “whale show” (as they called it) was all they wanted to talk about. The incredible sighting made us grown-ups forget all about the bee incident, too. It was as if the bad stuff never happened.

The lesson? When traveling with little ones, sometimes a little heaven is worth a whole lot of hell.

I’m not suggesting parents turn deaf ears to miserable kids and subject their children to hours of horrendous conditions every day. I am, however, saying that every now and again, we moms and dads might be rewarded for practicing patience in particularly taxing situations.

Identifying those situations isn’t easy; heck, they’re probably going to be different for every family. But when you do manage to stick ‘em out, persevering can have its benefits—for everyone involved.

Best spots in Portland for family travel

Playing with water funnels at OMSI,

Playing with water funnels at OMSI,

We’re still in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, enjoying days full of beach time, wildlife-watching (all Orcas, all the time), and lots (and lots) of locally made ice cream.

Before we got here, however, we spent a few days exploring Portland, Oregon, to the south.

The real reason for that part of the trip was to see some old friends. Naturally, however, because this family travel writer likes to hunt down good stories wherever we go, I also reported a story for the Expedia Viewfinder blog (and, potentially, other outlets) about the very best Portland has to offer for kids.

That piece, titled, “Portland for kids,” appeared on the Viewfinder blog earlier this week. In it, I chronicled our experiences at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, on the Portland Aerial Tram, and at one of the city’s best donut shops, Blue Star Donuts.

I also gave some serious props/love to the Hotel Deluxe, the fabulous boutique (and restored turn-of-the-century) hotel where we stayed.

We packed a ton into the 48 hours we spent in Portland. Still, there were a number of sights we actually *didn’t* get to see. Among the stuff I’ve got on my list for next time: the Portland Children’s Museum, the Oaks Amusement Park, and a trip to Pok Pok, supposedly one of the best Thai restaurants in the entire country.

I’m already looking forward to our return.

The beauty of a drop-in indoor playground

Travelers of all kinds understand the importance of letting kids burn off steam during a family vacation. The practice wins children time to let their imaginations wander. In turn, it also keeps everyone sane.

Inside A Place to Play.

Inside A Place to Play.

This is precisely why we love A Place to Play here on San Juan Island in Washington State.

The facility, literally one block from the ferry slip in Friday Harbor, amounts to a REALLY COOL indoor playground. It has a variety of themed creative play areas (including one where kids can use makeshift crab pots to catch stuffed crab). It’s spotlessly clean. The employees are patient (even when a certain 3-year-old mixes water and magic sand). Heck, the joint even sells snacks. Add in the cost—$7.50 per child per hour for the first hour, a total of $7.50 per family after that—and the place is a dream.

Rules of the road at A Place to Play are simple. Most of the time, children must be accompanied by a responsible supervising adult. The grown-up can’t leave at any point in the visit. If kids want to snack, they must do so in the dinette area. That’s pretty much it.

Of course there are exceptions. Once a month, A Place to Play hosts Date Night, during which the facility brings in some additional staff to watch (and feed) kids for three hours while moms and dads enjoy some quality grown-up time. This promotion is as much (if not more) for locals as it is for tourists. Perhaps the only downside is that it’s not cheap; it will cost us $40 to send both girls there Friday.

(To be honest, though, I’d pay twice that for a few solo hours with my bride on a family trip. Especially considering our wedding anniversary is Sunday.)

The concept and set-up behind A Place to Play makes so much sense, I have to wonder why these sorts of facilities don’t exist in every city. We certainly would use them. And I bet we’re not alone.

Our family’s happy place: the beach

Building teepees at Eagle Cove.

Building teepees at Eagle Cove.

We’ve been on San Juan Island about a week now, and while every day has been different, all of them have had at least one thing in common: A trip to a beach.

Beaches are our girls’ happy place, a surefire spot to make them happy and keep them that way.

On some beaches, they’ve walked the shoreline looking for cool shells and beach glass. On other beaches, they’ve used driftwood, seaweed, and bull kelp to build elaborate forts (or, if I’m helping, teepees). When we hit one beach at low tide, the kids beeline for the tidepools and peer down into worlds of sea anemones, sculpins, and hermit crabs. Another day, when we hit the beach at high tide, they grabbed their shrimp nets, waded out up to their knees and tried to catch us “dinner.”

These kids adore the sand and surf so much you’d think they grew up in a coastal zone (they didn’t; we live about 30 miles inland). As a fellow ocean-lover, I can understand the appeal and appreciate the sense of wonder and joy.

Our best beach day so far has been at Eagle Cove, a locals’ beach I remember from my days on the island as a twentysomething. We’ve been there three times already; we’ll probably visit another three or four times before we head home. At low tide, the beach stretches out a half-mile. Gentle waves lap at the sand. The sides of the cove frame the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

This is the beach where L discovered chiton shells—since that moment of discovery she has collected approximately 3,486 of them. It’s also the beach where R found her first cache of beach glass.

We’ve played ball on this beach. We’ve built fairy houses there. One day, while the kids were lounging with Powerwoman on a blanket, I took matters into my own hands and dragged driftwood from the back of the beach to build a shelter in which the girls could play cards.

Weeks from now, when L and R look back on this trip, despite the Orcas and the red foxes and the bald eagles and the ice cream every day, I bet they remember the beach best of all.

And I won’t blame them one bit.

You can go back again, with family

I call this, "Orca Window."

I call this, “Orca Window.”

I was hunched over the sink washing dinner dishes when I saw them through the kitchen window—first the telltale blows, then black triangle-shaped dorsal fins rising from the surface of the water.

“Orcas! Orcas!” I screamed. “Girls, get out here! There are orcas!”

This was the moment I had dreamed about, the very instant when my kids would see the namesake animals of this blog and come face-to-face with the marine mammals that had eluded me for the first 24 years of my time on Earth. Put simply, this was why we had come to the San Juan Islands in the first place: To see these very whales.

It took a few minutes for L and R to understand and appreciate the gravity of the situation. First they couldn’t see the whales from the living room of our vacation rental. Then they complained about how “small” the animals appeared. Only after I pointed out a baby did they start to come around.

And come around they did. They sang songs about the Orcas. They vocalized like Orcas. They pretended to be Orcas and chased each other around the living room. They requested Kindle books about ‘em, too. (Subsequently, they have asked to go to the local whale museum so they can learn even more.)

The San Juans have represented a special place for me since 1999. That summer, after a few years of living in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, I decided I needed to experience some open space. I never had seen Orcas in the wild, and knew there were some resident populations of the whales out here in the Pacific Northwest. So I bought a plane ticket to Seattle and a passenger ferry ticket to Friday Harbor. And I improvised the rest.

Over the course of two weeks that first summer, I lived in my tent and worked off my cell phone and a laptop from a coffee shop. I also kayaked a ton and saw literally hundreds of Orcas. The next summer, I came back for three weeks and did the same stuff. In the summer of 2001, I came again (that time with friends).

That middle summer, after one of the most intense animal encounters of my life, I vowed to bring my family here someday, and promised to make sure my kids wouldn’t wait as long as I did to see Orcas in the wild.

Which is what brought us here this year. It’s also what prompted us to rent this house—the house sits along the southern tip of the Island with a commanding view of the confluence of Juan de Fuca and Haro straits. I knew this was a spot where we’d be able to see whales without getting in a whale-watch boat. I was right.

We’ll be on the Island for a grand total of 13 days, and, already, the kids (and Powerwoman, for that matter) are saying they never want to leave. Whales! Beaches! Lakes! Mountains! This place has it all.

For me, however, San Juan Island has something even more meaningful: Memories. I forged the first set here at a time in my life when I was totally alone. Now that I’m back on the islands surrounded by family, I get the opportunity to make new ones with the people I love most in the world. I can’t think of a better gift for any of us.

You know you’re on family vacation with young kids when…

Sisters playing with perlers. 6 a.m.

Sisters playing with perlers. 6 a.m.

1. You wouldn’t be caught dead in a restaurant without paper and crayons.
2. You order that second Manhattan at dinner to go so you can drink it up in the room during books and songs.
3. You implore loved ones to use “inside voices” way more than you’d like.
4. You hear—and share—more poop and pee jokes than you’ll admit, even to your best friend.
5. You and your partner snuggle up in bed at 8 p.m. to watch separate movies on separate mobile devices with headphones (so as not to disturb anyone in the next bed).
6. You use Suave watermelon shampoo/conditioner on your own hair AND YOU DON’T GIVE A SHIT.
7. You listen to the same playlist in the car over and over and over and over again.
8. You consume French fries (and ice cream) at least once every other day.
9. You are awakened before 6 a.m. every day, usually to officiate an argument.
10. You have an adventure on each trip to a public restroom.
11. You (reluctantly) accept that the process of applying sunscreen takes more than 15 minutes.
12. You tip servers more than normal to assuage your guilt for leaving such a mess.
13. You relinquish all semblance of privacy in the bathroom (or otherwise).
14. You explain new stuff you encounter. In great detail. Frequently.
15. You step on small toys (or Perler Beads) daily, and cannot bring yourself to curse about it when you do.
16. You find yourself justifying how pasta really is its own food group.
17. You have to call housekeeping for help to replace marker-stained pillowcases.
18. You visit every toy store in a five-mile radius of your destination.
19. You realize museums and playgrounds are unbeatable diversionary tools.
20. You expand your family limits to include a litany of stuffed animal friends.

Special needs, yet just like us

Meghann Harris, courtesy of The New York Times

Meghann Harris, courtesy of The New York Times

I always am encouraged when I see articles geared toward parents of special needs kids who love to travel. The fact that these parents prioritize travel is wonderful; that reporters actually pay attention to them is something even better.

Naturally, then, I was delighted to open up the Travel section of The New York Times this weekend and see a Q&A with Meghann Harris, the founder of The site is a travel website for families with children who are on the autism spectrum and have other physical and cognitive challenges. In short, it’s a great resource for special needs parents who want to travel but don’t know how.

The Q&A, written up by Rachel Lee Harris, is short and sweet; it details a bit of history about how the site was founded, and offers insight on the day-to-day challenges of traveling with a special needs child.

Personally, I don’t care how long or detailed the piece is: It raises awareness, and that’s huge.

I discovered while researching an article for one of my clients—a nonprofit that focuses on educating and informing parents of children on the autism spectrum. I was moved then and I’m moved now. Families with kids who have special needs travel just like families with “ordinary” kids; the special needs families just look for different things. It’s about time we started including these families in the overarching conversation about family travel. Thanks for broadening the discussion, NYT.

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