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?

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?

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