Theaters with a playful twist

Playground + theater = AWESOME

If you’ve ever been to the movies with a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old, you understand that it can be difficult for the little ones to sit still for the duration of the film.

For this reason alone, two new movie theaters from Mexico-based Cinepolis, which debut next week to screen Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake, are AWESOME.

In a nutshell, the new theaters are mashups of regular cinemas and indoor playgrounds. Under one roof. The Cinepolis configuration—formally dubbed the “in-theater concept”—offers something for everyone. Moms and dads can sit and watch a film while the kiddos play on a play structure. It’s that easy.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the new theaters boast jungle gyms, cushy bean bag chairs, and climbing structures. These play areas are flush up against one of the walls near the screen, and are big enough to satisfy a handful of kids but small enough to make certain that parents can keep an eye on their kiddos at all time.

Lest you think this setup is too good to be true, it comes at a cost; Cinepolis plans to charge an additional $3 per ticket. That means standard prices could put tickets around $20 a pop.

Meanwhile, a separate story, this time on The Huffington Post, alleged that the kid-friendly push reflects the increasing importance of the family audience as Hollywood studios spend heavily on animated productions.

Whatever the driver, I must admit: I’m intrigued by this development. I’ve seen five or six movies with our big girls over the years, and I’m always frustrated by their inability to sit still. (Heck, even when they watch movies at home, the two of them are jumping all over the living room.) While it might be awkward for certain audience members to have kids running and jumping on a playground during a movie, I’d argue that this sort of behavior is far LESS disruptive than kids bopping around in their seats.

The bottom line: I’m certainly willing to give it a try. And the next time we’re in LA, we will.

A new alternative to schlepping gear on family trips

Schleppers no more

Schleppers no more

Ask any family traveler to describe the most annoying part of traveling with kids and he or she will tell you quickly: schlepping the gear.

Between strollers, high chairs, and Pack-N-Plays, moms and dads often exert more energy carrying baby accessories than they do carrying the babies themselves. Trust me when I tell you this, people: I’ve had the sore shoulders to prove it.

This is where Babierge comes in. The Albuquerque, N.M.-based company rents unwieldy gear of all shapes and sizes to parents in 22 different U.S. markets. Prices usually range from $6 to about $15 per item per day. In many cases, the Babierge people will even pick up and drop off items, and (when applicable) set up items that might be too confusing.

I learned of this great company during a recent chat with a local mom. Two weeks later, after chatting with the company founder and the two women who run the Babierge outpost in the northern San Francisco Bay Area, I wrote up this Q&A for AFAR.com (one of my recurring clients).

What struck me about the interviews was the breadth and depth of thought that has gone into the Babierge product offerings. Not only does the company offer “typical” items such as high chairs and BOB jogging strollers, but it also offers “toy packages” and “book packages,” which essentially are small (and customizable!) collections of toys or books for those families who don’t want to have to worry about bringing that stuff when they travel, either.

These real-world options indicate clearly that real-life moms and dads are the people behind this company. In an age where entrepreneurs often do anything to make a buck, the authenticity is refreshing. For that reason alone, I’m happy to try out the service on our next trip.

TFW your kids are obsessed with Embassy Suites

My kids love this room

My kids love this room

We’ve stayed in some pretty nice hotels in our days of traveling as a family. Four Seasons properties. Ritz-Carltons. Fairmonts. Heck, we’ve even taken the kids to some pretty romantic five-star resorts here in Wine Country (looking at you, Carneros Inn and Meadowood).

But my girls like to keep it real. Their favorite hotel remains the Embassy Suites hotel near my inlaws’ house in Silicon Valley.

Among the things they like best about the hotel: The breakfast buffet, the indoor pool, and the fact that they can watch planes landing at San Francisco International Airport. We always (for some inexplicable reason) get handicapped-accessible rooms there, so both girls also sing the praises of the bathroom, which they describe as “super big” and “fun because of the handlebars on every wall.”

Lucky for the girls, we’re headed to their favorite hotel tomorrow night. For the third time this year.

This particular Embassy Suites has become our home away from home whenever we hang with my wife’s family. They live too far to drive there and back in the same night, and we’re now too large of a pod to crash at my inlaws’ downsized apartment.

Naturally, we’re headed down for Christmas Day. It will be the second Christmas Day we’ve checked into the good old “E.S.,” as we call it.

My wife and I like the room for its efficiency. The living area has a sofa bed and a drawing table for the kids to use when they wake up at 5:30 a.m. and we do not. There’s a mini-fridge and a microwave. The bedroom has one king bed. Pretty much everything we need for an overnight.

Our routine is simple. I drop off Powerwoman and the girls, then double back to check us in, make the fold-out bed for the big kids, and get all of the bathroom supplies ready for a lightning-fast pre-bed ritual. This way, when we get back to the hotel at 11 p.m., all we have to do is get the kids upstairs and they can crash out.

Is the Embassy Suites fancy? Not by a long shot. Is it cheap? Compared to other hotels, not really—we book on Expedia and it usually runs about $249 per night. But this particular property works for us. So when we visit family in the southern part of the Bay Area, we’re sticking with it. And if you travel regularly to see family members (or for the holidays), I encourage you to find a hotel you like and do the same.

Three’s a charm for family travel coverage

Disco-dancing in Yosemite

Disco-dancing in Yosemite

Our not-so-little-anymore pod got some nice ink this week, with three separate family travel stories in two different outlets.

The first of the stories, a service piece, appeared in our local metro daily, The (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Press-Democrat, and spotlighted 10 tips for easier holiday travel with the kids. In addition to the tips themselves, the story included six pictures of the girls from various adventures over the last few years. Oh, and if you can think of any tips that I left out, please share them in the comment field.

The second and third of the stories, both of which appeared on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, comprised photos (and related captions) from our multigenerational trip to Yosemite National Park this spring.

To read the better of the two Expedia stories, click here.

For more pieces like these three, please stay tuned. Over the next few months I’ll have family travel articles in Family Fun magazine, USA Today’s Go Escape, the Expedia Viewfinder, Alaska Beyond magazine (that’s the in-flight for Alaska), and others.

Best site-tour buddies ever

Checking out Timber Cove

Checking out Timber Cove

Sometimes as a work-at-home parent I’m forced to take my kids with me on professional outings. This explains why I schlepped my 5-year-old and 1-year-old assistants with me this week on a pair of hotel site tours.

Considering these types of activities usually involve wandering around hotel rooms, interviewing general managers, and taking lots of notes, I’d say R and G handled the experience like rock stars.

They also had a bunch of fun.

The first of the tours, at Timber Cove, was more subdued. G crawled around on the lobby floor while R marveled at the crackling fireplace and I chatted with the manager. Later, as we poked around to look at rooms, R took on the job of explorer, and scouted out every feature of every room we entered.

(Her favorites were the loft suites, which feature spiral staircases from the living space to the bedroom; and the oceanfront suites with patios that look out on the raging Pacific.)

There were valuable lessons learned, too. Like when R tossed a half-eaten apple into an empty garbage pail, only to learn the pail was empty because housekeeping already had cleaned the room for its next guests. And when yours truly discovered that yes, in fact, the baby does really like eating toilet paper.

In all, Timber Cove received the Wandering Pod stamp of approval: R asked when we could go back.

The second tour was actually an opening—I dragged the girls (with G in a stroller, no less) to the fancypants ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new resort hotel at Graton Rancheria Casino. Yes, people, you read that right. I’m a 41-year-old father of three, and I took my two younger children to a hotel opening at a casino.

While this particular property was infinitely swankier than the first, the tour itself was far less interactive. The three of us followed a crowd of people to the elevator bank, got on, wandered up to the eighth floor, toured some rooms, then came back down.

Excitement reached a crescendo when we did a walkthrough of the spa and R attempted to dip her feet in the hot tub, then surged again when she poured herself a cup full of snack mix in the lounge area.

I also loved our impromptu chow-down in the lobby bar, during which the three of us grabbed a table in the middle of a room full of casino executives, R ate the aforementioned snack mix, and G wolfed down two pouches from Plum Organics.

Perhaps the highpoint of this experience occurred as we made our way to the exit. One of the servers waltzed by with a tray of taquitos and R decided to give it a try. She loved them. A lot. In fact, my kid liked the taquitos so much that she proceeded to grab a dozen of them, plop cross-legged on the lobby floor and stuff her face right in the middle of the event.

You can picture the scene: A 5-year-old girl, eating taquitos on the lobby floor of a brand-new casino resort hotel. It was classic. It was epic. I don’t ever want to do a site tour without my kids again.

The ultimate LEGO party at Legoland California

R building her lighthouse

R building her lighthouse

If you like LEGOs, Legoland California, in Southern California, is pretty much heaven. LEGOs are everywhere. LEGO sculptures. LEGOs with which you can build. Giant LEGOs for little kids. Even humans dressed to look like characters from LEGO sets. Seriously.

Because my big kids are obsessed with LEGOs these days, I’d been meaning to take them to Legoland for a while. This past weekend, we finally made the trip.

We landed in San Diego late Friday, drove a rental car up to Carlsbad, and checked into our Kingdom-themed room at the Legoland Resort Hotel. We spent the entire day Saturday inside the park, going on rides, spending way too much money on games and food, splashing around in the water park with friends, and eating LOTS of ice cream. Sunday, after sleeping in, the girls and I stopped in Cardiff-by-the-Sea for donuts, then made our way back to the airport and eventually flew home.

One might expect that the highpoint of this trip was one particular ride or one specific water feature in the water park.

The reality: The best part was a LEGO-building party back in the hotel room Saturday night.

I’m not the only one who thinks so; both L and Little R agree, too. The three of us stayed up until close to midnight building the girls’ new LEGO sets, and that was the most fulfilling time the three of us spent together all weekend.

We loved this part of the trip for a number of reasons. First, the girls only were going to receive their new LEGO sets if they made good choices about how they behaved, so the sets represented a bit of a reward. Second, the sets themselves were super cool—L got a plane and R got a lighthouse. Third, the girls were stoked about the building party because they got to stay up late; I suspended normal bedtime for the sake of togetherness and everybody appreciated the change. The fourth and final reason: We got to build together, something that doesn’t typically happen when we all are at home and their baby sister is crawling around.

What I took away from this experience was a simple lesson I’ve learned in different ways countless times before: Often on family trips, the little things matter most.

Sure, the kids loved being inside the park. And yes, they really enjoyed the water attractions. But the combination of undivided attention from dad and a night without bedtime was MAJORLY AWESOME. Because it was so different.

Looking forward, I’d like to think this experience will change my approach with the big kids on trips. Undoubtedly I can be more lenient about bedtimes every now and again. And ultimately, I’d like to get back to a place where undivided attention from dad *isn’t* unusual. Now that I know these simple tweaks make my kids happy, I’ll do my best to replicate them again and again.

Cat heaven in Hawaii

Lana'i Cat Sanctuary, as shot by L

Lana’i Cat Sanctuary, as shot by L

If you asked my big girls to describe the attributes of their personal heavens, each would cite unlimited French fries and hundreds of playful cats. While Powerwoman and I haven’t been able to deliver on the French fries yet, we did find a spot that blew their cat-loving dreams.

The place: the Lanai Cat Sanctuary on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai.

At the suggestion of the concierge at Four Seasons Lanai, we visited earlier today. There were 495 cats. Running freely in an open-air 25,000-square-foot enclosure. For the girls, it was like Cat Christmas.

The place is quite a story—one I’ll tell in a variety of written and video pieces over the next few weeks. To summarize, it basically is a glorified animal shelter, it’s free to visit, and, if you love cats, is AWESOME. The Executive Director, a kind and gentle man named Keoni Vaughn, refers to the place as the Furr Seasons (a riff on Four Seasons, get it?). And for cats, it really is luxurious.

Dozens of different cat boxes. Dozens of grass patches in which to play. Trees to climb. Pipes in which to hide. Endless amounts of food and water. And because the place is open to the public, constant love.

Vaughn told me that about half of the animals there were feral cats rescued from the wilds of the island to relieve the threat to native birds. The other half of the animals had been abandoned by owners over the years. All of the kitties are happy. And just about all of them are available for adoption.

We didn’t adopt a cat yesterday but we all wanted to. Instead, the girls spent the better part of two hours petting and loving and kissing and feeding and chasing and playing with the cats. Every time I thought the girls were tiring, they’d perk up and move on to another cat. All they talked about for the rest of the day: Cats, cats, cats.

Below are a few images from our time at the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. As I noted, I’ll be creating some other content about the experience over the next few weeks. I’ll share it here as it’s published.

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UPDATE: One of my clients, AFAR, has published a story (by moi, of course) about our time at the Sanctuary. You can read the piece here. For even more Lana’i kitty goodness, check out the video I produced for AFAR…

4 reasons to love New York City playgrounds

The view from West Thames

The view from West Thames

I spent five years living in New York City, and never had any idea how many kick-ass playgrounds were there until I visited last month with kids. We were there for six days in all, visited eight playgrounds, and researched about a dozen more. Here are four things I enjoyed and appreciated about the playgrounds we experienced, and about the new perspective on NYC they helped me achieve.

Water features

Most of the playgrounds we visited (and many of the playgrounds we didn’t visit) boast some sort of water features—free and public ways to cool off. Many of these features were glorified sprinklers that shot water from the ground and invited kids to run through the spray. At the West Thames Park Playground in Battery Park City, my girls and some family friends spent the better part of an entire afternoon running through the water feature. It never got old – even after they all soaked through their clothes.

Varied structures

Modern playgrounds can all look alike: Metal bars, plastic spheroid connectors, triangle trees, etc. While New York City certainly had its fair share of playgrounds with this design, there also were dozens of other set-ups. One of our favorites, the Diana Ross Playground in Central Park, was an old-school wooden playground with beams and bridges and more. I’ve read the playground was built with money Diana Ross donated to the park after a concert there in 1983. Yes, this means the park is old, but the setup still works—proving nicer and newer isn’t always better.

Enclosures

Here in California, playgrounds are open to all—usually the only fenced-in parts are the portions designated for super-little kids. In New York City, all of the playgrounds had fences lining the perimeter. One of the playgrounds that seemed to do this best was the Hippo Playground in Riverside Park, on Manhattan’s West Side. This design is a great way to limit coming and going. It’s also a wonderful safety feature; as a parent, you can rest assured that if you’ve got eyes on the only exit, your kid isn’t going anywhere without you knowing about it.

Shade

Just about all of the playgrounds we visited in New York City offered some degree of shade. In some cases, like at West Thames, shade came in the form of a manmade shade structure, built like a canopy over the play structures. At Washington Market Park in Tribeca (arguably THE BEST playground we hit during our visit because it had the most varied play structures), trees provided shade throughout. This playground also had clean bathrooms, an added bonus for when the big kids realized they’d forgotten to go back at the hotel.

Since we’ve come home, every time my kids have looked back on their experience in the Big Apple, the playgrounds are right up there with black-and-white cookies, pizza, and walking around at night as their favorite parts of the trip. That means the playgrounds enhanced the visit for all of us. Which is good news for everyone involved.

What’s your favorite playground city and why?

The most family friendly hotel amenity on Earth

The covers.

The covers.

We’ve just returned from our three-day/two-night family getaway at the Fairmont San Francisco, and as far as family trips go, it was one of the best in recent memory. I’ll get to specifics over the next few days. In the meantime, I felt compelled to write a post about one particular aspect of our stay: The outlet covers hotel housekeepers left in our room.

I know what you’re thinking: OUTLET COVERS? WTF? But for those of us who travel with babies that shimmy and crawl around and stick their fingers into everything, these little plastic discs are a necessity.

To be honest, Powerwoman and I have traveled with four or five of these things on every trip since L was a baby. We bring them with us because we’ve never found a hotel that has them available upon request. Until this weekend.

But what made the Fairmont’s outlet covers even more spectacular was the fact that they left them for us WITHOUT REQUEST. Like, they just anticipated we’d need ‘em. Because we were visiting with a baby. It was as if the housekeeping staff crawled into my little brain and asked me what they could do to make the stay more comfortable.

The covers weren’t the only presents/amenities we received from the hotel staff; upon check-in we found a cornucopia of little bonuses. Among them: a diaper genie, a package of wipes, a kit of baby soaps with a little otter washcloth, plush stuffed animals, and coloring books.

The bulk of these goodies made all of us feel extra-welcome; the outlet covers made us feel extra-safe. It all combined to make this a trip for the ages. Thanks, Fairmont!

Dividing and conquering a San Francisco staycation

Our suite (but not us)

Our suite (but not us)

Most of the time, we Villanos prefer to travel as a complete pod—all for one and one for all, wherever our wanderlust (or my assignment) takes us.

Sometimes, however, we also like to try out different permutations of our family for particular trips.

I did this earlier this month (click here and here) on a weekend in San Francisco with L and R. We’ll be doing it again this coming weekend—only this time L will be with her grandparents and my partners in crime will be Powerwoman, R, and Baby G.

Our plan is simple. We’ll crash at the fabulous Napoleon Suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, one of my favorite family-friendly hotels in town. We’ll ride the cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I have to report a story. We’ll meet up with my sister- and brother-in-law for dinner in North Beach. We’ll Uber over to the recently re-opened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I have to report another (and completely unrelated) story. At some point we’ll grab drinks at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, the iconic hotel-pool-turned-tiki-bar (where it “rains” periodically throughout each night). For the rest of the time, we’ll just hang.

R says she’ll be happy so long as she can have a milkshake every day. G is always happy. As for my wife and me, well, we notched our 12th wedding anniversary this week, so I guarantee we’ll make some time to celebrate that.

While I’m sure we’ll miss L (she’s often the person in our family around whom the action gravitates), it will be fun to experience the dynamic of our two younger daughters on the road; since G was born in November, the two of them haven’t been away together. As always, it also will be a treat to expose our kids to different parts of their “hometown” city.

The more they get to know San Francisco, the more they love it, and the more they love urban life in general. This is just another part of their education. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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