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?

 

Family travel and the time-change

Time can be our friend. Except when we go "fall back."

Time can be our friend. Except when we go “fall back.”

Ask any parent and he or she will tell you that children + the whole “Spring Ahead, Fall Back” deal with changing clocks is a surefire way to necessitate a stiff drink.

Add travel into the mix and the ensuing reality can be downright hell on Earth.

For some reason, we always seem to travel on those weekends when we switch from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time and back again. This means that at least twice a year Powerwoman and I find ourselves in the unenviable situation of entertaining our children at 4 a.m. on a random Sunday in a place that’s not our home.

It happened again today.

Thankfully, instead of being in a hotel (where we’ve spent most of these weekends), we were staying with good friends (and their kids) south of San Francisco. This means we didn’t have to worry about our kids waking up other guests at the crack of dawn. Because they weren’t the only kids awake.

Our primary strategy this morning—and on most time-change mornings—was simple: To keep them busy.

This meant a steady stream of Barbies, memory games, coloring books, sticker books, stories, and more. It also meant a few sing-alongs, especially to some tracks from the new Taylor Swift album. FWIW, we never enlisted the help of a television or iPad.

Our secondary strategy was to work together.

Powerwoman and I traded “shifts” of 30 minutes apiece as the parent chaperone. When our friends woke up (around 5:30 a.m.), we worked them into the mix as well. (I admit, I passed out around 9 a.m. in mid-sentence. Thankfully our hosts are REALLY good friends who won’t judge me and likely will invite us back.)

We had other goals of the morning, including to stay patient when the kids didn’t listen, to get the children to eat their breakfasts, and to stop our two kids from hurting each other (which was inevitable).

Yes, the morning seemingly was interminable. And, yes, we administered three time-outs. Ultimately, however, we survived. Later in the day, we remembered one of the few positives of the day we change clocks BACK in fall: The kids were ready for bed by 6:30 p.m.

Parenting is all about small victories, right? We’ll take those wins wherever and whenever we can.

What are some of your strategies for helping kids get through seasonal clock changes?

Three strategies for mixing travel with homework

New school, new challenges on the road.

New school, new challenges on the road.

Now that L is a Kindergartner, she has Big Girl responsibilities such as homework. When we’re home, Powerwoman and I make it a priority to build the post-school afternoon hours around these tasks. When we’re away, however, working in her assignments can be a little trickier.

At this point, her “assignments” comprise practicing her letters, studying Spanish words and solving rudimentary math problems on a program called iXL. Still, in terms of logistics, getting the kid to do this homework can be difficult, especially when we’re in a new place and/or a fancy hotel and she’d rather be exploring/lounging/playing with her sister/gorging on room service.

We’ve deployed a trio of tactics to keep homework a priority.

  1. Sticking to a schedule. By far, the most successful way to prioritize homework on the road has been to write it in to a schedule—literally. When we travel, we sit down with L to come up with a schedule, write down our plan, and post the resulting calendar on the wall for L to see. Her kindergarten teacher does this every day in class, so she’s used to it. What’s more, if ever she (or one of the rest of us) deviates from the schedule, it’s easy to refer to the plan and get back on track.
  2. Bring it with. Especially on road trips—or when I’m reporting a story—it can be difficult to stick to a plan. On these occasions, we tend to be a bit more flexible with homework time, and allow L to do her work on the go. Sometimes this means impromptu stops at Starbucks and other coffee shops for 30 minutes of math practice. Other times it means some time on a blanket in a park. While this strategy is not optimal (there always are distractions when we’re out and about), it’s better than nothing.
  3. Clustering. The third strategy we’ve implemented to mix travel and homework has been to cluster busy work into multi-hour sessions at the front or back ends of a trip.  The benefit to this approach: We don’t have to scramble to get L homework time every day. The downside: Sometimes (especially with writing, for some reason), it can be hard to get her to focus for more than 45 minutes at a time.

Because L only has been in kindergarten for something like 50 days, I’m guessing this is just the beginning of our efforts to try and match homework and family travel. The bottom line: Both remain a priority for us, and we’ll continue to try new strategies as she gets older (and as we travel more during the school year). If you’ve got additional suggestions, we’re all ears.

What are some of your techniques to get your kids to do homework while traveling?

The best road trip snack ever

Mmmmm, GORP.

Mmmmm, GORP.

Today we celebrate a Wandering Pod first: A recipe for a treat that will be a hit with even the most reluctant child travelers.

The treat, of course, is trail mix. We’re big fans of the stuff in this house—a vestige of my pre-fatherhood life as a serious backcountry hiker and camper. We eat it as frequently as we can, and I try to cook up a special new batch of GORP (or GORP-inspired goodness) in advance of every one of our family road trips.

This past weekend, when we traveled into San Francisco to celebrate R’s third birthday, I outdid myself with what the girls are calling The Best Road-Trip Trail Mix Ever. Ingredients for this magic snack were simple: Dry-roasted and salted cashews, raw (and unsalted) almonds, Pepperidge Farm whole-grain goldfish crackers, and M&Ms.

If your kids like raisins, I suppose you can add those, too. And sunflower seeds. Without the shells.

Measurements for this kind of treat are totally dependent on what your kids like best; in our family, a 1:1 ratio of goldfish to M&Ms is key, and the nuts are almost secondary. You don’t want to make too much of the snack, because the goldfish go stale after about a week. I suggest storing it in a gallon-size Ziploc bag.

Oh, and to serve this treat, I like to portion out a half-cup for each girl and give it to them in their own travel cups (with lids).

What’s your go-to recipe for homemade road-trip snacks? What’s your personal mom/dad secret for trail mix?

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?

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?

The best hotel-room diversion of all time

The morning ritual.

The morning ritual.

We just got home from a week in Hawaii—a week that included some early mornings in some pretty fabulous family-friendly hotels (including this one).

We could have passed the time by having the girls draw or paint or play dress-up. Technically, I guess we also could have let them watch TV (though that’s not our style). Instead, we put them in a position to entertain themselves with another diversion: Perler beads.

If you’re not familiar with Perler beads, they’re fusible plastic beads, each about the size of a chocolate chip. You can do a whole bunch of things with the beads—such as string them and weave them and melt them. We usually go for the third option; the girls arrange beads in particular patterns on a variety of different peg-boards, and when the arrangements are finished, we (parents) melt the beads together with a clothes iron (and wax paper in between).

The iron is what makes Perlers such a fun activity for hotels; every hotel room in America has one, and it’s totally free to use. We rolled into Hawaii with 3,000 beads and six peg boards in different shapes. We rolled out of Hawaii with a few hundred beads and more than two dozen original creations in various forms.

It doesn’t really matter what we do with the finished products (though most of them likely will end up as Christmas tree ornaments); what matters is the fun we all have while making them.

L took her designs incredibly seriously, inventing elaborate patterns every time. R crafted hers with more whimsy, frequently spilling her designs back into the master (gallon-sized) Ziploc to start again. In case you’re wondering, I’m big into color-blocking mine. And Powerwoman really likes symmetry.

As a family, we Villanos became so obsessed that Perlers became a morning ritual—the kids would wake up, Powerwoman and I would set them up with Perlers, and the three or four of us would create designs until breakfast (and sometimes beyond). We couldn’t go to the beach until each of us had made a design. And we couldn’t eat lunch until my wife or I had ironed the creations to make them whole.

Trust me: If your kids like art, try the Perlers. You’ll be surprised how addicting and engaging they are.

What are your go-to hotel-room diversions on a family vacation?

Pool safety during summer family travel

The pool at Aulani, one of our favorite resorts.

The pool at Aulani, one of our favorite resorts.

It’s no secret that summer is prime time for family vacations, and many wandering pods build their trips around resort hotels with pools. This makes pool safety an important part of the family travel experience. Sure, many resorts employ their own lifeguards to keep visitors from putting themselves in danger. Still, the responsibility to keep kids safe falls almost squarely on us moms and dads.

To get a better idea of how parents can promote pool safety when they travel with kids, I chatted recently with Dr. Kristie Rivers, a Bundoo pediatrician who also serves assistant medical director of the pediatric hospitalist program at Chris Evert Children’s Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Rivers specializes in child safety. Here are some of her most salient tips.

The resort is not responsible for your kids. “As parents you have to always be on guard, whether you’re at home or at a water park or public pool,” Rivers says. She notes that just because a lifeguard is present doesn’t mean your kids will avoid injury.

No running. “Those signs are up for a reason—running around pools usually leads to slipping, and slipping can create all sorts of injuries,” says Rivers. “I tell my own kids that when they’re near a pool they need to walk at all times. That way it is second nature, and they’re never tempted to do anything else.”

Be aware. Rivers notes that it’s critical for every family to establish pool rules and enforce them without fail. “No playing around the drains—if a child’s hair gets caught, that child could drown,” she says. Rivers advises that families should prohibit breath-holding games, and only should allow children to jump or dive into deep ends (with at least 5 feet of water), provided they know how to swim.

Avoid the ickies. “Parents may not realize that the chlorine in a pool doesn’t kill germs instantly,” Rivers says. “E. coli, norovirus, and giardia all can be found in pool water that’s heavily chlorinated, and if kids swallow even just a little bit of the water that’s contaminated, they can get sick.” She also adds that the potential germs carried by diarrhea in resort pools can be just as problematic, and recommends that if parents or children see “floaters,” they should report them to a lifeguard or other staff member immediately. “If your child has had diarrhea at any point in the last two weeks, he or she should not go into a pool,” she declares.

Mind the nappies. There’s a reason diaper companies make swimmy diapers—regular diapers aren’t designed to hold in poop and pee when they get wet. Rivers notes that parents ALWAYS should put their children in swimmy diapers, even if it means making a special trip to the store to buy them. “It’s common courtesy,” she quips. “Even babies can spread germs.” She adds that parents should check swimmy diapers every 30-60 minutes, and change them immediately when the diapers become soiled.

Practice sun safety. Even the sunscreens that say they’re waterproof really aren’t. The lesson, according to Rivers, is to reapply on the kids every hour. “Once you reapply, give the sunscreen a few minutes to work,” she says. “The last thing you want is to be diligent about reapplying, then have it all come off because you didn’t follow simple instructions on the bottle.”

Just say ‘no’ to floaties. Here’s a shocker: the American Association of Pediatrics does not recommend floaties for your kids. “Floaties give them a false sense of buoyancy,” explains Rivers. “Also, they can deflate without warning and might put your child in danger.” She notes that floaties even can lull parents into a false sense of security. To avoid this, just say no.

Regulate temperature. Believe it or not, pools often are not warm enough for infants. In fact, Rivers says that infants under six months old probably shouldn’t be in the pool for more than ten minutes at a time. “It sounds crazy, but they could develop hypothermia,” she reveals.  “At the first sign of shivering, get your baby out of the water right away and wrap him up in a warm towel.”

Five signs of a kid-friendly hotel

Our Big Girl tries her hand(s) at foosball.

Our Big Girl tries her hand(s) at foosball.

We have stayed at dozens of kid-friendly hotels over the years, but I’m not sure any of them has been as fun for kids as the place we stayed during our recent family trip: The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

Yes, this is a luxury hotel. Yes, the rooms are uber-fancy. And, yes, if you’re traveling on a budget, it might be out of your price range (though off-season and shoulder-season rates are more affordable than you might think). But, to be blunt, the hotel is PERFECT for traveling families. Here are five reasons why.

Games galore
I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of games we played at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. All of them belonged to the resort. Outside, next to the expansive pool area, the four of us spent copious amounts of time trying out the bocce court, two cornhole courts, oversized Jenga blocks (which the girls used to build castles), and Ladder Toss (with which I am now obsessed). Out near a small lawn, there also was a giant tub of Frisbees (for the Frisbee golf course), badminton equipment and soccer balls. Inside, when R napped, L and I raided the arcade, which had two grabby-claw games, two pinball machines, foosball (which both kids tried and disliked), air hockey (which L tried and LOVED and really was good at) and a variation on Pop-A-Shot (for the record, I notched a 229, which apparently was the second-highest score ever. #notsohumblebrag).

Ongoing kid activities
In addition to these at-your-leisure games, the resort offered a handful of organized games, too. One of our favorites: “Where is the Bear?” The rules of this game were pretty simple. Every morning, members of the hotel’s concierge staff hid a stuffed bear in secret places throughout the Living Room (which is what they call the upstairs lobby). Our objective: To find it. We spent three days trying to find that sucker, but we came up empty every time. Apparently, if L or R *had* spotted the furry little dude, they would have received prizes. Thankfully, for them, the fun of searching endlessly (and screaming, “Where are you, Bear?!?!”) was prize enough. Naturally, the other ongoing kid-oriented program that my little sweet-tooths loved was the daily “Marshmology,” during which hotel staffers doled out house-made marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate bars and graham crackers for guests (of all ages) to make s’mores. On our first day, both kids burned their marshmallows. By our last day, they had perfected the science of getting those buggers golden brown.

Child-specific amenities
It would be easy for a hotel like The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe to take itself too seriously—during ski season, this is one of the swankiest resorts in the entire area. The reality, however, is that a handful of amenities kept the atmosphere light and welcoming for little ones. I’ve blogged previously about the “Just for Kids Indoor Campout” through which kids can spend their stays in indoor tents. We signed up for this program and the girls LOVED it—so much so that they have requested weekly “tent nights” here at home. The girls also enjoyed the Ritz Kids program; though we didn’t sign up for any of the guided programs designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Future Society, we did duck inside the designated Ritz Kids clubhouse (next to the arcade) for some arts-and-crafts time. (Of course I also have blogged about how much L loved the excursion with Tahoe Star Tours, as well as about how much we all enjoyed the gem-panning attraction in Northstar Village.)

Kid-friendly restaurants
For me to describe a restaurant as welcoming to pint-sized customers, it must offer young diners a) special children’s menus and b) crayons and paper, and must bring orders quickly (so the natives don’t get restless). Many restaurants that self-identify as family-friendly come up short on at least one of these requirements. Thankfully, none of the eateries at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe disappointed us at all. All of the restaurants had unique (and healthy!) kids’ menus. All of the restaurants offered crayons. And all of the restaurants brought food to L and R quickly. On the night we took the girls to Manzanita, the hotel’s fancy eatery, the wait staff was so attentive that the girls lasted a whopping 90 minutes at the table (trust me, this is unprecedented). Still, our favorite on-site restaurant was the Backyard Bar & BBQ, which served up kid-friendly dishes such as cheese pizza, hot dogs and cornbread, and afforded us the chance to sit outside and watch clouds as we ate.

Customer service
Let’s be frank: Sometimes it’s not easy dealing with customers under the age of 6. They can be fussy. They’re often impolite. And even the most neurotic of them leave a trail of messes. For all of these reasons, I’m always aware of how rank-and-file employees at hotels treat me and my kids. And, on this point, the people at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe simply blew me away. Bellmen quizzed the girls about stuff we saw on our daily hikes. The concierge playfully teased them about their inability to find that bear. Perhaps the most notable interactions we had with a staff member were the morning visits with Jennifer, the woman who delivered our room-service breakfast every day of our stay. The girls informed her of their fairy names for each day. Jennifer, in turn, regaled them with stories about her daughter, who apparently had just graduated high school. When we checked out, we found two gift bags behind the front desk with a card from Jennifer. For that kindness alone, we most definitely will be back.

What are some of the amenities you look for in a kid-friendly hotel?

Downsizing what you pack on family trips

Building fairy houses on the road.

Building fairy houses on the road.

I was inspired earlier this week when I read a post by my writer friend and family travel buddy, Julie Schwietert Collazo, about how to stop packing “so much crap” when you travel with kids. The story, which Julie published Monday, prefaced a trip she and her family were taking this weekend. The gist of the piece: Among family travelers, downsizing what you bring on trips always is a good thing.

I’ve got many favorite lines from the piece, but this, by far, is tops: “Your kids don’t need all the things you think they need. Children are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. In fact, they are far more resourceful than you are. For them, anything can be turned into a toy.”

In our family, we’ve proved this very sentiment countless times. Just this week, in fact, during stops on two of three local road trips, L’s used twigs and tree leaves to build “fairy houses.”

Beyond this advice, I *love* Julie’s recommendation for subjecting all of the kids’ items to a “wants” and “needs” test. This is something we do before every trip as well—down to laying everything on a bed and evaluating the items individually. Our needs: a few basic outfits, a streamlined toiletries bag, a box of crayons and some paper. Our wants: Extra princess dresses, travel board games, maybe some bubbles.

As Julie suggests, it also is a good idea to prioritize packing items that serve multiple functions and require minimal management. Julie’s best example is an all-purpose sarong. Our fave: The Kindle Fire HD, which currently has about 100 kids’ books (we used to schlep the old-fashioned kind everywhere).

In addition to these great suggestions, we have some other tips to share—secondary recommendations for downsizing the stuff you bring on family trips:

  • Bring sponge and tiny squirt-bottle of dishwashing detergent. This enables you to leave multiple cups and snack containers at home. If you’ve got a little little one, this setup also is a great way to clean pacifiers (and minimize the number of pacifiers you bring in the first place).
  • Embrace the glue stick. Having this little sucker will allow you to leave at least half of your child’s coloring implements at home. It also will allow your child to make artwork that incorporates items and objects from real life. (Such as leaves. And twigs. And local currency.)
  • Give each child the opportunity to bring three small personal items. This process teaches them how to be selective. It also gives them the opportunity to feel like they have an important say in how the packing experience plays out.

Finally—and Julie suggests this, too—consider packing only backpacks instead of roller bags. This strategy minimizes the Sherpa-shlep for us dads, and allows for freer movement around airports. It also eliminates those inevitable moments where we parents accidentally roll over our kids’ feet. Traveling is challenging enough on its own; the last thing we need as mom or dad is to spark an unnecessary meltdown.

What are your tips for downsizing the stuff you bring on family trips?

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