Embracing a new travel plan

Self portrait by the Big Girl

I’ve made no secret over the years about the fact that our biggest girl, L, struggles with anxiety issues from time to time.

Some weeks, this has no bearing whatsoever on our lives as a family of five. Other weeks, it means our individual and collective lives are characterized by aggressive behavior, wild mood swings, lousy attitude, and more.

As you can imagine, enduring these tough times on the road can be a real struggle for everyone involved. This is why we recently sat down with our (regular) family behavioral therapist to come up with a strategy for navigating any potential behavioral hiccups during our upcoming family trip to Disneyland this weekend.

The therapist worked with us to devise what she calls a “Travel Plan” for the trip. Basically, this document—and it is a physical, typed-out document—serves as a playbook that establishes ground rules and sets expectations for everyone.

The plan lists everything from specific meal times and bed times to time-out consequences for temper tantrums or what to do if someone falls ill (answer: GO BACK TO HOTEL WITH A PARENT).

Our document even has space to list out a specific itinerary for the two full days we’ll be in the park.

As our therapist explained it, Powerwoman and I are supposed to work together to fill out this itinerary on the nights before our park days, then spend five or 10 minutes on the mornings of our park days reviewing the plan with the girls. The goal: To eliminate surprises and potentially challenging transitions for our Big Girl.

If you’re reading this and you think, “That sounds completely NOT spontaneous,” you’re right. And that’s exactly the point.

You see when you travel with kids who experience anxiety, you want to eliminate as much of the unknown as you possibly can. Naturally, when you’re traveling, it’s impossible to manage EVERYTHING. But we *can* manage what we can manage. So we try.

Will it work? Will the plan make a difference? Only time will tell. It’s a good sign that everybody—including L—is excited to use it. This might just be the first trip of the rest of our lives. Wish us luck.

Walking like a pro

Conquering the plaza

Conquering the plaza

The big news from our world over the last few weeks is that Powerwoman and I now are the proud parents of three fully ambulatory human beings.

Allow me to translate that for you: Baby G is walking up a storm.

The littlest Villano isn’t just meandering here and there. Instead, girl is marching with purpose, often leaving her sisters and me in the dust. In practice, this can be difficult to manage, as the baby is always a few steps ahead of us old fogies. In theory, however, it’s a harbinger of great times to come, since we clearly have added a third adventuresome daughter to the mix.

Our new status as a family with three ambulating kids means our travel experiences will be completely different from here on out. Less stroller time. Less backpack time. More time with everyone on foot.

So far—thankfully, I might add—the big girls have taken to keeping tabs on their little sister, often holding G’s hands when we’re out and about. When the big sisters aren’t around to hold the baby’s hands, Powerwoman and I happily oblige.

It will be interesting to see how these trends continue on our next big trip: Disneyland. Will L and R take the time to look after their sister at a theme park? Will G be overwhelmed by the rides and crowds and not want to walk around on her own? These all are questions we’ll be able to resolve over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, Powerwoman and I fully intend simply to enjoy the ride.

G is still in that wonderful stage where walking is so new that everything she sees while she’s ambulating is amazing and great and wonderful. She could see the same stuff in a stroller and not care at all. On her own two feet, however, look out!

How did your kids’ ambulation change your family travels?

The ultimate vehicle for family road trips

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

My name is Matt Villano, and I drive a minivan. A Honda Odyssey, to be exact. And I’m proud of it.

I know what you’re thinking: WHAT A TOTAL LOSER. And you’re entitled to your opinion. The truth, however, is that I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK. What’s more, I actually kinda sorta love my new wheels. So there.

No, dear readers, minivans aren’t pretty. They’re not cool. Even after Toyota tried to brand its version as the “Swagger Wagon,” they’re not even remotely stylish. But I never was a form-over-function kind of guy. Minivans actually are the ultimate in function-over-form. And when you’ve got a wife and three kids and you take a lot of road trips, all you ever really care about is function, anyway.

Let me repeat that for you, just to make sure there’s no miscommunication here: MY NEW MINIVAN IS AWESOME FOR FAMILY TRAVEL.

Allow me to count the ways:

  1. It came with seats for eight human beings. EIGHT HUMAN BEINGS. That means our family of five has room to spread out. Hell, I took out the center seat in the second row to let L access the back of the van more easily and there’s still room for seven. (ICYW, no, we are not having more kids.)
  2. It has SEVEN cup holders (nine if you include the two that were part of the seat I removed). This means there are plenty of places for Powerwoman and me to put our coffees/water bottles, and plenty of places for L and R to store their plastic gems and other treasures they collect along the way.
  3. It has three-zone climate control. This rules because I doze off behind the wheel if I’m too cold. With this feature, the girls can be all warm and toasty (at different temperatures, mind you), and I can be chilling (literally) behind the wheel.
  4. Even with the third row of seats, there is ample trunk space. This is good news for our family, since the girls like to take a bunch of crap stuff when we road-trip.
  5. It has cool back-up and side-view cameras. I don’t really use these things, but they are great tools to call into action when L and R are melting down or fighting (or both). You can almost picture how this goes. HEY KIDS, STOP YELLING AT EACH OTHER AND CHECK OUT HOW COOL THE SHOULDER LOOKS THROUGH THE SIDE-VIEW CAMERA! It actually works!

These five faves barely scratch the surface. Another reason I love the new van is because it reminds me of the first car I ever had—oddly that also was a minivan, though I removed all but the third row of seats so I could make out with girls in high school and college. (Definitely another story for a different blog.)

Admittedly, our new van isn’t for everyone. Most people likely would have sprung for the model with the built-in TV screens in the back; we, because of our stance on screen time, did not. Most people in the Bay Area probably would have opted to spend a little extra money for an oversized SUV (such as the Chevy Tahoe or Suburban) with four-wheel drive; we, because we only go to the mountains once a winter, did not.

(Also, if you care about things such as gas mileage, the van’s is pretty terrible.)

Still, this vehicle is PERFECT for family road trips, and we intend to take it on a bunch. Already, in the van’s short life with us (we’ve had it for fewer than 1,000 miles to this point), we’ve taken it to the beach (60 minutes away), the city (75 minutes away), and the remote country (90 minutes away). Next spring, we’ll take it to Yosemite. Next summer, it might even make the drive to Disneyland.

In National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Griswolds called their lovable station wagon the Family Truckster. I think we’ll start calling ours the Family Vanster, or F.V., for short. Make fun of us all you want. We’ll be laughing from our comfortable ride all the way home.

What are some of your favorite vehicles for family travel?

Five reasons Legoland California is better than Disneyland for young kids

R, getting busy with blocks in Duplo Village.

R, getting busy with blocks in Duplo Village.

Let me start this post by stating that I love the Disneyland Resort. It’s iconic. It’s epic. And there’s nothing like it on Earth. Now it’s time for another truth: I *also* love Legoland California Resort. It’s creative. It’s interactive. And it appeals to the engineer in all of us.

The parks have a number of similarities. Both are in Southern California. Both are big attractions in the world of family travel. And both cost about the same (around $100 for each grownup for the day). Still, after a recent weekend visit with R to Legoland, I believe Legoland is better for young kids. Here are five reasons why.

It doesn’t feel too big
Technically, the Disneyland Resort is only slightly larger than Legoland—160 acres to 128 acres. On the ground, however, Legoland feels much smaller and more manageable than the iconic theme park to the north. I think a lot of this has to do with occupied space; I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but Disneyland is using almost every square inch of its area, but Legoland has plenty of room to grow. What’s more, everything at Legoland is relatively close together; we traipsed around the park for an entire day and neither R nor I felt like we had walked very far at all.

It’s interactive
It’s no secret that kids love hands-on activities. This is one of the things that make Legos (and Duplos, for that matter) such a great toy—kids can build whatever they want, knock it down and build something entirely different. It also is why playgrounds are so popular among the 5-and-under set. At Disneyland, one of the only places young kids can do this sort of thing is at Mickey’s Toontown. At Legoland, however, the entire park is interactive. Playgrounds abound (R’s favorites were the Hideaways and Duplo Village), and just about every one of the park areas boasts places where kids can build with Legos.

It has mastered the line
Nobody likes waiting in queues—not grownups, not teenagers, and certainly not little ones. At Disneyland, even with the FASTPASS service, standing on line can be a total downer, especially when your kids (or you) are hot or tired or both. Legoland’s solution: Legos, of course. Lines for many of the most popular attractions snake around special covered areas where kids can build with Legos while their parents or guardians walk the queue. Kids can then join their grownups right before the group is ready to board the ride. R appreciated this option tremendously. Since I didn’t have to deal with whining, I did too.

It has legitimately healthy food
One of my pet peeves about Disneyland is that it is legitimately challenging to find healthy food inside the park. I’m not talking salads and apple slices, here. I’m talking snackable vegetables, meatless options, gluten-free dishes, stuff like that. LEGOLAND has this in spades. I was blown away by some of the options at the Garden Restaurant, the in-park restaurant where we had lunch during our visit. Perhaps the most impressive choice: The caprese panini, with whole mozzarella, fresh basil, pesto, tomatoes. Our traveling companions, who are vegetarians, order this every time.

There are places for downtime
Downtime is a critical part of every day in the Villano family. Our kids spend most of their waking hours moving at warp speed, so we make sure the girls have anywhere from 45-60 minutes of quiet time daily. When were on vacation, this becomes a challenging proposition. When we’re at a place like Disneyland, unless we head back to the hotel room, it’s downright impossible. Legoland offered a variety of options for in-park downtime, including the Build and Test Room, where R spent a good hour just Lego-ing around. The downtime was good for me, as well. That means everybody won.

In conclusion, I want to make sure nobody misunderstands me here: I’m a fan of BOTH Disneyland AND Legoland. After experiencing both parks with my young girls, I just think Legoland is better for the little ones. This doesn’t mean we’re abandoning The Mouse. It just means we now will embrace an alternative, as well. You should, too.

What do you look for when you visit a theme park with young kids?

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?

 

Channeling family travel excitement

The book. By Mommy.

The book. By Mommy.

Ours is a house of artists. I use words to express myself; Powerwoman and our daughters use images. My wife and older daughter in particular turn to drawings and sketches when they wish to express deep and personal thoughts. This means pre-trip excitement often sparks a ton of art time.

Usually L is the queen of this handiwork, cranking out single sheets and books about the things she thinks we’ll experience on the road. (To R’s credit, she’s still working on the whole hold-a-marker-the-right-way trick.)

This week, however, my wife has run point.

The fruits of her labor: A book about our August trip to Walt Disney World. Because we’ve never been there as a family (we’ve only taken the girls to Disneyland), the girls have been pestering us about what it’s like and what they’ll see. Yes, we answer them when they ask. But to sweeten the storyline, Powerwoman started a book (quite literally) to illustrate our replies.

The first page of the book presents a map of Fantasyland, complete with images of the carousel and the iconic Cinderella Castle. A rough strategy for subsequent pages include a rendering of Arandelle (our girls, like all girls, are obsessed with Frozen), Epcot Theme Park, and more.

As of today, the expectations were for Powerwoman to create one new page a week. You better believe the girls intend to hold her to this schedule. The penalty: Incessant nagging.

In all seriousness, the book has been a huge hit. It’s also been a great inspiration—as if L and R weren’t excited already, the book (and discussion about it) has jump-started their interest in a big way. By the time August rolls around, the girls likely will be bursting at the seams for the conclusion of their pre-trip primer. I’m also looking forward to using it as a distraction tool on the six-hour plane ride to Orlando.

This whole process has taught us a valuable lesson: It’s never too early to get your children excited about upcoming family trips. Anything that sparks their imagination, anything that triggers and encourages excitement about travel, is worthwhile. Especially if it involves creativity, too.

How do you get your children excited for upcoming family trips?

%d bloggers like this: