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.

MacGyver meets family travel

There will be other posts about my weekend getaway with the big girls to Legoland and Southern California. Posts about how grown-up these kids have gotten, posts about Post-It notes in bathrooms, and posts about how the best part of our vacation involved a night in the hotel.

For now, however, mere hours after we’ve gotten home, I leave you with this demonstration of how I MacGyvered our trip:

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You know MacGyver, that fictional character (who headlined a television show of the same name) who could fashion something useful out of just about anything? He would have been proud of the degree to which I kicked ass Friday as we arrived at San Francisco International Airport for our journey to San Diego and beyond.

As we unloaded the car (backpacks for the girls, a backpack for me, and a small duffel bag), I realized I needed to bring their booster seats for the rental car. The seats were within our carry-on allotment (we had purchased three tickets; the girls’ backpacks fit under the seats in front of them), but the girls refused to carry them through the terminal. Instead of fighting with the kids, I furiously searched through my back for something to lash them together. I found three hair ties. That was all I’d need.

In a matter of moments, I had fashioned the hair ties into a carrying handle. The handle did the job—both to and fro.

A total MacGyvering.

I’ve railed on these pages (and elsewhere) about the idiocy of the mean-spirited #CarryOnShame campaign that encourages travelers to shame other travelers when it appears people are violating airline carry-on policies. If one of those people had seen me schlepping the seats around the airport, undoubtedly they would have snapped a pic and shamed me.

In the end, however, my MacGyver move was both ingenious and totally in accordance with the rules. #CarryonShame, my ass.

Villanos take Legoland, part 2

Hotel lobby. Seriously.

Hotel lobby. Seriously.

One of the coolest things about my job as a family travel writer is that I get to take my kids along on some pretty kick-ass assignments.

Case in point: Our trip this coming weekend, to LEGOLAND California.

You might recall that this isn’t the first time I’ve taken one of my daughters to Legoland; back in December 2014, Little R and I went for a similar weekend excursion/assignment. This time, I’m taking R and L—just the big kids and me—while Powerwoman and Baby G go to visit one of my wife’s buddies in Denver.

R is most excited for the airplane trip; she loves airplanes and cannot wait to fly again. L is excited to see what she missed last time.

We’ll really only be in the park for one day. During that time, we’ll check out some of the new attractions, film some social media projects for a client, report a feature for another client, and try to have some fun (which probably won’t be hard).

Over the rest of the weekend, we’ll also get to see my aunt and some cousins, and visit a bird sanctuary.

Perhaps the highpoint of the trip, however, will be our accommodations: We’re staying in the Legoland Hotel. This is noteworthy for a few reasons:

  1. There are LEGOs everywhere, including a LEGO pit near the front desk and LEGO kits in every room.
  2. Rooms come standard with bunk beds for kids, something my daughters are going to LOVE.
  3. A breakfast buffet is included, and my kids go crazy over those.
  4. The hotel is connected to the park itself, which means convenient returns for bathroom breaks and down time.

Stay tuned here for a blog post following our excursion; I’m not bringing a computer with us on the trip but likely will write about it as soon as we’re home. You also can follow me on Instagram and Twitter for updates there.

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?

An elevator your kids will talk about for years

Little R, enjoying Duplos inside the park.

Little R, enjoying Duplos inside the park.

Little R and I have been going through LEGO withdrawal all week this week, as we spent last weekend at Legoland California Resort and had an “awesome” time.

I’ll get to some of the details of our trip in a handful of pre-holiday posts next week. For now, I want to focus on the single best thing about our experience on site: The elevator at the LEGOLAND Hotel.

Yes, people, our favorite thing about the visit was an elevator.

This wasn’t just any old elevator. It was a Disco Elevator. With disco music that alternates depending on your destination. And flashing lights. And a disco ball. And a dance floor. Time and time again, every single person who asks R what she liked best about our visit, hears the same response: “The disco elevator.” It truly was THAT cool.

Every time we entered the elevator, it was playing standard elevator muzak—“The Girl from Ipanema” or some such smooth jazz. But when we pushed our button (we stayed on Floor No. 3) and the doors closed, the elevator transformed into a scene out of Saturday Night Live.

Lights went down. Disco music (or the LEGO theme song, “Everything is Awesome”) came on. A disco ball on the ceiling rotated. Laser spotlights zipped across the elevator walls.

It was impossible NOT to boogie to this scene; R and I obliged every time. (See YouTube video below.)

I know some might think this sort of gimmick is silly (or, worse yet, maddening). But as a dad who has ridden in countless elevators with his kids, I can tell you that the elevator made the simple (and often monotonous) experience of getting from the lobby to our room fun. And that set the tone for the rest of the trip.

My kid likely will be talking about the Disco Elevator for months. Yes, there were other things we liked at Legoland California. But that elevator was, without question, simply the best.

Turning family travel disaster into fun

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

You probably have heard a saying about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. As a family traveler, I embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly.

My commitment was put to the test today on what amounted to a 15-hour travel day to fly 600 miles after a weekend in SoCal (and Legoland California) with Little R. Yes, the day was exhausting. Yes, in the scheme of things, it was wildly irritating. But I learned some valuable lessons about being prepared, staying positive, and never letting the kiddos see you sweat—lessons that forever have changed the way I’ll approach parenting on a family trip.

So when our flight from San Diego to Santa Rosa circled the Santa Rosa airport nine times to wait out bad weather, I dug deep into my (literal) bag of tricks and gave R a brand new sheet of Melissa & Doug reusable stickers. And when R decided (and threw a tantrum because) the on-board toilet was too high for her to use, I simply reassured her that if she couldn’t hold it in and she wet her pants, I had a change of clothes ready to go.

(ICYW, she held it, then fell asleep.)

Later, when the pilot announced we were running out of fuel and needed to divert to Portland, Oregon, I made up a story about how our plane had been hand-selected by Queen Esmerelda to come and visit her kingdom of Portland and how this was a great honor bestowed only on the luckiest of passengers.

After we deplaned, when R started losing her bananas in the rebooking line, I handed her blank paper and crayons, and asked her to draw the gate agent a special thank-you card—a card that not only got her an entire sheet of (really awesome) Alaska Airlines stickers in return, but also made the gate agent smile (something I didn’t see the agent do very much in the 45 minutes of yelling she received from other passengers on our flight.)

Upon learning that we’d have to wait four hours in Portland, I told R that Queen Esmerelda sent us a credit for the gift shop, and allowed her to pick out $20 worth of toys (she got a stuffed pony, among other things).

I improvised in other ways during the wait, too:

  • When we happened upon an empty gate, we played football with my hat.
  • At another empty gate, we pretended to be airplanes and ran around in circles for a good 20 minutes.
  • Thanks to a Facebook tip from a friend, we took the moving sidewalks down to an area with kids’ games and spent 45 minutes playing with those.

Oh, and when R had to use the bathroom (always a dicey proposition in our family when “magic-eye” automatic flushers are involved), I pretended to take a call from Queen Esmerelda, who “directed” us to a special family bathroom where R was able to get totally naked, spend quality time on the toilet, listen as I read her a few books on the Kindle, and do more than her fair share of business (if you know what I mean).

After the flight back to San Francisco (on which R watched “Peppa Pig” shows the entire time; at that point in the day, I was more than happy to relax my screen-time restrictions), I even tried my best to turn the ordeal of a one-way rental car into something fun: We pretended the AirTrain to the rental car facility was the Monorail at Walt Disney World Resort, and I let R select the car (she chose a “sparkly silver” one).

On the way home, before the kid passed out in the car, I asked her about her favorite parts of the trip. Her response: “Today was really fun, Daddy.”

To say this comment made me happy would be an understatement. (Actually, I started crying the moment she said it; thankfully it was dark.) It was clear that my kid didn’t consider the ordeal a pain in the ass because I never gave her a reason to do so. To R, it all was just another part of our trip; a wonderful perspective that taught me a ton about parenting, traveling, and, quite frankly, myself.

So often when we travel, our kids feed off of us. They take cues from us. They read our body language. If we wig out, they wig out. Which is precisely why we always need to stay cool and take everything in stride.

Sure, our day today was COMPLETELY exhausting. And, yes, the delay was wildly inconvenient (in more ways than one). I’m sure I’ll be feeling the effects of it all throughout the course of the week. Thankfully, however, my 3-year-old will not. In my book, given the circumstances we overcame, that is the sign of a family travel victory.

What have been some of your worst family travel experiences, and how did you cope?

The one-bag experiment

Our reality for the next three days.

Our reality for the next three days.

Little R and I head out tomorrow for a weekend trip to LEGOLAND California (and to see family), and I’m going to try and fit all of our stuff in one carry-on bag.

I’m subjecting us to this challenge for one very important reason: I’ve only got two hands, and somehow I’ve also got to bring my laptop bag (technically, it’s a work trip) and R’s Britax Roundabout car seat, and I need to guarantee I’ll have a free hand as we get ourselves from the airport to the rental car facility.

On the front end, the logistics of this strategy seem easy-peasy. We arrive at the Charles M. Schulz Airport near our house in Santa Rosa, California. We check the car seat. I wear the big daypack on my back and the small laptop bag (it’s also a backpack) on my front. This leaves me with both hands to navigate the TSA checkpoint and corral R when she gets feisty.

On the back end, at San Diego International Airport, the plan is only minimally different—backpacks will go on the same sides of my chest, car seat bag will go in my left hand, and R’s hand will go in my right.

Yes, I know I’m insane. Yes, I’m sure I’ll probably regret this choice when I’m dripping with sweat on the rental car shuttle. And, yes, I’m sure something completely unforeseen will happen (and cause me to curse out loud) and I’ll be forced to rethink everything on the fly. But the way I see it, at least at 12 hours before our time of departure, I’ve got no other option.

Still, all of this planning has me thinking about some bigger-picture considerations:

  • To what extent can I—and we, as family travelers in general—downsize our load to maximize efficiency when traveling with kids?
  • Why do we as a society think roll-aboard/wheelie carry-on suitcases are so great?

Of course I also have been fixating on the reality of single parents who travel with their kids: How on earth do they do it, especially when they’re traveling with more than one?

I’m guessing I’ll have some answers to these rhetorical questions by Sunday evening. In the meantime, between now and then (but especially between now and Friday around 10 a.m.), if you have advice you’d like to share about these issues, please do. And wish us luck!

One-on-one-travel, take two

Can't wait for one-on-one travel with this girl.

Can’t wait for one-on-one travel with this girl.

A few years ago, when L was the only child in our family, I made a big deal (privately and publicly, on the predecessor to this blog) about traveling solo with just her.

We took a number of trips just the two of us. The biggest of the bunch: An epic sojourn to Beverly Hills so she could gaze upon couture dresses at fancy boutiques and get inspired to sketch some fashion of her own (she was big into art even then).

In general, there are dozens of benefits to one-on-one travel with kids. The individualized attention. The unobstructed bonding time. The out-of-the-ordinary dynamic. Logistically, however, with two little humans running around (and two very different childcare schedules), this dream is a bit more difficult to attain. How will Powerwoman and I massage the wounded ego of the child who stays at home? How do we balance childcare when one parent and one child are out of the equation? These are the kinds of questions with which we grapple.

Not that the self-doubt slows me down. On the contrary, I just booked the first one-on-one trip for me and R—an early December escape to SoCal to visit family and report a story about Legoland California.

Our plan is simple. Fly down, check in to the Legoland hotel, and spend the day with family on Friday; while away the entire day in the park on Saturday; fly home Sunday. Considering how much R loves theme parks and LEGOs and meeting new people (and airplanes and Dum-Dum lollipops on airplanes), I’d say we’re in for a good time.

Not that the plan could have played out any other way; we couldn’t have taken L, even if we wanted to. For starters, she has school on Fridays, and we would have had to pull her out (which Powerwoman and I agree is not a good idea right now). More important, after this past summer’s back-to-back Hawaii and Disney World trips, L declared that she didn’t want to fly for a year, and Powerwoman and I don’t want to force the issue. (This is most definitely another blog post for another time, folks.)

Yes, it’s a bummer we all can’t travel together on this adventure. At the same time, it’s a treat to be able to bask in solo travel time with only one of my kids. I think one-on-one travel time with each child is an important part of life as a parent of multiple children.

Finally, after three years, I’m delighted to give R that chance.

To what extent do you prioritize one-on-one travel with your kids?

Bitten by the Bug

The Villano Family: Coming to a hillside near you.

The Villano Family: Coming to a hillside near you.

My friends warned me. They told me that after spending four months living with my family in London, I’d come back yearning to get the kids out on the road again ASAP. They joked that we’d all catch “the [travel] bug” and return to Wine Country, only to liquidate our assets and start a nomadic life.

Heck, one buddy bet me we’d never actually come home.

While I’m proud to announce that the gambling friend lost, the other predictions haven’t been too far afield. And the fallout has caught this family travel blogger by surprise.

Things developed rapidly over the last few weeks. The day after we got home (Christmas Eve day), my wife and I swore we’d keep our girls in one place for a while. We informed the girls of our decision and they seemed to be on board. L, our older daughter, went so far as to declare that she did not want to step foot in an airplane for “at least a few months, or ever again, unless it was a plane that went somewhere cool.” R, the younger sister, agreed in her own way, stating that airplanes were loud and her ears didn’t want to hear them again for a while.

We held these beliefs for at least a week. Then, just about the moment we were completely unpacked, everyone’s perspective began to change. During a session building Legos, I told the girls about the Legoland Hotel and they insisted we book a trip. Then we started looking at flights for a trip to Texas. And we discussed a trip to Walt Disney World. And we started planning a trip to Lanai.

These were just the family trips. At the same time, we grown-ups were making plans of our own.

Powerwoman started planning a solo trip to help her best friend shop for a wedding dress. I lined up work trips to Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Diego, to name a few. Then my wife and I recruited the grandparents to watch the girls so we could fly back to New York.

In a span of two weeks, we Villanos went from a policy of “No New Trips” to booking nearly 10 of them. And I’m sure there’ll be more.

No, we’re not planning on selling the house and hitting the road for good (though there is a high likelihood we’ll take an RV to Yosemite National Park this spring). But we *did* catch the family travel fever, and especially while our girls are still young, it’s a wonderful affliction to have.

How quickly after a big family trip do you plan your next escape?

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