Family destinations in Missoula

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck.

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck. (But cool!)

Even when I travel without the kids, I’m always on the hunt for awesome family travel destinations. That explains why I just spent two hours of my (solo) afternoon here in Missoula, Montana, poking around two of the city’s most family-friendly spots: the Missoula Insectarium and the University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area Downtown.

I’m here in Missoula for the next five days on behalf of a client, Expedia. Every year those of us who contribute to the Expedia Viewfinder blog get together in a faraway place for a week of strategizing and bonding. Last year’s summit was in Maui; this year’s is in one of my favorite places on the planet: Western Montana (a.k.a., Glacier Country). I arrived earlier this afternoon and had a few hours before our first official #PictureMontana meeting. So I hit the streets to explore.

I didn’t have to go too far from our hotel to find kid-oriented stuff; the Insectarium and spectrUM share a building that was literally two blocks away.

The Insectarium was first on my list. After paying the $4 admission fee and grabbing a magnifying glass at the front desk, I perused the exhibits, marveling at some of the arthropods (not just insects!) on display in 18 terrariums that ring the room.

I’ve detailed how much L and R despise bugs, but I had to think they would have found parts of this place really neat. Like the habitat full of butterflies. And the millipedes. They probably also would have enjoyed the touch table where visitors can interact with walking stick bugs (and a variety of other critters).

(Without question, they would NOT have liked the habitat with a dozen Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Or the one with the scorpion.)

The kids also would have adored participating in the Insectarium’s scavenger hunt, which anyone can do.

My favorite part of the Insectarium? The Goliath Bird-Eater Spider, which is a species of tarantula. When I was there, this spider was hidden at the bottom of a flower pot in its habitat. Even though it was motionless, even though it was all scrunched up, I could tell the thing was HUGE. My mind was blown.

(I also enjoyed learning that Roly Poly bugs are actually not bugs at all; they’re crustaceans—cousins of crabs and lobsters.)

After hanging with the bugs, I ventured downstairs to the spectrUM facility—one of the cleanest, nicest, and most approachable museums I’ve ever seen. Technically the museum is a science museum, not a kids’ museum. Whatever you call it, the place is perfect for kids ages 12 and under, and you can plan on spending at least an hour there.

The modest museum is broken into two main parts—the main museum and a hands-on area, which is dubbed BrainLab. Today in the BrainLab, visitors were learning about brain maladies during Shakespeare’s time, part of a week-long celebration surrounding Shakespeare’s First Folio, which is on display in Missoula until the end of the month. I watched long enough to see kids playing with plastic brains.

In the main museum, an exhibit on large river ecosystems gave kids the chance to soar (via virtual reality) above the Clark Fork River, create their own virtual floodplain, and more. Another exhibit, the SciGirls DigiZone, offered the opportunity to play with different kinds of technologies. A third exhibit, the Discovery Bench, encouraged hands-on play with science.

What struck me about spectrUM was how engaged and satisfied all the kids seemed. It’s truly remarkable how much more palatable learning is when you’re having fun. Clearly, here in Missoula, they know this better than most.

What are your favorite museums for families and why?

A different kind of all-in-one

Little R, learning about animation at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Little R at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

I’ve never been a fan of all-in-one resorts. You know what I mean by that phrase, right? The places that tout they have absolutely everything you could possibly need during your stay, right there on property? Want good food? On-site restaurants. Want some culture? On-site museum. Want adventure? Check out the on-site pool or climbing wall or gym or wave pool.

While places like this certainly are convenient, they eliminate what I consider to be the most valuable component of travel: discovery. When everything’s “on-site,” nothing’s a surprise. And when nothing’s a surprise, at least IMHO, there’s not much reason to travel to experience it.

At this very moment, however, my family and I are experiencing a different kind of all-in-one. We’re spending a few days at the Presidio of San Francisco, a former army post that in recent years has been converted to a city within the city. Because the Presidio has overnight accommodations (we’re staying at the Inn at the Presidio) and other tourism infrastructure (such as restaurants and public transportation), it’s a great travel destination, too. And it’s perfect for families.

This afternoon we stayed “close to home” and explored things right around the inn:

  • We wandered over to the Walt Disney Family Museum and introduced the girls to the man behind the Mouse.
  • The big girls climbed trees on the great lawn out in front of the museum.
  • We tromped over to the Presidio Social Club, a fun but casual restaurant in renovated barracks.
  • We wandered back to the inn by starlight (a rare occurrence since this part of San Francisco often is socked in with fog).

None of these activities was more than 15 minutes from our tiny (21 rooms in all) inn, yet everything was separate. Put differently, we never left the Presidio, and we were out and about the whole day.

Tomorrow’s plan is even more eclectic. We’ll start our day at the House of Air, an indoor trampoline arena. Then we’ll explore Fort Point National Historic Site, which has guarded the Golden Gate Narrows for 150 years. After lunch down near the fort, we’ll come back to the Main Post (that’s what they call the area around the hotel) to learn about the archaeology in the area, hit some bowling at the Presidio Bowling Center, and throw down a fancy dinner at Arguello, a restaurant from renowned chef Tracy des Jardins.

We’ll wrap up our visit Friday morning by hiking to see sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy.

Even with all of these items on our agenda, we won’t even scratch the surface of all the things to do and see and experience in this national park (yes, this place is a national park). And that’s exactly the point; the Presidio offers the variety of an all-in-one without making you feel like you’re missing out on something equally awesome nearby.

“The Resort” in the Presidio is everywhere—the components are related but entirely unique. Add to this variety a hearty dose of authenticity and years upon years of history and you’ve got the makings of a great family trip.

The heart of a great exhibit about whales

The heart.

The heart.

I’ll remember lots about the new whales exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, but most of all, I’ll remember the heart.

The life-sized replica of the blue whale heart. The one that has chambers big enough for kids to climb in. The one in which Little R played for 20 minutes. The one that inspired her to wonder aloud, “Dad, is your heart as big as this one?”

Sure, the exhibit, formally titled, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” has lots of other cool stuff. Fully articulated sperm whale skeletons (including vestigial limbs). A dozen beaked whale skulls. A vocalization chamber in which you can hear the different sounds from different whales. There’s even a colorful cultural component, especially considering that most of the material in the exhibit is on loan from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, home to one of the largest marine mammal collections in the world.

But the heart. Man, that thing was AWESOME in every sense of the word.

Little R and I checked out the exhibit late last week on the day it opened. It’s no surprise that we Villanos loved the exhibit; as the name of this blog (and my work website) suggests, I’m a big whale guy. I also had a bit of a personal connection to the show: One part of the exhibit that provides animation of a sperm whale wrestling a giant squid was powered by data from Mark Johnson, a fellow with whom I used to work when I wrote for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

To be fair, much of the exhibit is pretty heady. The section about evolution, for instance, is complicated for little kids to understand. What’s more, echolocation, as a concept, is tough to grasp.

Even the parts of the exhibit that showcased whale-related Maori artifacts, the parts where verbiage and signage inform visitors how Academy scientists are working to study and sustain whale populations in our own coastal backyard and are bringing this research home to the museum—even those were a bit much for my kid.

Still, because of that heart (and also because R watched her Dad get TOTALLY amped up about the skeletons and the baleen and the vocalization chamber), she was excited about the experience for most of the hour we were there.

My advice: Plan ahead. If you’ve got younger kids, let them play in the heart and marvel at the skeletons, see if they’re into the vocalization room, then head downstairs to check out the rest of the museum. If you’ve got older kids, take the time to prep them for what they’re about to see, teaching them beforehand a bit about how whales went from sea to land back to sea, and how they use sound to communicate and “see” in the depths of the ocean.

Whatever you do, dear reader, especially if you consider yourself a whale-lover, don’t miss this exhibit. It runs through Nov. 29. Check it out! (And if you’re a San Francisco resident, go on a free day!)

Pulling the plug on a family trip

A quieter moment, before the storm.

A quieter moment, before the storm.

If you’re a parent with kids under the age of 7, you know that public tantrums don’t discriminate. Kids can have them in any place, at any time. In the morning. At night. Heck, most little ones can go psycho mere moments after telling you they love you.

Kids even can have public tantrums on family trips.

Maybe it’s the new surroundings. Maybe it’s the challenge of grappling with different sleep schedules. Maybe it’s a different diet. Whatever the reason, it can happen. And it sucks.

We know this because we’ve suffered through them. L had some epic meltdowns during our spring trip to Yosemite—meltdowns that left us wondering if park staffers were going to report us to rangers for harboring a wild beast. R had a doozy during last month’s trip to Lake Tahoe—an episode during which she locked herself in an empty hotel room and we had to call security to get her out.

When such dramas occur, we parents are left with three basic choices: a) Ignore the bad behavior, b) Discipline the behavior accordingly, or c) Pull out of the public situation and retreat to a more private spot.

Powerwoman and I have tried all three of these options. Lately, however, we’ve opted for Choice C.

I know, I know—every kid is different. Perhaps your son or daughter will respond positively to choices A or B. Perhaps he or she might be scarred for life if Mom and Dad leave that kick-ass aquarium just because of a “few little slaps.”

The point of my post is this: In the event of a tantrum on a family trip, sometimes you just have to pull the plug. And it’s totally OK to do so.

Here are some signs a pull-out may be necessary:

The tantrum has gone on for at least 10 minutes. Most tantrums end on their own after a few minutes of hell. If your kid keeps going after that, it might be time to get outta there, for his sake, for your sake, and for the sake of the other people around you.

The tantrum is putting people in danger. Everyone’s child goes bag-of-bones during temper tantrums. That condition (no matter how biologically peculiar) can’t hurt anyone, except maybe your kid. But if your child starts flailing or throwing objects, it’s time to abort the mission immediately.

Others are getting agitated. Normally my opinion about others in relation to parenting is, “Who cares?” In this case, however, especially if you’re in a place with its own security guards, when other grownups get agitated, it is high time to hightail it home.

There are no signs of listening whatsoever. Kids are great at tuning us out, but there usually are at least a few indications their ears are still functioning. During doozy-level temper tantrums, those few indications disappear. Be aware of this situation and act swiftly and accordingly to rectify.

Most important, follow your gut. If you’re just feeling like it’s time to leave, leave. Yes, this strategy usually means curtailing some sort of vacation-y activity such as hiking a trail or having a nice meal or checking out a museum. And, yes, the logistics of retreating can become difficult; especially if there are crowds involved (see my previous comment about those park rangers reporting us to Child Protective Services).

Still, we have found that with our kids, bailing in the event of tantrum helps snap them out of the horrid behavior more quickly, which ushers back normalcy and puts us in the best position to get on with our vacation more quickly and painlessly every time.

How do you deal with your child’s temper tantrums when you’re traveling as a family?

Exploring San Francisco’s New-and-Improved Exploratorium

Exploring. At a place made for it.

Exploring. At a place made for it.

It took explorer Sir Edmund Hillary two years of trying before he became the first climber to summit Mount Everest in 1953.

Judging from our family’s recent visit to the Exploratorium in its new digs in San Francisco, it could take us just as long to explore all there is to see at our home city’s most exciting science museum.

I went with the girls and my parents (we usually call them Grammy and Grampy Power). We visited last week, exactly one week after the facility opened in Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. All told, we spent the better part of three hours there. During that time, we didn’t even get to see one third of the museum.

Granted, part of this was because we were moving at toddler speed; that is to say, we lingered at every exhibit for at least five minutes so little R could get a sense of what it was, what it did, and whether it was going to scare the bejeezus out of her.

But, really, our experience proves a much simpler truth: This museum is HUGE.

In other words, if you’re visiting with your kids a) allow a full day and swing by the café for lunch and b) don’t be a Clark Griswold about seeing everything because it’s virtually impossible.

As is the case with most museums, certain exhibits likely will resonate with different kids differently. L, who turns four at the end of May, *loved* all of the magnetic stuff—she spent 20 minutes building washer bridges between two powerful magnets and another 20 at a different magnet exhibit, making afros out of magnetized sand. R, on the other hand, who just celebrated her 19-month birthday, showed little to no interest in the magnets, and preferred getting creative with wooden blocks (see that picture, with Grampy Power, above).

That said, both of my kids loved the “Listening” exhibits; the Villano family went all Von Trapp and spent an extended jam session in the xylophone room that had onlookers (horrified or) in stitches.

Another favorite among the pint-sized members of our family: The “fog bridge” outside the museum, a public sculpture that replicates the sensation of walking through an active fog bank.

My only complaint about the new Exploratorium: The place needs more changing tables.

Yes, every women’s room had at least one. The men’s rooms, however, were another story. I understand the age-old assumptions about traditional gender roles. But, scientists, it’s San Francisco! And in the name of Frank Oppenheimer, we dads like to change a few nappies every once in a while, too.

%d bloggers like this: