Remembering a tragedy with kids in tow

20160613_145801I remember every horrible moment of Sept. 11, 2001—planes crashing into buildings, buildings falling and shaking the ground, my city changing forever. I left New York for California shortly after the attack. Today, since we’re back in the Big Apple for the week, Powerwoman and I took the kids near the World Trade Center site.

We didn’t go to the museum because we didn’t think that was a good idea with three kids. We didn’t go to the memorial because two of those kids were a bit crazier than we had hoped. So we improvised. And we headed to meet friends at a playground in Battery Park City, giving the girls history along the way.

I was the one sharing details. I started with the Freedom Tower, talking about how tall it is and when it was built and all sorts of basic stuff like that. Next I described the buildings that used to be there—how they were identical twins and how they scraped higher into the sky than any other building in the city. I told them about how my father spent a decade working on the 57th floor of one of the towers, and how I loved going to work with him so I could look down on the Big City and marvel about how small it was. I even told them about the restaurant at the top, and about the observation deck, and about how from anywhere up there you could see for miles.

L listened passively, probably more focused on what kind of monkey bars awaited us at West Thames Park. R, on the other, hand, wanted answers.

“What happened to the other buildings that were there?” she asked.

I told her they fell down.

“Why?” she asked, because she’s 4.5 and because she’s my kid.

After a few measured breaths, I told her they fell down because bad men wanted to hurt people and made them fall.

We were walking and talking during the conversation to this point, but when I said “made them fall,” my middle daughter stopped and fixed her gaze on the Freedom Tower. In the seconds that followed, all sorts of things went through my head. Was she scared by the notion of bad men? Should I have used more euphemisms? Should I have used fewer of them? I heard lines from Springsteen’s “You’re Missing.” I saw people on the subway, crying, covered in dust. I prepared myself to answer follow-ups about how the bad men made the towers fall, or what happened to the people in the towers when they fell.

But she went in a completely different direction: “Daddy, were you here when the Towers fell? Did you see them fall?”

And I simply couldn’t respond.

Every time I tried to open my mouth, my throat closed up and I couldn’t speak. Every time I tried to breathe deeply, I couldn’t get the air through my nose. R asked the question again, looking up at me this time with those big, brown eyes.

That’s when I lost it completely, mercifully stuffing my face into my shirtsleeve before my daughter saw the tears streaming down my face.

I never mustered an answer. Matt Villano, the dad with all the answers, the dude who incessantly harps on bottom lines so everything contributes to life experience, had NOTHING. I had visualized a similar exchange hundreds of times before today, and never imagined coming up empty.

And yet, oddly, I don’t regret it one bit.

Someday, the kids will learn the story. Someday, they’ll know what I know. Someday, they’ll know what I saw. What R did learn today was that whatever happened to those towers 15 years ago was something that made Daddy (and a lot of other people) really sad. I think that’s enough of a lesson for now.

Pilgrimage to Golden Gate Park cardboard slides

I’ve never been a fan of the concept of a “bucket list.” My thinking: Death is an inevitability for all of us, so why should it drive any of the decisions we make in life?

Instead, I am the kind of guy who really tries hard to live in the moment. One moment I’ve been regretting in recent weeks: Never making the time to take my kids to the historic concrete/cardboard slides in the Koret Childrens Quarter of Golden Gate Park.

And so, this morning, because I was in the city with the big girls and we had some free time, we went.

For those of you who never have heard about these slides, know this: THEY ARE OLD-SCHOOL AND AWESOME. The slides themselves date back a while (not as long as the park, which dates to 1888, but a while). To ride them, you need sand (to speed things along; think shufflepuck) and a piece of cardboard on which to sit. The more sand on the track, the faster you go. The thinner your cardboard, the easier it is to control.

Cardboard slide, Golden Gate Park. My kids are in HEAVEN. #sistergram

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

I first tried the slides on one of my first adult trips to San Francisco, back in the 1990s. Even then, decades before my kids were born, I knew: Someday I had to bring my kids there.

R was having a rough morning but L did not disappoint. She first tried the slide without cardboard, but after sporting a strawberry on her buns, she changed her game and was hooked from there. Over the course of the 45 minutes that followed, the kid must have gone down 30 times. She LOVED it.

In fact, if we didn’t head to the carousel immediately after the sliding session, I’m not sure we ever would have been able to convince L to join us.

It was THAT cool.

Make time to visit the Koret this summer. And remember: The earlier you arrive with kids in tow, the more likely it is that you’ll have most (if not all) of the place to yourselves.

Jumping away the last days of summer

The trampolines at Rebounderz.

The trampolines at Rebounderz.

As much as our family loves to travel to faraway places, we also love discovering new family-friendly stuff in our own proverbial backyard.

Today we found a new fave 30 minutes south of our house: Rebounderz, an indoor trampoline park.

The place is a kids’ fantasy land with dozens upon dozens of trampolines. Plain trampolines. Trampolines on walls. A basketball court made out of trampolines. Even trampolines that enable kids to bounce themselves into a giant pit of foam cubes.

There’s also a three-story indoor playground, an epic arcade (with Pop-A-Shot), a regular hardwood basketball court, and a snack bar.

It’s been over 100 degrees here all week, so Rebounderz was the perfect place to bring L and R to blow off steam. The facility is the first West Coast outpost of an East Coast franchise. It was well-organized. It was clean. Perhaps the only downside to the place: It was SUPER expensive, as in, $48 for both girls for two hours. (It was so spendy, in fact, that I decided not to jump; if I had joined them, it would have cost us another $21.)

We went with some of the girls’ friends—five girls in all. The trip was sort of a last hurrah: The girls all start school next week.

Sure, the kids liked the trampolines, but the undisputed highpoint actually was the playground, which boasted a corkscrew tunnel slide, two platform ladders, lots of rope bridges, and a bunch of bouncy-house type obstacles. Once the kids tried all the everything else (except the basketball court ones; the kids were intimidated to try those); they insisted on returning to the playground. Afterward, that’s the part L and R remembered most fondly.

We didn’t really hit up the snack bar; I and the other parent for the day smuggled in our own (healthy) snacks but relied on the in-house options for cups of Dippin’ Dots as a special bonus for the girls. As for the arcade, I’m still not sure how much each game actually cost ($20 bought me a bunch of credits, and each game cost different amounts of those), but it felt like my money disappeared particularly fast.

Next time, I’ll take advantage of booking jump times online. I’ll also make sure we arrive right when the place opens; we got there about 30 minutes after the joint opened, but by lunchtime, it was a zoo.

Overall, I’d say our first experience at Rebounderz was a positive one. I’m not sure we can afford to visit more than once or twice a quarter, but it’s nice to know we’ve got such a fun new option so close to home.

What are your go-to daytrip spots within 30 minutes of your home?

The beauty of a drop-in indoor playground

Travelers of all kinds understand the importance of letting kids burn off steam during a family vacation. The practice wins children time to let their imaginations wander. In turn, it also keeps everyone sane.

Inside A Place to Play.

Inside A Place to Play.

This is precisely why we love A Place to Play here on San Juan Island in Washington State.

The facility, literally one block from the ferry slip in Friday Harbor, amounts to a REALLY COOL indoor playground. It has a variety of themed creative play areas (including one where kids can use makeshift crab pots to catch stuffed crab). It’s spotlessly clean. The employees are patient (even when a certain 3-year-old mixes water and magic sand). Heck, the joint even sells snacks. Add in the cost—$7.50 per child per hour for the first hour, a total of $7.50 per family after that—and the place is a dream.

Rules of the road at A Place to Play are simple. Most of the time, children must be accompanied by a responsible supervising adult. The grown-up can’t leave at any point in the visit. If kids want to snack, they must do so in the dinette area. That’s pretty much it.

Of course there are exceptions. Once a month, A Place to Play hosts Date Night, during which the facility brings in some additional staff to watch (and feed) kids for three hours while moms and dads enjoy some quality grown-up time. This promotion is as much (if not more) for locals as it is for tourists. Perhaps the only downside is that it’s not cheap; it will cost us $40 to send both girls there Friday.

(To be honest, though, I’d pay twice that for a few solo hours with my bride on a family trip. Especially considering our wedding anniversary is Sunday.)

The concept and set-up behind A Place to Play makes so much sense, I have to wonder why these sorts of facilities don’t exist in every city. We certainly would use them. And I bet we’re not alone.

San Francisco getting better for families, family travelers

Koret Playground, courtesy of the Chronicle.

Koret Playground, courtesy of the Chronicle.

As a proud member of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, I’ve always known I have a very skewed perspective on San Francisco. For us, it’s the Big City, a place with endless opportunities to keep our kids occupied, one of the greatest daytrip destinations on Earth.

For people who live there, however, there’s a different reality.

A blogger friend of mine, Amy Graff, recently wrote about this reality for her blog on SF Gate, The Mommy Files. In her post, she outlined 13 things that have made San Francisco a better place for families. Obviously, her target audience was locals—people who live in San Francisco and have kids. But some of the points she made apply to family travelers as well.

Take, for instance, her mention of Koret Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park, which recently benefitted from $380 million in bonds to improve neighborhood parks. Another highlight in her piece: The new Exploratorium, which is one of our favorite museums in the entire city (and about which a blog post by yours truly is long overdue).

Also worth mentioning: A new law in March 2013 that allows baby strollers on all San Francisco Municipal Transit Association vehicles, except cable cars.

I could go on and on about Amy’s piece, but it’s probably best if you just read it here.

The bottom line: The City by the Bay may not be as wonderful for family travelers as we’ve thought it was, but it certainly is getting better.

Expressing excitement on family trips

Both girls got pretty excited about this Play-Doh booth.

Both girls got pretty excited about this Play-Doh booth.

We humans express excitement in different ways. Some of us get smiley. Others get giddy. My wife likes to eeek. I, a verbal person, like to scream, “POWER” repeatedly. Then there’s the Big Girl, who conveys *her* excitement by jumping over and over again and stuttering uncontrollably.

I noticed this tendency of my daughter’s on a recent daytrip to San Francisco. She already was excited to be there—my kids have grown up in the country and they love any opportunity to see tall buildings and public transit and trappings of an urban center. Then we came upon a brand new playground off the Embarcadero. The kid nearly flipped her lid.

She was so cranked up, so stoked at the notion of sliding down a new slide and swinging from new monkey bars that she bounced around like a kangaroo.

When we asked her what was up, she couldn’t respond without fumbling over her own words.

As she played, it dawned on me that I’d seen these behaviors before, almost religiously, on every single family trip we’ve ever taken. That’s when it dawned on me that the get-up wasn’t a temporary bout of insanity, but instead just my kid’s way of expressing and dealing with travel excitement.

The incident got me thinking—where do we learn behaviors for expressing travel excitement? It’s not like Powerwoman or I jump up and down and stutter when we’re on family trips. Why doesn’t my older child eeek like her mother? Why doesn’t she scream, “POWER?” From whom did she get the whole hopping thing?

This, of course, got me thinking some more. How fun it would be to swap excitement expressions a trip! How odd it would be to see a grown man jumping around and stuttering at the sight of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. How silly it would be if my kid actually did scream, “POWER.” Or eeek.

We’re headed out in the next few weeks on a number of different journeys and I plan to mention the subject to the kids then. If you see me jumping around and stuttering at an airport, you’ll know why.

How do your kids express their excitement on your family trips?

The coolest playground on Earth

The park for "off-leash kids."

The park for “off-leash kids.”

In many ways, we build our family travel around playgrounds. We try to fly through airports that have child play zones. On road trips, we plan our stops in cities with play structures about which other parents rave. When we finally settle in a destination, we always ask the hotel concierge—or people who work in local toy shops—for directions to the best park.

Heck, when we spent last fall in London, we explored the entire city by playground-hopping from one neighborhood to the next.

Naturally, then, when I read about a kick-ass new playground (like some of the ones profiled in this Travel + Leisure roundup), it piques my interest in a big way.

This is why I was so intrigued to hear about the new Terra Nova Rural Park in Richmond, British Columbia. The playground recently reopened after a major renovation—an upgrade that reportedly cost upward of CAN$1 million. Early reviews say the place might be the best playground on Earth.

Highlights of the new spot include a tandem zipline, a 30-foot-tall treehouse and a hill specifically designed for rolling down. There’s also a sand play area, a water play area, a meadow maze, and something called a “log jam,” which is designed to replicate the sensation of walking across a series of beach logs.

Reports indicate that city officials designed the park to mimic nature, and that they solicited input from kids. The city is marketing the park as an “adventure play environment” for “off-leash kids.”

In short, this place sounds like an amazing spot around which to plan a trip.

The park opens formally Sept. 27—the last Saturday of the month. We weren’t planning to go back to British Columbia any time soon. Now, however, we might have to rejigger our schedule to check it out.

Where are some of your favorite playgrounds and why do you like them so much?

4 Family-Friendly Aspects of Life in London

R, at a London coffee shop, with some house toys.

R, at a London restaurant, with some house toys.

We’re nearing the end of our time here in London (we leave Dec. 23; I can’t believe it either), and I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on some of the most family-friendly aspects of life here.

Yes, I know the health care is free and higher education is dirt cheap (especially for residents). But I’m not talking about that kind of stuff. I’m talking about the family-friendly aspects of life that make visiting this great city with kids easy. Here, in no particular order, are my faves of the faves.

The playgrounds are awesome.
I’ve chronicled the awesomeness of the playgrounds here before, and I’ll do it again and again (probably until I sell a story about it to a major glossy newsstand magazine). Play areas are well-kept. Play structures are new. Ground surfaces are soft so kids don’t get badly hurt when they fall. And each playground boasts activities we simply don’t see at home: the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Hyde Park has a pirate ship kids can play inside, while the one at St. Stephen’s Church Garden has a zipline. Of course my favorite aspect of London playgrounds is that many of them have on-site cafes. This means we moms and dads are never too far from a hot black Americano.

Coffee shops give kids free stuff.
Did somebody say coffee? One of my other favorite things about London is that almost every coffee shop in this fair city treats kids like royalty. So long as the grown-ups in your party buy drinks, the kids in your party receive a free drink of their choice. Most places—Pret a Manger and Caffe Nero among them—offer something called “babyccinos,” essentially warm milk with a splash of cocoa. Other places will go so far as to make the little ones pint-sized decaf cappuccinos. When I’m out and about with L and R, I usually opt for simplicity, and just request child-sized take away cups of cold milk. Whatever you order, these freebies are a nice touch.

Public transit treats parents with kids like rock stars.
The vibe toward families on buses and trains in other cities is simple: You’re on your own. Here, however, whenever I board the bus or the Tube with the girls, people are incredibly accommodating and eager to help. They give up their seats. They help carry the stroller up steps. They actually make eye contact with us, and they smile. Overall, I have found the bus system more child-friendly than the Tube; every bus has a separate area for buggies—a nice amenity, especially on those days when I’m schlepping all over town with both of my kids. (Of course when I’m traveling with only one of the girls, and I’ve left the buggy at home, double decker buses also offer the best attraction in town: Watching the city pass by from the front seats of the top level.)

Restaurants are prepared…and welcoming.
So what if kids aren’t allowed in most pubs after 7 p.m.? Most restaurants in this city are incredibly welcoming toward families with young kids, and just about all of them are prepared with kids’ menus and crayons or colored pencils to keep the little ones happy until their food comes. Heck, one of our favorite places in our neighborhood even has toys for kids to play with. Back in the U.S., I’m notorious for lugging a backpack full of paper and pencils everywhere, just to make sure we’re covered. Here, so many places have it covered that I’ve actually started leaving the art supplies at home. It’s nice to have one less thing to worry about. It’s also nice to know Powerwoman and I can count on enjoying at least a few moments of every restaurant meal in peace.

What sort of family-friendly features do you look for in a travel destination?

Feeling Our Way in the Dark

Sisters. At St. Luke's Garden Playground. In the light.

Sisters. At St. Luke’s Garden Playground. In the light.

The conversion to Standard Time from Daylight Savings Time always is a dicey one for parents with young kids. Little ones wake up earlier. They’re crankier before dinner. Midday naps can go horribly awry.

Thankfully, here in London, we’ve experienced none of these usual problems. Instead, we find ourselves faced with another challenge: Exploring in the dark.

It’s a matter of logistics. R naps from about 130 p.m. local time to 330 p.m. local time every day. Once she wakes up, the process of changing her diaper, feeding her snack, getting her dressed to go out and actually clambering down three flights of stairs generally takes about 45 minutes. This means we’re headed out for our afternoon/evening adventures around 415 p.m.

Which gives us less than one hour of post-nap sunlight to do stuff every day.

On Monday, for instance, we arrived at a local park just as the sun was setting, and proceeded to stick around until it was so dark we couldn’t see the ball we were trying to kick. One day last week (we set clocks back Oct. 27 here), a simple errand to the local pharmacy required the extra purchase of a flashlight to see the way home.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment has been with playground time; because most playgrounds here are run by the city, they close before the sun even begins its descent—at 3:45 p.m.

Of course we learned about the playgrounds the hard way. That fateful day, as I tried to hide my disappointment from the girls, a mom walking by smiled and cheerily offered, “Welcome to London in winter!” I was not pleased.

So far, our solution has been to create a new schedule. On days when the girls want/need playground time, we push back R’s nap to get in an hour while it’s still light. On days when R goes down at regular time, we have what I’ve started calling, “Walkabout,” which consists of nothing more than putting on hats and jackets, taking the flashlight and wandering on foot.

As the temperatures drop, I imagine we’ll transform these evening strolls into evening bus rides or something like that. Nothing like feeling your way in the dark.

How has the time change impacted your travel experiences?

Embracing Playgrounds of the Future

Coffee made this (fantastic) playground better.

Coffee made this (fantastic) playground better.

I have seen the playgrounds of the future on the streets of London, and they all have one thing in common: Cafes.

No, I’m not talking about tiny kiosks that sell nothing but candy bars and bags of chips. I’m talking full-on, honest-to-goodness cafes. With fresh food. Ice cream. And, best of all, espresso machines. That make strong coffee drinks. Quickly.

Seriously.

After two weeks on the ground here, three of our four favorite playgrounds have such snack bars. And I’m already spoiled rotten. Heck, the café at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens even sells hot pizzas. Who in his or her right mind wouldn’t be all over something like that?

Specifically, I like the trend for a number of reasons.

First, for parents like me—humans who regularly operate at a sleep deficiency—knowing that you’re never more than a swingset away from a double Americano does wonders for the energy levels (and the patience levels while “negotiating” with cheeky kids).

Second, when you forget to bring snacks from home, the baristas/snack-keepers have you covered.

Finally, these on-site cafés offer a certain degree of flexibility to reward good behavior (or to splurge on lunch away from home). If the kids are being good and you don’t really feel like racing home to eat, you can dash into the café to buy relatively healthy sandwiches and fruit at the playground and chow down there.

I beg of our community leaders back home: HOOK US UP! As an expat who has appreciated the beauty of playground cafes here, I publicly cast my vote. Tens of thousands of parents across our nation would agree if they had the option to do so. Who says we grownups can’t have fun at playgrounds too?

To what extent would you patronize a café at your favorite playground?

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