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?

Girlification of a legend

Necklace in a cup holder, 2014.

Necklace in a cup holder, 2014.

My truck—a royal blue 2001 Nissan XTerra—has been with me through some pretty serious life moments.

I bought it while living in New York on Sept. 4, 2001, which means the two of us spent our first week dealing with the aftermath of the terror attacks Sept. 11, 2001. It was the vehicle I took to pick up my wife on our first date (of course she wasn’t my wife back then). The truck moved me across the country to Seattle, then down the Pacific Coast to the Bay Area. It off-roaded for weeks in Montana. In more than 13 years in my possession, the SUV also has served as my tent for more than 100 nights in the woods.

All these years, I’ve thought of the vehicle like an old friend, a manly man, sometimes even more masculine than little old I. This week, however, after a short road trip with the girls to the southern end of the Bay Area, I safely can say the truck is more girly than ever before. I’m not talking about “girly” in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sense; I mean girly, as in, frilly and sparkly and stickery and just full of really little-daughter type stuff.

In short, the truck has become a symbol for how much fatherhood has altered the way I live my life.

Exhibit A: My rear windows.
In years past, the filth on the outside of these windows was like a badge of honor, a bulging bicep that announced to the world: I AM TOUGH. After our family roadie, my back windows are covered with stickers—everything from Hello Kitty to random birthday cakes. There’s even a “Visit Montana” sticker I got at a press event. Definitely not an amalgamation that conveys toughness.

Exhibit B: My cup holders.
A lifetime ago, the two cup holders near the main gear shifter provided safe haven to gas-station coffee cups, empty cans of Red Bull and nondescript Styrofoam dip cups. This morning, I looked down and spotted L’s broken turquoise Cinderella necklace at the bottom of one of the holders. The other one was dotted with tiny speckles of glitter.

Exhibit C: My trunk.
My truck used to house supplies for the zombie apocalypse: an Earthquake survival kit, jumper cables, solar cell phone chargers, first aid kits (the one built into the trunk is not that great), and more. Today, everything back there fits around the buggy, and my first aid kit has been downsized to a tiny box of band-aids with a tube of Bacitracin. (Also, there are some empty fruit-chew wrappers.)

There are other examples of “evolution” but these three will suffice. The girls have taken over my truck. To paraphrase the Borg, from Star Trek: I will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Does it bug me that my trusty truck isn’t as macho as he once was? You bet it does. But when I think about what’s driving all of the changes to my lifestyle and my truck, I always take a step back, look around, and quietly give thanks for the two young humans who firmly have established themselves at the center of my world. Stickers on windows and necklaces in cup holders are temporary; the bond I share with those kids will last forever. That’s more important than any set of wheels.

Sticker heaven

On the tour.

On the tour.

My kids, like just about every kids under the age of 6 (or, maybe even 10), REALLY like stickers. They’ll stick the things just about anywhere. On the inside of the backseat windows in my truck. On our furniture. On each other. On me.

Sometimes, if L and R are feeling particularly creative, they’ll use the stickers as characters in make-believe worlds, and move the stickers from spot to spot as if they were alive.

It’s cool to watch. It’s even cooler to encourage. That’s why I’ve been jonesing to visit Mrs. Grossman’s.

Mrs. Grossman’s, as in, the last remaining sticker factory here in the U.S. The place is located in Petaluma, California, (next to Camelbak world headquarters and) just about an hour from our front door. And they host four tours every day between Monday and Thursday. So, last week, on a day when R didn’t have preschool, I took her. And we loved it.

The $7 tour ran about 45 minutes. I give a light-hearted narrative rundown of the experience in my latest family travel column for the San Francisco Chronicle (the story will be published in Thursday’s paper), and you can read more about it there. The highlights:

  • A 5-minute introductory video in which we learned the staggering fact that, if all of the equipment in the factory were operational at once, Mrs. Grossman’s could churn out 5 million stickers a day.
  • A detailed explanation of how stickers are cut, painted, and packaged.
  • A stroll down an entire aisle of giant rolls of stickers. In a matter of minutes, we spotted everything from horses to wizards to sparkly frogs and princesses. R was in her glory, pawing at each of the rolls like a cat might paw at a hair tie.
  • A free, sticker-based arts-and-crafts project at the end of the tour.

Along the way, our tour guide gave us free stickers at each of six stops. She also pointed out some of the business-to-business work Mrs. Grossman’s does, noting that a significant percentage of the factory’s work at this time of year comprises labels for local wineries. (We saw lots of labels for Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville, California.)

When our tour was over, when R had had enough of her arts-and-crafts project, we perused the modest on-site store and bought a bunch of other stickers to take home for L (and just to add to the stash). Part of this take: Two sealed (and $3.99) “Mystery Boxes” that comprised $20 worth of stickers apiece.

We took the tour more than a week ago and R still talks about it every day. This morning, as she was playing with a sheet of hibiscus stickers we bought that day, she asked if we could go back.

Based upon this assessment alone, I’d rate Mrs. Grossman’s as one of the greatest kid-oriented tours in the entire Bay Area. Throw in easy parking, friendly tour guides, all those free stickers, and proximity to an In-N-Out Burger restaurant for post-tour lunch, and the tour is a perfect activity around which to build an afternoon. Maybe we’ll even see you there.

What are some of the best kid-friendly tours you’ve encountered in your travels?

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