Resistance in the name of family travel

My three, at Disneyland

It’s a weird time to be in the travel industry.

On one hand, we’ve got a number of media outlets (including the AP) describing what they’re calling a “Trump Slump,” a potentially crippling blow to our local tourism infrastructure due to all of the foreigners who don’t want to come here because of how our new president rules the roost.

On the other hand, we find ourselves on the brink of an all-out visa war with Europe, with both sides considering reversing the commitment to visa-free travel between regions and requiring visas for everyone. (As much as it pains me to say this, technically the new president isn’t responsible for this one; the brouhaha started back before he took office.)

The current climate would make any travel writer—really any American who travels for a living—paranoid.

For us family travel writers, however (and for those of us in leadership positions at the Family Travel Association), the stakes are even higher; not only must we navigate these quagmires on our own, but we have to figure out a way to do it with our kids—all without disillusioning them completely and forever.

This challenge is not easy. First, simply explaining the current situation to an 8-year-old and 5-year-old is difficult, especially since the very last thing I want to do is undermine their faith and trust in our leaders at such an early age. What’s more, the visa situation requires even more preparation than ever before—a reality that is downright exhausting for a family of five.

Then, of course, there’s the process of navigating new travel rules abroad.

With all this in mind, I’m not going to let the current climate deter me from my goals of exploring the world at large and teaching my daughters through travel. We haven’t been scared of traveling after acts of terrorism, and we won’t be scared of traveling now.

Here, then, is my step-by-step guide to resisting the threat of chaos in travel, and to doubling-down on travel as a form of exploration, education, and fun.

  • Reverse the “Trump Slump.” Now more than ever we must travel around our own country and spend money in other local economies. New York says they’re feeling a pinch? We’ll book a trip there this fall. Central California is struggling to recover from floods? We’re headed there for a week later this month. It’s not hard to be smart about maintaining pre-Trump spending levels and be tactical about where to dump travel dollars back into the economy. Like any good form of protest, it just takes thought.
  • Plan ahead for visas. Contrary to popular belief, travel can still be spontaneous if you’ve been planning a trip more than six months out. Given the uncertainty about visas for travel to Europe, at this point it’s probably best to get in touch with the embassies of where you’re hoping to go and line up all the paperwork for what you need or might need to make it happen. Obviously in order to do that you need to make sure your kids have current passports. So be on the ball about that, too. (Full disclosure: Both L and R have passports that have expired; renewal is on my to-do list.)
  • Don’t be scared. With all the uncertainty in the world right now, it’d be understandable to declare that you’re not going anywhere. But this is precisely the kind of sentiment the fearmongers and hatemongers in government hope to spark. Instead—and this is SUPER important, y’all—leap outside your comfort zone. Commit to traveling abroad, commit to exposing your kids to differences in the world around them, commit to being a de facto ambassador for the America that still gives a shit about kindness and tolerance and compassion and all of those other good things.
  • Get real. It’s easy to cite your kids’ ages and decline to *really* explain to them what’s happening in the world right now and why it’s so cataclysmically important. That’s a cop-out. I’m not suggesting that your sit down with your second-grader and enumerate all the reasons you’d like to punch our president in the face. What I am saying is that it’s important you explain how international perception of Americans is changing, and how it’s important you and your family go out and make good impressions so people realize not all Americans have lost their minds.

IMHO, as my colleague Joe Diaz at AFAR magazine put it so eloquently at the end of 2015, it’s more important now than ever before to round up the kids and get out there to see the world. At a time when our leaders are thinking narrowly, the right play is for the rest of us think more broadly and approach the world with the same degree of curiosity and respect we always have. I’m proud to embrace this philosophy at this moment in history. I’m also proud to pass it along to my girls.

Theaters with a playful twist

Playground + theater = AWESOME

If you’ve ever been to the movies with a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old, you understand that it can be difficult for the little ones to sit still for the duration of the film.

For this reason alone, two new movie theaters from Mexico-based Cinepolis, which debut next week to screen Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake, are AWESOME.

In a nutshell, the new theaters are mashups of regular cinemas and indoor playgrounds. Under one roof. The Cinepolis configuration—formally dubbed the “in-theater concept”—offers something for everyone. Moms and dads can sit and watch a film while the kiddos play on a play structure. It’s that easy.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the new theaters boast jungle gyms, cushy bean bag chairs, and climbing structures. These play areas are flush up against one of the walls near the screen, and are big enough to satisfy a handful of kids but small enough to make certain that parents can keep an eye on their kiddos at all time.

Lest you think this setup is too good to be true, it comes at a cost; Cinepolis plans to charge an additional $3 per ticket. That means standard prices could put tickets around $20 a pop.

Meanwhile, a separate story, this time on The Huffington Post, alleged that the kid-friendly push reflects the increasing importance of the family audience as Hollywood studios spend heavily on animated productions.

Whatever the driver, I must admit: I’m intrigued by this development. I’ve seen five or six movies with our big girls over the years, and I’m always frustrated by their inability to sit still. (Heck, even when they watch movies at home, the two of them are jumping all over the living room.) While it might be awkward for certain audience members to have kids running and jumping on a playground during a movie, I’d argue that this sort of behavior is far LESS disruptive than kids bopping around in their seats.

The bottom line: I’m certainly willing to give it a try. And the next time we’re in LA, we will.

The squatter

Mid-squat

We came, we saw, we did Disneyland and nobody had sensory overload. I’ll write more about that in the next few days. Today, however, the focus is on something far more fascinating: Our squatting baby.

Yes, the very same baby you see in the photo here to the right. One minute she’s running around like a chicken evading slaughter. The next minute, she screeches to a halt, squats at the knees and pushes a poop into her Size 4 diaper.

This scene played itself out at least two or three times daily during out weekend in the House that Mickey Built. Baby G squatted and pooped her way through two airports, two theme parks, Downtown Disney, and the walk back to our hotel (which was about 1.2 miles from the park entrance). And she seemed to enjoy it more and more each time she pulled it off—donning a mischievous smile every time.

After the third or fourth squatting incident, I started wondering what must have been going through Baby G’s mind. Wandering around Adventureland? Let me squat here, you guys. Waiting in the queue for the Teacup ride? No problem, I’ll just squeeze it out here.

Part of me can’t blame my youngest (or any kid, for that matter) for going on the go. I’m the kind of guy who hates wasting time, and I’ve always envied babies for their ability to do business in motion. No matter how many times you read in “The Bathroom Reader,” the place is a time vortex. Diapers vanquish that.

The other part of me thinks the kid’s antics are flat-out ridiculous; her own little way of getting comfortable with her little body and asserting control over the rest of us.

Whatever the scoop, after a weekend of squats and poops, one thing is certain: Baby G is quite a ham.

Embracing a new travel plan

The Plan.

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.

The family travel sweepstakes dream

Duns. OMG.

What family wouldn’t want to stay in a medieval Scottish castle for a week? The history! The secrets! The creative play for your kids (and the grown-ups)! The excuses to go out in public wearing plaid knee-length kilts!

This is what makes a recent promotion from HomeAway so incredibly awesome The offering, held in conjunction with the Family Travel Association to celebrate the upcoming Disney live-action adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” will land one lucky family the keys to the 12-bedroom, 9-bathroom Duns Castle in Scotland, about one hour south of Edinburgh.

The promo started earlier this month and ends March 31. No purchase is necessary to participate, though it’s only open to residents of the United States, UK, France, and Germany.

Obviously, the stay at Duns is the grand prize. With five nights in the castle, transportation from your home to the Scottish countryside and back, and all meals as part of the deal, the value of the package is somewhere around $25,000. (The place normally rents for about $3,200 per night.)

Oh, and because the place is so big, HomeAway is letting the winner bring 20 family members or friends.

Five other prize-winners can win up to seven nights with four guests at another HomeAway property of their choice, with transportation included. Depending on where you stay, this prize could be pretty valuable, too.

In order to enter the drawing, click here and answer a few simple questions about yourself and your ideal vacation. Participants also must answer a question about how many lodging options travelers can find on HomeAway. I’ll save you the Google search and tell you here: It just surpassed more than 2 million.

Disney fans, take note: The landing page for the promotion also has links to all of the official “Beauty and the Beast” trailers, so you can enter and geek out at the same time.

Good luck! And if you win, take us!

Family travel through her eyes

Chilling.

With three kids under the age of 8, it’s easy for Powerwoman and me to get caught up in planning trips around the bigger girls and not the baby.

Earlier this week, however, 15-month-old Baby G made sure I saw a family daytrip to our favorite Sonoma County beach from her point of view. The experience made me a better traveler, a better dad, and a better man. It also made me laugh.

The specifics are almost irrelevant—the big kids had off from school so I took the three of them out to Goat Rock State Beach, our favorite (despite its tendency to receive rogue waves). Because it was windy and the waves were big, I carried Baby G in the backpack while I monitored the whereabouts of her bigger sisters up the beach. After about an hour, however, the baby wanted out.

I obliged at lunch, when we set up a picnic blanket near the dunes and ate while we watched the waves.

That’s when it happened. After lunch, the big kids were clamoring to head down the beach to look for beach glass, but I didn’t want to go. I gave Baby G the option of getting back into the backpack or just hanging with me on the blanket. She very clearly slapped the blanket and grunted. She wanted to stay.

So we stayed. I sat her on my lap. We marveled at waves. We pointed at gulls. We played with sand. All told the two of us probably sat there, just enjoying the beach, for the better part of 45 minutes. She didn’t fuss or whine once. She didn’t complain about the wind. She didn’t even insist on peas, which she usually does at picnic lunches. In short, the baby was completely enraptured. As was I.

I’ve probably written about it 100 times, but this particular experience was yet another in the litany of experiences that taught me to slow down even more and take the time to appreciate life on the road.

Travel isn’t always easy—especially with kids. But I do know that in this case a little bit of extra effort went incredibly far with our baby, which is always a good scenario to cultivate.

American families set to hit the road

A whole bunch of American families are expected to travel this year—great news for us family travel bloggers and just about everyone else.

The stat comes from a recent survey report from AAA, which suggested that roughly 35 percent of American families will travel more than 50 miles away from home with at least two other family members in 2017.

The report was released earlier this week and included replies from 1,006 respondents. It also comprised a number of data points on the kind of trips family travelers plan to take. 

Leading the charge: the old-fashioned road trip (79 percent of respondents), national parks (51 percent), and theme parks (40 percent). Trips to international destinations (33 percent), guided or escorted tours (22 percent), and ocean cruises (20 percent) also made the list.

Drilling deeper, road trip numbers were 10 percent higher than last year—a curious finding, considering that gas prices are more than 50 cents higher than they were in February 2016. 

I wrote about the survey for AFAR, and a press release that hit wires Tuesday quoted an AAA executive as saying that Americans preferred the “structure and convenience” of group tours over the flexibility of a road trip. 

“Many tours are specially designed for multi-generational groups, plus there’s no better way to learn about a destination than from a knowledgeable, local guide,” said Bill Sutherland, AAA’s senior vice president of travel and publishing. 

Overall, survey data indicated that while the vast majority (70 percent) of respondents said they were planning to take one or two vacations this year, 28 percent of respondents said they would take three or more. AAA did not offer any explanations for this data, but it did note the number of frequent family travelers rose 13 percentage points over last year. That’s music to this dad’s ears.A

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?

New Plum video series about family travel

Note the emoji

Note the emoji

Over the years I’ve made no secret of my love for Plum Organics.

My kids—all three of them, if you can believe it—are addicted to the puffs, and Baby G guzzles at least one (if not two) pouches every day. Little R was a maniac about Shredz, Plum’s nod to Big League Chew. And every now and again, L likes to devour some Mighty Snack Bars, which basically are Plum’s answer to granola bars.

I’ve written about Plum. I’ve visited their offices. I’ve interviewed their founder and (former) CEO. In short, I’m a Plum fanboy, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

But even if I weren’t such a zealot, I’d *still* love the company’s new online video campaign.

Dubbed #TeamParent, the social media campaign uses texting as a way to show how two spouses rely on Plum to make family travel easier. The latest video focuses on having enough snacks to survive a plane trip with a baby. Another video in the series focuses on leveraging snacks to overcome a cranky toddler during a road trip. A third video revolves around snacks as a way to avoid a park meltdown—something to which every parent can relate (even those who don’t travel that much).

While the videos themselves represent a brilliant perspective on how real-world parents interact about their kids, the comments on the videos offer an entirely different kind of education, providing insight to how those same real-world parents feel about the way the campaign represents them.

Even if you don’t travel with your kids, you’ll appreciate the new campaign. But for those of you who do travel with your little ones, the videos take on even more significance.

Don’t take my word for it; see for yourself. I dare you to watch without smiling.

The ice-skating debut

Northstar-Village-Ice-Skating

Skating at Northstar (not my kids)

They were so excited to go ice-skating, I wasn’t about to stand in the way. And so, on our first full day of our annual trip to Tahoe this weekend, I waltzed L and R into the skate rental shop at the Village at Northstar and got us our skates.

“What’s it like, Daddy?” L asked.

“Are we gonna fall?” R followed-up, not even giving me a chance to respond to her sister’s query.

“It’s…fun,” I said, trying to be as convincing as possible. “We’ll take it slowly and I’m sure you girls are gonna love it.”

Before you start thinking about what a great dad I am, know this: I abhor ice skating, much like I despise a great many other winter sports. I don’t like the way the shoes feel on my feet, I can’t ever skate for more than three or four sweeps of my feet before I fall on my ass, and I’m SUPER neurotic about any sport during which I can fall and break my wrist and impact my life as a writer. There are an infinite number of things I’d rather do than ice-skate.

Yet there I was, wobbling my way over to the rink, desperately trying not to fall while I held the girls’ hands and tried to keep them from falling as well.

When we got to the entrance, a bunch of drunk dudes clapped to commemorate my successful walk from the bench where we laced up. The girls turned around and smiled. I was mortified but my kids had no clue. They were loving every minute of it.

Our “session” began with both girls trying to skate out into the middle of the rink—and both girls falling squarely on their butts in a matter of seconds. Neither got frustrated, but both looked to me for guidance. So I did what any other self-respecting parent would do in that situation: I encouraged them to “get comfortable” by holding on to the railing while they “skated” around the perimeter of the rink.

Around the rink we went, one-half skating, one-half walking. Every few panels of glass, one of the girls would slip and fall on the ice with a thud. Every time, the fallen child resumed the position of the afternoon and continued unabashedly.

When we finished our first lap, I asked the kids if they’d had enough. “NO!” they both shouted.

When we finished our second lap, I asked them again if they’d had enough. “No way Daddy!” they shouted.

When we finished our third lap, before I could even ask the girls how they were feeling, they both turned around and told me we were going to continue.

Mercifully, however, it was Zamboni time. Workers rushed onto the ice and guided everybody off. The girls and I followed suit. When we made it safely outside of the rink, Powerwoman convinced the kids to put their boots back on. Miraculously, we had survived, and nobody had chipped a tooth.

To say I was relieved by the sudden change in plans would be an understatement. But the girls were genuinely bummed. Even though they never really got the hang of ice-skating, the kids loved it. Even though I wasn’t much of an instructor in the rink, they were thankful and appreciative of the time I spent with them inside.

The whole experience was a lesson in opening the mind. The kids didn’t care that they didn’t “succeed” at this new sport. They had fun trying. They felt awesome doing it. And that was enough.

Moving forward, perhaps it can be enough for me, too.

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