Happy Free National Park Day

Big girls. Beach. Beautiful.

Today, our annual celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is the first free national park day of the year.

This means every single American gets free entrance to every national park and national monument site in the country. It also means you’ve got no excuse to spend the kids’ day off from school bumming around indoors.

But before you get too excited, before you furiously fire up another window in your Internet browser to locate your nearest park and figure out how to get there, I want you to get angry, I want you to get pissed. This year the National Park Service is granting us only four free days, down from 10 last year.

Let me repeat that. Last year and years before it, we had 10 free days. This year we have four.

If you think this is just a coincidence, think again. Under the “leadership” of our new President and Secretary Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Department of the Interior is abusing our national park system, shrinking national monuments, attempting to change rules to sell off land for profit, proposing rate hikes, and, yes, even taking away free days.

Put differently, the people running our government are cheating us out of the park system that was established for the “enjoyment of the people” all those years ago.

IMHO, there are two main ways to fight back. First, of course, is to take advantage of all of the free days we now get. Go today. Go April 21, which is the first day of National Park Week (also the week of Earth Day). Go Sept. 22, National Public Lands Day. And go on Veterans Day, which is Nov. 11.

In addition, please support our parks throughout the rest of the year, however and whenever you can.

Remember: Family travel doesn’t have to be big or expensive or once-in-a-lifetime incredible. It can be a few hours at your closest park. Just get out there.

Hunting for Dollars

Little R and some of her bounty

When my wife and I pre-booked the final night of our road trip in Morro Bay, we had one thing on our minds: Walking on Morro Strand State Beach. Which is precisely how we spent the last day of our trip on Wednesday.

But the Villano family beach walk brought with it a surprise. Sand dollars. Hundreds of them. All over the beach.

It turns out January is prime time for finding dead and desiccated sand dollars on the sandy beaches of Central California. Because Morro Strand is one of the longest beaches in the area, it is renowned for its sand dollar-hunting. Naturally, then, once we found our first dollar of the day, we treated the excursion like a treasure hunt.  Each of our three girls walked away with quite a bounty.

Later in the day, as we sped home in our Honda Odyssey, we hit the Internet to do some research.

We learned that sand dollars actually are close relatives of sea urchins. We learned that live sand dollars are a bit like ravioli—tough outside, soft inside. We also learned that the petal-shaped design actually is a bunch of pores that help the animals move.

Without question, the three-hour stroll was my favorite segment of the entire trip. A quest! Science! Beautiful views! The best part: It was all totally free.

These types of escapades represent the very best of family travel. They incorporate serendipity and fascination. To be clear, none of these moments is perfect; at one point there on the beach, Baby G was upset that a sandpiper flew away and started bawling like she’s never bawled before. Overall, however, these adventures are magical. I wish all of you at least one of these experiences on your next trip.

Toddlers as Truth

One of the best things about exploring the world with a toddler is that she lacks all semblance of an internal editor. When things suck, Baby G says so. When things rule, she says that, too.

Naturally, then, when the two of us rode the Alaska Airlines Skyfari gondola ride today during the Villano family’s rain-soaked visit to the amazing (but outrageously expensive at $54 per grownup and $44 per adult) San Diego Zoo, I was eager for my youngest daughter’s hot take.

It came one minute into our ride. She looked over the side, giggled, and said, “Fun, Daddy! Fun! Fun!”

From that point until the end of our round-trip journey, the child must have uttered the word, “Fun!” at least 60 times. At one point, she screamed it, screeching like one of the macaw parrots down below. Every time she repeated that word, she made me so happy that all I could do was laugh. My heart was so full I felt like it might pop inside my chest.

Baby G was right, it *was* fun. Our day at the zoo was a day I’ll remember forever—toddler truths and all. I hope she feels the same.

What family travelers can learn from road warriors

Shut up!

If we’ve learned anything during a week when a man was assaulted for failing to give up his seat on an airplane, it’s this: As life-changing as travel can be, it often brings out the worst in people.

Family travelers have known this fact for years; in many cases, simply walking onto an airplane with a baby draws dirty looks, sighs, and “talking tos” from passengers who want to make sure our kids know how to behave at 35,000 feet.

Increasingly, however, this fact is becoming clearer to everybody else.

The tragedy, of course, is that for the most part, moms and dads who travel with kids are among the most empathetic of all passengers. Heck, even when we moms and dads aren’t traveling with our kids, we tend to be more aware of ourselves and the people around us and how everybody can live together most peacefully.

I’m experiencing this very fact as I type these words. I’m sitting in the Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International Airport, where I am surrounded by three “road warrior” business-traveler types who are literally screaming into their cell phone headsets.

To my left, a man is yelling so he’s heard during a conference call. To my right, a dude is talking to a colleague IRL, and they’re yelling about a client and how “stuck up” he or she is. Across the way, some dude is yelling at his voice recognition software to answer a ringing phone. ANSWER! ANSWER! ANSWER! He won’t stop. ANSWER! ANSWER!

Oh, there’s also the dude who’s actually traveling with his wife and child and is trying to conduct some sort of business call and keeps shushing his kid with the most disruptive and offensive shush you’ve ever heard in your life. (Why he doesn’t just politely ask his wife to entertain the child, who knows.)

Am I ranting? Perhaps. But it’s also painfully clear to me in this moment that even when my kids are acting up at the airport, they’re not nearly as loud or disruptive as these men (they’re all men, of course, aren’t they always?). Put differently, families and family travelers get a bum rap for being loud and obnoxious and annoying but the reality is that most of the time kids are no more loud and obnoxious and annoying than grownup fliers.

The takeaway, of course, is just to be aware. When you’re traveling with kids, be aware that kids will be kids, and sometimes it’s perfectly OK for them to laugh and exclaim and be excited about the fact that they’re going to fly like birds. When you’re traveling solo, be aware of others around you and adjust your own behavior accordingly.

I guess a secondary takeaway from all of this is always to travel with earplugs. You never know when you might need some outside help.

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.

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