Awesome amenity for kids who lose teeth on the road

Mmmm, cupcakes

Mmmm, cupcakes

Spend enough time traveling with youngsters and it’s bound to happen sooner or later: Your little one loses a tooth (naturally) away from home.

Of course if your kids believe in the Tooth Fairy, this occurrence puts a burden on mom and dad—how do you perpetuate the rituals you’ve established around celebrating or commemorating these sort of life events at home?

A recent Twitter post from the folks at Four Seasons Orlando answered this question in a fun way. The post, which was accompanied by a picture of adorable cupcakes (see above), read: “Our pastry team created this adorable amenity for little guests who lost a tooth during their stay & await a visit from the tooth fairy!”

In other words, the swanky resort hotel gives sugary cupcakes to kids who just lost teeth.

This is awesome for a number of reasons:

  • CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES.
  • It totally takes that aforementioned burden off Mom and Dad, providing a kick-ass option/reward to ascribe to the Tooth Fairy herself (that crafty minx).
  • That little tooth character is bound to make little ones smile, which could come in handy if your kid is like my oldest child and *freaks out* at the sight or thought or idea of blood.
  • DID WE MENTION CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES?

Our little family never has visited this particular property but hope to get there the next time we visit the Walt Disney World Resort. Sure, the place has a bunch of other pretty swanky attractions. But this particularly amenity is one of my faves, and it makes me kind of hope one of the girls loses a tooth (the old-fashioned way; not like this) when we go.

What are the most creative in-room amenities you’ve encountered on your travels?

Elsa and Anna take to the skies

Let it go, let it go.

Let it go, let it go. (Pic courtesy of WestJet)

Thankfully my kids have grown out of their “Frozen” fetish and grown into “My Little Pony” and similarly inane adorable girly things.

Otherwise, they might have freaked out upon glimpsing the newest plane from WestJet.

According to a company blog post, the plane, a 737, is custom-painted with “Frozen” themes and scenes, inside and out. On the outside, Olaf is toward the nose and Elsa and Anna are on the tail. Inside, the entire cast appears on the outside of overhead bin doors, and “snow” is everywhere.

To be clear, the plane makes a bold statement. It’s a marketing play, plain and simple. It also serves as proof positive of what I’m sure is a healthy and productive relationship between the airline and Disney Parks. That said, especially for the Villano girls, “Frozen” is yesterday’s news, which means WestJet is about a year too late to guarantee this paint job is on trend.

Still, the effort raises some fascinating questions about kids’ preferences and family travel overall. Do kids really get MORE excited about flying in planes with their favorite characters? If so, how much more? I’ve scoured the Internet for data on the subject and can’t find any.  If you find some, let me know.

Meanwhile, here in our house, we’ll keep hooves peeled (get it?) for the day an airline unveils an MLP plane. When it happens, people, we’ll book like the wind.

How much extra would you pay for a seat on a themed plane?

Sharing the word about Four Seasons Orlando

The kids club at Four Seasons Orlando (photo courtesy of Trips + Giggles.

Kids’ club at Four Seasons Orlando (photo courtesy of Trips + Giggles).

I’ve lamented since last summer that I wasn’t able to check out the Four Seasons Orlando when we visited Walt Disney World Resort last summer. The new luxury property formally hadn’t opened yet, and I couldn’t find time (or, quite frankly, a rental car from my Disney-owned hotel) to break away and take a tour of the construction site.

Thankfully, Juliana Shallcross, my (former editor at VegasChatter.com and HotelChatter.com, and) buddy over at Trips & Giggles, went recently, and wrote a definitive post about the place, which she published earlier today.

If I may summarize, her post basically says that the Four Seasons Orlando KICKS MAJOR ASS. Especially for family travelers.

I love J’s post for its simplicity—she talks briefly about the design and service that made the hotel so special for her, then gets right into a host of pictures (one of which I pilfered to accompany this post), with descriptions of each. My favorite of her observations: The Four Seasons Orlando is especially great at the end of a hot day when you want to leave the parks and escape the Mouse for a while. My second favorite: Her reminder that the Kids for All Seasons kids club is included in the room rate.

Granted, the price point at a luxury hotel such as this one is way too high for the majority of visitors to Walt Disney World Resort (or Florida, for that matter). Still, if budget is no issue and you’re looking for a property that treats kids—and their families—like royalty, it sounds like this is your place.

Consider yourselves warned.

What are your lodging strategies when you visit Walt Disney World Resort?

Preparing for an ‘Expert Roundtable’

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Over the course of my professional life, I’ve spoken in front of standing-room only crowds of journalists, packed lecture halls of marine biologists, and giant auditoriums of car salesmen (really; don’t ask). None of these gigs has given me as much pride as the engagement I’ve got lined up for Wednesday morning: I’m the featured speaker for the “Expert Roundtable” in L’s kindergarten class.

The gig is part of a monthly series during which parents come into the classroom and chat with students about what they do and the tools they use to do their jobs right.

The last speaker was a veterinarian. I’m chatting about being a journalist.

Because I can’t bring kittens (let’s face it: A vet is a tough act to follow), I’ll be bringing newspapers, magazines, keyboards and steno pads for the kids to touch and feel and share and (in the case of the pads) keep.

Beyond that, my plan is simple: I’ll chat a bit about what kinds of stories I tell, explain how I collect information for my stories, have the kids interview each other (for a sense of what that’s all about), then I’ll share the process through which I put the stories together. (HINT: The process involves bowls of pretzels and M&Ms.)

I’ll conclude with some examples—a retrospective of some of the most fun stuff I’ve done over the years. Naturally, because I specialize in family travel (and because family travel comprises the bulk of what I’ve written since L was born), I’ll share a bunch of anecdotes about that.

Like that piece about the time L and I traveled to Beverly Hills so she could sketch haute couture. And the piece about the time we crossed the Thames River, in London, in an underwater tunnel. I’ll share a story from our family trip to Yosemite this past spring, and the piece from last month, about R’s birthday walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ll also share my favorite anecdotes from the month we spent living in Hawaii—the ones about the goats that jumped on the picnic table, and about the time when Blue the horse stuck her white fuzzy nose in through the car window and nuzzled my kids.

I might even show them some of the stuff I reported on our August trip to Walt Disney World Resort.

No, I’m not expecting more than half of the kids to pay attention. And I’ll be happy if one or two (beside L and her BFFs) even remember my name. But maybe, just maybe, one of those kids will hear my stories about my life telling stories and be inspired to become a journalist herself (or, I guess, himself). The mere chance of that is reason enough to do it. Which is precisely why I’m so stoked.

You know your kid flies a lot when…

They survived turbulence in the sky for this (at Walt Disney World).

They survived real turbulence for this (at Walt Disney World).

We had an earthquake here in California Wine Country yesterday. A big one. Even though the epicenter was about 40 miles from our house, even though it was a few miles below the surface, our house shook pretty significantly. Thankfully, we didn’t experience any damage.

We did, however, have quite a laugh, thanks to L, our Big Girl.

It all centered on her description of the experience. This was her first real earthquake, but she wasn’t scared. She wasn’t freaked. She really wasn’t even tired (considering the quake woke us all up at 3:20 a.m.). Instead, my kid likened the quake to the only other kind of uncontrollable shaking she has experienced in her five years on Earth. She called it “turbulence…in the ground.”

At first, Powerwoman and I just laughed at how clever our daughter’s assessment was. Then, when we really started thinking about it, we were blown away.

The context! The internalization! The subtle expression of love of family travel! It was awesome. It was exhilarating. And it provided further proof that those jaded idiots who claim kids aren’t capable of remembering ANYTHING about family travel until they’re five or six are just that—jaded idiots who like to hear themselves talk.

Our kid has experienced turbulence in the sky. She remembered what it felt like. And last night, when the earth shook us all like eggs in a frying pan, she called upon that memory as a byproduct of association.

The whole thing seems like a ringing endorsement of family travel to me. Let’s just hope she doesn’t have the opportunity to break out her simile again anytime soon.

Celebrating the best family travel year ever

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago today—August 20, 2013—our wandering pod embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives: a five-month relocation to London.

Our stay in the U.K. kicked off what has been the greatest stretch of travel in our lives. Over the course of the last 12 months, we Villanos have logged nearly 400,000 (air and car) travel miles as a unit, touching down in England, Ireland, Canada, Hawaii, Florida (specifically, Walt Disney World), Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and more.

The best part: We’ve done it all together.

I’ve had fun over the last few nights going back and looking at posts and pix from this time last year. There’s this post, from two nights before we departed. And the photo that accompanies the entry you’re reading now; the pic was taken at 3 a.m. London time on the night we arrived—after both girls woke up for the day (damn you, jet lag!). Then, of course, there is this piece, from two days after we arrived.

(Interestingly, we ditched the pram in that post for a sturdier one we bought in London. We still use the “London buggy” every time we fly.)

It’s also been fun to remember the highs and lows of a year of family travel. My favorite high: A week of dodging raindrops and chasing geese in the Lake District, toward the end of our run in England. My least favorite low: The night Little R kicked me out of bed at The Ahwahnee (inside Yosemite) and insisted that I sleep on the floor—making it the most expensive campsite of all time.

Throughout these adventures, I have deepened my appreciation for the world, for embracing new things, for the privilege to leave home for a while. I’d like to think the girls have experienced similar growth.

Even if all this travel hasn’t changed my kids, exposure to it certainly has sensitized their little brains to the notion of exploration. Will I be disappointed if they grow up to be homebodies? Not at all. But something tells me that after a year like the one we’ve just had, curiosity will come naturally to them.

What will the next year bring? From a practical perspective, the next 12 months of travel likely will look very different; with both girls in school (and L in Kindergarten five days a week), our opportunities to escape as a foursome may dwindle. Rest assured, we’ll find ways to get out and about. There are places to go! There are people to see! Most important, this travel thing is what we Villanos do best. Here’s to another great year.

Family travel rights in the sky, part 1

We should see this together.

We should see this together.

Our flight back to SFO from Walt Disney World Resort (well, really from MCO) earlier this month was one of the worst family travel experiences in recent memory. I had checked our seat assignments hours before our 9 a.m. departure and the four of us were sitting together—L with me in one row, R with Powerwoman in the row behind.

Then, 90 minutes before our scheduled take-off, the airline split us up, and put R by herself.

Normally something like this would just be an inconvenience. But in the case of our family, it was a REALLY BIG DEAL. Because R is 2.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in. About 90 minutes before we were scheduled to take-off for a 5.5-hour flight back home, United Airlines split up our family and sat the 2-year-old passenger all by her lonesome.

You can imagine my shock when I saw the change. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than the last few weeks, you probably also can picture the outrage. Normally in these types of situations I go all “Johnny Brooklyn” and curse and wail and rant and rave and speak so excitedly little bits of spittle come flying out of my mouth.

This time, however, especially because the kids were RIGHT THERE, I kept my cool, and repeatedly (and respectfully!) requested that the flight attendants put my family back together.

In the end, to the airline’s credit, they managed to get us back to 2-and-2. They didn’t solve the problem until ten minutes before takeoff, but, technically—and to be totally fair—they did ultimately solve the problem.

Still, the entire debacle got me wondering what our rights as family travelers really are.

So I started digging. And I started making phone calls. And I started talking to experts. The reporting effort is still ongoing, but I wanted to report the first part of my findings ASAP. So here goes:

  • Currently there is no federal regulation requiring airlines to keep together families with confirmed seats. I thought for sure the FAA would regulate this. I was wrong; that agency only oversees family travel issues as they pertain to child safety seats. The folks at the Department of Transportation have some guidelines for airlines to follow about the ages of unaccompanied minors, but there is no formal law on the books that they enforce either.
  • In this vacuum of legislation, airlines establish and enforce their own policies about keeping together families. These policies vary widely.
  • United’s formal policy on the subject indicates that the airline will do whatever it can to keep families together. At the same time, the airline has a policy that stipulates no children under the age of 5 are allowed to travel unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. When I pressed a spokesperson to explain how separating a 2-year-old from her family would NOT be in violation of the unaccompanied minor rule, he suggested that because our daughter was ticketed with us, technically this was not a violation of the policy.

Obviously there is much more research to be done. Once I have spoken with every major airline and every major industry organization, I’ll compile my findings into an easy-to-read post. I may also put together an infographic or chart that helps explain these disparate policies.

So far, at this point in my reporting, I know this:  There’s nobody at the national level looking out for us family travelers, and we have very limited recourse when we feel we’ve been wronged.

Personally, I think that needs to change. Quickly. And forever. What’s your take?

The aftermath of a family trip

The aftermath of a TFP, on my bed.

The aftermath of a TFP, on my bed.

We family travel bloggers spend a ton of time writing about what happens on and before our adventures. Often, we overlook the stuff that happens AFTERWARD.

I’m not talking about the recalibration of sleep schedules or the return to normal eating habits (“No, honey, you may no longer have French fries with every meal”). I’m talking about the process our children go through as they reintroduce themselves to the stuff they left behind.

In our house, the routine is almost always the same: The morning after a big trip, the girls gather in one room for what Powerwoman and I like to call a Toy Refamiliarization Party (TFP). They set up a bunch of blankets on the floor as if they are about to have a big picnic. Then they collect all of the very best toys that stayed behind. And they play with all of them. At once.

You can imagine how chaotic this can get; the girls have a fair number of toys.

Sometimes the TFP comprises mostly dolls and stuffed animals—these are my favorite iterations because they’re pretty quiet (and they involve a healthy dose of imagination). Other times—such as this past week, after a 6-day jaunt to Walt Disney World—the TFPs feature musical instruments. And, as you can imagine, these can get f-ing loud.

My wife and I endured a good 20-minute chunk on Monday (we got home Sunday) during which neither of us could hear ourselves think.

The girls, however, had a blast, banging on xylophones, keyboards and drums.

No matter how loud they are, we love the TFPs in this house. For starters, they are a great way for the girls to re-acclimate to their surroundings after being away. They also help Powerwoman and me save money; by rediscovering toys they’ve had for years, the girls feel as if the old diversions are new again, thus postponing our need to buy additional stuff.

Herein lies the rub. Next time you’re on a family trip and your kids bug you about souvenirs, resist. Instead, quietly remind yourself how much they’re going to love spending Q.T. with their “old” toys once you get back home. Any family can have a TFP, you know. Thank goodness for that.

With which “old” toys are your kids usually most excited to play upon returning from a big family trip?

Disney World for preschoolers, day by day

The girls meet Elsa.

The girls meet Elsa.

We returned earlier this evening from our 6-day, 6-night visit to Walt Disney World Resort. Yes, we had a blast. Yes, we saw a ton. Yes, it was hot. And, to be honest, all four of us are COMPLETELY exhausted.

Rather than recap our week in a long narrative here, I’d like to redirect you to a travelogue-style rundown about the visit that I wrote for the Expedia Viewfinder blog. The idea behind this piece was simple: After writing a base post on our first night at the resort, I submitted one summary every day thereafter.

The post highlights a number of experiences, including a princess breakfast at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall; pint-sized toilets at Baby Care Centers in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios; and our super-cool Magic Bands that obviated the need to carry credit cards or cash.

That said, my personal favorite day was the day we were treated to four hours with a VIP Tour Guide.

(A close second was Saturday, when we discovered the top-secret, indoor, and air-conditioned playground on the standby line for Dumbo: The Flying Elephant.)

To be frank, we enjoyed everything we did. And we’d do it again in a heartbeat. And so should you.

What are your favorite things to do at Walt Disney World?

Put down the damn phones

This is easier than it looks.

This is easier than it looks.

Walt Disney World is a place where magic happens. It has rides and castles and roller coasters and soft-serve ice cream. At any moment, you might spot (someone dressed in a mascot-sized costume of) Marie from the Aristocats or the Beast (from Beauty and the Beast) or even Doc McStuffins. Especially when you’re there with your kids, dreams can quite literally come true.

Please, then, tell me: Why on Earth were the vast majority of people at the park on a summer Tuesday wandering around while staring into their smartphones?

I mean, I know the park has invested a ton of money into this great new app, My Disney Experience, on which you can organize Fast Passes and check wait-times for rides. And I know we all have become obsessed with Facebook and Twitter (heck, even I file stuff on social media from time to time).

But, seriously, three out of every four families we saw today were walking around with their heads down, totally ignoring each other.

I like to call people who do this Cell-Phone Zombies (CPZs). And the zombies were everywhere. In Fantasyland, which recently reopened after a historic expansion. On Main Street, where there is never a shortage of things to see. Inside the Be My Guest restaurant, which sits INSIDE THE BEAST’S CASTLE. Hell, even on the bus back to our resort, at least 75 percent of the passengers were CPZs.

The scene was so egregious, so ridiculous, that even Little R noticed.

“Da-da, why is everyone looking up Ellie Goulding songs?” she asked, a reference to the fact that playing deejay is one of the only things I actually do on my phone in front of the girls.

(ICYW, my response was, simply: “Mickey Mouse loves Ellie Goulding, too, honey.”)

This isn’t a rant against Disney World; this parks are better than ever, and whether the girls are behaving or not, we’re having a blast living in the moment. Instead, I’m calling out my fellow family travelers. Visitors to Orlando! Disney World is awesome and y’all are lucky to be here! Now put down the damn phones.

Really, it’s a lesson we parents can apply to any family trip: Be present. Sure, it’s nice to document our group vacations with photos, and, yes, it’s great to text with people back home. But unless something’s urgent—or unless you’re Annie Leibovitz, for crying out loud—stop being a CPZ, know when to get the technology out of the equation, and interact with your kids. They’ll be better for it in the long run. And you know what? So will you.

How much time do you spend staring into your mobile device when you’re on a family trip?

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