One of the biggest misconceptions about family travel is that you have to splurge for airfare and fly somewhere faraway to have an experience your kids will remember.
The truth: All you have to do is get the kiddos out of the house.
I’m reminded of this all the time, as we’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world with seemingly infinite natural beauty. When we tire of the routine, we pile in the car and head to the Pacific Ocean, about 45 minutes away. When we want a Big City experience, we shoot down the freeway and spend the day in San Francisco. Heck, sometimes we rarely leave our town.
Such was the case this past weekend, when, after a big rainstorm, I took the girls to a local park. The park sits next to the Russian River, and I know the place gets pretty muddy after a rain. That’s precisely why we went. Seriously.
I told the girls we were going to “hike.” Really, however, I had one plan and one plan only: To bring them to this trail system, encourage them to splash in puddles, and sit back to enjoy what happened next.
They followed the plan perfectly; all three of them were up to the tips of their rainboots within five minutes of leaving the parking lot. They enjoyed the puddle jumping so much that the three of them ran ahead on the trails to make sure they “scouted” puddles before I could find them and assess them myself.
One time, Baby G misjudged the depth of a puddle and got a boot full of water. Another time, Little R lost her balance and fell backward—straight on her rear. Then, of course, there was the Big Girl, who loves puddle-jumping but has anxiety about muddy clothes, so she hiked her pant legs up to her knees.
We stayed for nearly two hours. We were never more than seven miles from our front door.
About a week has passed, and the girls have talked about or puddle adventure at least two times every day. For them, this was a major family travel experience. Yet we didn’t “travel” at all.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/20180120_120546-scaled.jpg19202560Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2018-01-28 22:39:322022-02-08 18:07:22Making a Splash with Family Travel
Family travel can be full of wonderful, magical moments that everybody remembers forever. Most of the time, however, as any parent will tell you, the experience verges on shitshow, complete with meltdowns, tantrums, complaining, and whining—from kids and parents alike.
This is precisely why I loved a recent post from Clint Edwards, a fellow father-of-three who blogs about parenthood at No Idea What I’m Doing.
The post in question wrapped up an Edwards family trip to Disneyland, and was titled, “What a trip to Disneyland really looks like.” Edwards set up the piece by explaining that he and his wife spent three days on the ground with three kids under the age of 11. Then he launched into a laundry-list if stuff that went wrong along the way. The bullet points tell frightening tales of everything from the challenges of managing connecting flights with kids to the fact that kids will hang on fences and guard rails no matter where they are.
Sure, the specifics might be different, but we Villanos have had this same experience at Disneyland time and time again. We’ve had the experience at other destinations, too. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that every parent has had it every time he or she has ever taken with kids. It’s part of what makes traveling with kids real. It’s simply part of the deal.
I think Edwards himself says it best at the very end of the post: “Swore up and down that we were Disneyland[ed]-out, but feel confident that this will all happen again and again and again until we are broke or dead.”
Quite honestly I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/feeling-the-pain.png684845Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2018-01-24 23:07:322022-02-08 18:58:36Feeling the pain
It is with great embarrassment and shame that I admit I never had visited the Grand Canyon before this month.
It is with even greater embarrassment and shame that I admit I tried to rectify this sad reality with a road trip to the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a South Rim attraction far away from the Grand Canyon National Park entrances that everybody knows and loves.
Let’s just say I was sorely disappointed.
It wasn’t the view that bummed me out—so long as you’re actually looking at the 4,000-foot-deep chasm in our continent, you pretty much can’t go wrong there.
No, instead I was disappointed by the underdeveloped facilities, the poor signage, the terrible food, the overrated and overblown “skywalk,” the price, and—perhaps most egregiously—the complete and total lack of safety precautions, considering that the attraction sits on the edge of one of the steepest cliffs in North America.
Put differently, I’m glad I didn’t take my kids to the Grand Canyon Skywalk because (they would have been bored out of their minds and) at least one of them surely would have fallen to her death.
To be fair, the idea behind the attraction is great. The Skywalk itself is a semicircular glass walkway cantilevered out over the edge of the South Rim of the canyon. The Hualapai Tribe built the place in 2007 as a way to get tourists to their reservation—a massive parcel of land far from the national park sites but close enough to be a day trip from Las Vegas. Because it was the first of its kind at the Grand Canyon, the Skywalk got major attention when it opened. It has been a pretty well-known tourist attraction ever since.
Execution, on the other hand, is lacking. Now visitors must park at a visitor center and board busses that stop at three spots along the way: A recreated (and supremely contrived) Old West village, the Skywalk, and Guano Point—the site of an old guano mining operation.
Of these three stops, the Skywalk is the main attraction. It is attached to an elaborate building with a small museum about the Hualapai tribe. It is surrounded by food trucks. Off in the distance, there’s a modest amphitheatre. Rules on the glass walkway are bizarre. You must wear booties on your shoes so you don’t scuff the glass. You have to stick your bags in lockers before you head out—nobody can carry anything with them. Also, and most annoyingly, you’re not allowed to bring cell phones out onto the walk. If you want pictures, you have to pay (a ton of money to) the Annie Leibovitz wannabes on staff.
Also peculiar: the lack of safety protocols.
Outside of the main Skywalk building, there is absolutely no fence or security system preventing visitors from falling over the edge of the canyon. Sure, the tribe employs a few folks who walk up and down the path near the edge warning people to stand back if they get too close, but if you go with a kid who’s quick and doesn’t listen, you could lose your kid forever. (If you go with a stupid grownup, you might lose him—the dumb ones always are men—forever, too.
The Guano Point area is infinitely more interesting than the Skywalk. There’s history in the remnants of a 1960s-era mining apparatus. There’s a decent hike. The view down the canyon provides great scale of just how deep the chasm really is, and a unique perspective of the Colorado River as it snakes by.
Still, the name—which effectively invokes bird shit—also is a very strange choice. Nothing named “guano” sounds appealing. Why not just use the tribal name?
My final complaint about the Grand Canyon Skywalk experience revolves around price. Unless I read the website incorrectly, the basic ticket came in somewhere around $60. For just a few dollars more, I was able to prepay for a “meal.” The website said nothing about what this meal comprised, but it seemed like a good deal until I was on site. After polling workers about which stop had the best options for the ticketed meal, I beelined for the café at Guano Point. Here, with my admission, I received a scoop of barbecue beef, a scoop of mashed potatoes, a half-ear of corn, a bowl of wilted salad, a cookie, and a bottle of water. It was underwhelming and would not have satisfied my kids.
Perhaps the biggest positive of the day trip to Grand Canyon Skywalk: The drive from Las Vegas. I went out with two friends, and on our journey we drove through one of the largest natural Joshua Tree forests in the world. The views were insane—almost alien. At one point the three of us parked the car, got out and walked around amid the trees, giddy with excitement. Compared to the experience of walking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon, this was what I’ll remember most on the day.
I know my kids would have felt exactly the same.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/26804482_10157040418191632_8645607641291548595_n.jpg720960Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2018-01-20 23:47:352022-02-08 18:48:42The Worst Family Travel Destination in the West
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.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Default-Feature-Image.png15502880Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2018-01-15 08:52:322018-01-15 08:52:32Happy Free National Park Day
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.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/26731629_10157027930121632_7588683305185433228_n.jpg720960Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2018-01-11 23:16:402022-02-08 18:04:12Hunting for Dollars
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.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/20180108_105606-scaled.jpg19202560Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2018-01-09 01:39:322022-02-08 18:05:13Toddlers as Truth
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.
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.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Default-Feature-Image.png15502880Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2017-04-13 09:06:432017-04-13 09:07:36What family travelers can learn from road warriors
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.
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.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Default-Feature-Image.png15502880Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2017-03-12 01:22:012017-03-13 15:10:19Resistance in the name of family travel
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.
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.
https://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/la-1488826115-gqgfygqaha-snap-photo-1.jpg9451680Matt Villanohttps://wanderingpod.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wandering-pod-logo.pngMatt Villano2017-03-08 23:05:002022-02-08 18:18:08Theaters with a playful twist
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.