Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Disney World - Orlando, Florida


If you are bound and determined to experience everything that Disney World has to offer you are going to need a week.  If you only have a day (or two) you can still have tons of fun but you need to let go of the idea that you will see and do everything or even a sizable portion of it.  You won't.  What you will do will be great though.  I am convinced that part of the reason Disney World is so popular is because everyone leaves wanting to do the stuff they didn't get to do on this trip and so they plan another trip!
This is first thing in the morning and it is already a zoo.

I knew we would only have one day at Disney World and wanted to make the most of it so I bought a guidebook, The Unofficial Guidebook to Walt Disney World with Kids which I highly recommend. I would never have known about FastPass+ or Dole Whips without that book and let me tell you, those two things were the best things about our day at Disney.   I didn't even realize that there is more than one park that makes up Disney World so you can imagine my surprise when I realized that there are actually five Disney parks in Orlando.  Since we only had one day we opted for Magic Kingdom but you might find that one of the other parks is better suited to the ages and temperaments of your kids.

Astro Orbiter which is a pretty run of the mill ride.  Not worth a long wait.

The most important thing you need to know about Disney World is it will be crowded.  We went between Christmas and New Year's and it was a madhouse.  Wall to wall people everywhere.  They actually closed the park part way through the day because it was full.  It won't be as busy if you go at other times of the year but from what I gather there is never a time when the place is not busy. Two main ways to deal with the crowds is to get there early, like before they open early, and make a beeline for the ride/attraction you really want to do before the line ups get out of control, and to make use of FastPass+ which allows you to make reservations for three attractions per day.  It comes standard with every admission so there is no extra cost.  Very popular attractions will actually run out of FastPasses so you will want to make your reservations as soon as possible.  I did ours online a couple weeks before our trip and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was already all out of FastPasses.  We used our FastPasses for Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  We were able to get on the rides within a few minutes of arriving which sure beat waiting in line for over an hour for each one.
Goofing around in line for The Haunted Mansion
If you end up standing in line for a long time some lineups are actually part of the fun.  The line up for the Haunted Mansion for instance has tons of fun stuff to look at and play with.  The line up also moves quickly which at least provides the illusion that you are getting to the front of the line in a timely manner.  Buy the kids a snack before entering a long line and let them eat it while waiting rather than having to stop after and getting something.  Some rides aren't worth waiting in long line ups - the Astro Orbiter for instance or the People Mover - while others aren't terribly exciting (the Carousel)  but have quick or short line ups so are worth doing if you are going by.  
One of the many fun, random things to do in Disney World.
Chances are you will only wind up doing about a half a dozen rides in a day since the line ups are long and there is so much other stuff to do.  My kids loved the parades that seemed to pop up every few hours and the shows that were going on several times a day.  Seeing characters like Alice and the Mad Hatter wander around was also a highlight.  They also liked the gift shops - A LOT!  My kids discovered pin trading while at Disney World and were instantly hooked.  They can't wait to go back, due in large part because they want to trade their pins.  By the way, one trick I learned is to buy a bundle of pins at one of the discount souvenir shops on International Drive so that your kids have some to trade.  My kids spent their allowance money on pins they liked and then didn't want to trade them away so the discount bundle of pins is a good way to ensure they have some they can bear to part with.
Enjoying a Dole Float.
A word about food.  Assuming you aren't on a Disney meal plan you will have to shell out for food. It is expensive so be prepared.  You can bring in your own food but then you have to lug it around all day but it will save you money.  We ate at Pecos Bill in Fronteirland and lunch for me and three kids cost $67 (USD).  It was pretty good and there was certainly plenty of food but not cheap.  The Dole Floats and Dole Whips are the best snack at Magic Kingdom and worth every penny they charge and you can find them at Aloha Isle in Adventureland.  You're welcome!  We liked them so much we actually tried making them at home with some success.

Things to remember: 
  • It takes a long time to actually get into the park.  You have to park and then take a shuttle to the ferry or monorail which then takes you to the park.  Once you are there you have to wait to scan your tickets/wristband and then wait again to go through security.  That was what I meant when I said you should get there before the park even opens because you can do all of that before the park opens and be ready to go as soon as the rope drops.  
  • You do have to pay for parking so have some cash ready for that.
  • If you are staying at a resort they will deliver your gift store purchases to your hotel so that you don't have to lug them around.
  • People always mention that Disney World is expensive and that is true but I didn't find it any more expensive that the other attractions in Orlando.  Universal Studios is more expensive for instance.  You can definitely spend a fortune while in the park if you aren't careful but you can also bring in your own food.  Managing expectations about souvenirs and the like with your kids will also help a lot.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

African Lion Safari - Cambridge

Watusi cattle
I can still sing the jingle from the old African Lion Safari commercial from when I was a kid.  It seemed to play every five minutes when I was a kid and I used to not so subtly hint that we should go by singing the song every chance I got!  We don't have cable these days so my kids had never seen the commercials but somehow they got wind that African Lion Safari was the place to go because when I asked them where they wanted to go for our big summer family day trip they picked it!
He's even funnier when you see him from the other end.
So off we went and the kids liked it so much they have already said they want to go again next year. I would say it was one of the best day trips we have done and let's be real here, we have done lots (a whole blog's worth!)  The highlight of the trip was the drive through game reserve. You can either drive your own car for no extra charge or go in a bus for an additional $5 or so per person.  It is theoretically possible that animals will damage your vehicle but unlikely.  We went through in our van and it was fine.  My kids liked seeing all of the animals but the cheeky baboons were definitely the best.  My kids are still talking about them.
One of the many giraffes in the park
There are lots of animals in the game reserve,  more than I remember from when I was a kid.  They have giraffes, rhinos, zebras, lions, flamingos, you name it.  You can go as slowly or as quickly as you like through the reserve area (well within reason of course!) so if your kids like a particular animal you can linger in that area.

Part of the playground area
There is more to do than just the game reserve, although frankly that would probably be enough to entertain most kids.  They also have a playground area which is in the shade, a petting zoo area, a train ride, a boat ride, several animal shows and the water park.  My kids liked all of these and they are included in the price of admission.
Cooling off in the water park
The water park is great for kids about 12 and under.  There is no pool per se but slides, swings, climbing structures etc. all in the water which is about waist deep on a child.  You do have to keep an eye on them but if you child is school age you won't have to go in the water with them.  There are change rooms and washrooms within the water park.
For some reason animals with regular people names always crack me up.
They also have an elephant swim twice a day which involves the elephants from the park walking down the main path to the large pond where they go for a swim.  This is always a big hit with kids so you will want to see if when you are there.  It is very popular so get there early to get a half decent spot. They also have elephant rides at the other end of the park.  They are an additional fee.
Not actually a bird, but it flies so close enough I guess.
The bird and animal shows are also very popular and fun.  They last about 30 minutes and feature birds and other flying creatures or or elephants.  I am not big on making animals perform (you will never read a review of Marineland on this blog for instance) so I am a bit ambivalent about these types of things.  If you have the same hesitation, I will say that the animals weren't doing tricks per se, they were mainly hanging around and having someone explain them to the kids.  The parrots do things like sing and talk though.  So, use your judgement about whether this is for you and your family.

Things to keep in mind:
  • It isn't cheap.  It will be about $120 just to get in.  You can get passes through airmiles and they sell slightly discounted tickets through Costco.  Also, once you are in pretty much everything is included if you use your own vehicle for the game reserve and you can bring your own food.
  • You will need a whole day there if you want to do it all.
  • Their hours and the times of the shows and elephant swim change based on the time of year so be sure to check the website before heading out.  
  • They do have snack bars throughout the park but you can also bring in your own food.  They have several covered picnic areas.
  • The boat and train ride are both nice and shady if you need a break from the sun and they allow you to see some animals that you don't get to see on the game reserve drive. 
  • Other than the game reserve which you drive through, the rest of the park is fairly compact so even fairly young kids should be able to handle the walking. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Empire State Building - New York City

The Empire State Building is not the tallest building in New York City anymore but it is still probably the tallest building your kids have seen so close enough.  That's pretty much all there is to the Empire State Building though.  You go up the elevator and check out the observation deck.  Adults will enjoy seeing such an iconic building in the flesh as it were  and if it's a clear day you really can see forever but there's only so long kids will hang around and enjoy the view.
The view facing south
There are two very important things to keep in mind when visiting the Empire State Building.  First, it is expensive.  For a family of four to go up to the the highest observation deck it can cost up to $300 if you want to skip the lines.  That is madness.  Don't do this.  Even to go to the lower observation deck (86th floor) and wait in line like a lowly plebe will cost you $124.  Still pretty crazy for riding an elevator if you ask me.  It is included in the City Pass and several other bundles so I would investigate those if you are thinking of checking out the Empire State Building.  Any admission to the Empire State Building, including the one that comes with the City Pass, includes a return visit in the evening on the same day.
For some reason my daughter loved this thing!
The other thing to keep in mind is the actual time you will spend on the Observation Deck is probably less time than you will spend in line.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't go but go when the line ups aren't as bad. We were there at 8:00 a.m. (when it opens) since my kids are up at the crack of dawn anyway.  We went up to the 86th floor, hung around, came down, checked out the gift shop, wandered up to see the New York Public Library lions, had a snack and wandered all the way back down to the Museum of Mathematics (about 2 km walking in total) before they opened at 10:00 a.m. If you can miss the line ups you can be in and out of the Empire State Building in about an hour and still spend all of the time that little kids will want to spend there.
For some reason the kicky little dresses on the bathroom signs tickled me.
Things to keep in mind:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Museum of Mathematics - New York City

The highly anticipated square-wheeled bik.
We looked at a lot of website, videos and books before going to New York City and for some reason the Museum of Mathematics, and particularly the square wheeled bike, was high on my kids' list of things to do. The square-wheeled bike was the highlight of the Museum for my kids, they ended up riding it several times but they did also like some other exhibits at the museum, including the little cart that rolls over a pit of acorns and the chair covered in strings that become more tense as you turn the chair.
Inside the string chair.  I am sure it has an actual name but that is what my kids call it.
There are lots of fun things to do at the Museum but there are also a lot of things that my kids couldn't make heads or tails of.  If there happened to be a staff person nearby they were always happy to explain but if there wasn't my kids couldn't be bothered to go and find the right computer screen and find the right item on that screen and then read the explanations.  I wouldn't say my kids are unusually reluctant to read and they were curious about the things in the Museum so I suspect this is true of a lot of kids.  Part of the reason my kids liked the square-wheeled bikes is because there was someone there to explain how and why they worked.
Making 3-D shapes
They do have a good range of activities so older and younger kids will be able to find things to do.  Younger kids can make 3-D shapes, ride the bikes, acorn trolly and try out the musical doo-dads while the older kids try their hands at some of the mathematical games and Robot Swarm which has little robots that react to your presence.  That would be one of the things my kids couldn't figure out but the high school kids there on a field trip seemed to be enjoying it.

One of the musical doodads I mentioned. Its actual name is Harmony of the Spheres.
Things to keep in mind:

  • You order your tickets online, so you either do that from home or at a kiosk at the Museum.  Tickets are a $1 cheaper if you order online.   It costs about $50 USD for a family of four to visit the Museum.
  • You only need a half day at the Museum, it isn't that big, so you can combine it with another attraction.  It is quite close to the Empire State Building.  The Flatiron Building  and a Lego Store are just around the corner.  We didn't learn about the Lego Store until after our visit but I hear that it is quieter than the one by Rockefeller Center.  
  • There is a cafeteria in the Museum.  There aren't a ton of kid friendly restaurants on the same block as the Museum but there are food carts and a park across the street so if the weather is nice you can grab a bite and eat in the park.

  • There is a gift shop where you can pick up some math games and other fun stuff.  We bought Kanoodle and Math Dice, partly because they are small and would fit in our suitcase!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Central Park Zoo - New York City

Everything I know about the red panda I learned from a volunteer at Central Park Zoo.
We visited lots of places while we were in New York City but the my favourite was Central Park Zoo.  It isn't huge but again when travelling with kids I find bigger isn't always better.  You can do the whole zoo in half a day and it is, as the name would suggest, centrally located so you can definitely combine it with another attraction.  FAO Schwartz is right by the entrance to the park and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History are close by. We walked to MOMA which is a bit farther away but can be done in half a day so is also a good one to combine with another attraction.

The Sea Lions are the highlight of any trip to the Central Park Zoo.  
We arrived right at 10:00 (when the zoo opens) on a slightly drizzly Tuesday in March and there were maybe a dozen other people at the zoo at the same time.  New York City is awesome but it is crowded and loud so the calm and quiet Zoo was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city.  Arriving right at 10:00 not only means that the place isn't crowded but it also means that you can experience the Delacorte Music Clock chiming as you buy your tickets.  My kids loved this and actually stayed and waited until the clock was done before entering the zoo.  We watched the sea lions for a few minutes and then made our way into the penguin house.  A volunteer named Chandra told us all about the penguins and let us know that the penguin feeding would happen at 10:30 so we hung around for that which was a hit.
My daughter thought it was hilarious that one of the bears has the same name as her.
After checking out the penguins we wandered around the rest of the zoo.  We manged to see the mongoose feeding in the Tropic Zone building and make it back for the Sea Lion feeding and exercise program which my kids would have happily stayed at all day.

You can get pretty up close and personal with the birds in the Tropic Zone Building
One of the best things about Central Park Zoo is the volunteers.  I mentioned Chandra who was so friendly and knowledgeable about the animals but there were others too.  I failed to get the name of the lady who told us all about the red pandas and did the commentary for the sea lion feeding but she was also great.  Maybe it was just because the zoo wasn't busy when were were there but it felt like we had our very own tour guides.

Things to keep in mind:

  • They have a 4-D movie theatre.  If you will be buying a ticket for that it is cheaper to do it online.  General admission tickets can only be bought at the Zoo.  For admission with the movie it will be about $60 (USD) for a family of four, general admission is $38 for a family of four.
  • Central Park is pretty low on maps.  We came in on the other side of the park from the Zoo and had a heck of a time finding it.  We stumbled upon an information booth but there was nobody in it.  We did find one map but it didn't help much since it didn't have a "you are here" on it.  We asked several people for directions and were told about 12 different ways to go, including at one point a young man was giving us directions and a woman came over to offer her two cents and they wound up literally pointing us in two different directions.  We did finally get there!
  • One of the polar bears had died shortly before we arrived so the remaining polar bear was not on display when were there.
  • The Zoo is located at 64th Street and 5th Avenue.
  • They do have a snack bar and a gift shop.  
  • They also have a petting zoo area which is included in the general admission price.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Museum of Modern Art - New York

I am in the minority of people who actually like this painting. 
I have mentioned before that my kids enjoy looking at modern art so we knew we had to make a trip to the Museum of Modern Art when we visited New York.  Plus, it's included in the City Pass and it was walking distance from our hotel, so why not?
Despite what "Home" would have us believe, Starry Night is not at the
Louvre, it's at MOMA.
The first thing you should know about the MOMA is that "modern" is quite broadly defined as art created any time after around 1860 and that emphasizes individual experimentation and expression.If you are envisioning an entire museum devoted to paintings with three stripes you will be in for a surprise.  The MOMA does certainly have its fair shair of unusual and, uh, thought provoking art works but it also houses paintings like Starry Night by Vincent Van Gough, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, Water Lillies by Monet and many more famous and accessible works of art by great artists like Picasso and Klimt.
This one is tiny, smaller than a piece of regular paper.
I would go so far as to say that if you have kids who want to see a bunch of great, famous paintings, the MOMA might be a better bet than the Met, if for no other reason than most of the ones that will interest kids are all close together at the MOMA (fifth floor) .  You can spend two hours at the MOMA and see just about everything that will interest kids (depending on what the special exhibition happens to be) and that includes the long line for the coat check. The Met definitely has more art works and artefacts but for some little kids that might actually not be a good thing.  Having said that, if you have time I would recommend doing both museums.
I don't want to spoil the surprise but there actually isn't an air rifle shot in this wall. 
No visit to MOMA is complete without checking out at least some of the more unusual pieces, so be sure to wander through some of the other galleries when you visit.  You never know what you might find if you do. We stumbled upon the Andy Warhol pieces and the Jackson Pollock ones that way and well as things like a helicopter, Bjork's swan dress and the beauty pictured above.
No flash photography at MOMA so this is the only half
decent picture I have of my kids' visit.
Things to keep in mind:

  • A five story musuem sounds daunting but the floors are quite small so fear not!  Plus, as I mentioned most of the popular paintings are on the fifth floor.
  • MOMA is free for children under 12 but $25 per adult.  Special exhibitions will be more.
  • The coat check is free but, at least when we were there, a very slow moving system.  
  • There are three eating establishments in the MOMA, only one of which would really work with kids. There are a million places to eat in the immediate vicinity though so you won't starve.  
  • They do have a gift shop but it actually wasn't that great for kid stuff which was sort of surprising.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York City

When we were planning our trip to New York I read a bunch of books set in New York with my kids. Their favourite one was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler which is about a brother and a sister who run away from home and live at the Met for a week.  So we had to make a trip to the Met while were were in New York.
One of the many treasures we stumbled upon while looking for bathrooms
The first thing you need to know about The Met is that it is huge.  You won't be able to see it all in one visit.  You can find a bunch of suggested itineraries on the Met website or you can make your own based on the interests of you and your kids.   They don't have a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tour, mainly because some of the places and items in the book either aren't there anymore or never existed but there is this handy guide that for some reason is buried in the media section of the Met's website. They also have a bunch of information booklets about various parts of the Museum.  
No touching!  But you can hang out with the statues.  
You will want to check out the website and gallery map before arriving so you have some sense of where the things that interest you are in the gallery.  My kids wanted to see the Egyptian galleries, the Armory and the late 19th and early 20th century French paintings.  So we made sure to hit those areas and see the highlights.  My daughters loved the Armory which has dozens of full sized suits of armour, some of them on horseback.  Their favourite painting was "Joan of Arc" on the second floor in hallway leading to the Impressionist gallery.
Alas, there was no postcard of this one in the gift shop.  
We also discovered all kinds of great stuff wandering around (usually lost).  The American Wing is great and definitely worth a visit as are the Medieval galleries. If you are looking for a quiet spot to take a break for a bit the Chinese garden in the Asian Art section on the second floor is lovely, bright and peaceful.  They even have a Koi pond.  My daughters loved it.
Taking a break in the Chinese garden
Things to keep in mind:
  • Kids under 12 are free.  Adults are $25 each though.
  • The Met is located on the perimeter of Central Park.  You can take the subway to the 86th Street station and then walk the few blocks to the Museum or take the bus.
  • If the weather is nice you can go outside to have a picnic in the park.  They do also have places to eat inside the Met including a cafeteria downstairs and a small cafe by the American Wing.   
  • They have a coat and parcel check and it is free.  
  • No flash photography allowed in the Museum.