Monday, June 6, 2016

Parliament Buildings - Ottawa

Parliament Hill
We visited Ottawa during March Break and had a great time.  I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a short getaway with lots to do for kids and adults.  While we were there we did our patriotic duty and visited Parliament Hill.
The Centennial Flame fountain
One of the best things about Ottawa is that lots of the tourist attractions are free or have free days, including Parliament Hill which offers guided walking tours of the Centre Block year round and tours of the Eastern Block during the summer.  The tours last between 20 - 50 minutes depending on what is in session and are surprisingly interesting for kids.  My kids didn't understand everything the guide said but they know a fancy building when they see one and they always like checking those out.
I swear my daughter did like her tour of the Parliament building although you'd not know it by looking at her here!
My youngest daughter liked the Library and somewhat surprisingly, the Memorial Chamber which commemorates Canadians who have lost their lives in wars, and my oldest daughter liked the Peace Tower which gives a nice view of Ottawa.
Checking out the view from the Peace Tower.
Tours are on a first come first serve basis and can't be booked in advance (unless you are in a group) but you can get them starting at 9:00 a.m.  I suggest going early.  We were there right at 9:00 and we had no trouble getting in and nothing else was open yet anyway.  We did the tour and still made it to the National Gallery of Canada by just after 10:00 a.m. when it opened.    They are only about a 15 minute walk from each other.  I have heard from other people that if you go on a busy day they will run out of tickets so even if you want to go later in the day it might be worth picking up tickets first thing and then going back.
Checking out the library
Things to keep in mind:

  • You do have to go through a security check.  Similar to what you go through at the airport.
  • You can't bring any big bags in with you but they do have a coat/bag check
  • They do have a gift shop.
  • They have special events such as the changing of the guard and fireworks on Canada Day.  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Clearwater Marina - Clearwater, FL

There are a lot of pictures of us squinting into the sun.  I assure you we do actually have eyeballs.
I have two daughters, aged 10 and 8, and they love Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 featuring Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tale.  Along with an astronaut my daughter wants to be a marine biologist and my younger daughter wants to be a veterinarian and loves animals so I knew that they would want to go to Clearwater Marina.  I didn't realize how much they would want to go; once they heard we were going to Florida seeing Winter was at the top of their list of things to do. Winter and her new friend, Hope both reside at Clearwater Marina in Clearwater, Florida so off we went!  We dragged my nephews along too even though they had never heard of Winter or Hope. 
Hope?  Winter?  Can't tell without seeing the tale!
Winter and Hope are the stars at Clearwater Marina and my kids loved seeing them but there are actually lots of other animals at the Marina.  All of them injured or otherwise in need of help.  So it is a nice way to see animals even if you are ambivalent about zoos or animals in captivity.  My kids loved seeing Ricky who plays Rufus the pelican in the movie.  They also thought it was hilarious that the pelican "played" a different pelican. 
This turtle is missing his hind legs?  Flippers?  Appendages!
Another highlight of the visit for my kids was feeding the stingrays.  You buy a few fish and then stand with them between your fingers and the stingrays will come along and snatch them from your fingers.  It was hilarious.  Be warned they only have a certain number of fish and once they are gone you are out of luck so if this is something you want to do head to the office to pay for them as soon as you get there.  Don't worry you don't have to carry the fish around with you all morning or anything, they bring them out at feeding time and hand them out to the people with tickets. 
Feeding a stingray
My kids also liked going into the animal rehabilitation area.  The first time we went through there wasn't a lot happening but when we went through again later there was a turtle being helped which they found fascinating. 

Our tour guide for the Sea Life Safari.  I am horrible at remembering names but he was great!
In addition to the Aquarium there are also other options that you can go for while at Clearwater.  We opted for the Sea Life Safari Boat Tour which was awesome.  It is a 90 minute boat ride where you get to see dolphins in the wild.  This was one of the highlights of the whole trip to Florida for my kids.  You also stop at a little island and can collect shells.  Our tour guide was very informative and friendly and told us all about the animals and plants that live in the area.  He helped my kids identify different shells too which they loved.  They each brought home a baggie full of shells to share with their friends. 
Checking out some sea life samples on the boat ride
On the way back to the Marina the kids got to check out a whole bunch of sea life samples up close.  Things like fish, coral, urchins etc.  They loved it.  The crew of the boat also hauled in their nets and collected some samples while we were heading back.

If you need a break from the heat there is a movie theatre that shows a movie about the making of the film and Winter.  Bring Kleenex, it is oddly affecting.  I know this because the woman across the aisle from me was sobbing through the whole thing.  I am a repressed British person who maintains a stiff upper lip at all times but still...I feel ya, lady.  There might have been a little moisture in my eyes at times. 
Clearwater beach
All in all our visit to Cleawater Marina was a big hit.  It is a must see for anyone who likes the Dolphin Tale movies but even kids who aren't familiar with the movies will have a blast since there is so much else to see and do.

Things to keep in mind:
  • It takes about 2 hours to get from Orlando to Clearwater.  I know some guide books and website say 1 hour but they are LIARS!  You can get to Clearwater the town in just over an hour if the traffic doesn't happen to be bad but once you get there you still have a ways to go and traffic always seems to be bad along the stretch between the town and the Marina.  If you are doing a boat tour or anything they are at specific times so be sure to leave enough time to get there.
  • Parking is free.
  • Clearwater beach is lovely so it is worth spending the day in the area.  Do all of the stuff at the Marina and then hit the beach if the weather is good. 
  • You can bring your food with you or buy food there.
  • General admission is around $20 a person which, frankly, is insanely reasonable for an attraction in Florida. It includes seeing Hope and Winter, Ricky and the other animals, the hospital area, movie etc. If you want to do a boat tour or animal encounter then it will be more.  The Sea Life Safari and general admission was around $40 for an adult and $30 for children.  Animal feedings also cost extra.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Kennedy Space Center - Titusville, FL

As Canadians we were duty bound to check out the Canadarm. 
First off, as a Canadian I want you to know that it pains me to spell it center and not centre so know that I am grimacing every time I type the word.  Moving on!  Kennedy Space Center is huge.  We didn't have time to do it all in one day, especially since they are only open until 6:00. We didn't do the bus tour or the Astronaut Encounter (since we were doing the lunch with an astronaut option).  I hesitate to categorize Kennedy Space Center as educational because that makes it sound like it isn't fun.  It is fun.  My kids loved it and so did I.  In fact I would say that of all the things we did in Florida it was the one that had the best balance of things for kids and adults.
Sam Gemar who went to space 3 times!
When you have a daughter who wants to be an astronaut Kennedy Space Center is pretty much a must see/do.  So of course a trip there was on the itinerary, especially when she heard that they offered lunch with an astronaut.  The lunch with the astronaut was my favourite thing we did in Florida and was also enjoyed by all of the kids in my group.
Space toilets are pretty interesting.
You don't sit down at a table and eat your lunch with an astronaut though in case that is what you are imagining (I was!) Instead, you enter a big dining room and help yourself to the buffet and enjoy your lunch (which was way better than any lunch I have had at an amusement park type place).  Then the astronaut comes out and talks for a while and answers questions.  He will also pose for pictures with your group when the talk is over. My nephew was pleased that his question about going to the bathroom in space was answered so thoroughly!  I recommend getting over to the lunch area a bit before your reservation time. Especially if you are a big group.  You will want to be sure to find a table that will seat all of you together.
I swear I didn't colour coordinate my one child with the space shuttle.   
When you enter Kennedy Space Center the first thing that will catch your eye is the Rocket Garden where kids (and adults) can check out rockets up close.  There are a few you can go inside and it is a great place to take some pictures.  It is open whenever the park is open and unlike a lot of attractions and activities at the Center which are timed, you can spend as little or as much time as you want here so you can always check it out at the beginning and then again later if you have kids who want to spend more time there.
This is not what they mean when they say "Astronaut Encounter"
My kids loved the launch simulator which is inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit.  You can't miss the Space Shuttle since it is, well, a giant space shuttle.  The Atlantis exhibit also houses all kinds of things to look at and do including cockpits to check out and the insides of various rockets.  So you can spend a fair amount of time here.  It is all indoors which is good if it is raining or blazing hot.  
A 10 year old at the helm.  What could possibly go wrong?
My kids also liked the IMAX movie which was included in the price of admission.  Again, a nice way to take a break from all the walking and the heat and/or rain.  Again, I would recommend getting there a bit early if you want good seats.  We were pretty close to the front and it was fine so I wouldn't worry too much.  
Private Ham who was a favourite of my youngest daughter.  
Things to keep in mind:
  • Kennedy Space Center isn't cheap.  For the general admission and the lunch with an astronaut option it was $80 and adult and about $55 for a kid.  I haven't seen any coupons or anything for it either but it is a one a of a kind experience and was well worth the money for me.  Especially the lunch.  If you buy lunch at the concession stand you will probably spend half that anyway and the food was really good at the lunch and you get to meet an astronaut!  
  • They do still launch rockets from Kennedy Space Center.  You can find launch dates and information about which astronaut will be in the Astronaut Encounter area on their website.
  • The gift shops are great!  If you have a space mad kid you will be able to do all your Christmas and birthday shopping there.  They have everything.  
  • Parking is $10
  • They are open 9:00 - 6:00 every day.
  • It takes about an hour to get to Kennedy Space Center from Orlando.  There is less traffic going that way than going to Tampa.
  • There are some great beaches near the Center.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wild Florida - Kenansville, FL (psst, it's near Orlando)

When I asked the 6 kids who went to Florida with me (yes I traveled to Florida with 6 kids in tow and lived to tell the tale) what their favourite thing was in Florida, Wild Florida won.  And we did a lot in Florida (including Disney World, Busch Gardens, Kennedy Space Centre, and Clearwater Marina, so that probably tells you all you need to know.
"I'm the Captain now" 
We opted for a the Half Day Adventure Package which wasn't cheap.  It was about $270 USD (so approximately one million dollars Canadian at the moment) for a family of four.  But like I said it was the favourite thing of just about everyone in our party, adults included and it includes lunch.  You can pick different options that will be cheaper and you can bring your own lunch to save money.

A cow.  Just hanging out in a gator infested everglade.  
We started with our one-hour airboat ride which was great.  I feel horrible because I have forgotten our guide's name but he was great.  Very knowledgeable and friendly.  We did see several Alligators while we were out on the boat along with lots of interesting birds and somewhat surprisingly, cows.

Feeding time at the gator pen
I'm going to go ahead and call our guide John for lack of a better name.  John let all the kids (and me!) sit in the captain's chair when the tour was over and even took a picture for us all together.

A serval, one of the many animals they have on display at Wild Florida.  You can tell this guy is thinking, who is that magnificent beast?  Oh right, it's me.  
After our boat tour was over we went and had lunch.  As I said our package included lunch from the Chomp House Grill.  The food was fine.  I don't know that I would make a special trip out there just for lunch or anything but they have burgers and wraps and the like.  They have enough variety that everyone will be able to find something they like.  You can also pay extra and get some alligator nuggets.  They taste like a cross between chicken and fish.

Feeding the birds
Wild Florida also has a great zoo area.  It isn't huge but the animals are all great and they have lots of opportunities to interact with them.  My kids loved feeding the birds.  You buy popsicle sticks with bird seed on them and then stand in the bird enclosure and the birds will come to you.  When they hand you the popsicle sticks you will find yourself thinking "what, I paid $10 for three of these?!?!?!" but they actually last a long time.  We were in the bird enclosure for over 30 minutes feeding the birds. You can also feed alligators and several other animals.  They even have a sloth encounter!  I managed not to pull a full on Kristen Bell upon hearing that but it was close.  My kids loved the animal park, probably as much as the airboat ride.

This cheeky bastard stole my stick!  
Our package also included a photo of each of us with Fluffy, a young alligator as well as a group shot. Again, you can save money by not picking that option but we love our photos and it is the only picture we have from the trip with our whole group.
So, in summary I would highly recommend Wild Florida for a group of any size and/or age.  I was with six kids ranging in age from 5 - 14, boys and girls, and they all loved it.  All four of the adults in our party loved it too.

Things to keep in mind:
  • As the crow flies, Kenansville is about as far from Orlando as Tampa but it takes less time to get there since there is way less traffic.
  • Wild Florida was just about the only place we went to in Florida that wasn't packed.  It wasn't empty but there was no long line ups or worrying about losing your kids in a crowd.  Just to hungry gators. 
  • They have a great gift shop.
  • Along with airboat rides they also offer Ranch Buggy rides.  We didn't do that so I can't say much about it but you can find more information on their website.
  • They were super friendly and helpful.  We had to cancel two people from our party due to illness and they were the only attraction in Florida who did it without any hassle or bother.    

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Busch Gardens - Tampa, Florida

If you are heading to Florida and have a kid who likes thrill rides Busch Gardens is the place for you. The roller coasters are bigger, faster, steeper - you name it - than the ones at Disney World.  So if you have daredevils in your party it is definitely worth a trip.

One word of warning about Busch Gardens though.  It is huge. Much bigger than Disney World so be prepared for a lot of walking.  The main reason for the size is that not only does it house a large assortment of rides it also has animal enclosures.  It is pretty much a zoo and an amusement park in one.
One of the many animals on display at Busch Gardens.
My older daughter's favourite ride was SheiKra.  It has a vertical drop near the beginning which is good/bad enough but right after your get over the top of that hill they hang you there for what seems like a long time.  My daughter thought this was awesome.  I may have employed some salty language to express my opinion about that development.  It wasn't so bad the second time around.
Look at them just dangling there!  This is the SheiKra
My younger daughter liked Congo River Rapids the best.  I liked this one too.  Be warned, everyone in your party will get at least a little bit wet and one or two of you will get soaked.  Of course it was me and of course I was wearing a white tshirt when it happened.  They do have large people sized dryers right outside the ride but they cost $5.  Y'all can just enjoy the view because I'm not paying $5!
The Cheetah Run attraction.  Simple but effective!
I knew Busch Gardens had animals but for some reason I was expecting a few goats and ducks or something.  They actually have as many animals as most zoos, including lions, zebras, gorillas and elephants.   You can see the animals any time the park is open but they also have various animal encounters and meet the trainer events throughout the day so check the list of animal attractions.  The most popular is probably the Cheetah Run which is pretty much what it sounds like.  The Cheetahs run.

A nice way to spend the afternoon is to check out the animals.  No line ups!
While Busch Gardens is great for thrill seekers it does also have plenty to do for younger or less adventurous siblings (and parents).  The animals will keep kids happy and occupied for the better part of the day but there are also rides that are more suited for littler ones such as the Sand Serpent.  The Serengetti Railroad and Skyride are also fun and a nice way to rest tired feet for a while.

This is a sandstorm simulator which has no sand.  Make of that what you will. 
I went to Orlando with my two daughters and my sister's four boys and a bunch of the kids in our party said they preferred Busch Gardens to Disney World so it is definitely worth a trip.

Things to keep in mind:
  • A lot of the rides require you to secure all your valuables in lockers before boarding so you might want to not bother bringing them in the first place.  My camera was in a locker most of the day - hence the lack of pictures for this post!  
  • The all-day dining plan is pretty good.  If you do plan to be there all day it is probably worth it.  If you buy your tickets online you can get a deal - admission and the dining all day plan plus a shuttle to and from Orlando if you need it - for $99.  A regular all day admission is $89 so may as well pay the extra $10 to get food and drinks for the whole day.  In theory you can pop in and get water once an hour but the line ups can be long so I wouldn't count on doing this on a busy day.  For our lunch we waited maybe 10 minutes to get food and find a table. For dinner it took longer since the park gets busier as the day goes on.  
  • It is way less busy in the mornings.  Get there right when it opens and you can ride most of the really popular rides before the line ups get too long.  Cheetah Hunt has the worst line ups later in the day.  You can always spend the afternoon looking at the animals to avoid the ride lines.  
  • Maps and guidebooks will tell you that Tampa is 1 hour from Orlando.  They lie.  All of them. I mean, it is technically true (which is usually my favourite kind of true) but with traffic and construction it is always at least 90 minutes.  More if you happen to be going during rush hour (don't go during rush hour).  

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!

First thing in the morning and 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 which you probably won't be if you are only doing one day,  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.