Archive for the ‘Attractions’ Category

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

My husband and I went for our first time out of the country this past month and it was the experience of a lifetime. In the upcoming weeks, I wanted to share with you a little bit about our experience with traveling internationally from how we saved the money to do it to packing for your vacation.  Since this is our first time out of the country, we lack the seasoned advice of travelers like Tsh from The Art of Simple (I have been just dying over their family’s incredible adventure, haven’t you?), but I hope we can bring a new voice to it about first-time international travel.

One of the keys to our success was utilizing a travel agent and going the group tour route for our first time traveling internationally. This surprised us so we wanted to share that experience with you especially if you are trying to travel internationally on a budget.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

The savings plan (I will go over that next week) had been in place for many years so that our family would not feel the pinch when we decided to take our 15th anniversary trip. Since it was our first time out of the country we had to get our passports. We headed to the post office to get the paperwork filled out which I was pretty nervous about.  I have so many issues because I dropped my middle name when I got married and this has been the biggest headache of paperwork ever since because my license and Social Security card do not match (thank you, Indiana).

My husband’s passport showed up in our mailbox quickly and I, of course, got a letter that my name was not correct on my license. After it being put before a board to determine if I am who I say I am (Sam I AM), they sent the passport with my correct name and that is when we started moving on the booking of grandma (bless her Jesus-sized heart!) and the booking of our travel.

I asked my friend Erika Brown from Chic Shopper Chick to help us because she and her husband had taken an excursion to Italy and she is my go-to gal when it comes to travel.

Armed with her amazing advice, we reached out to Cheryl Oddo from Carefree Vacations (telephone number 800.683.4074 and her email is coddo(at)carefreevacations(dot)com) to assist us with booking our travel.

PS- She said you can reach out to her if you are interested in pricing for yourself and she is awesome. Please tell her you are my friend! 

This was our first time working with a travel agent and it definitely will not be the last. Cheryl asked what we were most interested in seeing and looking for in a trip to Italy. She then sent to us several ideas for group travel packages that we could do and the pricing for each option. The pricing was carefully spelled out and told us what would be included (transportation, breakfast at our hotel, walking tours) and what wasn’t covered (airfare, additional excursions, tipping). We noticed the rates increased during the height of tourist season and selected one right before the rate hike for Italy to make the most of our money and the timing of our incredible grandma.

Here is where I keep things real….

I did not want to do group travel for my 15th wedding anniversary.

I did not want to be social.

Mostly, I just didn’t want to share my husband with anyone and I wanted to have a really romantic vacation with just him.

We weren’t thrilled.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

At the same time, we had NEVER been anywhere out of the states and the idea of navigating Italy was, indeed, far too daunting for the two of us. My husband didn’t feel comfortable driving and I didn’t feel comfortable planning an itinerary and finding public transportation to everything. This did seem like the best option and what unfolded was quite glorious.

Here are 7 reasons why I think group tours are a great travel option (if you are a seasoned traveler or not):

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Can Avoid the Lines for Important Monuments

The lines at some of the important monuments and museums had minimum wait times of an hour or more. Since we were on a group tour, our guide knew what time to take us to avoid the crowds to get the best experience, and they had a VIP line for tours where you could bypass all the people who were not on a tour and just go right in to see everything.  For us, we were only able to spend seven days in Italy and we wanted to experience as much as we could in this short amount of time. Doing the tour allowed us to see multiple attractions in a single day and beat the crowd doing it.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Have a Great Ride to See Everything Up Close

Our tour offered a motorcoach that even included WiFi so that we could share our photos and update email on the trip. Not only did we have an incredible guide, but our driver got us as close to our destinations as possible which helped us waste less time walking and more on the attractions themselves. The first night, for example, we got to see the lights of Rome and the bus pulled right up so we could take a photo. A nice touch of Andrea Bocelli singing Time to Say Goodbye certainly completed the mood while gazing upon the beautiful city.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Learn SO Much Through Guided Tours

Here’s a little secret, I was a terrible student and listener.


It’s hard to hold my attention so I was on the fence if a guided tour was going to be my cup of espresso, so to speak.

Here’s another shocker.

It was.

The reason?

The tour guides were phenomenal. One of our guides majored in art history the other was doing archeology in Rome. These guides just didn’t know a little about these attractions, they knew everything. Standing at the feet of David would have still been a moving experience, tour or not, but when the guide told the story of Michelangelo and his passion for art as well as helping us discover details that we would have never noticed before, it made it an entirely different experience.


Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Still Have Time To Shop & Explore On Your Own

Our big worry was that we would just be on a neverending tour everywhere, but that wasn’t the case. On some of the excursions, we were given a quick walking tour and then we were told where to come back for meeting and for other tours and you always had the option to opt out of any experience and do your own thing. For us, the travel into destinations would be more to cab it and try to navigate on your own then it would have been taking the motorcoach in and having the free time.

One day we skipped a tour to visit the Uffizi. We let our travel director know where we were headed and he not only checked to see if he could get us tickets (impossibly awesome to do this), but he walked us to the cab, told us how long we might expect to wait, and where could pick a cab back up. After three hours trying to get in, we walked in the museum to see my husband’s favorite work of art and had a glass of wine on the rooftop with an incredible view. When we got back, my husband hugged our tour guide with tears in his eyes because it helped make the impossible possible.

It was the sweetest thing ever.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Will Know the Lay of the Land

No matter where you go there are good parts of town, bad parts of town, appropriate etiquette and tipping guidelines, and protocols  that you will need to know when navigating somewhere new. A guide can tell you where to find a bathroom (invaluable, if you ask me!), if you should tip someone, where to watch for pickpockets (and how they operate), as well as assist you if you have special dietary needs.

I thought being gluten-free would be an issue, but it NEVER was. I let our tour director know that I couldn’t have gluten and he let every single chef know wherever we ate. When on our own, he supplied incredible recommendations for where to get a bite to eat.

Safety would have been a big concern if we would have been on our own. We were advised how to hold our purses and where we shouldn’t be going to avoid having our money stolen.

Part of me disbelieved the hype until we stood in line at a museum and a girl told us how kids were distracting her and being cute in a seat next to her while they stole all the money in her purse on the subway.

Maybe this wasn’t just hype. Maybe we were really lucky to know this after all.

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Will Save A LOT

Not only did the travel agent provide good advice for making the most of our money, but the group tour option saved us thousands thanks to the affordability of group travel.  Factoring in the better budget accommodations, the transportation (by boat and by car), the included meals, and the walking tours, we really saved a bundle by going through a group tour.

Were all the meals spectacular? No. Were all the hotels fantastic? No.

We shrugged it off and worked around it. Most places we were there only a night or two so it was easy to laugh off. If we wanted better food, we could cab it somewhere better than the hotel offerings.

Group travel does require flexibility and it isn’t always perfect. For the most part, it was about the destination and the people…not necessarily the accommodations!

Group Travel Tours: Are They REALLY a Good Deal?  from

You Will Make Incredible Friends

You know those two people who just wanted to be ALONE and not be social?


We met people from ALL OVER THE WORLD.

I even met two bloggers/photographers (check out Better Family Photos & Kellie Carter Photography)- what are the odds?

It never felt lonely or isolating when you had people to talk with.  Everyone has a story and I tried to put my listening ears on (see above why this is hard) and really listen and learn from these incredible people. My heart was so full and we had so much fun together that I was teary-eyed when it was time to go. Not to just leave this incredible country, but to leave these incredible friends. How lucky we are to have a place like Facebook where we can continue to follow one another.

There you have it.

Group tours are not only far more affordable, but they are officially the Clark jam.

We can’t wait to do another one!

Have questions? Ask me! Have a personal experience doing a group tour? Share it here! See more photos of our trip on Instagram (I’d be honored!) xo

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Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

As my kids get older, we have found that they need and want less and less.  We have also found that we desire less clutter and more moments with our kids so my husband and I hatched up a Choose Your Own Adventure gift for the holidays this year that we gave them in lieu of gifts.

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? They were my favorite when I was a kid because each time you read a book, you could make a choice that would take you down a different path. I think I reread this one a million times, returning the well-worn pages back to the library, only to to check it out again.

That idea of choosing your own adventures still lives on and I decided that this year, our family would make travel a top priority. I want my children to have big adventures and see the world so at Christmas, we gave them the unique opportunity to, truly, choose their own summer adventure with us as a family.

I tell you this now instead of in the winter because this one requires a chat with your kids about gift expectations and it also requires saving money for your adventure. 

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

We asked our kids if they would like to do a vacation instead of gifts this past Christmas and they were so excited to do this which thrilled us to no end.

Since my husband is a web designer, he came up with the genius idea to create a retro travel brochure (complete with a typewriter smear) that would make it look like this package was designed just for them that they could open on Christmas morning. Since there would be no gifts under the tree, we really wanted to give them something to enjoy on Christmas morning and to create a new tradition of gift-giving in our family!

The Mom & Dad Travel Agency (making dreams come true since a few minutes ago- ha!) cover sheet was designed with their names on it and placed on top of the gift.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

The first package they opened outlined the rules of the adventure.  If you decide to do something similar, you can create your own rules, but these were the rules we set up to make sure that things went smoothly. 

Found below are the rules we gave our kids! 

Rules for Our Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Package

ONE- You must agree TOGETHER on the trip. We know that this will be tough, but it is also a great opportunity to work on your teamwork skills. Take your time coming to your decision and read through each of the files carefully. In it, we have outlined how you will get to your destination, where and who you might visit, as well as the exclusive adventure you will get to take.

TWO- Although we will do our best to book the places we have outlined for you, these will also be subject to availability. Do you know what that means? It just means, it depends on if the places or owners have space for us. For example, if the place we show you ends up not being available when we are able to go, we promise to find something as close as possible to what we have shared with you. That is the MOM & DAD TRAVEL AGENCY guarantee.

THREE- We will book the destination of your choosing as soon as possible, but the trip will be taken in the SPRING (sometime between the months of MARCH-MAY). Again, all of this will hinge on the availability and the ideal weather for wherever you select.

FOUR- HAVE FUN! Again, the MOM & DAD TRAVEL AGENCY is so pleased that you want to do something with… well…, your MOM & DAD as a gift. How many parents get to say that? We are so proud to take this trip with you and look forward to serving all of your travel needs.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

I designated one file folder for each package idea and my husband created retro cover sheets for each package. For our family, the three destinations were to Florida (Universal and our Mimi), Boston (renting a houseboat and seeing where my son was born), and California (to see the Redwood Forest). Each package was wrapped individually so they had three files to open in the morning.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

I then typed up travel itineraries that we hoped the kids would love reading together in the morning. We really wanted to make each of these special and a true gift in the morning.

Upon opening all three, they had a little conference session on their own to decide the trip that they wanted to do.  As outlined in the rules above, they had to decide together.  We knew this might be tough, but there was also the option of one picking one year and the other picking the next year.  

In fact, we are planning to recycle one that wasn’t chosen (that seemed to get a lot of buzz) and add a couple of new options.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Over our annual Christmas Tree Cinnamon Rolls, they shared that Universal was the chosen holiday for the year. I am proud to say it wasn’t really about seeing the Harry Potter world at all… it was, in fact, getting to see their amazing Mimi that really sold our Mom & Dad Agency package.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Idea from

I hope this idea is inspiring to your family! We are so excited to take adventures with our kids this year and in the years to come and are so happy they enjoyed this gift as much as we enjoyed creating it for them!

*This post contains affiliate links!
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Family Travel: Exploring Columbus, Ohio

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014


Exploring Columbus, Ohio

Our family just returned from a trip to Columbus, Ohio and we are so excited to share about our family trip with you. We were hosted by TourismOhio to learn more about the fun options for things to do, see, and eat in Columbus, Ohio. They then acted as our own personal concierge and created an amazing itinerary based upon our family’s interests and tastes. We were so thankful for this opportunity to explore Ohio in a really unique way that made us truly feel like locals.

Since they so graciously created an itinerary for us, we want to share with you what we did each day while we were there and what our family thought about it. Thanks to this thoughtful itinerary, we were able to pack a lot into our days and everything was within minutes of each other, making it easy to go from one attraction to another.  Today’s post will be our honest impressions of the experience with two kids who are 8 and (almost!) 12 years-old.

Franklin Park Conservatory
Franklin Park Conservatory
Franklin Park Conservatory

Franklin Park Conservatory
Franklin Park Conservatory

Our first stop on our trip was to visit the Franklin Park Conservatory to check out the butterfly garden. We loved being able to see the display of the butterflies as they grow in the windows in front of the butterfly garden. Once you step inside it is impossible not to be in awe of the hundreds of butterflies that flit and flutter around the gardens. There were so many different varieties of butterflies that we could have stayed there all day just looking at the butterflies. Our goal was to hold still enough that a butterfly might land on us. Hitchhiking is discouraged so they have a mirror where you can check to make sure you haven’t picked up a butterfly hitchhiker on your way out.

We spent so long gazing at the butterflies that we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked to walk through the gardens, but there is just so much to do there that I would definitely give yourself at least two hours to really enjoy the magic of the butterflies and the gardens. The gardens are breathtaking and there is plenty to look at both indoors and outdoors.

One of our favorite things at the Franklin Park Conservatory though was the Blue Butterflies: Migration Across America exhibit that is being displayed on May 17–September 21. The Indiana-based artist Tasha Lewis transformed the Cardinal Health Gallery with 4,000 cyanotype butterflies printed on cotton fabric. These butterflies have been installed in public spaces across the country and you can view the photography of where these butterflies have been captured on photos all over the world.

The Topiary Park
The Topiary Park
The Topiary Park

After that, we hopped into the car to head over to The Topiary Park to become a part of a topiary painting. The Topiary Park is a seven-acre park in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It’s big claim to fame is  its topiary interpretation of Georges Seurat’s famous Post-Impressionist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte. Visitors come from around the world to enjoy the unique experience of walking into and through a work of art. The admission on this is free and is a fun place to walk around, take a few pictures, or lounge on the lush grass. You can grab a handout in front of the painting and gaze at it from a park bench. There are lots of hills to roll down, as my kids discovered, and you can sit by the pond and watch the ducks swim by. It’s quite peaceful and a sweet escape from the hustle & bustle of the city.

Milestone 229

Our final stop of the day was dinner at Milestone 229 with the family. This was our most expensive dinner out, but I would say the most delicious and offered a beautiful view of the city that was worth the extra expense. Reservations are strongly encouraged and, due to restaurant size, you definitely want to get right in a seat and enjoy the view.  I would also recommend the $6 valet parking that they offer so that you do not need to worry about finding a spot to park on the busy streets. It was worth the $6 especially since we didn’t know our way around.

The menu was unique, the service was excellent, and the kid’s portions on the food were generous. I ate gluten-free for the entire vacation, which was difficult at times, but the one thing that I did indulge in a bit of was the Pig-Nic appetizer that we all agreed was the best thing we had ever eaten. It was a crispy pork belly served with pickled peaches, house made hot sauce and savory honey appetizer that blew me away with the depth of flavor.  Tweason’ale  was the gluten-free beer on tap and they even had an extensive gluten-free menu.  Our waiter was knowledgeable and offered loads of advice on things not to miss around the city.

We left clutching stuffed bellies and headed out back for what my children deemed, “the world’s best water park ever.” Smarter travelers would have brought the kids in their swimsuits and towels for this, but the kids really thought this was a blast because we told them that they could get soaking wet in their clothes and we would dry off when we got back to the hotel.

The Scioto Mile
The Scioto Mile
The Scioto Mile
The Scioto Mile
The Scioto Mile

Located in the heart of downtown Columbus, the Scioto Mile is an urban oasis comprised of more than 145 acres of lush parkland. Stretching along the riverfront from the vibrant Arena District to the natural beauty of the Whittier Peninsula, the Scioto Mile reconnects downtown to the Scioto River through an integrated system of parks, boulevards, bikeways and pedestrian paths.

It offered a stunning 15,000 square-foot interactive fountain that my kids played in until well past bedtime. Sadly, we did not get a chance to check out the country’s largest free outdoor climbing wall and the world’s most authentic replica of the Santa Maria because I could not persuade my children from this fountain.

My husband and I loved watching the kids run through the fountain and I loved that this was a free way to spend our evening. I would recommend dressing your children brightly though because it is very easy to lose sight of them since it is so large.

Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium

Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium

The next day we spent the entire day exploring the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium. Be sure to pack your walking shoes because this zoo is BIG. We had tickets to also head to the Zoombezi Bay, but we did not get through all that we wanted to see at the zoo, even though we were there for seven hours!  There are so many animals to see that it was a treat for my two animal-lovers. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is home to more than 10,000 animals representing over 575 species from around the globe!  As if that wasn’t enough, they also have a new Heart of Africa exhibit that spans over 43-acres with 150 animals!  In this new exhibit you can come face-to-face with giraffes and feed them a snack, get up-close with lions as you board a grounded airplane, take a camel ride, watch the fastest land animal reach top speeds at the cheetah run, and take in the views of the savanna while the animals gather around the watering hole.

We were in animal-heaven and loved getting a chance to see all of these beautiful animals while we there. To cut down on expenses, we brought in our own snacks and drinks (no straws please!) which helped us keep moving through the different exhibits more quickly. The day we went was humid and hot at almost ninety degrees. Despite the heat, we found spots to take shelter from the sun and had a great visit while we were there. We highly recommend making the zoo & aquarium top on your Columbus priority list. We can see why it is one of the best in the US.

Ray Ray's Hog Pit
Ray Ray's Hog Pit

After such a full day at the zoo, we were feeling unmotivated to head back out for dinner. In lieu of the formalities, we decided to seek out a food truck treasure in Columbus and grab some barbecue for dinner. Have you heard of Ray Ray’s Hog Pit? Well, if you don’t know, now you know. Seriously, the world’s best barbecue and tucked away behind Ace of Cups off of High St. We felt like we were truly locals when we found this truck for our dinner. It’s one of the highest rated barbecue joints in Columbus and offered just the right amount of sweetness, smokiness, and spice. The brisket was killer as was the pulled pork (minus my bun). The sides though almost rivaled the meat with a spicy collard green and some of the best baked beans I have ever eaten.

We recommend picking it up and taking it to go to enjoy at a fun park or at your hotel to get in a swim if you are bringing the kids. If you are going for a date, you can enjoy a drink or two on the adjacent patio with an interesting crowd and, I have no doubt, you would have a few stories to share.

Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus Museum of Art

Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus Museum of Art
The next day was one of my favorite days of our trip because we got to explore the Columbus Museum of Art. In many art museums we have visited, the museum is not geared towards children or making a visit a family experience. This was, by far, one of the most amazing art museums that you could enjoy with your entire family. Each room had some type of interactive section for kids to jot down what they thought about an exhibit, materials for them to create with, or puzzles of the art itself.  In addition to that, they had a Wonder Room where kids could create and play interactively with art. Whether it was creating their own shadow box display, gathering and creating a nest from various textiles and ribbons, or playing dress up, this area geared towards children could have kept my children busy and happy for hours.

I loved that bags were provided to encourage you to create and take your projects home with you.

For us, the art was a little slice of heaven. Although they offered beautiful pieces from famous artists like Monet, I fell in love with many of the more eclectic and unknown-to-me artists that represent such diversity and technique. My husband and I both agreed that this was one of our favorite things that we did and the kids had just as much fun as us.  I would add this to your travel agenda if you are exploring Columbus.

The Book Loft of German Village

The Book Loft of German Village

The Book Loft of German Village

Our next stop quickly become another family favorite situated in German Village. The Book Loft of German Village is one of the nation’s largest independent book stores and is located at 631 South Third Street in Columbus, Ohio, just a few blocks South of the state capitol building. The pre-Civil War era buildings that once were general stores, a saloon and a nickelodeon cinema, now are home to 32 rooms of Bargain Books.

The books are offered a discounted rate, while the truly discounted reside just outside of the book loft.  Be sure to have a way to get in touch with one another and divide and conquer this maze of a bookstore. Narrow hallways wind into different genres of books, making it easy to fall in love and get lost in this winding 32-room bookstore.

We left the store with big stacks of books that made our bookworm hearts very happy. Once we were done browsing the bookstore, we made our way over to the North Market which was just a short drive away to experience another Columbus treasure.

North Market of Columbus, Ohio

North Market of Columbus, Ohio

Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream
Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream

No less than a million locals encouraged us to make sure that we find a way to make Jeni’s Ice Cream a visit priority. We decided to head to the North Market so each of us could indulge in whatever types of foods we were in the mood for and we could finish our visit with a scoop of ice cream.

Established in 1876, the North Market is Columbus’ only remaining true public market. More than 30 merchants vend a wide variety of fresh, local, authentic food. Offerings include organic produce, grass-fed beef, pork, lamb and goat, pastured poultry, sustainably raised seafood, locally roasted coffee, baked goods, cheeses, flowers and other artisan food items. The Market also provides an international selection of freshly prepared foods, authentic ethnic specialties, distinctive gifts and personable service from its merchant owner operators.

The market was very busy and the crowds were bustling, but we managed to find a table upstairs to enjoy our food. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, as suggested, was a Columbus highlight for us. We sampled the Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, Savannah Buttermint, the Buckeye State, Salty Caramel, the Milkiest Chocolate in the World, and Askinosie Dark Milk Chocolate…just to name a few.

You know, to tell you all about it. For work. Hard day. Etc.

Every flavor was divine and we all thought we picked the best one. Basically, you can’t go wrong.





Our next stop was to the COSI , Columbus, Ohio’s dynamic Center of Science and Industry. The COSI was opened in 1964 at Memorial Hall in downtown Columbus, COSI moved in 1999 to a new 320,000-square-foot home designed by internationally-renowned architect Arata Isozaki, creating one of the largest modern-built science centers in the United States.

As a “center of science,” rather than a standalone science center, COSI has established embedded partnerships that enrich the guests’ experiences, including WOSU@COSI, the only working television station in a science center; the Ohio State University (OSU) Labs in Life, working research laboratories created through a partnership with The Ohio State University and staffed by OSU researchers; Battelle’s STEM Innovation Network, in partnership with one of the world’s leading research institutions; the Columbus Historical Society; and the STEM-based Metro High School, among others.

The kids had a blast exploring the COSI and getting to experience lifting a Honda (and they do say HONDA not car- well played, Honda!) visiting the ocean wing with all of the fun waterworks, as well as touring  around the Progress wing, and watching people ride on the high wire unicycle.

There was lots to see and do here, but you should note that we found that with some of the more exciting things on the floors, like the wind tunnel, actually were coin-operated and were additional charges. The movies and other exhibits also were extra on top of the general admission.

If your kids do want to ride the unicycle, note that they cannot be in sandals, which meant that we couldn’t partake that day.  To ride the high wire unicycle, you need closed-toe shoes (sorry, no sandals, high heels, or Crocs), weigh under 250 pounds, and have at least a 25-inch inseam. To avoid disappointment, remember the High Wire Unicycle closes a half-hour before COSI does, and to accommodate guests fairly, the line may close earlier.

All important things that we did not know before we headed over.

The Columbus Crew

Our final evening we had tickets to watch the Columbus Crew play. So…I have never been to a soccer game with more enthusiastic fans than Columbus. You guys take it to another level! Unfortunately, due to weather and circumstances beyond their control, the game was canceled the night we attended. We were so bummed, but had quite the stories to tell about the visit, the fans, and the monsoon that we drove into and out of to attend.

The next day we had hoped to make it over to the Easton Town Center, but since it did not open until noon, we decided to head on back to good ol’ Indiana and make plans to shop another day…perhaps, without the kids.

Hilton Garden Inn

I would also like to say that our accommodations were perfection at the Hilton Garden Inn. Sleep number adjustable beds, a Keurig for coffee, a fridge for drinks and snacks, a fantastic made-to-order breakfast available, and huge coffee carafes and fruit-infused water by the entrance so we always had a drink. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable offering suggestions for a gluten-free pizza joint we could order from and making sure we were comfortable and cared for at all times. The pool was just the right size and a hot tub was just what I wanted to sink into at the end of the day.

The best memories though are the ones that I can’t always capture- curling up with the family watching Food Network together in the evenings and belly-laughing, the pure unadulterated joy of wonder as my kids discovered new things, my husband’s face and jaw-dropping when he saw the art at the museum, the sunset we caught while the kids splashed in the water park, and the squeals of delight over who had the best ice cream (in case you were wondering, it was mine!).

We left with full hearts, bellies, and a whole lot of beautiful memories.

Thank you, Columbus, for your hospitality!

Love this travel piece? Be sure to check out our Family Travel section for more ideas for places to visit! So, Columbus, what did we miss? Feel free to share your favorite Columbus, Ohio travel suggestions here!

Our family received lodging, food, and event tickets in exchange for our honest thoughts and opinions on Columbus sponsored by TourismOhio.  All opinions expressed are our own and we received no additional compensation.

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Dinosaurs Alive! Exhibit at Brookfield Zoo

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Ever since my son was small he has been obsessed with dinosaurs. He did not speak for the first two years of his life and when he did decide to talk, his first words were about two of his favorite dinosaurs-  pachycephalosaurus and coelophysis. I had thought he would outgrow dinosaurs, but last summer his love for them was sparked again and I found him pouring over his encyclopedias and watching documentaries about them.

That is why we were so excited when Brookfield Zoo contacted us about a sneak peek media day to explore the Dinosaurs Alive!  exhibit that opened on April 6th.

What is Dinosaurs Alive!?

Dinosaurs Alive! will run through October 27th and takes zoogoers down a winding trail of animatronic dinosaurs that make a variety of sounds and movements. There are 24 dinosaurs in all and each offer interactive displays that give you the chance to move them by pressing buttons and well-thought information. Our kids got a kick out of the fun facts in creative tabloid-magazine displays with shocking facts like, “I didn’t even know I was laying eggs,” that parents will truly get a chuckle out of while enjoying the exhibit with their children.

The new indoor display of Feathers and Fossils highlights the most recent findings that include scientific discoveries demonstrating how birds evolved from dinosaurs. The room literally roars as you walk in, and hear all of the dinosaurs chiming in together as they move around in this display.

Kids can be like real paleontologists and dig in a Dino Dig area where they can brush off  fossil displays in the back of the Feathers and Fossils exhibit. Our kids absolutely loved this hands-on element of the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit.

Is This Just for Boys? Heck no!

If you think this exhibit was just for the boys, you would be wrong. My daughter loved this one just as much as her brother and we had a hard time pulling them out of this exhibit to explore other areas of the zoo. She loved the Dino Dig area, making the dinosaurs move, and the interactive displays and information that made this exhibit so charming.

Since he is such a big dinosaur lover, Ethan is going to share with you about the new Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit at Brookfield Zoo. He truly enjoyed talking to the knowledgeable employees and many offered him a job at the zoo to volunteer at the exhibit as he spouted off his facts. Sadly, the zoo is a 2 1/2 hour drive for us or I think he would have began working there that day.

Dinosaurs Alive! at Broofield Zoo Review by Ethan (Age 10)

Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit was a place that was a fantastic dinosaur-filled adventure that seemed like it was already done, but it was actually still in the making. I’ll give it 4 stars. only a few mistakes, but I could hardly see most of them. It still was astonishing, though!


Dinosaurs Alive! is $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors over 65 in addition to regular zoo general admission of $15 for adults and $10.50 for children and seniors over 65. Children 2 and under are free. Beginning in April, discounted-combo general zoo admission and Dinosaurs Alive! tickets will be available for purchase at participating Dominick’s stores. Zoo members can take advantage of half-price admission to Dinosaurs Alive! Or guests can now pay for a day and come back for the year with the Zooper Fun Pass. For the same price as a one-day all-inclusive ticket, the Zooper Fun Pass offers admission to Dinosaurs Alive! and to each of Brookfield Zoo’s six other special attractions. And with the Zooper Fun Pass, guests can also come back to visit again and again throughout 2013. For more information, visit this page.
We would like to say a huge thank you to Brookfield Zoo for such a fun excursion over our Spring Break. We brought our best friends and they represent three different age groups and they all equally loved this interactive display. We spent almost two hours in this area alone, making it truly worth the price of admittance, especially with the fun new dino facts they each came away with. When asked what their favorite part of the day was at the zoo, they all said the Dino Alive! exhibit!
We can’t wait to come back and see it all again!

Our family received free admittance in exchange for our thoughts and opinions on the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit. All opinions expressed are our own and we received no additional compensation.

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Family Travel: Exploring Saugatuck, Michigan

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Our family spent the most glorious week in Saugatuck, Michigan last week and we wanted to share with you our experience traveling to this fun little Midwest destination for your family travel. Words like epic, most relaxing vacation ever, and best vacation of our life may have flown out of our mouths. Sometimes the sweetest destinations are the simplest and lurking practically in your own backyard.

Saugatuck is a little harbor village that celebrates diversity and offers a fun artsy community for visitors to explore. Recently The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Saugatuck/Douglas as one of the “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in the U.S. and the writers and editors of Midwest Living Magazine ranked Saugatuck/Douglas fifth among the top 100 vacation destinations in the Midwest. Saugatuck happens to be just an hour and a half from our home, yet it seemed a world away and happened to be our first visit to the town.

Rental properties abound in this town and it is just a matter of selecting your house early enough and finding one in your price point. We searched on HomeAway to find our own dream property. I took on a freelance job and squirreled the money away for our vacation and when we saw this rental in Kingfishers Cove, we knew it would be perfect for us. A gorgeous little log cabin with modern amenities was our heart’s desire and we made it happen.

To save on this expense, you could definitely split the property with another family, book during the week instead of paying for weekend rates, or cut expenses by selecting a smaller size property. Remember that the properties book quickly and you need to plan a couple of months in advance to grab the premium spots in town.

When I asked around on Facebook about the best things to do and see while we were in the area, everyone had their own favorite spots in the town and a bucket list of fun activities to do there. We made a list of everything we wanted to do from the responses (this one from Travelmomiac was among my favorites) and we did everything on our list.  After our week of exploration, here are our family’s top recommendations for fun in the Saugatuck area.

Swoon Over Retro

The antique stores in Saugatuck are phenomenal and full of thoughtfully curated antique items that will have you wishing that you brought a moving truck to take it all home with you. We stopped at so many fun little shops along the main drag, but our favorite was the Blue Star Antique Pavilion. You could literally walk the store for miles and miles and never see the same thing twice. The store is over 50,000 square feet and it was named the best of the best in  Antique Mall in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin by Lake Magazine (July 2005).

You can end your visit with a delicious lunch next door to their building at the Saugatuck Brewing Company.  This award winning micro-brewery has 2 chefs delivering fresh and innovative food that is the perfect way to end a day of antiquing. There are always 12 different beers on tap, and a Hard Cider, that tastes like champagne, and loads of other fun drinks. Emily highly recommends their root beer. She said it was the most amazing thing about the brewery.

Head Downtown

Downtown Saugatuck is full of cute little shops to visit and spend an afternoon browsing in. Many of the shops seemed very tourist geared, but there were some hidden gems along with lots of shops offering wine tastings and food samples to try.

We visited the Saugatuck Drugstore and grabbed ice cream at the soda fountain counter for a midday pick-me-up. The cone pictured above is a SMALL so we recommend ordering a kid size cone so you don’t end up with a belly ache from all the ice cream. There is nothing like sitting at an old-fashioned ice cream counter and the kids loved their delicious treats.

Marro’s Restaurant was on our family’s agenda for our last night of vacation celebration feasting and it did not disappoint. You can order small/lighter portions to save a little money or order the regular size portion (seen in my picture above) and split it between two people. We ordered the Linguine Ala Pescatore and it was a generous portion of mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops tossed in a spicy red sauce that was absolutely divine.

My daughter ordered the mac and cheese which came out on a platter and looked like chicken nuggets. Deep fried macaroni? Perhaps the world’s most delicious kid food ever.

We ended our downtown visit with a stop at Tuck’s Treats and grabbed a cupcake ($3.99 each) to split for our dessert that evening. It was rich, moist, and decadent. It is a cupcake that you can share among two or three people due to its richness and size.

Catch a Sunset

The sunset was absolutely breathtaking and worth catching in the evening after a great meal together. We caught a sunset over at Pier Cove and it was worth every moment of effort. My daughter actually said this was her favorite part of our trip and, as you can see from the photos, the view was absolutely stunning.

We are adding more sunsets to our family’s travel agendas since this is such a fun and free activity to partake of. The sunset in Saugatuck did not disappoint and the kids loved dipping their toes in the water.

Head to Holland

Holland, Michigan is just thirteen short minutes away from Saugatuck and happened to be one of the highlights of our trip. The shopping in Holland offered fabulous unique and boutique options that could have you window shopping for days. I actually enjoyed the shopping in Holland more than Saugatuck because of the variety of shops they offered and how cute the town was itself.

They offer an amazing Famer’s Market (Open Wednesdays & Saturdays 8am – 4pm May 16 – Nov 24 and Saturdays only thru Dec 15) that had just about everything your heart could desire.

New Holland Brewing Company is a fantastic spot to visit for a great sandwich and pint of their Mad Hatter Beer. The sandwich options were so delicious that my husband and I ordered the two we liked best and split them. The kid’s menu offered generous portions for big appetites.

We ended our feasting and took back slices of Crane’s Pie (located in downtown Holland) for dessert and did a pie taste test. I loved the cherry while my daughter was in love with the red raspberry. It was the perfect way to end a day of fun shopping and eating.

Go On a Dune Buggy Ride

We ended our travels with a Dune Ride together and I have to say that the Saugatuck Dune Ride was one of the highlights of our entire trip. The driver shares the history of the dunes along with a fun comedy routine that keeps families engaged with the historical information. The buggy ride is like a fun roller coaster and you can ride up to 60-65 miles through the hilly dunes.

The ride takes you to the highest dune where you have ten minutes to let your kids run around like crazy down the dunes, where you are able to take pictures of the prettiest scenery I have ever seen in my life, and where the driver will even happily take your family portrait for you.

We ended our trips with sand in our mouth and aching faces from smiling so hard which is the way all vacations should, perhaps, end.

We hope you enjoyed the review of our family’s experience in Saugatuck. Be sure to visit our Travel section for more ideas on great family travel!

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Tips for Your Next Disney Magic Kingdom Trip & Ideas for Capturing the Magic

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Our family spent our Thanksgiving holiday in Florida this year.  It was our first real family trip and our first time heading to the Magic Kingdom. I am a Disney newbie although I had the incredible opportunity to see many Florida sites with the Orlando Visitor’s Bureau with my son last year as a trip for just the two of us.

I will admit it, I was nervous about it all. I wanted to surprise them, I wanted the day to be magical, I wanted the weather to cooperate, I wanted the crowds to be minimal, I wanted us all to have the best time of our life.

Is that too much to ask?

Lucky for us, all of these things really did happen and we had a magical day at the Magic Kingdom.

Accommodations were provided by the grandparents as well as a cooler filled with drinks and snacks for us to take on the road and a few to nestle in a bag that I carried with me.  The truth is, we went into it knowing it was going to be an expensive day. We also went into it prepared financially for this day and I worked some extra freelance jobs to cover the expense.

Here is what we learned from our experience at Disney:

Preparation is Key

Financial Preparation- Whenever our family is tackling a big financial project, we set aside money into a separate savings account to prepare for whatever that financial goal might be. Consider talking with your bank about opening accounts for your Disney trip. Have an automatic transfer made for $25 or more each month put into this account all year long and then you will have the money saved when it is time to make your family trip.

Savings can be had when booking your travel through places like AAA and additional savings can be found while visiting in Orlando by printing a free Orlando Magicard to take with you when visiting restaurants and attractions while you are in Orlando.

Safety Preparation- I don’t need to tell you that Disney is a big place and safety is very important when visiting theme parks.  Each child was assigned a buddy to be their partner throughout the days and they were to hold their buddy’s hand while we were there.  We took additional safety precautions by printing out recent pictures of our children to keep in our wallet and bags just in case something should happen and they were separated from us. With a handy Sharpie, I wrote my cell phone number on their arms so if they were separated from us, someone could call us and reunite us quickly.

Meal Preparation- You can bring snacks and drinks into the park with no problems. We packed fruit snacks, granola bars, and bottles of water for our day in a bag with no objections. Rely on these snacks and bottles of water to help cut some of the costs. I recommend visiting this MouseSavers page to find the best cheap eats while you are at the parks.  We did get table service for the evening, but you want to call ahead since reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance of your vacation. Since we called the reservation number that morning when we arrived, we ended up at the Plaza. The table service was about twelve dollars more than the fast food service in the park and quite a bit better with a lot more food included with our meal. If you want to explore the menus before you go, you can view all the menus for the parks here.

Souvenir Preparation-  Souvenirs are a big expense and children can be plagued with horrible cases of what our family lovingly calls, “a case of the gimmies.” At the same time, I remember the amazing souvenir ears I got and how much I wanted those items when I went to Disney.  I hit the Disney store for t-shirts and small toys which were a third of the price as they were in the shops and a girlfriend recommended picking up ears at a local party store (only $5.99 each). The kids were thrilled with their ears and shirts which they wore throughout the park and they did not even ask for anything while we walked through thanks to this little bit of preparation.

Navigation Preparation- When you pick up your tickets, you can pick up a handy map of the park. Thanks to my iPhone I was able to get some reinforcement on the map with Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) and helped us navigate the parks easily and find what we needed quickly. We also had everything in our GPS before we left for getting to the park and how to get back to where we were lodging.

Getting the Most Out of Your Ride Time

Make a Plan of Attack- Along with your Navigation Preparation, discuss as a family what rides are most important to you and order them in a list of importance. The rides with the longest wait times we rode first so that we could make sure that we got those out of the way before the crowds and wait times got really long.  If you aren’t’ sure what rides would be best for the age group of your kids, I do recommend buying the Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) because this actually gave you a plan for your day based upon your age group. They have tour plans for adults & teens, parents of preschool children, parents with children ages 4-8, and senior Disney lovers.  It gave us a great starting point for deciding how to make the most of our day.

Use FASTPASS to Make the Most of Your Day-FASTPASS isn’t anything you need to sign up for, it is simply a way to place a reservation on rides with long wait times. On your map that you receive when you come in, it will have a FASTPASS icon next to the rides that you can FASTPASS. In the Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Jungle Cruise, Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, & Peter Pan’s Flight are the rides you can FASTPASS. Head to those rides and a machine will be available to insert your ticket and a receipt will print out when you can come back to the ride with a one hour window that you can cash in on. Head to other rides with shorter wait times and then come back at the designated time to go through a faster line.

Add a free Wait Time App to Your Mobile Phone- No need to invest in a pricey Wait Time App, just the free Disney World Wait Times app will work perfectly since all wait time information is user generated. Check the wait times on the rides and use that to help decide which rides you want to go on.

Capturing the Magic

It is the most magical day of our kid’s lives and the last thing I wanted was terrible pictures that didn’t showcase just how amazing our day was.  My parents have this great picture of me when I was a little girl wearing my mouse ears, posing with the characters, sunburned and freckled cheeks, grinning with the biggest toothless grin at five that is still one of my favorite pictures from my childhood.

Capture Their View-  When Emily saw the castle for the first time…well, I could start bawling just thinking about it. I wanted to see that moment over and over so I captured her first gaze at the castle and then got to her eye level and took a picture at her level at exactly what she was seeing.  Having pictures both of them seeing this magical beauty and the magical beauty itself are captures that your family will never forget.

Capture the Movement- How can you capture the hilarious and dizzy feeling of some of those rides without movement in the picture.  Capturing motion in photography is so much fun especially when riding on the teacups. I focused on the bag in this picture as we spun around and and around.  I recommend this article if you are looking for more tips on how to capture motion blur in your pictures.

Take Fun Pictures on the Go-  My camera equipment can get awfully heavy so we took turns with the big camera and I relied on my mobile phone when I wanted to capture details quickly and easily. I love Camera+ and Instagram for sharing fun pictures on the go. It is such a fun way to take a quick photo, add an effect, and send it to family and friends to keep them updated on how your day is going.

Get a Family Photo- I will admit that I looked for someone who had a camera like ours to take our family picture. If you have a point-and-shoot,  finding someone to snap a picture should be really easy.

When I handed off my camera I switched it to Aperture Mode (Av on my Canon) and changed the Aperture to f/7.1. I was really worried we would be out of focus and Disney is a very busy place. I then used Picnik to crop as many of the background people out of our picture.

They have people all over the parks taking pictures and you can have them snap your picture for their portrait and then ask them to take one with your camera too. They know the best spots with good lighting and backgrounds for your family photos. Best of all, they know how to work cameras.

Capture the Nighttime Magic- Nighttime magic was tricky to photograph and may require a little research on your part. When I took pictures of the castle I was so disappointed. The colors were off and lights were blurry. It was not the magical pictures I had hoped for.

Over dinner, I went on this Disney Photography Blog and found this information how to capture the nighttime parade. I took test shots after our dinner until I was happy with the lighting and able to capture some of the nighttime beauty at Disney.

What are your best tips for doing Disney on a budget? Do you have any tips for making the most of your time at the parks? Please share!


Below is our big reveal to our children when we told them they were heading to Disney. It was the thrill of a lifetime to get to surprise them with the news that they would be seeing the Magic Kingdom for the very first time. It still brings tears to my eyes that we got to have such an incredibly magical day with them!

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KeyLime Cove Indoor Water Park Family Adventure

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Our family was invited on a trip to review and share our experience with you on the KeyLime Cove Water Park in Gurnee, Illinois. To say that my children were more than thrilled about this trip opportunity would be an understatement. Although this may surprise you, we have never taken a family vacation before. I travel so often with my own work that my husband uses his vacation time for my work travel and our family travel has been pushed off because of this. Although Gurnee is just a few hours from our home, we could not have been more excited to experience the water park for ourselves and share it with you!

KeyLime Cove Water Park is situated in the town of Gurnee, IL and is just three short blocks away from Six Flags Great America.  We had fun not only exploring the water park, but also had the opportunity to explore the restaurants in town and get to see all of the cool things that Gurnee offered.  TripAdvisor named Gurnee one of the  Top Ten Vacation Destinations in 2009 and we could definitely see why. With outlet malls, an amusement park, a water park, and great restaurants… it would definitely be a town we would like to visit again and again.

The rooms had a tropical feel to them and we were in a Queen Deluxe Stateroom that offered two queen beds, a sofa bed, a refrigerator, a dining table for two, and a flat screen television.  The room was spacious and had plenty of room for the four of us. The hotel can house parties up to twelve, by giving everyone adjoining rooms that connect and each room can hold two to eight guests.

The refrigerator in the room was a fabulous way for our family to bring our favorite breakfast foods, lunch foods, and snacks and have them on hand to keep our extra spending down. Thanks to the dining table and couch, we even had a place to enjoy all of our food in the cozy seating area.  Since we saved so much on our dinners we were able to enjoy dining in the resort in the evenings, as well as checking out other fun restaurants in town through the help of my Yelp app on my phone.

More pictures of their accommodations can be seen here.

There is truly something for everyone in the KeyLime Cove water park area.  My children are 5 & 9 years-old and they both had an incredible time at the water park and with over 65,000 square feet of water park space, it is no surprise that we had no cries of boredom that day.

Younger children have their own separate area with small slides and shallow depth for the toddlers in your family. Children that are a little bit older can enjoy splashing in a larger water park structure complete with oodles of slides, from small to large with slides that could accommodate children both large and small.

For the older and braver kids (and adults), the Hurricane Vortex boasts a 44-foot drop and makes you feel like you are spinning in a top. Wahoo & Screamin’ Banshee are two other fun slides that you can ride on with inner tubes and have 40-foot drops and they loop through the exterior of the building. For the really brave, two enclosed body slides are also available.

My 9 year old just made the height requirement for the Hurricane Vortex which was 48″ tall.  Thanks to his recent growth spurt, he was able to do every single one of these slides and he truly loved them. He even did the body slides on the last day. When my husband told me that he was moving really slowly through the body slides, a lifeguard offered a tip and said that his rash guard shirt that he was wearing could have been slowing him down. Once he removed his little shirt, he was a human cannon ball and shot through the slides at lightning speed. Luckily, his mother was sitting on the lazy river and had no idea what was occurring up there.

Being of the old and not brave variety, I did try the Hurricane Vortex, the Wahoo, & the Screamin’ Banshee which was quite impressive for me.  Our entire family also enjoyed hanging out in the Washout Wavepool, where the water is meant to simulate the ocean and you can lounge around in beach chairs or on an inner tube to enjoy the waves.  Ride the waves into the Keylime Creek  and you can loop all through the water park and coast along in your inner tube on the lazy river and enjoy every moment of being lazy for a change. Both the wave pool and the creek can be enjoyed with children of all ages. Parents can double up on one inner tube with their smaller children or laze around solo holding on to the handles of your child’s tube.

Regardless of what age your child is, lifeguards were present in a big way there and were vigilant about watching children in the play area and also reminding them of safety when exiting the slides and keeping everyone safe when going down the slides. I witnessed one child who could not find his mom & dad, and a lifeguard was there in three minutes flat to take care of him. A first aid station is located within the facility and life-jackets are available for smaller children to make sure that they are safe.

Just as impressive as the water park itself, the Leapin’ Lizards kid’s activity center was my kid’s favorite hangout and where they wanted to spend all of their downtime. They had everything from a bean bag toss game, to checkers, to oodles of art supplies, and toys for the kids to play with. My daughter spent hours coloring princess pictures and my son & I enjoyed a few rounds of checkers between water sliding.

The most impressive part were the activities that were available to the kids each day. A dry erase board outside of the activity center listed that days activities and would include things like my making a foam hand for hi-five day to celebrating birthdays for that particular month to Mario Kart Wii racing in the evening.

My son talked the employee’s ears off about video gaming and no one ever seemed anything, but interested in what he had to say. He had a blast in the Mario Wii Kart competition which yielded him coins to spend at the RipTide Arcade while my daughter submitted endless coloring sheets for the coloring contests and came home with jewels from their prize boxes. A dance party was held in the evening and Emily got the party started with the employees which made us so proud that all of our Just Dance Wii game practice has been paying off.

Of course, my son’s favorite part was the RipTide Reef Arcade with over 8,000 square feet of gaming fun. My husband kept remarking how impressed he was with the game selection as well as how up-to-date the games were that were offered.  The boys spent some money at the arcade,  which led to tickets,  which led to spider rings, which led to tears because only brother got a spider ring, which led to more games, which led to a purple jelly bracelet for someone else, which led to happiness. In all seriousness, there were so many great family-friendly games to choose from and the boys had a blast playing in here in the evening.

With our first family vacation under our belt, we now feel like we can do anything. When we asked the kids if they would like to spend a day at Six Flags… they regretfully… declined.

No, they wanted to spend the last day on the water slides. Playing in the activity center. Eating the food at the resort. Playing in the arcade.

I think that should speak for itself on how much fun we had together and how thankful we were for the opportunity to explore this resort.

I have a very, very good feeling that we will be back soon!

Our family received a free stay at this hotel in exchange for our thoughts and opinions on the water park and its services. All opinions expressed are our own and we received no additional compensation.

Family Travel: Exploring Wilmington, North Carolina

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I got the opportunity to travel to Wilmington, North Carolina for a trip with Homewood Suites by Hilton to explore the family-friendly attractions and budget-friendly travel that you can find there. The trip was hosted by Homewood Suites in conjunction with the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. I had no expectations for what to expect from the trip, other than the opportunity to have a little getaway and I was thrilled when the company said that I could bring along a guest. Unfortunately, the kids had already started school and  my husband would need to stay with them. It is rare that I get to share a trip with anyone else so I was excited to bring my best friend along for the weekend. Who could turn down a girl’s weekend that is all-expenses paid?

We set off for Wilmington and got to stay at the beautiful Homewood Suites by Hilton Wilmington Mayfaire which was a short 5 minute drive to Wrightsville Beach. I have stayed at a lot of hotels over the course of the years with my business, but I have never stayed at a hotel that offered more amenities to their guests than this one.

Room rates start at $120 a night and the company admits that they are not the cheapest in town, but that they do strive to offer the best service and the best amenities for their guest.  I am used to paying for my internet, some dry cereal for breakfast, and paying for any extra frills that I might desire so I really was genuinely shocked by what the hotel offered.

All of the rooms offer a full kitchenette that includes a full-size refrigerator, a two-burner stove, cooking utensils/tools with service for four,  and a dishwasher. For no additional charge (other than the actual price of groceries), you can call ahead and have them stock your refrigerator for you before you even arrive for your trip!

The hotel offers a free huge hot breakfast seven days a week and a bigger bonus for family’s on a budget, was a “Manager’s Reception,” dinner Monday through Thursday for free, that included a full delicious dinner, a kid’s buffet for dinner, and wine/beer for the parents while you are staying there.  As an example of the dinner choices, two of the offerings the nights we were there were tortilla-crusted tilapia and home style meatloaf including two side dishes. I have never been to a hotel that offered a full dinner and full breakfast  for free for its guests and this is available at any of the Homewood Suites locations.

The rooms also offered DVD players and (for no charge)  you could select a family-friendly movie to watch with your kids. Baskets of cookies were available for a free late night snack and a free coffee & tea bar were always open. These little inclusion are the things that I love to look for in hotels especially when it comes to keeping my children entertained and fed well.  The coffee bar is a tired vacationing parent’s dream and it is the first time I have actually loved coffee at a hotel.

Other important inclusions were free wireless internet, grills on-site if you wanted to grill for your lunch, and they even had a little putt-putt golfing for the kids near the pool and hot tub that didn’t cost an extra dime.

Yeah, all of that starting at just $120. I figure just the breakfast, kitchenette in every room, the family entertainment, and the free dinner with beverages would really help to keep our family on budget.

If you were wondering just how pale I am, this picture speaks a thousand words. I was really missing my giant beach umbrella, but used the shadow of my friend Becky and an expert tuck and pull to allow my dress to keep me covered at the beach. I always chant to myself that someday I will be a beautiful old lady and everyone will envy my pale skin… at least that is what I like to tell myself!

In all seriousness the beach was simply stunning and I loved dipping my toes in the water and collecting shells for the kids while enjoying the peacefulness of the ocean. It was beautiful and it was so nice that it was only minutes from the hotel!

The Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau were so gracious to allow us the opportunity to explore Wilmington’s family-friendly offerings. We toured the Battleship North Carolina, The Children’s Museum of Wilmington, the Cape Fear Serpentarium, a horse drawn tour of downtown Wilmington, North Carolina Aquarium Fort Fisher, and sampled delicious seafood chowder at Michael’s Seafood, took two boat tours of the beautiful beach, downtown shopped, and enjoyed all of the town’s offerings.

I can’t wait to share with you more as it gets closer to vacation season about my experience in both North Carolina and Orlando for some fun ideas for family travel. I will say that of the places we visited, I loved the Children’s Museum of Wilmington and the North Carolina Aquarium Forth Fisher the absolute best and can’t wait to revisit them for a trip with my own family. The enthusiasm of the employees was enchanting and I know that we could spend a whole day just visiting these two spots alone.

I have to say my favorite part was just getting the opportunity to relax! We spent an evening window-shopping in the Mayfaire shops, grabbed a delicious pizza one night, popped popcorn and watched silly girl movies like, “Fame,” and ate ice cream cones. I loved everything about Wilmington and can see it as a new destination for our family!

In full disclosure, while I was there, I found a new place to write and will be joining the SuiteTrip website for the next few months (through Homewood Suites)  to share ideas on budget-friendly travel and ideas for making travel enjoyable as a family. I can’t wait to share more ideas with you there! It was an unexpected new freelance job that I am really looking forward to!

Disclaimer: We were invited by Homewood Suites in conjunction with the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. for an all-expenses paid trip to experience Wilmington, NC  and share with our readers about our experience. All-expenses paid means that our travel, hotel stay, visits to area attractions, and food were covered by the company. We will receive no other additional compensation for this particular project and are asked for our honest opinions without any further obligation. To find out more about how things work here at MomAdvice, please feel free to visit our official Disclaimer page!

Where is your favorite family vacation spot? Where is somewhere you would like to explore? Feel free to share!

An Orlando Treasure: GatorLand

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Ethan and I had a fantastic time in Orlando and I am looking forward to sharing about some of the attractions that we visited and ways you can save on enjoying many things in Orlando while you are there. We truly enjoyed our visit to Orlando and the experiences and memories we created together were just priceless.

To start this series, I wanted to share with you my absolute favorite place that we visited and some ideas for ways that you can save on your ticket to this attraction and many others that you might be visiting. You might be surprised to hear that it wasn’t Disney that holds a special place in my heart. In fact, it wasn’t anything that I thought would be that exciting, but I was quickly proven wrong by an amazing little theme park called, “GatorLand.”

GatorLand definitely is not a new attraction to Orlando residents, but we had never heard of it before and my little guy was so excited to see a few Florida gators for himself. GatorLand might sound  like a quaint touristy spot to visit, but it is, in fact, a 110-acre theme park and a nature conservatory for the city of Orlando.

When I say theme park though,  it isn’t the kind of theme park that you might think of when heading to Orlando. They have no big relationships with corporate companies, real animals (not mechanical ones) are located there, real people are guiding you and sharing about the animals, and kids are gobbling up every minute of these beautiful animals and their stories.

Upon entering, we were introduced to the four very rare white alligators that are currently residing in the White Alligator Swamp. These are not Albino alligators, but a very rare breed that actually have blue eyes and the white pigmentation to their skin. It is thought that there are only a dozen of their kind in the world, and four of them have happily made their home there. Technically, they are named leucistic (loo-SIS-tic), which is basically a genetic defect which produces their white pigment and the bright blue eyes that make them so unique.

While there were many alligators there, there were perhaps a few hundred more birds that are located on the property. They had everything from herons, to wood storks, to vultures that were happily residing near the alligators that were lazily swimming in the water. Our tour guide informed us that the birds love to make their nests and be near the alligators because the alligators protect them (and their eggs) from other predators. The alligators have no interest in bothering the birds and the birds know that they can make a home there.

The spot is a hot one for photographers and people come from all over the world to photograph the birds there. Photographers can buy a  pass and come in the early morning hours to sneak a peek at the birds. It was quite unbelievable all of the varieties of birds that were on the property. It would be a great place to bring a trusty bird guide and discover birds with your children!

Kids can get a closer look at the alligators in their “Gator Wrestlin’ ” arena. No worries, there was no wrestling other than the wrestling required to get the animal out of the water and give kids the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures. They offer survival tips on what to do if you are ever in the path of a gator and share facts about what makes alligators so unique. Stunts, like the ones pictured above, showcase the strength of the alligator’s jaw.

For an additional $5, they offer the chance to pose with a real alligator, in the arena, which my son was very eager to do. The extra five dollars goes towards the care and food for the animals. This was all done under the watchful care of their trainers.

If your children love the creepy crawlers, then they won’t want to miss the Up Close Encounters Show. You never know what kind of animal you might be introduced to next as they unveil a variety of different snakes and spiders from behind the crated boxes. Volunteers are brought up from the audience for the great unveiling which the kids will definitely get a kick out of… especially if their mom is the one that gets selected!

There is so much more to do that we didn’t even get a chance to see while we visited. They offer a train ride around the property, a water park that the kids can play in to keep cool, and you can even sit down and have lunch or a latte there.

The price of admission is as follows:

Adult- $22.99 (if purchased online, $19.99)

Child- $14.99 (if purchased online, $11.99)

To save a little more on your visit to GatorLand, head over to print out a free 2010 Orlando Magicard which provides year-round savings at more than 75 area establishments including attractions, accommodations, restaurants, dinner theaters, ground transportation, golf courses, and cultural arts.

The Orlando Magicard is free and can be downloaded at, requested for mail delivery by calling 1-800-551-0181, or picked up at The Official Visitors Center in Orlando. The 2010 version of the card provides expanded offers including theme park deals and other significant savings options such as free nights plus additional free amenities at area accommodations; buy one ticket, get one free offers at attractions; or straight discounts up to 50% off.

If you use the Orlando Magicard at GatorLand, you can score a free train ride for each paid admission.

As a parting gift, on our way out each child got to hold a baby alligator.  The kids were so excited and were all amazed at just how tiny these alligators start out.

I was so taken into the moment that I even took the opportunity to hold the baby alligator myself. If you know me at all, you know that this is so not like me. I will say that my son couldn’t have been more proud of his mommy and I am so proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone a little!

We would like to thank GatorLand for giving us the opportunity to explore and learn more about what they offer and to experience a place in Orlando that we would have never known about. It is a hidden gem that I highly recommend if you are ever in the Orlando area.

Disclaimer: We were invited by the Orland/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau for an all-expenses paid trip to experience Orlando and share with our readers about our experience. All-expenses paid means that our travel, hotel stay, visits to area attractions, and food were covered by the company. We will receive no other additional compensation for the project and are asked for our honest opinions without any further obligation. To find out more about how things work here at MomAdvice, please feel free to visit our official Disclaimer page!

Do you have any hidden gems that you have found in your state or in another that you highly recommend visiting for a family vacation? Please feel free to share cool things about your own town or links to past entries on great places to travel!

We Are Ready for Orlando!

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

It is rare that I take trip opportunities anymore. I am such a homebody and hate to get our life off schedule… not to mention hate being away from those that are precious to me! Few trips seem worth compromising the routines in my life unless it really benefits the business, my personal career, or our family time.

When I received an invitation from the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau for an all-expenses paid trip to experience the city with my little guy, I just couldn’t pass it up! We will be heading on a whirlwind adventure that includes a visit to Universal Studios, Gatorland, Sea World, and to see The Blue Man Group perform this next weekend. To say he is excited is definitely an understatement! I don’t know what he is more excited about- being with me all by himself, lounging by the hotel pool, or getting to fly on a plane.

I am hoping to get some individual time with my son and find out ways that our readers can save on an excursion to Orlando.  We are planning our own family trip to visit our relatives in Florida for next summer so I am excited to get a peek into some ideas for how to better plan our travel and save our family money in the process.

We will be out of town this weekend and I just wanted to let you know if I do not answer emails as promptly. Everything else will still be running as normal around here and we look forward to sharing our experience when we get back.

Disclaimer: We have been invited by the Orland/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau for an all-expenses paid trip to experience Orlando and share with our readers about our experience. All-expenses paid means that our travel, hotel stay, visits to area attractions, and food will be covered by the company. We will receive no other additional compensation for the project and are asked for our honest opinions without any further obligation. To find out more about how things work here at MomAdvice, please feel free to visit our official Disclaimer page!

Do you have any tips for places to visit in Orlando or ways that you save on your family vacations to Florida?  Please feel free to share links to past posts or highlight any websites that have been helpful to your family!