7 Reasons We’re Counting Down To Universal’s Diagon Alley Debut

Looking down Diagon Alley toward Gringotts. Image: Universal
Looking down Diagon Alley toward Gringotts. Image: Universal

Stock up on floo powder. When Universal Orlando unveils Diagon Alley, the second land in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you’re going to want to magic yourself there.

Diagon Alley debuts this summer at Universal Studios Florida, joining Hogsmeade, which opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010. Here are a few reasons we’re charmed.

  • Two words: Leaky Cauldron. The eatery promises not just pub grub, but a chance to sit down and soak in the Potter-sphere over fish and chips or a glass of pumpkin juice. As much as my family loves the innovative Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, we find that pulling up a chair at the Three Broomsticks is one of Hogsmeade’s most enjoyable immersions. The Leaky Cauldron could be even better.
  • Speaking of rides: Universal Creative president Mike Woodbury promises that the new ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, will raise the bar. It’s hard to imagine topping the excitement of Forbidden Journey, but Harry’s Gringotts adventure seems tailor-made for a show-stopping ride.
  • Just like Harry, visitors will enter Diagon Alley via muggle London. A functional Hogwarts Express will connect Diagon Alley with Hogsmeade (but you’ll need a two-park pass to visit both).
Visitors will enter Diagon Alley through muggle London, just as Harry does. Image: Universal
Visitors will enter Diagon Alley through muggle London, just as Harry does. Image: Universal
King's Cross Station will link Hogsmeade with Diagon Alley. Image: Universal
King’s Cross Station will link Hogsmeade with Diagon Alley. Image: Universal
  • Which new attraction is Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood, excited about? At the webcast revealing the Diagon Alley attractions, she geeked out on the Magical Menagerie shop, where visitors can adopt plush familiars from owls to Hippogriffs. Other shopping ops will include jokes and toys at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, cosplay heaven at Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, geeky accoutrements at Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, team gear at Quality Quidditch Supplies, and quills and parchment at the Hermione-pleasing Scribbulus.
Shopping at Wiseacre's. Image: Universal
Shopping at Wiseacre’s. Image: Universal
  • If you dabble in the Dark Arts, head to Knockturn Alley, where you can slip into Borgin and Burkes and explore the sketchy part of town.
  • Fans of Hogsmeade’s Honeydukes shop will be glad to hear that it’s expanding, with the jokes formerly sold at the neighboring Zonko’s moving to Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes in Diagon Alley.
Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. Image: Universal
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Image: Universal
  •  Diagon Alley-goers will have a new lodging option. (Alas, it’s not a room at the Leaky Cauldron.) But when the ’50s-themed Cabana Bay Beach Resort opens at Universal on March 31, guests will have 1,800 additional on-site rooms to choose from. Staying on-property is well worthwhile for the early admission perk: Resort guests get into the park an hour before opening, which beats not only the lines, but the summer heat.
Cabana Bay will add 900 suites and 900 rooms to Universal's lodging options. Image: Universal
Cabana Bay will add 900 suites and 900 rooms to Universal’s lodging options. Image: Universal

Upgrade Your Rafting Trip With Geocaching

Returning to our raft after conquering the geocaches. Photo by Jeremey Clark.

When my family visited Montana this summer, we knew we wanted to take a rafting trip, but we weren’t sure how to choose between all of the outfitters and itineraries.

Then we saw a trip tailor-made for geeky families: Pangaea River Rafting’s Clark Fork River geocaching excursion. The float combines rapids and raft games with a stop at a breathtaking location to hunt for a series of custom caches.

On a sunny morning, we headed to the river from Pangaea’s headquarters in Superior, Montana. On the Clark Fork, we paddled through rapids and even rode on the nose of the raft, hanging on as tightly as we could, through some of the calmer rapids. While floating in the flat water between the craggy cliffs of the Alberton Gorge, we spotted wildlife and dared each other to try raft games like rodeo, balancing on the outer edge of the raft while the guide spins it in ever-more-dizzying circles. After a picnic lunch on the riverbank, we set off hunt our geocaches.

No geocaching experience is necessary for this trip, but I’ll warn you: If you haven’t geocached before, the splendor of this location and the creativity of its caches might just ruin you for run-of-the-mill variety.

I was expecting a typical cache that anyone can look up online and find with their smartphone or handheld GPS. Instead, what we got was a multicache so involved that Pangaea’s owner, David Lawrence, visits the site the morning of the trip to set out each of the caches he dreamed up. (He also meets the group at the cache location, so you don’t have to take your GPS device on the river with you.)

Once our guide pulled the raft up to the beach where our hunt began, David handed us our first clue. We used the coordinates and the rhyming clues to find the cache, an ammo box that held a pretty big hint about the location of our next cache, and what we’d have to do to find it. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for future guests, but let’s just say it put us face-to-face with the trout in Fish Creek, a gorgeously clear, cold, and scenic tributary of the Clark Fork. Our third cache had us scrambling up a cliff with gorgeous overlooks on both sides.

I told David that if we hadn’t stopped to hunt for the caches, we might have floated past Fish Creek without even noticing it. He said that’s what he loves about these trips: showing visitors the lesser-known parts of the river he loves.

Letting Go (and Holding on Tight) in the Treetops

Pushing the envelope at TreeUmph! treetop adventure course. Photo by Alisson Clark.

My tween is clinging to a ladder 60 feet in the air. Watching from the ground, I see that there’s nothing beneath him but the wind whistling through pine trees. Normally, this is the stuff of nightmares for me, the risk-averse mom of a fearless climber. But not today.

Over the past three hours at TreeUmph!, a treetop adventure course that opened this year on Florida’s Gulf coast, I’ve witnessed how carefully my daredevil 12-year-old has listened to the staff’s instructions, clipping his carabiners into the safety loops that are the only thing between him and that long, long fall. His silhouette gets smaller and smaller as he nears the top of the tower leading to a 650-foot zip line. If I squint, I can see how he precisely places the carabiners on the metal cable that will keep him safe as he flies through the air, attaching them so their openings face in opposite directions, just as we were instructed.

Our adventure didn’t start out this smoothly. Upon arrival, we trained on a ground-level course, where a 15-minute overview described how our safety equipment would, if used correctly, get us through the meandering 14-acre attraction intact. The only things keeping us safe, our trainer explains, are the two carabiners, which must be detached and re-attached properly on each obstacle to avoid any, um, unplanned departures from the course. There will be no guides on the platforms to clip us in, test our harnesses, or give us the go-ahead. Staff watches from the ground, but up there, we’ll be on our own unless we yell for help.

I’m listening ardently, but my son seems more interested in chatting with a fellow climber during the lesson, which culminates in a test where each of us demonstrates our understanding of the equipment and its role in keeping us alive. During the test, he twice commits the ultimate no-no: unclipping both carabiners at the same time. I reiterate that if he does this on the actual course, there will be nothing keeping him on the tiny, sky-high platforms connecting the elevated obstacles. He seems unimpressed.

Walking to the first course–adults and kids 12 and older can climb through five progressively harder and higher courses–I tell him that he’ll need to wait for my go-ahead before setting off on each obstacle, so I can make sure he is clipped in properly while navigating the Tarzan swings, wobbly bridges, and dangling ropes.

As soon as we ascend the first course, however, I see the flaw in my logic: I can clip him in before the obstacle, but once he crosses the yawning space between platforms by triumphing over the hair-raising device that separates them, I cannot be on the other side to clip him to the next platform. He’s 12, and his survival depends completely on his retention and execution of instructions I’m pretty sure he ignored. Oh my.

As it turns out, I’m the one with something to learn. After struggling to properly attach my own safety equipment, I look across the swinging footbridge to see him clipped in to the next platform, smiling and waiting for me to catch up. He has done everything right. Next obstacle: Same thing. I realize I was wrong to think he couldn’t handle this. I start to wonder, as I cling to the safety rope and squeal as I lose my footing on the suspended log I’m crossing, what other ways I might be underestimating his abilities, his maturity, his capacity for independence. Twelve seems young, but the teen years are near, and with them, driving, dating, college. Those days feel as far away as the distant platform at the end of the rope bridge I’m shuffling across, but I realize they are closer than they seem.

We clamber through two entire courses, but at the end of the third course, we reach the first obstacle that stops me in my tracks: A rope swing that ends near a cargo net, requiring the rider to jump off of the rope and cling, spider-like, to the net on the other side. I’m buffaloed, but he attacks it without hesitation, my fearless boy, who, as it turns out, has just enough fear to double check his carabiners before flinging himself off of the platform. The next thrill is the 650-foot zip line, which will require not only the two carabiners but the metal pulley that’s strapped to each of our safety harnesses. (The zip line is the final leg of the junior ticket for ages 9-11, but older climbers can tackle two additional, advanced-level courses.)

I don’t like the looks of that ladder, but my son sure does. The normal me would be panicking as he climbs higher and higher, but I feel calm, trusting him, shading my eyes from the sun to follow his progress. Then he clips in, gives me a thumbs-up, and flies.

Beyond the Beach: Geek-Approved Outings on Florida’s Gulf Coast

TreeUmph! Adventure Course in Bradenton. Photo: Alisson Clark
TreeUmph! Adventure Course in Bradenton. Photo: Alisson Clark

When Sarasota’s Siesta Beach topped the country’s best beaches list in 2011, the Florida city got plenty of attention as a sun and fun destination. The snow-white sand and gentle Gulf of Mexico waves do make it an ideal beach town for families, but geeks like us tend to get restless after a few days in a beach chair. In the Sarasota area, however, we found plenty of side trips to engage our brains.

Some top picks:

Swing through the trees
If you’ve tried ziplining, you might think you know what Tree-Umph! Adventure Course is all about. No way. This jungle gym in the treetops gets progressively harder as you go, combining wobbly bridges, hanging nets, bungee swings and Tarzan ropes to test your mettle. A lower-key kids’ course lets younger climbers in on the fun.

Meet manatees (and more) at Mote Marine Laboratory

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Manatees, gentle marine mammals common in Florida, are a star attraction at Mote Marine Laboratory. Photo: Alisson Clark

This research institute doubles as an educational attraction where families can see sharks, fish, and marine mammals, with touch tanks, baby animal nurseries, and rehab rooms where injured animals rest up before they’re released. (Add a boat tour of Sarasota Bay, and you might see dolphins in the wild, too.)

Join the circus (for a day) 
Sarasota became the winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927, and circus life remains part of Sarasota’s culture today. Learn aerial skills with Circus Sarasota, or leave the flying to the pros and take in a performance of the circus or its youth troupe, Sailor Circus. The Ringling Circus Museum, part of a complex including the spectacular Ringling Museum of Art, displays wagons and costumes as well as a 3,800-square-foot miniature circus model that took 50 years to complete.

Paddle (with) your kids
Kayak and canoe trips abound: Overhanging mangrove trees create shady tunnels around Lido Key that are best explored by kayak, while Oscar Scherer State Park offers canoe rentals for spotting otters in South Creek. On Wednesdays, park rangers lead guided paddling tours.

Feed a tiger
Visit bears, tigers, lions, and ligers—yes, they really exist, and they are phenomenal—at Big Cat Habitat, a refuge for rescued exotic animals. Don’t miss the opportunity to feed the residents, or the show that displays the sanctuary’s animal performers in action.

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Beach games at the Ritz-Carlton. Photo: Alisson Clark

About those beaches… 
Mix up your relaxation on the powdery, 99.9 percent quartz beaches with some action: At the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Beach Club (which provides complimentary transportation to guests of the resort three miles away) counselors lead kids and families in beach games, races, and shell-seeking.

Other beach diversions include the Crystal Classic sandcastle competition Nov. 15-18, where professional sand sculptors decorate the beach while vying for top honors.

GeekMom’s visit was hosted by Visit Sarasota.

Crushproof, Waterproof, Teenproof: Pelican ProGear S130 Photo Backpack

Photo laptop backpack by Pelican
Crush-proof and versatile, the Pelican Pro S130 keeps gear safe on the road. Photo: Pelican

Our 13-year-old techie does not travel without his electronics, even on our recent multi-sport trip to the Pacific Northwest. It was going to be an action-oriented week, with whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and hiking, so I was concerned about how his DSLR and its components would fare.

When we got a chance to test out the Pelican ProGear S130 Sport Elite backpack, which offers dedicated space for a laptop and photo gear, it was the perfect opportunity to put the pack through its paces.

As budding photographer, his must-haves for the trip included the DSLR and its cables; charger, batteries, and lenses; a toughcam and its accouterments; and a tripod. All of that (plus his phone) fit easily into the divider compartment, which is easily customizable: The positionable, padded Velcro dividers allow you to quickly arrange the space to suit your needs. I felt confident that the high-impact door of the compartment and the interior padding would protect the equipment stowed in there, even through the ravages of air travel.

The Pelican had lived up to its name by swallowing quite a bit of gear already, but we were just beginning. Into the waterproof laptop compartment went his computer, although the brick and cord had to go in the main compartment. (The laptop compartment was a bit difficult to snap closed with his full-sized laptop inside, as it is designed for thin Ultrabook styles, but it closed successfully and never popped open during any of its outings throughout the trip.)

Not finished packing tech, however, my son stuffed in two full-size computer speakers for music production during our downtime. I had my doubts that any clothes would fit after all of that, but we managed to cram in a few days’ worth into the 25-liter main compartment.

photo laptop backpack Pelican Pro
Velcro dividers make it easy to customize the backpack to suit your gear. Photo: Alisson Clark

By this time, I had serious doubts that the backpack would fit under an airplane seat as advertised. However, it did, which posed another test: How would it hold up to getting stomped on and dragged in and out of its berth on two cross-country flights? Answer: Admirably. The high-impact front panel earned its keep, and the ripstop nylon pack wasn’t even scuffed up when we returned home.

We stopped short of testing out the waterproof feature when, upon further reading, we realized that just the laptop portion is waterproof, not the entire backpack. So while you don’t want to take this backpack rafting, it would keep your gear safe in a pouring rain or protect your laptop in the event of an accidental dunking, as it is rated to stay dry at a depth of 1 meter for up to 30 minutes.

The only drawbacks we discovered:

  • The straps, while well padded and reinforced with chest and hip straps to distribute weight, are sized for the wider shoulders of an adult, making the straps less comfortable for a younger wearer with a narrower chest. Lumbar cushioning and ventilated padding make the pack comfortable on the back, however.
  • With all of the gear we crammed into it (speakers, for Pete’s sake), the pack was pretty darn heavy. Even empty, it was heavier than I imagined at just over seven pounds.

At $300, this is definitely a splurge for an amateur. But when you’re protecting a gear investment that totals far beyond that, it may well be worthwhile for photo-inclined teens.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

My Tween Does Laundry. Yours Can, Too

Yes, it is super to have help with the laundry, but marking the preferred setting also helps simplify the laundry process for tweens.

Laundry may be the most Sisyphean of household chores: Unless everyone in your house is stark naked, it’s literally never done. That’s why, when my son turned 11, I decided he could do his own laundry.

That’s right, he washes, dries, folds and puts away his own clothes. Reactions to this news from other moms fall into one of three categories:

  1. How can I get my kid to do that?
  2. That would never work in my house.
  3. You are a terrible mother, and I bet your kid looks like a slob. (They say this with facial expressions, not words. Usually.)

If you’re interested in delegating some of your household laundry to the creatures who create it, here are some hints on why, how and when to get kids doing their own laundry.

Why it’s worth a try:

  • Well, obviously, it’s easier on you. When I started working in an office after several years of working from home, I needed more help from the family to stay on top of the housework. That’s when we each took responsibility for our own clothes.
  • Kids who do their own laundry are more cognizant of how much laundry they’re generating, creating less unnecessary washing. My son was in the habit of going through three pairs of socks throughout the day and often as many outfits, but he quickly changed his ways when he had to wash it all.
  • I’m not a stickler for chores, but I do feel it’s good for kids to contribute to the smooth functioning of the household. I knew a twentysomething guy who didn’t know how to load a dishwasher – I don’t mean he was bad at it, I mean he literally didn’t know where to begin – and that has served as a cautionary tale for my parenting. I have no wish to raise a prince.
  • Knowing their way around a washer and dryer will prevent kids from ruining their clothes in the dorm laundromat when they go to college. I recall laundry-challenged freshman boys looking like dorks in pink-splotched white T-shirts and shrunken sweaters, or sporting something absurdly dressy because nothing else was clean. Let’s call it an investment in their independence.

Some common concerns and ways to deal with them:


  • “My kids just won’t do it.” Well, sure they will, if you don’t step in to bail them out. It helps to roll out the policy around the time they start caring about what they wear and how they look. If you truly feel that your kid would be content wearing dirty clothes every day, maybe she’s not ready. In our house, allowance isn’t doled out until the laundry’s done (AND put away – this is important) so that’s a powerful motivator.
  • “They’ll ruin their clothes, or the laundry room.” Start them out with their play clothes and pajamas instead of their Sunday best or school uniforms, then build up to the rest as you (and your kids) gain confidence. Show them how to load a washer without overstuffing it, and eliminate concerns about too much detergent with a super-easy
    Method’s concentrated pump dispenser makes laundry foolproof.

    pump bottle brand such as Method. Four pumps for each load is easy to remember – it says it right on the bottle – and the container makes spills impossible. Because I’m not wild about my kid pouring bleach, not to mention the fact that he doesn’t have enough whites to make a full load, I do his whites along with mine. (But he folds them!) I also made the laundry process foolproof by marking the correct settings for kids clothes right on the washer and dryer. I used Sharpie to mark the preferred setting on the machine, but you could use a bit of colorful tape if that galls you.

  • “They’ll slack off and won’t have what they need when they need it.” Ease them into the responsibility by asking, perhaps on Sunday afternoon, to check and see if they have everything they need for the week. (Or check for yourself, at first, if you prefer.) The important part is not to swoop in and proactively wash that field trip T-shirt or favorite skirt for the dance – just remind them what the consequences will be if they don’t have what they need.
  • “They’ll  look sloppy, because they won’t do as good a job as I would.” Quite possible. How much does that matter to you? Besides, no one said you had to stop ironing.
  • “I will feel like a bad mom.” If you truly feel this is part of your motherly duties, launder away. But this is hardly Cinderella territory. You’re not making them wash the whole family’s clothes, mop the floors, and muck out the stalls before dawn. However, I expunge my mommy guilt by taking responsibility for the family’s sheets/towels/table linens and white loads, so I’m still doing more laundry than anyone else in the house.

Tips for success

  • Cover the rookie mistakes. Yes, two wash loads will fit in the dryer – but they won’t actually dry, as everyone who spent $9 in quarters on this in college knows. Teach them how to do a rough sort of lights and darks, but also that washing in cold water helps prevent shrinking.
  • Establish rules for folding and putting away, and have consequences if those rules are broken. Is it OK for them to dress out of a laundry basket of clean clothes, or will it drive you nuts? Establish the rules accordingly. Same goes for how neatly clothes need to be folded and put away.
  • Lower your standards. Do socks absolutely have to be matched before they’re put away? Do basketball shorts have to be folded? Of course it’s up to you, but pick your battles. We streamlined the process by eliminating dressers and only hanging what absolutely must hang: pants, dress shirts, etc. Almost everything goes in open-topped canvas bins.
  • What will you do if your kid announces he or she has no clean underwear on a school morning? I’m not saying there’s a right way to handle this, but it’s worth thinking through what you can stomach to drive the point home. It might sound complicated, but in truth, you might be surprised that if you let something go that makes your skin crawl (like fishing a beloved T-shirt out of hamper for an encore, or inside-out underwear), they’ll decide all on their own that it’s gross and won’t do it again.
  • A radical idea: Have fewer clothes. When laundry isn’t so overwhelming, it’s easier to tackle, and fewer outfits means kids have to do laundry every week or so, and it becomes part of their routine. It also makes putting away easier – no struggling with overstuffed dresser drawers. Culling an outsized wardrobe down to their favorites can eliminate headaches in the long run.

Minifig Madness: A Legoland Insider Tip

Legoland Florida had just opened for the day, and we were hot on the trail of the park’s retail manager. We had reason to believe he had the much-desired mobster minifig, and if we could find him, that minifig would be ours.

Trading minifigs is a big part of the fun of visiting Legoland, although many park-goers don’t know about the tradition. Guests who bring a minifig from home (or buy one in the park) can trade it for any of the minifigs park staffers wear on their nametags. Fellow guests may trade with you if they choose to, but staffers are more or less compelled to surrender their minifig when asked.

Legoland staffers sport minifigs on their nametags.

We didn’t know about minifig trading before arriving at the park, so our first stop was the Minifigure Market, where you can buy minifig assortments, customize your own figure, or choose from the mystery packs, which contain an undisclosed minifig (more on that later). We bought a mystery pack, which turned out to contain a boxer with a helmet and gloves. Browsing the gallery of possible minifigs in the mystery packs, my son spotted a mobster and decided that was his trading target for the day. We eyeballed the staff’s minifigs, but none of them sported the mobster. Then the cashier told us that the retail manager, who just left the store, was wearing the mobster on his nametag. “He should be pretty easy to find: He’s wearing a purple shirt!” she said. We headed off in hot pursuit.

Any outing is more fun when you’re on a mission, and finding the perfect minifig is no exception. As we explored the park, searching for the minifig made even ordinary moments more exciting. Waiting in lines for rides became an opportunity to scour the crowd for cool minifigs. We struck up countless conversations with Lego-minded strangers – kids and adults – while contemplating whether to trade for their minifigs. When afternoon came and we still hadn’t found the mobster-wearing manager, we headed back to Minifigure Market to see if they’d had a sighting. They hadn’t, but the manager tipped us off to a different strategy: By feeling through the wrappers of the mystery packs, we could figure out which one contained a mobster.

We began squeezing each of the packets in the mountain of minifigs, feeling a bit like Wonka fans looking for a golden ticket. During lulls in business, the manager would come by and help us palpate the packages. Other customers stopped by to see what on earth we were doing, and some joined the hunt, picking up tips from the staff on how certain telltale shapes can reveal what’s inside, like the furry hat of the British Royal Guard soldier. After patting what felt like hundreds of minifigs, I felt something that seemed like the mobster’s gun-toting instrument case. We checked with the manager for confirmation, and she concurred, so we bought it, and, ta-da…she was right! It wasn’t the way we expected to get him, but we had a great time nonetheless.


Another insider tip: There’s no limit to how many minifigs you can trade, so bring a bag! Any time you see a staffer with a cool minifig, you can swap it for one of yours. Accessories are fair game, too.

Thanks to Legoland Florida for hosting us at the park’s media preview.



The Rock with Kids: Making the Most of a Family Trip to Alcatraz


alcatraz, san francisco

From appearances on “Mythbusters” to a cameo in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game, the spooky cells and windswept vistas of Alcatraz Island are enjoying a renewed moment in the pop-culture spotlight. If you’re considering taking your family to The Rock, these tips will help you get the most out of your trip.

Try the night tour for smaller crowds. While planning our Alcatraz trip, I asked a park ranger — the island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area — how he would recommend seeing the park. (One of the great things about being a travel writer is having an excuse to ask questions like this.) His advice: On a given day, 5,000 visitors or more might stream through the corridors of the prison, but the night tour is limited to about 600, enabling rangers to offer talks and programs not available during the day. Not only are the crowds easier to manage with kids, but the smaller numbers make for a more intimate experience: At one point, my husband, son and I found ourselves all alone in a spooky, lantern-lit room of the hospital ward. We could truly feel the isolation of The Rock, which made for some spine-tingling memories.


alcatraz hospital, alcatraz tour, alcatraz medical wing

Plan ahead for food and drink. If you’re one of those parents who won’t venture forth without snacks for the smalls (and who isn’t?), it’s worth noting that there’s no food in the park: Not only are there no concessions, but food and drinks other than bottled water are not allowed beyond the landing dock. Counting the ferry ride to and from the island, you’ll be touring for several hours, so one solution is to snack on the ferry. The ferry concession sells hot dogs, sandwiches, snacks and drinks, but lines can get long once the captain makes the “no food on the island” announcement, so if you go this route, line up soon after getting on the boat. A great alternative is to pack food from one of the many vendors along the Embarcadero. Don’t miss the local shops in the Ferry Building, where you’ll find everything from fresh-baked bread and handmade chocolate to artisanal meats and cheeses.

Book your tour early. Only one company, Alcatraz Cruises, offers transportation to the park, and tours can book up weeks in advance. You can print passes at home or visit the will call window, but don’t wait until you arrive in San Francisco to book your tour, or you might wind up with some disappointed kiddos.

Don’t count kids out of the audio tour. I wasn’t sure the audio tour that comes with the ferry ticket would hold our 10-year-old’s interest: He’s usually intent on exploring at his own pace and not being shackled to a guided tour. But the newly redone audio tour’s mp3-player interface and engaging content, from cellblock life to escape plots to some of The Rock’s famous inmates kept him – and all of the kids we saw — riveted. The best part: Instead of a dry, academic-sounding narration, the tour is voiced by the officers and inmates who lived here.

alcatraz audio tour
The cell blocks come alive with the voices of inmates and officers on the Alcatraz audio tour. Photo by Jeremey Clark.

On the night tour, you can complete the 45-minute audio tour and still have time to wander the prison and the grounds and hear ranger presentations about the island. Don’t miss the talk about escapes from The Rock, which details how inmate managed to escape and swim all the way to San Francisco, only to be scooped up and delivered right back to Alcatraz. The kids in the audience were agape.

Dress in layers. This goes for San Francisco in general, but it’s doubly true at Alcatraz, where chilly winds can send you scurrying for the shelter of gift shop when you’d rather be snapping family photos on the stunning grounds of the island. Even on a sunny day, a hoodie or windbreaker is a must, not just on the island but also on the top deck of the ferry, where you’ll get the best views and photo opps.


So You Want to Be a Video-Game Developer? Here’s How.

Nintendo of America’s Washington headquarters. Flickr photo by JTWilcox courtesy of Creative Commons.

If you or your geeklings harbor dreams of working as a video-game developer, here’s the inside scoop from three producers of The Malgrave Incident, the latest  Mystery Case Files game and the series’ first title for the Wii.

Nintendo’s Azusa Tajima and Masa Miyazaki, along with producer Shawn Seavers and the team from Big Fish Games fielded GeekMom’s questions about what it takes to make it in their line of work and what skills aspiring designers and producers should bring to the table.

GeekMom: What kinds of college programs/majors are best for people interested in working in video-game development?

Big Fish Games: In general, choose a particular skill that interests you the most, but be sure to gain as much exposure to the other areas of game development as you can. For example, if you’re studying programming, make sure to take classes in art and design. Try to be well-rounded because everything is connected.

Nintendo: It is hard to say which college programs/majors are best because it takes a variety of people in different professions and skills to develop a video game, but if you like programming and you’re interested in developing a video game, we would recommend trying your best to become an excellent programmer first. On the other hand, we feel that it is also important to expose yourself to various different activities and experiences in your everyday life. Not many people know this, but there is an accredited 4-year college devoted to educating people in video-game development. Students can earn Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees, and there is also a Master’s program in computer science. Kids who are seriously interested in making a career in the video game industry should check out DigiPen Institute of Technology, based a short distance from Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, WA.


GM: What type of internship or summer job experience would help, given that video-game company internships might be geographically impossible for a lot of kids?

Big Fish Games: This is a tough one due to geographical limitations. If there are simply no game companies nearby, you could consider web development work. This combines planning and technical skills with art and design sensibilities. You could also create several smaller games or concept proofs to show that you have the creativity and the drive to create fun experiences. Creating games in Flash is another way to demonstrate creativity and technical prowess.


GM: Beyond an interest in gaming, what skills/aptitudes make a great video-game developer?

Big Fish Games: The best games are often the simplest ideas. Having an ability to identify the source of something that is “fun” is very important.

Nintendo: We would say that the ability of seeing things from different angles/perspectives is key to a great video-game developer and innovation.


GM: Can you describe the different jobs available at a company like Big Fish? What is the corporate culture like?

Big Fish Games: One look at the careers page on our website and you’ll see that we’re a diverse, customer-orientated company with a lot of different needs. There’s a need for business, production, engineering, accounting, and customer support just to name a few!  The culture here is great. There are so many talented people here who value collaboration and open, honest communication. We’ve got a beautiful office located on the shores of Elliott Bay in Seattle. We’ve got teams for soccer, bowling, volleyball, softball… It’s not uncommon to see people playing board games at lunch—or someone zipping by on kick scooter! There’s definitely a culture of fun, and I think it shows in everything we do.

A Q&A with the Developers of the New Mystery Case Files: The Malgrave Incident — Now Available for Wii!


To celebrate the release of The Malgrave Incident, the latest game in the Mystery Case Files series, three producers from Nintendo and Big Fish Games fielded questions from GeekMom on what goes into developing a video game.

Nintendo’s Azusa Tajima and Masa Miyazaki, along with producer Shawn Seavers and the team from Big Fish Games, told us how they keep the world’s leading hidden-object series interesting, what to look for in the latest game, and what might be ahead for the series.

GM: What are the challenges specific to developing an E-rated game?

Big Fish Games: Our biggest challenge in making an E-rated game is creating a compelling story that is not too complicated. The goal is to have a plot that is easily understood but one that also has enough layers to keep players interested over the course of the game. In addition to the story, we also have to be careful when hiding objects. There are objects that could change the rating so we need to make sure that we keep those out of the scenes.

Nintendo: In general, it takes a big team effort to develop an E-rated game. We need to fulfill a lot of criteria set by the ESRB. For this particular game, there are so many hidden objects in the game that it was a significant challenge for us to eradicate objects that could affect the rating.

GM: What are the challenges you face when developing a sequel, especially in a long-running series?

Big Fish: For us, the challenge is two-fold. The first challenge always lies in creating something fresh and new without abandoning what it was that made the series successful in the first place. Players tend to come back to their favorite series with a complicated set of expectations. They usually want a similar experience, but they don’t want the exact same game. The trick is trying to match their expectations while offering an experience that feels new. At the same time, you can’t forget that there are people who haven’t played the series. The game has to be accessible by someone who has never played before. The trick here is to give the new player enough information to get started without feeling too repetitive to those players who are familiar with the series.

Nintendo: The biggest challenge would be to figure out what and how we should bring into a sequel to surprise the players in a positive way and keep the series fresh. Often times, this tends to be challenging to accomplish since we also need to make sure that we retain the identity of the series at the same time. For this new Mystery Case Files game, one of the things we asked Big Fish Games is to create the navigation scenes in 3D and the ability to look around by panning the camera. We think that this was a challenging proposition for Big Fish Games to undertake, but we acknowledge that they did an excellent job.

GM: What tone do you try to strike with the games, and how does that come through in the gameplay?

Big Fish: For each game we try to do something fresh. We like to vary the story’s setting and mix up the style of gameplay to keep things interesting. There’s always an undercurrent of gloom in the Mystery Case Files world, but we try to incorporate a lot of dark humor to complement the setting and lighten the mood. We also tend to create a sense of solitude in Mystery Case Files games. The player is typically investigating empty buildings or abandoned locations. Being alone in an unfamiliar place immediately creates a unique tone.

Nintendo: We saw how the Mystery Case Files series has evolved and developed on PC in terms of the tone and gameplay, and we felt that The Malgrave Incident should be in line with that stream of evolution. As a result, Mystery Case Files: The Malgrave Incident features a darker, more serious story with more adventure elements than Mystery Case Files: Millionheir, which was released on Nintendo DS.

GM: What sets The Malgrave Incident apart from previous Mystery Case Files titles?

Big Fish: We were excited to see what we could do with the series on the Wii! When we started thinking about this game, we imagined friends and family coming together to play in their living rooms so we tried to incorporate elements that would take advantage of this. We designed a cooperative element where up to four players can work together to find hidden objects. That is a first for the series. We also created a multiplayer mode that showcases the hidden-object mechanic in new and entertaining ways. The entire game was built in 3D which is a first for us. We also redesigned the hidden-object scenes with a “layered” approach that gives the scenes a look and feel that is different from our PC titles.

Nintendo: When we started to work on this title, one of our biggest goals is to create a unique experience of multiplayer hidden object puzzles that everyone can enjoy together in their living room. The single-player experience is also very unique. You cannot experience the 3D navigational scenes and hidden object puzzles with parallax effect in other Mystery Case Files titles.

GM: Any hints of what can we look forward to for future Mystery Case Files games?

Big Fish Games: There’s a great deal of fun to be had with some of our past story lines. We had some memorable characters, gorgeous scenery, and entertaining puzzles. At the same time, we’ve got some fun new game mechanics that might be better off with a new story line. We keep trying to “one up” our last game so we can’t wait for people to see what we’re working on!

Nintendo: This is totally Big Fish Games’ call. As a fan of Mystery Case Files series, we are looking forward to playing their next installment!

Up next:  A Mystery Case Files party, and a Q&A for geeklings who are interested in careers in video-game development.

Why Should Kids Have All the Fun? California Academy of Sciences Hosts a Grownup Sleepover

Want to sleep here? Check out the California Academy of Sciences adults-only sleepover on June 4. Photo by Tim Griffiths courtesy of the Academy.

Museum overnight programs have sprung up across the country, offering kids a chance to roll out their sleeping bags beneath some of the most iconic and beloved museum displays in the nation. But why should kids have all the fun? For the first time, San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences is hosting an adults-only sleepover on June 4.

Adults ages 21 and up can spend the night in the museum, which includes an aquarium, natural history museum, planetarium, and a living roof. An upgraded ticket adds a four-course meal from The Moss Room restaurant. Geeky fun abounds: Play a 4-foot-tall Jenga game, get a sneak peek at the gem and mineral collection, catch a movie in the planetarium or stargaze on the roof before rolling out your sleeping bag and crashing for the night in the African Hall, Aquarium, Lower Swamp or Islands of Evolution exhibit. On Sunday, participants will enjoy breakfast and a full day’s admission to the Academy, including the summer Snakes & Lizards exhibit.

Admission for non-members is  $119 for the sleepover or $199 for the sleepover and a four-course dinner in The Moss Room.

Postmodern Parenting Worry of the Week: Are You Raising a Narcissist?

Sorting through the daily influx of press releases that journalists like me face whenever they brave their inbox, this one caught my eye: “Are You Raising a Narcissist?”

Having an only child makes me constantly on alert for signs that we’re spoiling, coddling or otherwise crippling him through our well-intentioned parenting, so I read the release with interest.

“Do you blog about your children?” it asked. Yes. Professionally.

“Do you share photos and information about them over Facebook and Twitter?” Um, yes.

“You may be raising a narcissist,” the release decreed.

Uh oh.

Not only do I do the normal mom stuff, posting cute photos and heartwarming achievements (none of them, I hasten to say, have ever been potty-related), but my risk factors for raising a narcissist are compounded by my job: I write about parenting and family travel for magazines and websites (like this one) that often include first-person experiences with my son.

The kid has had his picture in so many newspapers and magazines, including national ones, that when people comment on it, he just shrugs and says, “Yeah, that’s what my mom does. I’m used to it.”

But I am not so naive that I’m going to call my lifestyle into question over the first three sentences of a press release. I’ll wait until sentence five or six to rush to judgment. First off, who or what is this press release touting? Turns out, it’s for psychologist Larry A. Bugen‘s new book, “Stuck on Me, Missing You: Getting Past Self-Absorption to Find Love.”

The Austin-based Bugen, who has 30 years of experience in marriage counseling, asserts that well-meaning parents who broadcast their children’s achievements, photos and milestones online could be setting them on a path to self-absorption and failed relationships later in life.

Here’s Bugen’s explanation, as seen in the press release: “Studies show that 81% of the world’s children have an online presence before the age of two. That means that four out of five children have a projected ‘image’ before they have personally shaped an ‘identity.’”

What’s harmful about that online image? It’s incomplete: It shows only the good parts of our kids, the release posits. “When did you last see a parent blog, tweet, or post that their child didn’t make varsity soccer or failed a chemistry exam? Instead, we surgically suture together a perfect family image within which we narcissistically attempt to prove our worth through our kids’ lives,” it reads.

The release goes on to explain that “once children become accustomed to being ‘featured’ within cyberspace, they develop a hunger for more. The endless stimulation of the Web literally hooks older children, releasing ‘feel good’ brain chemicals such as Dopamine. Before we know it our children are getting high on themselves – on the very images that were originally shaped by their parents many years before.” Despite a flagrant misuse of the word “literally,” the release makes an interesting correlation: That our seemingly harmless sharing can lead to relationship trouble for our kids. To paraphrase Yoda, overzealous self-interest leads to self-absorption, self-absorption leads to narcissism, and narcissism leads to crappy relationship skills.

Do you find this assertion alarmist? Or is there some truth to it? Personally, I wouldn’t tweet that my kid flunked a test. It seems, well, mean. But I wouldn’t hide that information from my close friends, classmates’ parents or family. Is that potentially harmful to my kid in the long run? What are your thoughts about Bugen’s web-based narcissism theory?



The Magic Behind Real-Life Butterbeer

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure just sold its millionth butterbeer, which creates a nice segue into two burning questions about the Hogsmeade brew of choice: Does it contain butter? Does it contain beer?

No on both counts.

Having a son who’s ragingly allergic to dairy, I shook down several WWoHP staffers on several different occasions about the dairy content, and they all professed that the potion was dairy-free. We ordered ours – one frozen, one regular – but I got a little concerned when the butterbeer slingers (the patient souls seen in the clip above) topped the concoction with a creamy foam. They assured me that the foam was also dairy-free, and judging by the fact that we didn’t wind up in the Wizarding Emergency Room for a magical encounter with the Epi-Pen, they were right.

On to more fun topics: What does butterbeer taste like? Not beery at all, but more like a sophisticated take on cream soda. Butterscotch can be oversweet and cloying, but butterbeer is not. I’d recommend trying both the frozen and the regular kind, as they taste a bit different. If it’s early in the day, though, pass on the souvenir mug, as it’s a drag to carry it around all day.

Another wizarding potable worth trying is Pumpkin Juice: It’s for sale in souvenir bottles the shops of Hogsmeade as well as in cups the The Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head pub, where–in case you were disappointed at the non-alcoholic nature of butterbeer–you’ll also find Potter-inspired cocktails, beer and wine. In the books, pumpkin juice never sounded all that appealing to me, but Universal’s version is a treat: made of apple juice with pumpkin and apricot puree and spices reminiscent of pumpkin pie, it’s refreshing and less soda-sweet than butterbeer.

Stay tuned for a look at the shops and attractions of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. More questions about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Post them in our forum, and if I don’t have the answers, I’ll find ’em.

And be sure to check out Matt Blum’s review of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter over at GeekDad!

Does this Emoticon Make Me Look Like a Girl?

ewinkSomething weirdly enlightening happened to me during a tech-support chat today.

Chatting online with customer service agent “Jared,” I mistyped a number that caused some confusion in our interaction. When he figured out that I had botched the number, I gave him the correct number along with the message: “Sorry, cold fingers ;)”

Then I realized that I was signed into my husband’s account and was chatting under his name, and felt vaguely mortified that I had winked. It’s got nothing to do with homophobia: What I realized was that men, I daresay, don’t often e-wink when they goof up. Frankly, I doubt many men wink at tech support for any reason.

I realized that I had tried, however innocuously, to brush off my goof-up by playing the “cute” card, quite possibly burying years of feminist struggle in two keystrokes. I asked my husband later if he ever uses the wink emoticon. He said he never uses any emoticons at all, after a brief flirtation with the smiley face.

So my question became, do men and women have different e-communication styles? If a person’s screen name doesn’t reveal or hint at their gender, can you tell if they’re male or female by how they write? And do societal norms for emoticon use differ for men and women? What do you think?

Epic Werewolf Fails: 5 Awful Transformations

From fabric-store fur to Lee press-on nails, werewolf transformations on film have a checkered past.

Movie versions of the werewolf metamorphosis usually rely on the actors to stare wide-eyed at their furry hands and creepy nails and emit panicky, mortified screams, although not nearly as convincing as the ones that must have escaped them at the movie’s premiere.

Most werewolf transformations–let’s face it–are epic fails. The “Twilight” movies opt for an instantaneous flash transformation over the stare-and-scream method, but then again [spoiler alert] the guys in question are not actual werewolves, but shape-shifters. Thus, they don’t really count.

But lest you think werewolf fails are a phenomenon of the pre-CGI past, I call your attention to the otherwise excellent BBC series “Being Human.” (Warning: there’s a nekkid tush in this video.)

#1: “Being Human”

He screams a lot, then screams some more, then turns briefly into Cindy-Lou Who before going full werewolf. I give “Being Human” sci-fi points for the physiological explanation, but the visuals of the transformation are an utter fail.

#2: “Teen Wolf”

The Michael J. Fox classic “Teen Wolf” enjoyed a feature-film FX budget, but didn’t fare much better.

Step 1: Grow long, lustrous nails

Step 2: Look in mirror; observe bubbles moving under facial skin; put hands over face

Step 3: Open mirror, perhaps in search of astringent for bubble-face issues


#3: “The Howling”

The werewolf in “The Howling” also suffers from bubble-face/hand-staring syndrome (BFHS):

In addition, he also experiences theatrical snout-stretching with little accompanying facial reaction, which meshes nicely with the “when will this be over I would really like a latte” expression on the face of the gal witnessing the transformation. I’ve seen more fear on the faces of people waiting for the plumber’s estimate.

#4 “American Werewolf in London”

If we were to break down the transformation checklist for “American Werewolf in London” (tush warning #2), it would look a little different from the classic BFHS sequence:

Step 1:  Grab head

Step 2:  Shed clothes

Step 3: Looking-at-hand sequence (see previous)

Step 4: Morph into Harry from “Harry and the Hendersons,” while keeping downstage leg positioned to avoid NC-17 rating


#5 “Bad Moon”

Don’t let the cheesy production values scare you away: This movie has an original take on low-budget werewolf FX. Keys to the transformation are a Vaseline-smeared lens and, possibly, a taxidermied polar bear. Steps are as follows:

Step 1: Develop sudden orthodontia issues

Step 2: Scare the crap out of Mariel Hemingway

Step 3: Go really blurry and kinda lumpy

Step 4: Bust out of Reeboks


I’m sure I’ve stomped on some of your favorite werewolves, so please, tell me if I’m wrong. And if you know of a good werewolf transformation caught on film, do tell.