GeekMom Smart. Savvy. Social. Wed, 20 Aug 2014 13:48:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Back to School Guide 2014 Wed, 20 Aug 2014 12:00:27 +0000 Welcome to this year's back to school guide. We've got backpacks, fitness trackers, cameras, laptops, and books. Oh my!

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Run! Run! Run! It's back to school time!! \ Image: Image from Creative Commons

Run! Run! Run! It’s back to school time!! \ Image: Image from Creative Commons

Welcome to this year’s back to school guide! We have a nice mix of gadgets, accessories, books, and clothing to outfit your student with for the upcoming 2014-2015 school year. We’ve got backpacks, fitness trackers, cameras, laptops, and books. Oh my!

Gadgets and Accessories

Misfit Shine Red \ Image: Misfit websiteMisfit Shine ($99.00)
Shine is a wearable fitness tracker that is capable of tracking your activities and sleep with only a watch battery and Bluetooth technology. Misfit Shine comes with a magnetic clip and a durable sport band (I advise against using the magnetic clip because it falls off easily) and is available in nine colors.

PureGear: PureTek Roll on Screen Shield Kit ($24.99)
Why take the chance on spending $150.00 on screen repair when you can spend $25.00 and prevent it? PureGear: PureTek Roll on Screen Shield Kit is the easiest screen protector I’ve ever used and the first I didn’t have any issues with when putting it on.

PureGear: PureMove ($39.99)
PureMove is a comfortable armband holder for those who like to take their iPhone out on a run with them. I tested this with my own iPhone 5s and it felt very secure inside the casing.

Rilakkuma Computer Mouse Pad with Wrist Support Plush Cushion ($22.00)
Comfort is a big factor when working on a computer for any length of time. Make it fun with this fun bear plush cushion for your wrist.

Lenovo Flex 2 ($600.00)
The Lenovo Flex 2 is the laptop of choice when it comes to needing enough power to get school work done without the worry of your student getting caught up in extensive online gaming. The screen flips 300 degrees for those who prefer to use the touchscreen element or watch a movie. JUMP ($49.99)
If size matters to you when it comes to carrying around a spare battery, you can’t get much smaller than the JUMP. The downside to its size is that it will only give you around 30% more power on your iPhone battery and you can only use it once per charging cycle. On the upside, its small size allows it to fit in your pocket and it light as a feather to carry around.

JunoPower: JunoJUMPR ($99.00)
JunoPower: JunoJUMPR works on both your electronics and your car. Providing 12 volts at 300 amps it can bring your car or motorcycle back to life with the included jumper cables and it can also be used to charge your electronic devices.

Big Red Button – USB Powered Rage Relief DeviceBig Red Button \ Image: ThinkGeek ($14.99)
Who doesn’t love a big red button that they can push to make their screen blow up, make it look like they are working (or studying), or let them punch something in the face as many times as they desire? I have mine on my desk at work and it’s great for those moments I need a little stress relief in my day.

Polaroid Z2300 10-megapixel Digital Instant Print Camera ($179.99)
To capture those special school moments, the Polaroid Z2300 brings an old school classic to new school. You can either print the photos you want to keep or save them to the camera and drop them on your computer. I like this camera because unlike previous Polaroid cameras, I can pick and choose what to waste my paper on. The 2×3 size paper makes it perfect for smaller scrapbooks.

iRecorder – Retro Cassette Player Styled Portable Speaker For iPhone ($39.99)
I’m a sucker for retro gadgets. I remember having a cassette player just like this one and it’s kind of cool to put my iPod in one now. The sound isn’t Bose quality, but it’s cheaper and looks pretty cool on my desk.

Keyport Slide 2.0 Bundle – Ultimate Keychain Replacement ($99.99)
This is the master of all key rings. You can have up to six different keys or tools in this one compact case. I like the flashlight, 32 GB USB drive, and house key sliders. You can also have a bottle opener, pen, Nite Ize S-Biner MicroLock, barcode insert (for your reward card barcodes), and your car key even if it’s a chipped model. It’s your modern Swiss army knife.

Keyport Slide 2.0 \ Image: ThinkGeekKikkerland KRL32TC Dog LED Keychain with Sound ($6.88)
Every backpack looks cooler with key chains hanging off of it, so why not make one of them useful? This adorable puppy shoots bright lights out of his eyes, lighting the way when needed. Oh, and you can also use it to hold keys.

Pyle Audio Light Up Erasable Board ($80.00)
For those that want a cooler board than the traditional white board check out this cool board by Pyle Audio. I have one in my office and I use it to write encouraging messages to myself.

Building Block Flash Drive ($9.49)
Flash drives have become the new office supply that you can never have enough of, especially during back to school days. How about getting a few back ups, made to look like Lego building blocks, so the kids can have their own? Warning: These are just as painful to step on as real Lego bricks, so keep them off the floor!

Rubik’s Cube Flash Drive ($24.90)
What better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Rubik’s Cube than to have a few tucked into your kid’s backpack? Or maybe this is one item you can say you bought for the kids, but ends up in your office supply basket?

Iron Man Flash Drive ($10.99)
This is one way to make homework fun—load it up on an Iron Man flash drive! This is one back to school accessory that won’t get lost along the way.

Guitar Flash Drive ($9.69)
For all those musicians in your house, there is nothing classier than having your school flash drive be a small guitar. A fun conversation starter with teachers and friends.

AquaNotes ($7.00 each or 5-pack for $28)
Have you ever noticed that some of the best ideas or forgotten thoughts come to you while in the shower? That’s because when you are in the water, your mind goes into a kind of meditative state and things come forward that may have been pushed back. It drives me nuts when this happens because when I leave the shower I’ll more than likely forget whatever it was I remembered again. This is where AquaNotes comes in. AquaNotes are waterproof notepads that you can write in while in the shower. They are perforated so when you dry off, you can take your notes with you. The suction cups on the notepad and the pencil make it easy to attach to the shower walls in between you genius thoughts. AquaNotes come in traditional blank pages and fun word game pages.


Cyborg Gadget Glove \ Image: Amazon

Cyborg Gadget Glove \ Image: Amazon

William Shakespeare’s: Star Wars translations ($9.00 and up)
No class on Shakespeare is complete without Ian Doescher’s translation of the Star Wars trilogy. It’s by far the coolest way to learn and with references to original Shakespeare plays, it’s a fun way to get kids to find the hidden meanings. Check out the teacher’s guide to learn how to use these three books to help your child understand the Shakespearean language.

Nick and Tesla’s Gadget Glove ($10.00)
Nick and Tesla’s Gadget Glove gets kids reading about a fun adventure between to kids and along the way, the reader is instructed on how to build the glove that the main characters use in the story. You don’t get all of the instructions at one time, so it encourages kids to finish the book to learn how to make the glove 100%.

Piggy Island ($9.00)
Piggy Island
takes readers into the world of the bad piggies from Angry Birds. Any Angry Birds fan will appreciate the humor in seeing how King Pig rules his subjects and what goes on when they are not fighting the Angry Birds. While it doesn’t teach mathematics or science, it will give your reader a break from the serious and enjoy some fun.

Yogi Bear: Life is a Picnic Basket ($9.00)
For Yogi Bear, life is a picnic basket and in this hardcover title, Yogi gives advice on seeing the glass half full. I don’t think there is another bear out there who I would trust to give me life advice.

World of Warcraft Journal ($16.00)
Journaling is a great way to reduce stress in your day and help you put your mind at ease before bed. Get your student off to a great start by giving them a cool journal they will be happy to take with them everywhere. While the theme of this journal is World of Warcraft, the name of the game is nowhere on the journal once you remove the paper wrapper, so if they are into Dragons, but not the game, this is still a cool looking option.

Marvel Heroes and Villains Poster Collection ($18.00)
Decorate that dorm room with some Avengers posters. For $18.00 you get 40 posters in a humble 11 x 17 size. My favorite part of this book are the movie posters they included. They are just the right size for the average size dorm room and you can swap them out easily for a quick change in decor.

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor \ Image: Amazon

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor \ Image: Amazon

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor ($9.00)
With a main character with the name “Frank Einstein,” you know that something will get zapped by lightning and that’s when the real fun begins. The author did a nice job intertwining real science in with a story about a creative and fun main character.

Explorer Series ($10.00)
The Explorer Series is the first graphic novel series on this list and for good reason. The story isn’t hero driven or politically oriented. It has beautiful art that draws you into the story and has enough humor, suspense, and darkness to interest kids today. Each of the books in the series revolves around something mysterious and are great for those that like to read multiple short stories that tie together in a nice little package.

NERDS Series ($8.00)
NERDS stands for: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society. What happens when a group of unpopular fifth graders start their own spy network and run it within the halls of their school? You get a fun story about kids turning their nerd qualities into extraordinary abilities with some James Bond-like villains thrown in. This series is told in a traditional chapter book format.

The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic ($ 8.00)
Anytime I can learn something through a comic book format, I’m all for it. The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic takes us on an adventure with Geo and his robot pup, Rocky, as they travel back in time to Pangea to wade the dangers that lurks there and race to get back in time for class.

Learn to Program with Scratch ($24.00)
Scratch is a language that is kid friendly to learn and explore the basic elements of programming in general. The book is aimed at young minds and illustrates examples throughout the book. I’d recommend this title for anyone in the 4th grade and up.

Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels ($19.00)
Brian Michael Bendis gives his best advice to those who have a dream of working in comics. As one of the most popular writers at Marvel, he has plenty of good advice to give and takes time to write it all out in black and white. This is a must have book for any aspiring comic book artist or writer.

Foundations in Comic Book Art ($19.00)
Get your inspiring comic book artist off on the right start with Foundations in Comic Book Art. With step-by-step lessons and exercises for future artists, this title will make a nice addition to their school books this year.

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare \ Image: Amazon

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare \ Image: Amazon

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig ($9.99 and up depending on format)
Ken Ludwig, may be a successful playwright and author in his own right for Broadway hits like Lend Me A Tenor and Crazy for You, but his book How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare, celebrates another scribe, William Shakespeare, with contagious enthusiasm.

Rather than the dry interpretation of many of Shakespeare’s classics like Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, Ludwig makes the stories—and The Bard’s writing style—adventurous and fun.

Readers are challenged, in Ludwig’s friendly, witty, and conversational style, to read passages aloud for themselves, then with their kids. Parents will also find themselves learning a bit more about Shakespeare in the process. They might even get some of the more melodic passages stuck in their head like a catchy tune (“I know a bank where the wild thyme grows”).

Although the primary focus of this book is the appreciation and interpretation of Shakespeare, its memory exercises can also help the mind stay fresh for other subjects and tasks.

Give this book as a companion book to any of Shakespeare’s works in book or video form.

Lunch Boxes and Backpacks

Cotapaxi Backpacks (starting at $79.00)
When choosing your backpack this year, consider Cotapaxi’s lightweight backpacks and give back to underprivileged children in Peru at the same time. The backpacks are built by designers from leading companies including: Nike, Columbia, Sportwear, and Marmot Mountain. The backpacks start at $79.00 and pays for a week of onsite tutoring for a child in Peru.

Timeless Characters Pencil Pouch with Bonus Notebook Jacket ($12.85)
Make sure your student has a writing utensil when they need it with a pencil pouch that attaches to their notebook. It’s small enough to hold a couple of pens or pencils without getting bulky.

R2-D2 Tin Lunch Box ($29.99)
What Star Wars fan wouldn’t be excited about bringing their lunch to school in a cool R2-D2 lunch box? It has great reviews for durability and likability.

Hello Kitty Lunch Box ($19.99)
An adorable option for the Hello Kitty fan, this lunch box will inspire good nutrition and great conversation at the school lunch table.

Aquarius Fender Amp Lunch Box ($10.99)
Be the coolest kid at the lunch table with this authentic looking Fender amplifier lunch box. The teachers might be as intrigued as the kids sitting next to you.

Boombox Lunch Box \ Image: Amazon

Boombox Lunch Box \ Image: Amazon

Boombox Lunch Box ($12.99)
With detailed authenticity on every side, fool the teachers (or co-workers) into thinking you’ve brought some tunes along for the lunch hour. Deep enough for a thermos and cool enough for kids or adults.

OGIO: Newt Backpack ($99.00)
If your student has a laptop (up to 15″) to drag back and forth I recommend the OGIO: Newt Backpack. I use it for my laptop anytime I’m going out of town and it holds my laptop, a couple of notebooks, and plenty of comics to get me through my journey. The compartments for the laptop and its accessories are padded with a soft velvety material to protect them while in transit. There is also a chest strap for added support if they want to clip it in place.

Bag of Holding—Con-Survival Edition ($29.99)
ThinkGeek has given us the Bag of Holding and now they have the Bag of Holding—Con-Survival Edition. The really cool part about this bag is the clear vinyl iPad pocket that lets you work your iPad without taking it out of the bag. The soft area on the front is great for attaching patches and pins for collecting. I like to carry this when my daily tasks involve my iPad and taking notes.

Health and First Aid

MediBuddy First Aid Kit ($5.99)
These mini first aid kits come with all the basics (band-aids, sting relief, burn cream, etc.) and will easily fit in a backpack or mom’s purse. Kid-friendly packaging make them fun to carry. Maybe grab one for the bottom of the diaper bag too.

Captain America Cardigan \ Image: Her UniverseAAA 85 Piece First Aid Kit ($24.99)
Do you have a first aid kit in your minivan or other kid hauling vehicle? The first time you have a bee sting, bump, or cut while on the go, you’ll be thankful you thought of it. This one easily fits under the seat, is filled with all the essentials, and can be refilled as needed.


TOMS Red Chemical Structure Women’s Classics Slip-On Shoes ($54.00)
TOMS is celebrating back to school with this nerdy chemistry pattern. Comfortable, stylish, and geeky! GeekMom Ariane is happy to see them offered in women sizes, because TOMS has had some geeky patterns available only in men sizes in the past.

Her Universe Marvel Line ($20.00 and up)
Her Universe is full of awesome lines for the female geek to outfit their new school year. One of my favorites is the Captain America Cardigan because it’s light enough to carry in my backpack, but still keeps me comfortable in a cold room. When purchasing anything Her Universe, I suggest you go one size up to account for shrinkage. In terms of the cardigan, I would go two sizes up if you like it a little loose around your arms.

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Race Review: The Color Fun Fest 5K Wed, 20 Aug 2014 11:00:53 +0000 GeekMom Patricia experiences her first "color run"!

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Color Fun Fest: Before and After. Like other runs of this type, the Color Fun Fest brings the elements of the ancient Hindu spring festival of Holi. Photo credit: Herb Keyser.

Last weekend I had the chance to participate in my first “color run.”

“Oh! Which one? The Color Run? Run or Dye? Color Me Rad? The Graffiti Run?”

No, none of those. I had the chance to participate in the Color Fun Fest 5K on its stop in Colorado Springs.

The event markets itself as a family-friendly combination of the ancient Hindu Holi festival with heavy electronica music. During Holi, which is traditionally celebrated near the vernal equinox, friends and families celebrate love and good friendship. One of the Holi traditions is tossing of colored powders.

You will feel this energy during the Color Fun Fest. Participants run a 5K race while having colored cornstarch tossed at them approximately every mile. It’s a relatively new event making its way around the U.S., and I think once it works out some growing pains, it has the potential to be a successful running event series. Read on for details about my family’s experience.

Registration Like many other 5K races, the sooner you register, the better. Color Fun Fest has numerous promotions throughout the year. As of this writing, there was a “Girls’ Night Out” promotion using the promo code GIRLSNIGHT. However, it is expiring this week. You can choose a daytime race, which is in the late afternoon, or an evening race that starts near sunset.

The registration costs are comparable to other races of this type: $25-30 per person for early registration, with the costs skyrocketing up to $60-75 within a couple days of the race itself. Unlike other color races, kids race for FREE! This is very appealing to my family now that our sons are old enough to run their own 5K races. You will pay a small service fee for the online registration, and the kids won’t get a race t-shirt of his/her own, but that’s okay. We will just put our sons in white Hanes undershirts. Once you finish with individual registration, you will have to endure several pages of options to “add on” other race items, such as glow sticks, deely-boppers, socks, tutus, and other types of race t-shirts. I didn’t choose any of these items, I merely wanted a basic registration for the members of my family.

Preparing to Race

You can find oodles of blog posts with tips on how to make a color run fun without ruining your car’s upholstery or your home’s carpet. I heeded some of those tips, throwing a pile of old towels into the car before the race. As for clothing, make sure you wear clothing that you don’t mind possibly permanently ruining with some of the more intense cornstarch colors.

I picked some older running shorts and made sure we all wore older running shoes. I had skipped the pages upon pages of race registration add-ons because I could simply pay a trip to the dollar store or party supply store for less-expensive glow sticks, tutus, and silly sunglasses. I got everything I needed for $10 from my local Dollar Tree.

Packet Pick Up

I’ve noticed that for several of these races in the series, the packet pick up is the day prior at a local sports store. For this past weekend’s event, the packet pickup was at Sport Authority right up the street from the event location. For the first time in the dozens of races I’ve experienced, there was a $5 fee to pick up your packet on race day.

The pickup experience was okay. Nothing remarkable. You pick up your bib, packet of colored cornstarch, and t-shirt, which were included with registration. If you purchased any add-ons, such as a tutu or glow sticks, those were available to pick up also. My bag had a $10 Sports Authority coupon. That was it. For a $30-60 registration, I felt like the Color Fun Fest could have worked better with sponsors. I would have loved to have seen discounts from vendors, or maybe samples of glow sticks or day glow socks. Even in the most simple of 5Ks (such as a basic one on an Air Force base), someone works on donated swag for the racers.

The Race Course

The Colorado Springs Color Fun Fest course’s entirety was on the grounds of the World Ice Arena, home of USA Hockey and the Colorado College Tigers hockey team. We ran on the property’s service roads and then zig zagged across the parking lot. I figured constraining the course to the parking lots and service roads helped with keeping the colored powders off of other properties. Perhaps it was the city of Colorado Springs making this restriction. However I did look at the upcoming “The Color Run” course this September and that race will be downtown, colored powder and all.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.50.39 AM

The Colorado Springs Color Fun Fest course at the World Ice Arena. It was full of switchbacks that caused some incredible bottlenecks. Read on and I’ll tell you why else this didn’t work out so well. Image: Color Fun Fest website.

The Pre-Party

My family arrived pretty early, so it was nearly devoid of runners. The day race had ended about 90 minutes prior to our arrival, and there were only a couple runners left from that time period. According to the website, “Along with the most vibrant 5K course around, Color Fun Fest 5K will also feature a massive finish-line festival featuring live DJs, vendors, food, and the monumental EPICOLOR TOSS at 3:45 pm, 5:15 pm, 7:45 pm, and 9:15 pm.

There weren’t a lot of vendors or food. I saw the local Buffalo Wild Wings set up, and a couple other local vendors selling hot dogs and cold beverages. The DJ was playing hard electronica music, and the kids enjoyed dancing to it. As more people arrived, they were also dancing up by the stage. Within the 30 minutes before the event, most of the runners were present and the environment seemed more like a 1990s rave between the colors and music. We enjoyed the energy it conveyed. Unfortunately, some of the music the DJ was playing wasn’t quite family friendly; we heard the “f-word” in a couple of the songs. There were hundreds of children present, including preschoolers and toddlers in strollers. Event planners need to keep that in mind.

The Color Fun Fest pre-race party energy was high. We all enjoyed dancing to the electronica music. I recommend the DJs try to stick to the rated-PG songs, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The Color Fun Fest pre-race party energy was high. We all enjoyed dancing to the electronica music. I recommend the DJs try to stick to the rated-PG songs, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The Race Itself

If I didn’t say it earlier in the post, I will say it now: This is not a race. This is a 5K “fun run” and you can expect the majority of participants to not be taking this seriously. Be prepared for those right at the front when the gun goes off to start the race walking, and if you are planning to run the course, you will have a lot of zig-zagging around slower people. If you go into this race with plans to just have a good time and not worry about running “PRs” (personal records), you’re fine. There are no timing chips nor is there even a clock timing runners progress. My analytical oldest son had a hard time with this. We didn’t start the race on time either. It was supposed to be an 8pm start, but it was more like 8:10pm. I’m not completely sure what the delay was. When it was 8:09pm and we still hadn’t started, I began to get worried for the kids’ sake. But at 8:10pm we were on our way.

Before and after the day and night races, there were “EPIC Color Tosses”. This was a period where we were showered with colored powders, and we could launch the free packets of powder we received with race registration. At several locations along the race route, there were race volunteers keeping the powder coming. We were doused pretty well at each of the locations. If you breathe too deeply at these locations, you can inhale quite a bit of the powder. I’m pretty sure it’s harmless (but uncomfortable) for most people, but if you’re an asthmatic or have other breathing disorders, this could be a bad situation.

This was one of the numerous color toss stations along the route. Hold your breath while running through and you won't inhale the cornstarch! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

This was one of the numerous color toss stations along the route. Hold your breath while running through and you won’t inhale the cornstarch! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

There is one water station on the route. This is appropriate for a 5K race. We were given room-temperature bottles of water. Numerous bottles with one sip taken were tossed about, which I found wasteful, or else you were stuck running with most of a bottle of water (which I did). While I was annoyed at first with the entire bottles of water as opposed to cups of water, I understand that the colored powder could get into open cups of water. I think the event planners could work better on keeping the water cold. It was a warm day in Colorado Springs.

We all enjoyed the music on the route. We could hear it well throughout the run.

Now, for the route. As I’d shown in the section above, much of the race route consisted of zig-zags across the large World Arena parking lot, with our paths bounded by orange traffic cones. I’m pretty certain someone in the lead took a wrong turn among the cones and the 3100 entrants followed the wrong route behind him/her. Therefore, in my group, the longest measured route (based on our assorted GPS apps) was only 2.56 miles. So we didn’t really run a 5K. I was pretty upset by this. I learned this fact while I was sipping my lukewarm bottled water, watching the huge lines develop at the three food vendors. While our first instinct was to blame poor route planning, I think a more accurate issue would be the lack of race volunteers along the route pointing us in the right direction.

The Post-Party

The post-party was very similar to the pre-party. The music continued to play and people continued to dance near the stage. Unfortunately, my kids were pretty hungry, so our group left before the 9:15pm EPIC Color Toss so we could get them food and cold beverages without the long lines.


As of this writing, I’m still awaiting word on how much money from the Colorado Springs entrance fees will be donated to the Color Fun Fest’s two charities: Free Arts for Abused Children and HopeKids. The Color Fun Fest website suggests that the organization also donates to “local non-profit” charities, but so far I haven’t seen evidence of any donations other than to the two national-level charities listed above. I’m hoping this is just a matter of Color Fun Fest being a new race series, and that the race coordinators can soon make arrangements with local charities. They will garner much more local interest in this race series by doing so.


Smile, enjoy the energy, and get some exercise while you’re at it! Photo: Dave Vollmer.


I suggest you give the Color Fun Fest a chance. It’s a new series, and I have hope that it will continue to improve in the next year or so. I read one of the series’ first independent blog reviews from this past spring, and I was pleased to see that they took the reviewer’s suggestions seriously. Be sure to keep up with the event’s website to see if Color Fun Fest is coming to a city year you.

My family received complimentary race admission for the Colorado Springs Color Fun Fest on August 16, 2014.

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Tiny FoxL Dash7 Bluetooth Stereo Soundbar Delivers Big Sound Wed, 20 Aug 2014 10:00:02 +0000 The tiny Dash7 Bluetooth stereo soundbar from Soundmatters delivers big sound, with several drawbacks.

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Dash7 Stereo Bluetooth speaker might fit in your sunglasses case. (Photo: SoundMatters)

What matters most in your secondary sound systems: sound quality, convenience, completeness, portability, or superhero references? I tested the FoxL Dash 7 Bluetooth stereo soundbar from SoundMatters, a minute speaker that seems destined to be paired with tablets and could never say no to a phone. If you can compromise on the superhero item, we’ve got a complete, elegant portable speaker solution at a full-size price.

The FoxL Dash7 is about the size of a moderately sized TV remote: 7.5″ x 2.1″ x 0.75″. Unlike a remote, its outside is sleek and almost featureless, with only three small buttons plus a status light. It weighs only 7.1 ounces—about the same as four large eggs.

The Dash7 fits in small places. (Photo: SoundMatters)

The buttons serve to increase volume, decrease volume, and on/off/connect Bluetooth.

The Dash7 is a prime example of minimalism. I like its sleek design, easy-carry size, and large, secure rubber feet that helped it stay where I set it. Unlike most small Bluetooth speakers, it comes with a form-fitting case. This wraps and fastens magnetically and also serves as a sort of origami stand (see photo at top). The Dash7 itself is available in four colors, which means that the sides (.75 inches tall) come in those colors, while the back and the speaker mesh on the front are black in all versions.

What’s in the box:

• Charging kit with wall adapters
• Micro USB cable
• 3.5 mm audio cable
• Wraparound case and stand
• User Guide

This makes a useful selection of accessories: I appreciate the case, which protects the speaker during the travels that are inevitable for a speaker this size, and then it also provides support in a slanting position. The case does not serve as a carrying bag: I had to carry cables and chargers in one of my other elegant carrying solutions. Since there are several cables, you can power or charge from the wall (SoundMatters advises that output is much louder with AC power) and still have the other cable for powering on the go with a laptop. There is also an add-on subwoofer available from SoundMatters for an additional cost.

The sound from the Dash7 is good—loud enough to fill our family room, since none of us demanded head-banging volume. The Bluetooth is strong enough to work over significant distances; I tested it across two rooms of my house, where it connected beautifully. The music sounded best when it was not cranked up to full volume, because at that level it started to fuzz up with spots of distortion.

I listened to a variety of music and this was our favorite amplifier when streaming movies from a compact projector. The Dash7 delivered room-filling sound that did not require massive tinkering for the Bluetooth. It did require me to remember (or occasionally, look up in the well-written, concise User Guide) the button and status light patterns. Going forward, I am using a small cheat sheet inside the case to help me remember the most-needed information.  One flap of the case is cleverly taken up with a useful diagram of how to construct the origami stand for the speaker.

The battery is specially designed to aid in delivering bass, and you can further adjust that by laying the Dash7 down flat on a solid surface (bassiest), standing it up straight (clearest), or standing it in its case (moderate). The battery is advertised to provide 12 hours of sound on a charge. I played mine for over 10 hours on a single charge after having already gone through multiple charge-and-play cycles.

It also can be used as a speaker phone enhanced with noise-cancelling technology—either via Bluetooth or using the 3.5 mm audio cable connection. I connected with Bluetooth and experienced some feedback when the phone and speaker were too close to each other, plus I had to speak close to the mic on the Dash7, but it did amplify the person on the other end of the line, making our family call-ins loud and clear.

I mostly used the Dash7 with my iPad. It is a good companion for tablets large and small and is only somewhat larger than most cell phones. The elegant, minimalist design displays well with product design from Apple or similar items. This minimalism leads to one challenge (common to many Bluetooth speakers): remembering the combinations of button presses that control the speaker and what the various flashing lights mean. SoundMatters provides an audio cable to bypass the need for Bluetooth, so that is one possible simplification.

Dash7 with full-size iPad. (Photo: SoundMatters)

The Dash7 mostly performed well, but there are a few drawbacks.


• Great sound
• Long battery life
• Good Bluetooth range
• Very portable
• Combined case and stand
• Useful accessory package of cables and power wall adapters
• User Guide is concise and helpful


• Status lights, buttons seem arcane, like decoding an alien dashboard
• Speaker phone has minimal capabilities
• Expensive

The FoxL Dash7 turned out to be a superhero speaker with a mighty sound from a mighty mite body and with sidekick capabilities that rescue you from irritation and lost time. If you’re looking for great sound in a small package, get heroic sound from the FoxL Dash7. Manufactured by SoundMatters, suggested retail price $199; available from Amazon and major audio retailers.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

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A Harry Potter Fangirl With Big Dreams Tue, 19 Aug 2014 13:00:28 +0000 A little girl's Harry Potter fan-love goes beyond wands and chocolate frogs.

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Harry Potter may have ended in 2011 with seven books and movies, but the magic of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world lives on with every new generation.

The magic and wonder of the worlds created in the books is inspiration for so many little imaginations. Skylar was having a birthday party and seeing as how she loves all things Harry Potter, a very Hogwarts birthday party was in order!

Harry Potter Birthday

All images by justJENN

Harry Potter Birthday detailsThis little fangirl got the Harry Potter party of her dreams! Skylar’s very talented parents went all out, creating a 9 ¾ station entrance on their porch, floating candles over the great dining (room table) hall, and there was even a Gringotts where you could exchange money to buy edible treasures at Honeydukes!

With the help of Pinterest, Skylar’s mom created hand-crafted wands out of paper and paint while Skylar’s dad put on a whimsical potions show of scientific magic. To top off the magical evening, The Sorcerer’s Stone shown on a big screen while Golden Snitch-topped cupcakes were served!

Brown UniversityIf you think Skylar’s fascination with Harry Potter stops at the books and movies, you only have to look to her bedroom to see her love of the wizarding world runs deep. Her room is adorned with Harry Potter and Hogwarts house memorabilia, but the most prominent decor in the room is a large Brown college pennant right above her bed. Why Brown? It’s the college that Hermione Granger herself, actress Emma Watson, attended. If there ever was a strong, intelligent woman to admire, both Hermione and Emma Watson fit the bill.

You couldn’t ask for a better Harry Potter-themed party for a bright, young, deserving girl. After all, getting to seven years old in either the wizarding world or the muggle world is no easy task. Just remember Skylar, when you indeed do attend Brown, make sure to use your time-turner wisely.

Click on links for more details on the Harry Potter Birthday and Golden Snitch Cupcakes.

Have You Seen This Wizard

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7 New Middle Grade and YA Books I Want to Read This Fall Tue, 19 Aug 2014 12:00:42 +0000 These are the new fall releases at the top of school librarian and GeekMom Jackie's To Read pile.

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Fall 2014 Books

Collage by Jackie Reeve from covers © Scholastic Press, GRAPHIX, Knopf Books for Young Readers, Putnam Juvenile, Scholastic Inc., and Simon Pulse.

Back in June, I attended Book Expo America in New York, and I previewed some great new reads for kids and teens. There are so many books at the Expo each year that it’s impossible to see them all. And reading time is precious when I’m chasing a two-year-old around. So these are the titles I really want to make time to read this fall, based on what I previewed.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan by Jeffrey Brown. The second book about Roan Novachez’s middle school years from the author of Vader’s Little Princess hit shelves last month, but I think it’ll be a great back-to-school pick. Roan’s second year at Jedi Academy finds him dealing with tough classes, friend problems, and bullies. (July 29th from Scholastic Inc.)

Amulet #6: Escape from Lucien by Kazu Kibuishi. The gorgeous and absolutely thrilling Amulet graphic novel series continues with Emily and Navin splitting up to find keys to defeating the Elf King. (August 26th from GRAPHIX)

The Iron Trial is the first book in the new Magisterium series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. It’s a middle grade fantasy that follows Callum Hunt, who has been warned away from magic all of his life, as he’s accepted into the Magisterium and discovers dark things lurking there. (September 9th from Scholastic Press)

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld. I would love to spend a day inside Scott Westerfeld’s imagination. His new book is a story-within-a-story about a college student who leaves school when her first novel, Afterworlds, is published. The book follows a year in her life as a young writer finding her way in New York City. It also weaves in her actual novel, about another girl who escapes a terrorist attack by entering the Afterworld, “a place between the living and the dead,” according to the book description. This is the only one I couldn’t get my hands on at Book Expo, and I cannot wait for its release! (September 23rd from Simon Pulse)

Skink—No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen. The sixth novel with Skink and another from the great Hiaasen. When Richard’s cousin disappears, he gets Skink to help track her down somewhere in Florida with his own unique methods for justice. This one is already getting starred reviews for teens and adults. (September 23rd from Knopf Books for Young Readers)

The Yeti Files #1: Meet the Bigfeet by Kevin Sherry. It’s Blizz Richards’ job to keep hidden creatures, “or “cryptids,” hidden. Blizz is a yeti. When his cousin Brian accidentally gets his picture taken, he disappears and sends Blizz and his ace team on a mission to find him in time for the annual yeti family reunion. From the author of I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean, a picture book I love to pieces. (September 30th from Scholastic Press)

The Young Elites by Marie Lu. Lu is following up her insanely popular YA trilogy Legends with this new fantasy series. When a terrible illness wipes out her country, Adelina Amouteru survives. She and the other children who survived are left with markings like silver hair and scars, and there are rumors that they also have special powers. They’re called the Young Elites. (October 7th from Putnam Juvenile)

GeekMom received some copies for review purposes.

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The Best of Dragon Con For Your Preteens Tue, 19 Aug 2014 11:00:17 +0000 If you're bringing your preteens to Dragon Con next week, you'll want to check out this list of the best events they won't want to miss.

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Courtesy of Dragon Con Photography © 2014 Dragon Con, Inc.

Dragon Con is known for its spectacular fan costuming and great guest lists, but it’s not always the first show you think of to take your kids to. In the past, there was on-site child care, but that’s been gone for several years. I’d still be reluctant to take very small children; partly due to admitted selfishness of wanting to be able to enjoy the con alone, but also because a wandering 5-year-old, tens of thousands of people in a small space, expensive handmade costumes, and too many shiny things to touch is a bad combination waiting to happen. But with the growing Kaleidoscope Track created for 9- to 13-year-olds, Dragon Con is an increasingly interesting place for your preteens.

Here are a few things you can look forward to in this year’s Kaleidoscope programming and other con events that are great for kids:

• The parade, of course! A highlight of the Dragon Con experience for many people, the parade starts at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, but you’ll want to be there early to get a good spot to see as many great costumes as possible.

• The first Kaleidoscope Track Book Club. Join author Bryan Young and illustrator Erin Kubinek to learn about and discuss the Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination. It was written by Young for his daughter Scout and illustrated by Kubinek.

• Build a robot. The Kell High School Robotics Team is hosting an on-site Lego® FIRST® Challenge where your kids can test their engineering skills by designing, building, and programming an autonomous robot with Lego technology.

• Get your groove on! This year, the Kaleidoscope Track will also host Dragon Con’s first Family Friendly Dance & Sing-a-Long with the theme “Everything is Awesome!”

 The second annual Geek Girls Run DragonCon Fun Run. On Friday morning, come costumed (or not) for a two-mile run to Olympic Park and back.

 Become a mad scientist. Take part in a dozen hands-on experiments during “The Science Power Hour!” on Sunday. Extract DNA from strawberries, find out if you’re a Predator or an Alien, launch soda-straw rockets, mix up some non-Newtonian fluids, and to top it all off, make ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Prefer to watch a mad scientist at work?  Don’t miss Beakman Live with the always amazing Paul Zaloom.

• Check out puppet improv. Puppeteers from Sesame Street and The Jim Henson Company will put on an improvisational puppet show. But if your kid is more the sort to hold the puppet, there will also be a puppet-making workshop, which allows them to take home their own dragon puppets.

Since you’re probably not going to stick only to the kids’ programming, I will note that if you’re the more sensitive sort of parent, deeply concerned about the words your younglings hear… well, you’re probably not bringing them to Dragon Con. But just in case, remember that your and your kids’ favorite actors are humans who sometimes tell saucy stories, and you never know when you’re going to head for the dealers’ room, only to encounter a fairy in a thong. (Most of the more adult costuming stays to the night hours, but not always.) Relax, have fun, and remember that they probably have seen and heard stranger things from their friends anyway.

See you (and your kids!) next week!

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Muppets Most Wanted: The Unnecessarily Extended Edition Tue, 19 Aug 2014 10:00:48 +0000 It's time to light the lights with the Muppets Most Wanted bonus features!

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Recapturing the booth shots of old. All photos: Walt Disney Pictures

Muppets Most Wanted is a terrific addition to the Muppets canon. It takes on the best aspects of Muppets Take Manhattan, and leaves out the worst of Muppets Treasure Island. The talent is spot on, the bit parts are hilarious, and the music is excellent once again. As one of their previous DVD releases contains one of my all time favorite bonus features, the menu of The Muppets Christmas Carol, I was excited to see what the “Unnecessarily Extended Edition” would bring.

Muppets2Muppets Most Wanted picks up right where The Muppets left off. Exactly where it left off, but with body doubles for the posteriors of Amy Adams and Jason Segel. What follows is a riotous romp across Europe, involving a Russian doppelgänger of the worlds most dangerous frog, the longed-for wedding of Miss Piggy, and the greatest cameo of the year thanks to Ray Liotta.

My favorite component of this latest movie, was the consistent use of in-jokes. The references to former shows and movies, blended in subtly and not so subtly into the tapestry of the new Muppet era. Constantine’s use of the line “It’s time to light the lights” is instantly legendary. The encore version of one of their classic songs, pure genius. The only thing this particular story line lacked, unless you were forced to sit next to me and listen to my dulcet tones, was the oh so appropriate “They’re finally getting ma-ha-ha-rried now” during the ceremony in London.

But let’s talk extras.

- Three versions of the film are included: the 107-minute theatrical version, the somewhat shorter tongue-in-cheek Statler & Waldorf cut, and the extended cut with 12 minutes of additional material. The extended material is sometimes good like The Fellowship of the Ring, and sometimes bad like Return of the Jedi. Does exactly what it says on the tin, not really necessary for this kind of movie, I’d much rather have more bloopers.

MuppetsKermit- Which leads me to “The Longer Longest Blooper Reel in Muppets History.” At ten minutes, it’s probably not as long as it could be, but it’s longer than the last one and full of not only bloopers but plain old behind the scenes Muppet nonsense.

The joy on Ricky Gervais’ face at working with Kermit is wonderful. That man just cannot stop laughing. I wonder how they managed to get the movie made. The bloopers reel is worth it if only for Gary’s imitation of Ricky Gervais laughing.

Here’s where I show how gullible I am. I really thought they were using one Muppet for Kermit and Constantine, but there were two, and Constantine didn’t break character for the bloopers. He doesn’t become Kermit again when the camera stops rolling, he’s just Constantine. I actually thought they were using a green screen when they were both on screen, and yes I get how ironic that is. I even looked it up, it was really well thought out. In an Entertainment Weekly interview in January 2013 Kermit commented, “We talked about putting me in makeup and having me play both roles, but we decided Constantine needed to be a guy who could do a Russian accent. And, you know, I’m a pretty accomplished actor and all, but besides The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island films, I’ve only really ever played myself. The great thing is, I have like 3,000 relatives back in the swamp, so it was quite easy to find a frog who could play Constantine.” Blew. My. Mind.

Aside from the continual laughter of Ricky Gervais, the best thing on this reel has to be when Constantine is asked to name his fellow Muppets: “Fonzie bear, little boy, doggie, fish man, cook, birdie, zongo, sweetie, Ricky Gervais, guy I always flip over because he touch me, Pepper the shrimp boy, science man and his pet, other doggie, blow up guy, very old men who follows around, James Bobbin, Mr. Tooth, oh and er, ah pig.”

MuppetGervais- “Rizzo’s Biggest Fan”, a three minute short video starring Rizzo the Rat.  Posing as a fan, Rizzo sends an anonymous message to director James Bobin lamenting the lack of the Muppets most wanted rat in this new movie.

- “I’ll Get What You Want,” a three minute music video by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords, and now, Muppets fame. Watching Constantine, it’s a great villain song for an evil Kermit. Watching McKenzie, it’s straight from an episode of Flight of the Conchords: “You want an Armadillo, I’ll give it to you.” Watching McKenzie sing this song to Miss Piggy makes me wonder what Flight of the Conchords would look like if done with Muppets. Perhaps a Muppets/Greg the Bunny/Flight of the Conchords mash up should be on the cards. This is the only extra included on the DVD; all of the others are on the Blu-ray edition.

Muppets1- Extended menu screen. Much like the hilarious antics of Kermit on the menu of The Muppets Christmas Carol, the menu screen for the Muppets Most Wanted is entertainment in its own right. This time involving all of the characters, and occasional comments from Sam the Eagle like, “Will somebody get this chicken out of here?”

Of course, if you don’t have time to watch the full edition of Muppets Most Wanted, you can always take in the Statler and Waldorf cut.

My favorite take away “extra” from this movie, is one that is unique to the Pinault household, however. The fact that my 2-year-old cannot say the word “Muppet” but yells out “Muffins! Muffins” whenever he sees one of the cast. Ah, the Muffins, classic Jim Henson.

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Into The Storm: Different Angles Mon, 18 Aug 2014 14:00:14 +0000 Into The Storm, a cheesy disaster move that is surprisingly spot on with it's views on society.

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All Photos: Warner Bros Pictures

Before I begin with my thoughts on Into The Storm, you have to understand a few things about me. My go-to movies for rainy days, sick days, doing the ironing, etc. are Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park III, Jaws, Twister, Volcano, and more recently Cabin in the Woods and World War Z.

I have been following the Jurassic World facebook page since I was around fan 671,357 of what is now close to five million. I was sorely tempted to get cable just so that I could see Sharknado 2: The Second One. In short, I have a thing for disaster movies, and am very forgiving of scientific inaccuracies in them.

Into The Storm is being described as a “found footage film,” which means it is loosely structured around film or digital recordings discovered by characters in the movie, who are missing or most likely dead. To my mind, Into The Storm does not hold to this idea as well as movies like Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project. The footage is not so much found as recorded intentionally for several different documentary projects that each character has in-line. Therefore, the footage we see serves precisely the purpose it was intended to, and I have a hard time thinking of that as “found footage.”

The use of various styles of digital recording in this movie is its strongest component. Into The Storm grasps and displays the use of videography, as we are seeing in the digital-age we currently live in. The movie tells the story using documentary makers, high school kids and youtubers, and it just about sums up life as we know it.

Photo: New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures taken from

Official footage being shot

The most official footage in the movie comes from the storm chasers. A team, not led by Bill Paxton or Helen Hunt, is following storm systems around the country with highly sophisticated equipment. Their intent is to record the eye of a storm and thereby collect more precise data for future storm tracking.

They drive a tank-like vehicle called the Titus, which is followed by a standard blue van containing weather equipment. The Titus, on the other hand, is equipped with a 360 turret  armed with video equipment rather than weapons, and a gyro-stabilized camera on the outside of the vehicle to capture more stable images. There are two camera men with hand held, but high end, cameras to record while on the move. These guys are also able to jump out of the Titus to capture footage at a moment’s notice.


HS AV Club footage from inside the Titus

The most used footage in the movie comes from the High School AV club, the members of which form the main thrust of the story. Jacob and his brother, Trey, are tasked with the responsibility of creating a video diary for the graduating class, at the request of their vice-principal-father (enter Richard Armitage).

Footage of this starts the movie, pushes it forward, and is the illustration of a broken relationship between father and sons. When Jacob skips out on graduation, for a girl, it is to help her shoot journalistic footage to create a video application for an internship. In a critical moment, Jacob uses this equipment to record heartfelt goodbyes to family members as the waters rise. When the storm hits during graduation, his brother (Trey) keeps filming as the crowds take refuge in the school. We are also given footage from school security cameras, which to my mind, is the only true found footage of the movie. When Trey encounters the Titus and its team, he is offered thousands of dollars for his footage of the storm, and is asked to keep the camera rolling.


Youtube footage

It is the monetary impact of video footage, that prompts the third set of film makers in the movie. That of Donnie and Donk, amateur youtubers.

We are introduced to them during Donnie’s attempt to jump a flaming swimming pool. A video they hope will boost their youtube numbers, something they perceive as having the capacity to make them rich. They see the Titus drive by and speed off in pursuit. To them falls the role of Jester, and the comic relief for the movie. They also represent the many viral videos I have seen in the past few years. Donnie and Donk follow the storm, not because they want to collect data, not because they are trying to rescue someone (because they want to capture that hilarious/awesome/catchy video that will launch them into infamy and boost their bank balances).

These three types of video are played against each other, back and forth, as the storm progresses, grows, and destroys the small community.

The storm itself, is on occasion believable, and on occasion completely laughable. As a lover of disaster movies, it was a beautiful thing to watch, and had me alternately clawing the edges of my seat and laughing uncontrollably.

As a movie? Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “clumsily scripted and populated with forgettable characters,” and I’d say that’s a fair analogy. The quality of dialogue and story-line is inconsistent, and it has more than its fair share of cheese. Yet, from the perspective of a disaster movie junkie, it’s not too bad. It also gains points for the presence of Richard Armitage, even though he isn’t used to the best of his abilities.

It might not be on the rotation with Jurassic Park and Volcano, but it will probably win out over Sharknado every once in a while.

As a weather movie? Probably not very accurate, but pretty awesome to watch.

As a take on the role of video in society? Spot on.

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Have A Wild Adventure at Chessington’s Azteca Hotel Mon, 18 Aug 2014 13:00:17 +0000 GeekMom Sophie previews the Azteca Hotel at Chessington World of Adventures and sees how the new hotel compares to the existing Safari Hotel.

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Azteca Hotel, Chessington World of Adventures © Merlin Resorts

Azteca Hotel, Chessington World of Adventures © Merlin Resorts.

Since our first visit to Chessington World of Adventures, the resort has rapidly become one of our favorite places to visit. My family and I were invited along last weekend to preview the new Azteca Hotel before its official opening and we were interested to see how the new hotel would compare to the existing Safari Hotel, which we have stayed at before.

The Azteca Hotel sits beside the Safari Hotel and is connected to it via a (mostly) covered outdoor walkway or a bridge corridor two stories up. Each of the hotel’s three sleeping floors are themed differently to reflect the different height you are up in the jungle. Because they are connected, the Azteca Hotel shares its facilities with the Safari Hotel, including evening access to the Wanyama Reserve after the the theme park closes*, the Rangers Club for kids, and the Zafari Bar and Grill restaurant. However, a number of new facilities have also been added over in the Azteca building.

The Temple Restaurant Performs its Show © Sophie Brown

The Temple Restaurant performs its show. Photo: © Sophie Brown.

The Temple Restaurant is downstairs and offers buffet-style dining in an environment best described as being similar to the Rainforest Cafe. At the center of the restaurant is an Aztec-style pyramid and fountain whilst numerous TV screens are hung on the wall, each one showing close-up CGI animals who gradually rotate around the restaurant, giving the impression that you are peeking out through windows into the jungle beyond. Periodically, the lights dim, thunder rumbles, and these “windows” slide closed as the magic of the ancient temple builds up. The central pyramid performs a short show before animal drawings are revealed on the restaurant walls under blacklight. It’s an impressive performance, but one that many of the younger children found a little frightening.

Looking into Amazu © Sophie Brown

Looking into Amazu. Photo:© Sophie Brown.

The Savannah Splash Zone has been added to the existing 15-meter swimming pool and features fountains, a slide, and a bucket dump—all scaled to suit young adventurers. Outside the hotel is a patio area where you can relax with a drink from the Temple Bar and nearby, the Amazu Treetop Adventure attraction from the theme park is kept open for hotel guests after the park closes until dusk**. This attraction combines more animals including monkeys, marmosets, and capybaras, with a treetop climbing experience so your children can run off any excess energy they may have after a day in the theme park. We had a hard time dragging our 4-year-old down from it! His favorite part of the hotel, however, was the Temple Throne near the base of the Azteca elevators. This giant stone-effect seat supposedly tells you your spirit animal by playing a sound when you sit on it. My son loved jumping on and off to hear all the different animal noises.

The View from Our Hotel Room Window - Of Course All the Animals Hid © Sophie Brown

The view from our hotel room window. Of course, all of the animals hid. Photo: © Sophie Brown.

We were given a disabled room for our stay, which makes reviewing the room size a little tricky as it was laid out differently to the hotel’s standard. The room included a double bed and a bunk bed, along with two TVs (one aimed at each bed) and a view of the Wanyama Reserve. Our son loved waking up in the morning and being able to watch the giraffes and zebras having their breakfast while we packed up. While our disabled room had a kid’s bunk bed in the main room; the Azteca Hotel’s standard rooms will feature a separate sleeping area for children. This is something we have experienced at the Safari Hotel in the past and is vastly superior to having the kids sleeping in the room with you.

We did notice that the room had far less theming present than the example room we were shown on our tour, although whether that is representative of all of the disabled rooms or not is uncertain. Judging by promotional photographs, the level of theming seems consistent with other rooms on our floor, which is the least expensive of the three. What I can say with certainty though is that the resort is well laid out for those with strollers or in wheelchairs with nice, wide corridors and a ramp up to the Amazu area and into the theme park itself.

The Walkway to the Azteca Hotel © Sophie Brown

The walkway to the Azteca Hotel. Photo: © Sophie Brown.

Alongside evening access to the Wanyama Reserve and Amazu, there are a number of other exclusive benefits to guests staying at the resort. During weekends and school holidays, the Temple Restaurant hosts a character breakfast with a friend from the Madagascar film series, the Rangers Club provides evening shows and games for children and willing adults, and guests can also enjoy early access to the theme park. The hotels also provide a number of opportunities to get closer to the park’s animals, including meet-and-greets and giraffe feeding for those aged five and over.

We really enjoyed our stay at the Azteca Hotel, however, we struggled to find anything to justify the extra money the hotel costs over its sister resort next door; especially when all of the facilities are shared between the two. Even the cheapest room at Azteca costs a full £50*** ($83 U.S.) more than a basic room at the Safari Hotel, and is £25 ($42 U.S.) more expensive than a room in the Safari Hotel overlooking the animals. The Safari Hotel allows you to choose a Wanyama Reserve view (for an additional cost), whereas the Azteca Hotel does not allow guests to choose—all rooms have views of either Wanyama or Amazu, but you get no preference as to which you will stay in. It may be a small thing, but if I’m paying extra for this hotel then I’d at least like to be able to make that decision.

*/** Evening access to the Wanyama Reserve and Amazu is from April – mid-September and is subject to good weather and ground conditions.

*** Based on a family of three staying one night.

GeekMom was invited to experience the Azteca Hotel and Chessington Resort for review purposes.

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Product Review: Cuddle Clones Custom Stuffed Animals Mon, 18 Aug 2014 12:00:11 +0000 GeekMom Patricia checks out Cuddle Clones, replica stuffed pets perfect for college kids and deployed military members.

The post Product Review: Cuddle Clones Custom Stuffed Animals appeared first on GeekMom.

Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

My sons with their “Howies.” Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Earlier this year, our family lost our beloved pet, Howie. You can read more about him on my website. During our mourning, we learned of a company called Cuddle Clones. My husband and I thought this would be a great gift for our 11- and 9-year-old sons to help them remember Howie.

The company was founded in 2009, when Jennifer Graham lost her own beloved pet, Rufus. While she had been mulling the idea while her pet was still alive, it wasn’t until his death that she decided to go forward in starting up a company that specialized in completely customized stuffed pets.

Pay a visit to the Cuddle Clones website. You will instantly be greeted with a slideshow of incredibly cute stuffed pets, with the photos of the real pets alongside the replicas. You will see the accuracy and quality right away. In addition to the stuffed animals, Cuddle Clones offers cast resin figurines and ornaments. It also offers gifts and supplies for your living pets, such as shirts, beds, and collars.

The website is easy to navigate, and in just a couple of clicks, you can start designing a custom pet replica of your very own.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 10.42.42 AM

The Cuddle Clones website makes it easy to upload photos of your favorite pet and design a “clone” for you or your loved ones. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

For the classic stuffed Cuddle Clone, you will go through a step-by-step process that includes uploading numerous photos of your pet. The more photos you have available, the better. Howie had a distinctive curly, fluffy tail (he was part Chow Chow), so I made a point to let the company know on the order form to make sure the tail is right.

Cuddle Clones aren’t inexpensive. Expect to invest $199 for a dog or cat, or $129 for smaller pets such as guinea pigs and rabbits. Don’t forget tax and shipping, which is approximately $10 per pet. I assure you, based on what we’ve seen with our own new pets, the attention to detail is worth every penny.

Also, Cuddle Clones take a while to make. Each pet is individually handcrafted, and that takes time. As of this writing, expect to wait 8 to 10 weeks for your completed replica. Ours took about 9 weeks.

Cuddle Clones will arrive in custom boxes wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Cuddle Clones will arrive in a custom box wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

When the replicas arrive, prepare to be dazzled. I was certainly shocked at how big the clones actually are. Each one was about 12 to 14 inches long, and about 10 inches tall. A tag with your pet’s name is sewn onto the back of the animal.

Check out these comparison photos and see for yourself:


The left side is Howie from 2006. I thought they had amazing detail in Howie’s face, from the pink in the ears to the grey around his mouth. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.


The top photo is from fall 2007. They did a fine job with capturing Howie’s curly, fluffy tail. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Our sons absolutely loved them…at first. The boys toted them all over the house, had their “Howies” ride in the car with us, and slept with them at night. However, our oldest son began to have dreams about Howie again and that worried us. So he (for now, he insists) has put Howie away for a little bit. Our youngest son continues to love his “Howie.” Based on their cost, however, we’ve discussed whether the clone should be placed in a nice location just for viewing, or if we should just let the kids hug and love them to death the way they do their other favorite stuffed animals.

I have to admit, we were worried about whether such an accurate likeness would creep out our sons. We decided to go forward, but some families might not be comfortable with it. You know your kids well; consider their reactions to a gift such as this.

While having the replica as a memory of a passed-on pet is a great way to enjoy a Cuddle Clone, consider other ways to make them great gifts. How about a gift for your son/daughter going away to college? Is your favorite military member taking a deployment and might miss his/her pet? Consider Cuddle Clones.

Join the company’s mailing list for coupon codes, such as $30 off a clone.

GeekMom received a discount on this product for review purposes.

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