Good Idea or Bad Idea? Taking the Kids on an Anniversary Vacation

We couldn't bear to see Alaska and the Pacific Northwest without our sons, so we brought them on our anniversary celebration -- and we're so glad we did! Photo: Patricia Vollmer (with a selfie stick!)
We couldn’t bear to see Alaska and the Pacific Northwest without our sons, so we brought them on our anniversary celebration—and we’re so glad we did! Photo: Patricia Vollmer (with a selfie stick!).

Earlier this month, my husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Well over a year prior, we had decided to plan a very nice trip for our anniversary. Since we had such a wonderful experience with our 2012 Disney cruise, we made reservations for a Disney cruise to Alaska. Continue reading Good Idea or Bad Idea? Taking the Kids on an Anniversary Vacation

Geeking Out with the Disney Dream, Part 1: The Little Things

Santa had brought the Vollmers a trip on the Disney Dream in 2012. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Santa had brought the Vollmers a trip on the Disney Dream in 2012. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Santa brought the Vollmer family a four-night Disney cruise vacation! The trip happened to coincide with our youngest son’s birthday. In a very uncharacteristic move, my husband and I agreed to take our sons out of school for a solid week and drove out to Port Canaveral, Florida, the home port to the Disney Dream, the Disney Cruise Line’s most-recently christened ship.

Learn more about Disney Cruise Lines through their website.  Check out Wikipedia for the Disney Dream‘s amazing statistics. Or better yet, how about the Disney Dream by the Numbers?

Our sons unwrapped big boxes with these certificates inside on Christmas morning. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
On Christmas morning, our sons unwrapped big boxes with these certificates inside. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I don’t plan to discuss too much about the cruise itself. Anyone can write about taking a cruise, right? We stopped in Nassau, Bahamas, and on Disney’s island, Castaway Cay. Our sons got to experience snorkeling for the first time. I’ve cruised with Carnival in the past, but that didn’t hold a candle to a Disney trip! My family was geeking-out at some of the amazing little subtleties that make the Disney Cruise Line experience second-to-none!

1. Hidden Mickeys everywhere!

Need I say more?

It goes without saying that the "Hidden Mickeys" are everywhere. This one isn't quite so hidden, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
It goes without saying that the “Hidden Mickeys” are everywhere. This one isn’t quite so hidden, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

2. Characters everywhere!

Obviously, there are Disney characters on a Disney cruise, right? After having experienced many hours in line over the years waiting to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pooh Bear, Rafiki, Buzz Lightyear, and Mr. Fredricksen at Walt Disney World, it was a breath of fresh air to not have to wait long for characters at all. My sons filled up their autograph book on a family trip to Disney World in 2009, so they were rather laissez-faire about the characters this time around. In fact, we only waited in line for one character: Jack Sparrow! Most of the others we encountered almost by chance throughout the cruise ship.

When your very first elevator ride to your stateroom is with Donald Duck, the bar has been set pretty high. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer
When your very first elevator ride to your stateroom is with Donald Duck, the bar has been set pretty high. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer.

3. The Key to the World

Like other cruise lines, many things are tied into the key card. Disney calls their card the “Key to the World,” whether you’re on the cruise or staying at a Disney resort on land. If you are combining a cruise with a Walt Disney World vacation, the same card will have your resort key, park tickets, and Disney Dining Plan information loaded onto it.

On the Disney Dream, we used the key card to enter our stateroom, turn on the lights, enter/exit the ship at ports of call, drop off/pick up children from the Oceaneer Club, and charge beverages and souvenirs. It was even tied into a photography account when the on-board photographers take snapshots.

The Disney Dream was so new at the time that instead of swiping the key card in many places, we instead had a touchpad that was similar to MasterCard PayPass touchpads. To enter/exit our staterooms, the kids didn’t even have to remove the key cards from their lanyards. Just touch the card to the pad. We used similar touchpads for entering/exiting the ship.

The little black keypad above the door handle is a touch pad for the key card. The kids didn't have to pull their cards out of their lanyard pockets to open/close the door! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
The little black keypad above the door handle is a touchpad for the key card. The kids didn’t have to pull their cards out of their lanyard pockets to open/close the door! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Another thing the key card is used for is to control the electricity in your stateroom. I found this a great energy-conservation tool. There was a slot near the front door for the key card. A card needed to be in the slot before lights or the television could be turned on. I discovered that it didn’t matter what card was used for the switch—I’m guessing it was a manual connection switch in the slot somewhere. I saw a stateroom host using a Sleep Inn key card while cleaning a nearby stateroom. Ha ha!

Using key cards to control room electricity is not new technology, I know. It’s been commonplace in hotels in Europe and Asia for years.

4. RFID bands for the kids’ blubs

I didn’t get a picture of the wristbands, but each child ages 3-10 who wants to participate in the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab kids’ clubs on the Disney Dream are outfitted with waterproof wristbands. These two kids’ clubs together (they’re connected) offer over 10,000 square feet of playspace, covering everything from playground space to arts and crafts to interactive play. You may fit the children for the wristbands in the cruise terminal before boarding, at the registration temporary office as soon as your board, or any time during the cruise at the Kids’ Club check-in/check-out area (which I don’t recommend because there’s often a line of parents that you tend to hold up while the attendant is printing and fitting the wristband).

It seemed simple enough for the kids to tap their wrists to the gate to enter and exit. Very secure! You provide a password through the Disney website that approved adults can use to check out the kids from the secure areas.

Note: As a safety measure, the kids’ club policies changed significantly starting in January 2012. Whereas previously parents could freely participate with their children at any time, now the kids’ clubs offer “Open House” and “Secured” areas. If you desire your child to be at the kids’ clubs without parents present, they have to go to the “Secured” area and no other parents are allowed in. Only DCL child care employees. If the family desires to do the kids’ club activities together, they can take advantage of “Open House” periods in 2-4 hour blocks throughout the cruise.

Another hidden feature of the RFID bands—the geeky part—is that in the kids’ club spaces, the wristband is transmitting what rooms you child travels to. This helps the counselors maintain their ratios and helps the parents quickly find their children when it’s pick-up time.

5. The automatic hand washing machine!

Also in the kids’ club areas were these most awesome machines. Automatic hand-washers! The kids simply stick their arms inside and the machine automatically starts. Water spirals around your hands and forearms, then soapy water, then another cycle of fresh water. All in about 25 seconds. Take out your arms and dry them off! Even my youngest son, for whom washing hands always seemed to be a monumental task, was looking forward to this cool machine.

It's an automatic hand-washing machine! Before the kids entered the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab, their forearms were dunked into this machine for 30 seconds. Washed and rinsed! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
It’s an automatic hand-washing machine! Before the kids entered the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab, their forearms were dunked into this machine for 30 seconds. Washed and rinsed! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

6. The amazing cast

Unlike other cruise lines, families aboard Disney Cruise Line trips are assigned the same service team for dining and stateroom care throughout the entire cruise. This has both benefits and drawbacks.

Of course, a benefit is that you get to know several of the cast members. This is great for the kids. We had very friendly servers and the stateroom host was a sweetheart. At the end of the cruise, you are presenting gratuities to the servers and stateroom host themselves, instead of their pooling the money. Our boys learned quite a bit about Bulgaria from our server, Dimi. Dimi was relatively new and was practicing his Mickey-Mouse ears-shaped ketchup patterns every night.

One of the drawbacks is that I could imagine if someone received substandard service (which wouldn’t be tolerated for long by Disney Cruse Lines, I’d imagine), you’re left with that server for the duration. I didn’t see this, so let’s just hope this is purely hypothetical.

Meet Drenka from Peru and Dimi from Bulgaria, our dinnertime servers during our entire cruise. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Meet Drenka from Peru and Dimi from Bulgaria, our dinnertime servers during our entire cruise. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

If you’re celebrating while on-board, stand back! Disney gives you several opportunities to tell them whether you’re getting married (there were several weddings during our cruise), celebrating an anniversary or birthday, or on a honeymoon. Since our youngest son was celebrating his 7th birthday during the cruise, they gave him a button to wear. Cast members left and right would say “Happy Birthday” to our son as we were walking throughout the ship and on Castaway Cay.

My youngest son was allowed to wear a "Happy Birthday" button during the cruise. Cast members were wishing him "Happy Birthday" constantly. Here, Jack Sparrow is wishing him "Happy Birthday." Look at that face! You can't beat it! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
My youngest son was allowed to wear a “Happy Birthday” button during the cruise. Cast members were wishing him “Happy Birthday” constantly. Here, Jack Sparrow is wishing him “Happy Birthday.” Look at that face! You can’t beat it! Photo: Patricia Vollmer

7. Disney movies galore at the Buena Vista Theater

Are there any Disney films in theaters while you’re sailing?  If so, you have several opportunities to see them during the cruise for no additional charge.

Since we sailed in January 2012, I was thrilled to see Beauty and the Beast 3D being offered, but I didn’t get to see any movies during the cruise. It’s tough debating what items to cut from the packed schedule.

War Horse and The Muppets were also showing. Other movies offered included The Help, Cars 2, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

8. A cruise ship tradition: Turn-down service, Disney style

Anyone who’s been on a cruise vacation knows that the stateroom host makes up your room in the morning, and then during dinner he/she comes in and performs a “turn-down service.” For our particular stateroom, this meant pulling the bunk bed down from the ceiling, laying out chocolates, and leaving the kids a cool towel origami animal to enjoy.

Good night!

The bottom bunk is the couch with the back flipped down. The top bunk came down from the ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
The bottom bunk is the couch with the back flipped down. The top bunk came down from the ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Stars and constellations of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the other Darling children graced the kids' top bunk. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Stars and constellations of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the other Darling children graced the kids’ top bunk. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
How adorable is this? Sleepy Dwarf chocolates every night on our beds! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
How adorable is this? Sleepy Dwarf chocolates every night on our beds! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
This is typical for most cruise lines: towel origami. But this is definitely the first time we had a monkey hanging from our ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is typical for most cruise lines: towel origami. But this is definitely the first time we had a monkey hanging from our ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Stay tuned for additional posts about our family trip aboard the Disney Dream. Coming soon: The Midship Detective Agency (and other biometrics), the Animator’s Palette, AquaDuck! and the stunning Disney art on the ship.

How to Actually Drive Across the USA Hitting All the Major Landmarks

Image credit: Brian DeFrees' road trip route
Image credit: Brian DeFrees’ road trip route

Periodically this year, I’ve seen the image above posted to Facebook purporting to be “how to drive across the USA hitting all the major landmarks.” Except it’s not very good at it. The image alone doesn’t even make much sense! What counts as “major landmarks”? Apparently there are none in Boston. It looks like a great trip, but I don’t think it qualifies as advertised.

What the image really shows is the route taken by Brian DeFrees across 32 states in 55 days, taking 200,000 photos and turning them into a video. It’s pretty cool—you should check it out. But the video and visiting friends were his main priorities, not “hitting all the major landmarks.”

So could you do that?

It’s going to be a longer trip.

Here’s a shot I took at creating such a path for you, assuming you have quite a bit of free time on your hands, as it’s going to take weeks. Brian’s trip took 55 days, and it skipped a lot of states. How long this would take you depends on how long you stayed in a given spot, of course, but you’re looking at 222 hours (more than 9 days) of driving time alone.

Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps
Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

The biggest task here, of course (other than 222 hours of driving), is choosing what counts as a “major landmark.” It’s impossible to let somebody else make your dream road trip itinerary. That list of perfect landmarks is going to be different for everyone, depending on whether the car’s occupants love art or nature, lighthouses or lakes. For this list, I tried to create a balance that included:

– Traditionally “major” landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty or Golden Gate Bridge
– Nature stops, like Yellowstone National Park
– History stops, like Gettysburg National Military Park and The Alamo
– Science, like Cape Canaveral
– Arts, like the Philbrook Museum of Art and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
– What Trivial Pursuit would call “sports and leisure,” like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Churchill Downs

It’s a well-rounded road trip. You can use this map to see the list of places I chose. In larger cities like New York or San Francisco, rather than suggest every possible place you could visit, which would be lists of their own, I picked one highlight. Doesn’t mean the rest aren’t great. And it ends with Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont, on the theory that you started with Maine, not because Vermont isn’t an amazing state with a ton to see, but because after all of that, you deserve ice cream. And the Ben and Jerry’s factory is a really fun visit.

The second goal was to visit every state, even if it wasn’t much more than a drive-through. On a road trip, the best stops are the ones you didn’t know you were going to find. Long, blue stretches on this map are just undiscovered adventures waiting to happen.

However, this is the part where I have to note that upon a final pass, I discovered I neglected Michigan. My utmost apologies to the land of people who are the masters of navigation by pointing to their hands. You don’t need this map. Just stretch out your arm and call it the country. You have the necessary experience to make it work. For the non-Michiganders who need to get that state into this trip, you can hit up Hitsville, USA, the home of Motown. I have never had a more enthusiastic tour guide. You won’t regret it.

If you’re ready to start planning your own drive, check out my two secrets to planning your best road trip adventure. And then get driving!

Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando Florida

Cabana Bay Beach Resort Front Entrance \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
Cabana Bay Beach Resort Front Entrance \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Cabana Bay Resort is the newest hotel to open on Universal Orlando property. Themed after the 1960’s, a period when family time and social interactions (the real kind, not the internet kind) were a high priority, this resort is designed with the family in mind. I’d say they accomplished their goal with two family style pools, a bowling alley, and food court dining.

The theme park benefits to staying at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort include: early entry into the theme parks, on site charging, free shuttle service, and the ability to have your purchases sent directly to your resort from the parks. If any of this is important to you, then Cabana Bay is the place to stay for a family that can’t afford the pricier hotels on the property.

Let’s start with the basics.

The rooms at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort can be as low as $93 per night for a standard room and as high as $134 per night (depending on the length of stay) for a suite that sleeps six. After staying in a family suite with just myself, my husband, and our 8-year-old son, I can’t imagine anyone with more than four members in their party being comfortable in the suites. We were a little cramped with just the three of us, but then again, we didn’t spend enough time in the room to care.

The kitchenette area was a bonus complete with a bar and bar stools, a mini-fridge, sink, and microwave.

The groovy part of this room is the split bath setup. This came in handy when I was in the shower and my son needed to use the bathroom. I also liked how the doors and drawers were rigged so they couldn’t slam shut. I can see many an ankle biter’s finger saved by this.

Now that you’ve gotten settled in your room, let’s head to the pool!

The main pool is outta’ sight with a slide, toddler play area, and walk-in entry. This is a fun pool for those who enjoy being a bit noisier and let their inner-child out. While we were there they had a DJ outside, and the far-out part was that whatever he was playing on the deck you could hear under the water through the pool speakers. The Atomic Tonic is off to the side of this pool and has a bar with a limited menu.

The second pool is the bees-knees because of the lazy river. This is the coldest of the water sections, but it’s not so bad once you get used to it. You can bring your own floats from home, or starting at $8.00 you can purchase a float and relax the day away. Don’t worry about blowing all your air on this one because the attendants at the float stand will fill it, and refill it, for free.

The restaurant at this pool is Hideaway Bay and if you get lucky, like my son, and Ryan is your bartender, you might be able to request a drink that isn’t on the menu. Words can’t describe how happy my little guy was to hear Ryan tell him that he could absolutely make a special cherry slushy for him.

If you would like to watch a movie while you swim, each pool has a different movie showing on select nights. This is great for kids who like to have more than one choice in their nighttime entertainment.

Now that we’ve hung out at the pool, it’s time to serve up some grub.

Cabana Bay has one main dining area as well as pizza delivery to your room. The Bayliner Diner is the main dining area and includes four different stations including: pizza, grill, deli, and international. They open for breakfest at 7am and the food is reasonably priced starting at $5 and up for kids and $8 and up for adults.

I highly recommend the Swedish Meatballs at dinner. I had them with broccoli and mashed potatoes and they were amazing. My son’s pizza was also pretty tasty and he devoured the entire thing.

This brings me to the tech side of the resort.

All the drink cups have RFID chips that will allow you to fill it as many times as you want for two hours after the first use. This is a neat way for the hotel to let you refill your own drinks at the pool without having to have a manned soda station to refill it for you. This same technology is used in the theme parks for beverages.

If you would like to have the freedom to get as many refills as you want, you can purchase a refillable mug from the hotel, but they charge per day (with a maximum number of days based on your stay). This special mug allows you to to refill it as many times as you would like and once the days are up, the soda machines will no longer recognize the cup (the soda machines in the parks act the same way). The mugs can cost up to $17.99 for use during the entire length of your stay.

If you purchase water while at the hotel, my recommendation is for you to save the bottle. The soda machines will allow you to refill them with ice cold water for free.

Starbucks opens at 5:40 AM and is the only option for anyone who wants to take advantage of the early entry into the parks.

Whew. We’ve checked out our room, lounged at the pool, and had a nice dinner.

What’s next…ummm….bowling!

I’ll go ahead and warn you that this is where you will be spending a little more bread.

Bowling starts at $11 per game per adult and $8 per game per child (not including rental shoe fee). With only 10 lanes, you can bet that this fills up quickly, so I suggest you do this in the afternoon rather than in the evening hours. If you get the munchies while bowling, the food menu is traditional American fare (additional cost).

Once you play a round-or-two of bowling, the connecting arcade is a fun place to spend what you have left of your vacation money. The arcade is a decent size and there’s a minimum of $5 charge for a game card. For $5 my family played two rounds of a Batman car chasing game, two rounds of skee-ball, and one round of air hockey.

So up to this point, I’ve kept things kid-friendly, but what about the adults who want to hang loose and enjoy a beverage of the alcohol variety after a long day hauling a stroller through the park? Have no fear! Adults can get alcoholic beverages at five locations:

  • Hideway Bar and Grill
  • Atomic Tonic
  • Sizzle Lounge (open in the evening)
  • Galaxy Bowl Bar
  • And bottled alcoholic beverages at Bayliner Diner.

Overall, the theming is accurate throughout the resort with the the exception of playing current pop hits at the hangout areas such as the pool, the bowling alley, and the arcade. In Bayliner Diner they play commercials from the 60’s time period. For those traveling with strollers, you will appreciate how spacious the main parts of the hotel are. My family had a lot of fun in the two pools and while we found the room to be a bit cramped – the beds were comfy, the shower was hot, and we still had fun.

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Disclaimer: GeekMom attended a blogger event for this resort.

TMNT Weekends at Nickelodeon Suites Resort

Booyakasha! TMNT at Nickelodeon Suites Resort \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Booyakasha! TMNT at Nickelodeon Suites Resort \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

I’ve stayed at some pretty nice hotels, including several Disney resorts, and I have to say, given the choice of a Disney hotel in the same price range or the Nickelodeon Suites Resort, I would choose Nickelodeon hands down. This summer, the Nickelodeon Suites has something that no other resort has…Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are coming to the Nickelodeon Suites Resort with themed rooms, special appearances by the turtles in a half-shells, a new pool-side-show where the Turtles battle the Foot Clan to save April O’Neil, and a new pizza dinner show.

What makes the Nickelodeon Suites Resort special is that a majority of the rooms are two or three bedroom suites with a small kitchen, bathroom, kids space (with either bunk beds or twin beds), a living area, and master bedroom. Each of the three spaces has their own TV and closet for storage.

TMNT Retro Weekend June 2014  (11)
The view from my 3rd floor, pool view room. Nice right? \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

When you’re not hanging out in your room, there’s a ton of other stuff to do as well, including the 4-D theater, Nick Studio (where they host Double Dare Live), slimming experiences, arcade, and mini-mall with a food court (these experiences are each paid separately). My son loves the Lagoon pool with its huge water playground and the kid spa (a not-so-hot version of the adult spa). They also have miniature golf (no charge), basketball, crafts, and quick service dining at Lagoon Pool.

When you’re done at the pool, look up the meet-and-greet times for some of your favorite Nickelodeon characters including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, April O’Neil, the Foot Clan, Spongebob Squarepants and gang, Dora the Explorer, Aang from The Last Air Bender, and Blue from Blues Clues

On select days, you can check out the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pool show at the Lagoon pool and have dinner with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at Antonio’s Pizza-Rama Dinner (reservations are required and the dinner is open on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings) or spend the evening by the pool for a TMNT movie night.

As a bonus, if you’re in the area on August 9th, 2014, the Nickelodeon Suites will be hosting an event at the Lagoon Pool to make a Guinness Record attempt for “Most People in One Location Dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.”

If TMNT is not quite your thing, keep an eye on Nickelodeon Suites Resort’s website for announcements about upcoming themed weekends including a Nick Jr. weekend and Power Rangers weekend!

Disclaimer: GeekMom attended an overnight press event at the Nickelodeon Suites Resort.

Walt Disney World Price Increase

Image: Mandy Horetski
Image: Mandy Horetski

Going to Walt Disney World can be a dream vacation for many families, but now the cost of that dream is going to be a little higher.

My husband and I honeymooned at Disney and now we are preparing to take our daughter for her first trip in October. The costs are high but, for us, it is worth it because we love the parks as well as staying in the Disney resorts. I also love that we can make payments on our vacation and with the Disney dining plan, our whole trip will be paid before we even get to Florida. Continue reading Walt Disney World Price Increase

Summer Challenge: Leave Your Phone at Home

Photo CC-BY-SA Ruth Suehle
Photo CC-BY-SA Ruth Suehle

I have a lot of lucky Facebook friends who get to go on some awesome vacations. I know this because the first sign of summer is that my news feed fills up with up-to-the-minute photos of sandy beaches, fruity drinks, and amusing limbo contest outcomes. I like all these things, but I don’t want to see them–until you come back.

You’re a geek, I’m a geek. We love our devices. We love our connection to the world. And we love it because it lets us share with each other. I get it, I really do. But here’s my challenge to you:

This summer, leave your phone at home. No excuses, including:

I can’t ignore my work email!
You have one of two problems: either you think you are far more important than you are, or you need to make a hit-by-a-bus contingency plan for your job. The company can do without you for a week. Your personal email will still be there when you get back, too. Vacation is for vacating.

But I’ll have too much email when I get back!
And you’ll deal with it. If your job is so critical to the continued functioning of humanity that you can’t put it down for a week and catch up later, you don’t have time to waste reading this blog. Block out time on the day or two after you return for going through what you missed. You’ll probably find a lot of it can go straight to the trash, unless you’re really hoping that birthday cake from last Tuesday is still in the break room.

* Bonus points for the brave: The true vacation warrior option is to declare email bankruptcy. You set your out of office message to say that upon your return, you will be deleting all of the emails received while you were gone (thus “email bankruptcy”) and to please get in touch with you afterwards. While I know people who have done this successfully, I have not yet levelled up to this skill.

I just want to check in on Facebook!
No, you don’t. That’s your excuse for “I want to make my friends jealous with my pictures of mai tais and belly flops.” All you’re missing on Facebook is the same old cat pictures and “share this if you care” glurge. Is that really a better use of your time than the vacation you’re paying good money and time for?

I need it for the camera!
Get a real camera. Seriously. You probably even have one collecting dust. I don’t care how good your phone is–the real camera will take better pictures. And if you do need to buy one, consider it an excuse to geek out over some new tech while you pick one out. Take your camera and snap some memories. But don’t show them to me until you get home.

I need Google Maps!
It is a gosh-darn miracle that we all managed to navigate strange places before Google Maps was invented. How in the world did anybody ever get home?! Teach the kids how to use an actual map made with paper. It’s a learning opportunity! …if you can remember how yourself.

I have to post on my blog every week!
Schedule them. Your blog system has this built in. That’s not even a good attempt at an excuse.

I want to read my Kindle on the plane!
OK, this is the one concession I’ll give you. You can take a Kindle or Kobo e-ink type screen so that you don’t have to carry as many books and can still read in the sun. But no turning on the wifi.

You get, what? Two, maybe three weeks of vacation a year at most? And you’re going to use them staring at a 4.5″ screen? You’re also going to have one less bag to carry when you realize just how much space all those chargers take. This is that “work-life balance” thing everyone’s been clamoring for. Get a little more life in your balance.

This summer, un-geek a bit for a week. I promise, you can do it.

This Week With the GeekMoms

Dakster Sullivan has absolutely nothing planned this weekend! If she were to fantasize about doing something though, she would be on a Disney Cruise to the Caribbean or on a trip to Paris to explore the history of the city. Since both of those are out of her reach, she will be happy with some new comics and much deserved reading time.

To celebrate her 5-year wedding anniversary, Ariane‘s parents will babysit the kiddo this weekend… PARTY! In other news, Ariane finished watching the first season of Doctor Who on Netflix. She will miss Doctor #9. I guess it’s true what they say, you never forget your first Doctor.

Chaos Mandy is looking forward to having some girl time with her best friend. They will be taking their girls to enjoy some sunshine at a local park early on Saturday.

Patricia is enjoying having her boys home, and the calendar is nice and empty of rigid scheduled items for a couple weeks. There are plenty of outings on the calendar planned, such as trips to the Pensacola MESS Hall, the Pensacola Children’s Museum, Pensacola State College Planetarium, and the Florida State Museums in Tallahassee. The boys are going to be all Florida-ed out by the time school starts!

Kelly Knox is vacationing in the great state of Texas. Howdy, y’all! She plans to relax by the pool, read comics, and soak up the abundant sunshine.

Kris Bordessa‘s latest project – acting as Hawaii managing editor for a travel site that caters to visitors from China – has just launched. It’s a little surreal to see her words translated into Chinese. And we’re still doing the happy dance around here that the Lego Thinking with Portals project on Cuusoo achieved the necessary 10,000 votes to be considered for production. Now we wait until September and beyond for a decision from the folks at Lego.

This Week With the GeekMoms

Andrea will be heading in to Coney Island this weekend to photograph the annual Mermaid Parade. Then early next week she’ll be helping out PopCap Games, acting as one of many witnesses as a brave, brave soul tries to beat the “Longest Computer Card Game” Guinness World Record by playing 30 hours of Solitaire Blitz!

Nicole Wakelin is playing with a Chevy Malibu loaner car all week. There are so many buttons. She is hoping she doesn’t accidentally hit the Seat Eject that she’s sure is there somewhere.

Marziah will be attending the KC area Maker Faire this weekend. Be sure to say “hi” if you see her there.

Sarah is looking forward to defeating Mount laundry this weekend while listening to the Sesame Street gang on vinyl, and watching her son play with his new Playmobil characters. She hopes to finally sit down and begin watching season one of Sherlock and finish a long overdue crochet project.

As she’s typing this, Patricia is within 2 hours of being home from her week-long trip to the Northeast. She enjoyed her husband’s family reunion in Pennsylvania as well as a couple days with her parents in West Virginia. The kids stayed up north for a couple weeks with the grandparents and Patricia has great plans to really catch up on her life: cleaning the house, catching up on GeekMom product reviews and preparing to take over as webmaster for her base spouses’ club website, which needs some work.

Jules Sherred is very excited that her pal Guy McLimore is joining her tonight on the Geeky Pleasures Radio Show at The Look 24/7. Guy is one of the designers of Star Trek: The Role-Playing Game, published by FASA. It is the same game you see in her Twitter avatar, and in her GeekMom profile. She is also very busy and excited as she continues to prepare for her five week stay in the USA–T minus 9 days until her departure from Canada.

Rebecca Angel is currently alone in the house since her kids and husband are away. Originally, she thought this would lead to craziness like watching movies and reading books all day, but instead she is completing projects and cleaning the house. It’s still a good start to summer.

This week Kelly Knox is excited to take her daughter to see Recess Monkey in concert under the big top. The energetic kindie band is performing at Teatro ZinZanni in Seattle for their “In Tents” circus-themed show.

Chaos Mandy is very excited to take her daughter to see Brave in theaters this weekend. It will be the first Disney/Pixar movie she will see on the big screen.

Natania is settling into life with her one month old and rambunctious almost six year old as summer vacation gets into full swing. This week she will be a guest panelist at ConTemporal, a local convention in Chapel Hill, NC, where she’ll be an adult for a bit and will escape the world of diapers and spit-up for a short time. She’s most excited to be writing again after her brain was taken hostage by pregnancy hormones! Additionally, her son and she have been enjoying the heck out of Keane’s newest album, Strangeland, and have been subsequently daydreaming about visiting England again (not to mention contemplating buying a digital piano).

Judy Berna will be mothering six children for the next two weeks, as her nephew and neice from San Fransisco joined the gang on Tuesday. The next fourteen days will be full of exploring the mountains, riding bikes, jumping on trampolines, eating endless meals, and making lifetime memories with cousins. In the early mornings, as exhausted kids sleep in, Judy will be plugging away at getting her book ready for publication and keeping up with the fun list of GeekMom posts she’s working on.

Corrina is pleased with The Library Journal review of her superhero novella, Luminous, which pronounced the story a “good start on the beachy book season.” She’s currently busy preparing activities to keep the kids busy this summer. She foresees much use of her Six Flags season passes.

Dakster will be on the sidelines this Saturday so her husband can troop a young child’s memorial service. A few weeks ago, a young Jedi lost his two and a half year battle with brain cancer and his parents have asked the 501st Legion to be in attendance for a celebration of his life. Many of my squad mates trooped his birthday party last year, so this will be a rough troop for many. It will be one of those days that wearing a helmet will be blessing as it will allow them to hide their tears…

Brigid has decided that the secret to a healthy business is to go on vacation. She swears she’s never so desirable as when she’s 1,500 miles from her studio and almost completely inaccessible!

Melissa Wiley is heading to Anaheim this weekend for the ALA Annual meeting, where she plans to discuss a ton of books and eat a ton of food. Until then, she’s hanging out in her yard hoping for another sighting of the ladder-backed woodpecker she spotted yesterday — a sight to make her bird-geek’s heart skip a beat.

Ruth spent last week recovering from Southeast LinuxFest by doing a 2400-mile road trip in six days, no kids. New Orleans, the Great River Road, Memphis, Nashville–all delicious. The Sunsphere in Knoxville still looks just like it did when she last saw it, at the World’s Fair in 1982.

Should You Take Your Own Passport Photos?

Hint: None of these are going to meet passport photo requirements, although we did eventually get the winner out of our constantly moving three-year-old. Photos: Ruth Suehle

We’re rapidly approaching the end of school and the beginning of the summer travel season. For some of you, that means your kids will need their first passports–or new ones, which for kids is like getting a new one.

Not only does my son need one, but I completely forgot that passports expire in five years when issued to kids 15 and younger, unlike the adult ones, which last ten. That means my daughter needs one, too. And since both parents have to be with the kid applying for a passport, that means a family field trip during business hours to the post office.

Tacking on an extra field trip to get passport photos first doesn’t sound like fun. Fortunately in the era of digital cameras and cheap photo printing, it’s not hard to do it yourself.

The passport photo requirements are clear:

  • 2″x2″
  • Top of hair to bottom of chin must be between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches
  • From eye height to the bottom of the photo must be between 1 1/8 inches and 1 3/8 inches
  • White background
  • Full-face
  • Neutral expression
  • Eyes open
  • No hat, headphones, sunglasses
  • No glare

And doing it yourself is cheap. For comparison, here are prices for a few places you can go to have them done (each is for two photos, which is how many you must send with the passport application):

 

 Place Price
 ePassportPhoto.com $7.99
 CVS $7.99
 Walgreens $9.99
Costco $4.99

 

I was initially intrigued by ePassportPhoto.com, which promises on its homepage to help crop your photos to the appropriate size through either a free service or a full service “starting from only $0.99/photo,” also promising a 99% approval rate. The reality is that after uploading and cropping your photos, you’re told how to pay, with $7.99 for two photos and options for 4 or 8 photos. They make the free option exceptionally obscure. If you notice the “No thanks” text at the lower right, you can click it to download your image for free. But then you’re asked to like ePassportPhoto on Facebook to be allowed to download them. Below the image there is tiny text that says, “Do not have a Facebook account? Skip to download your photo sheet now.” So it’s certainly possible–or you could just open your favorite image editing program and do it yourself.

I’ve read mixed results on message boards about the results of DIY passport photos. A few people say they have had them rejected and that you should just go pay for it. Personally I’ve done them seven times without any rejections yet (fingers crossed that I didn’t just jinx this round). And there are people who say their drugstore photos were rejected as well. Of course none of these posts ever come with the actual photos, so it’s hard to judge.

My recommendation is two-fold. The first part is that you should always have a passport so that you won’t have to get one in a rush–or so that if you win a trip or your boss asks you to go to a conference on the other side of the planet, you’re always ready to go. The second is that that means you have time to give it a shot at doing your passport photos on your own and saving a few bucks, not to mention the possibility of having to fight a screaming toddler in the drugstore. You can do it on your kids’ time when they’re in a good mood and ready to be cooperative.

Or you could be me, needing to get the passports for the kids in a hurry–resulting at the pictures at the top of this post. I still opted to do them myself because it’s worked fine in the past. But if you’re not confident in your photography skills, paying a few extra dollars might be worth it.

Star Wars MMXII: A New Hope

For New Year’s this year we rented a house in the Catskills with our good friends and their son. He and my daughter have been best friends since birth, and they’re now six years old. Our plans for the weekend were simple: eat delicious food, drink delicious drinks, and introduce our children to Star Wars.

As every good parent knows, Episode IV comes first.

I was a little nervous. The first time we introduced our kids to a classic was a couple months ago with The Goonies. Boy, that has a lot more swearing than you might remember. But it went OK. My daughter thought that Chunk and Sloth were awesome just as I did as a kid. But Star Wars is bigger. There’s a real pressure to introduce it at the right time. Her best friend is well primed with Star Wars books and card games and a general sense of who Chewbacca is. My daughter prepared herself last week with something she found streaming on Netflix – an episode of Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater entitled “Cat Wars”. Yes, that’s what it sounds like.

Screen capture of Hello Kitty on Leia duty in “Cat Wars”

The moment arrives. We pick a quiet, chilly afternoon while our toddler is napping. Our friend does a dramatic reading of the opening text, trying to convey the importance of this moment. The kids settle in and start watching. I think it’s going well. My daughter moves to the floor, and I can sense her being drawn in by The Force.

The two 6-year-olds settle into watch Star Wars. Photo: Amy Kraft

20 minutes later…

The long stretch of Luke whining puts my daughter to sleep. Photo: Amy Kraft

Well, maybe the timing wasn’t perfect. I don’t blame Star Wars for this rare nap. She was sharing a room with her early bird friend, and I think they were up before 5 a.m. That evening she asked to watch it again and she and her friend cozied up into an armchair and spread the iPad across their laps. They made it about 75% of the way through, enough for this reenactment the next day:

Catskill light saber battle. (Thanks to Hasbro for sending my the light sabers on last year’s May the 4th. Knew they’d come in handy.) Photo: Amy Kraft

Tonight we’re back home and she asked to watch it again, watching it all the way through. I told her my favorite part is when they go into the bar to meet Han Solo, to which she replied, “Mom! I like that part, too! It’s just like in Cat Wars when they go into the ice cream bar and the one guy doesn’t like how the penguin guy is eating his ice cream and they all throw ice cream at each other.” Yeah, like that. I wonder if penguin guy shot first.

Overall I’d rate the introduction a success. The coming winter weekends will surely bring The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Then comes the even bigger question of when to introduce Harry Potter.

How old were your kids when they watched Star Wars? How did it go? Did they react like this kid?

Magical Travel Posters For Muggles

 

Image Courtesy Of Caroline Hadilaksono

My daughter started second grade this week and she has spent her summer enjoying Harry Potter. She has read the first two books on her own and just started the third. Of course, for our annual Halloween party what could be a better theme given that the last movie came out this year.  In my continuing search for party ideas, these fantastic travel posters came up. They were created for Muggles who are looking to spend some vacay time in the wizarding world. I love the vintage vibe! See how the artist, Caroline Hadilaksono, came up with these posters here. If you would love to get your own set, she has them for sale too!

Summer Travel Fun: Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park

This is officially called "The Confederate Memorial on Stone Mountain". It's the largest relief carving in the world...at least until the Crazy Horse Monument is finished. We all know who the guys are...who knows the horses' names?

Last weekend the family headed up to Atlanta for some fun sightseeing.  We had tickets to an Atlanta Braves baseball game on the Sunday afternoon of that weekend, but otherwise we sought out family-friendly, educational activities that wouldn’t break the bank.

What to do…what to do…?

Most families staying in downtown Atlanta would have considered the Georgia Aquarium, the CNN Center tour, and/or the World of Coca-Cola.  Zoo Atlanta would have been a good option too…if it weren’t for the incredible heat.

My dear husband, in his typical train-fan fashion, knew of a tourist scenic railroad in the area.  So that’s what we sought to do.  We decided to grab some same-day tickets to the Saturday night Braves game, and then headed out for the day to Stone Mountain Park which is about 15 miles east of Atlanta.  We weren’t quite sure what to expect — several folks at the hotel breakfast area told us we’d have a good time and that there was “so much to do!”.

Those folks were right!  Stone Mountain Park is very beautiful and there was no shortage of things to do!  We didn’t quite dress for hiking up the mountain (and my husband’s back wouldn’t have been to happy with it either), but we were able to enjoy the scenic train, the skytram right to the top of the mountain, a ferryboat ride, and a fun — touristy — lunch where our yeast rolls were thrown to us by our servers!

A view of the "Memorial Lawn" - laser light shows are held every night at 9:30pm during the summer. We'd have loved to have seen one; apparently their lightshow rendition of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is pretty well known. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

We really enjoyed the Civil War history that’s been memorialized at the park — of course there’s the beautiful bas relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (and their horses!).  There is also an antebellum mansion to tour, and a Confederate Museum.

Continue reading Summer Travel Fun: Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park

Science Museum Adventures

Museum of Science in Boston Massachusetts

Most kids have been out of school for weeks but we’ve got until next Thursday at 11:50 before our kids are free. There’s a teacher that has it down to the hour and I think most of the kids are with her in that they are done. Done. Done. Done. Once they have their freedom, though, the next question will be “What are we going to do today?” and if you’re a Mom, you are already dreading that first rainy spell when you have no answer. That’s when you need to search out your local science museum and spend a day having fun and learning, just don’t let them know that last part.

The Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts recently hosted a free family preview day for their newest exhibit called Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries. It had been awhile since I’d taken my girls down to the museum, so we packed up the family and drove into the city first thing on Saturday morning.

My first grader had just finished a dinosaur unit in school and could not wait to see what this was all about, but my third grader was already acting like a jaded teenager who was so beyond dinosaurs. I was a bit nervous about how it would all go, but within minutes, I discovered dinosaurs really are cool no matter your age.

There were plenty of full-size skeletons to gape at including one made out of metal that was a source of fascination for everyone. At the other end of the spectrum was a teeny, tiny T-Rex hooked up to a sort of treadmill so you could see how these guys actually moved. Pushing a button would slow him down or speed him up and gave a great sense of how these huge creatures lumbered around the planet.

The best part of the entire exhibit though, was something that reminded me of my grade-school book report days and the many dioramas I created inside empty shoe boxes. Okay, this was a bit bigger, stretching from floor to ceiling and holding a large group of people but still, dioramas are the stuff of my childhood and this was a darn cool one.

It had sound effects so suddenly you weren’t standing in a museum, you were in a forest with insects and birds and dinosaurs roaring in the distance. Prehistoric birds flew around tree trunks that disappeared into the ceiling and if you crouched down you could see into long gone lakes filled with fish and lizards. My kids loved discovering all the details in the amazing display and so did I.

After finishing with the dinos, we headed out into the museum to explore the permanent exhibits. The kids ran out of energy and the museum was ready to close before we finished because there was just so much to investigate. Now, you might think this is a bad thing, missing out on some really great stuff, but I think it’s a very good thing. This means the Museum of Science can sit at the top of my list for that  first rainy summer day. Consider adding a science museum to your list, and get ready to explore!

Get Thee to a Book Sale

Image: Sarah Pinault

I am utterly alarmed that our local Scholastic Book Fair warehouse was having it’s biggest sale of the year and I almost missed it. Never mind the fact that I need to build an extension onto my home to house all my current books, we’re talking 80% off here. Book sales are a great way to pick up old books and new memories. Make sure you don’t miss one near you this summer by using Booksalefinder.com or checking your local papers.

Here are a few must-do’s on my list. If you’re anywhere near Maine this summer, stop by — just don’t take that book I wanted!

Why I’m Waiting to Take My Daughter to Disney World

My sister and I with Mickey circa 1986

Walt Disney World is a wonderful vacation destination, but though it is my favorite place in the world, my husband and I are waiting until our daughter is older before going.

I love Walt Disney World so much. When my husband asked me if I’d rather go to Disney or Vegas for our honeymoon, it took me about a second to shout out, “Disney!!!”.

We took our honeymoon a year after our wedding and we spent our first anniversary in Epcot. It was a very magical trip!

About three months after our honeymoon, we found out I was pregnant with our little girl. Even before she was born, I started dreaming about the first time she would be able to go to “The World.”

My husband and I on our honeymoon

Despite my huge desire to go back, my husband and I decided soon after our daughter was born that we were going to wait to take her until she is 6 or 7.

For one, we don’t want to deal with the stroller issue, being that we don’t want to worry about navigating a stroller through the parks and parking the stroller while on rides.

Plus, Disney World can be overwhelming for an adult, so I can’t imagine how overwhelming it would be for a child. I was 9 when I went to Disney World the first time, and I still remember that trip. I want to wait until my daughter is old enough to be able to remember it.

I know there are people who bring small babies and toddlers to Disney World, and have a good time. I just know that isn’t a viable option for us. But since I’m such a Disney geek, we are already planning a trip for the fall of 2014!

My daughter loves her Disney movies and I’ve already started to ask her if she wants to visit the castle that is on the beginning of every Disney movie, to which she always yells, “Yes!”.

 

Are You Sleeping Alone? Beware The Bedbug Invasion

Image Wikimedia Commons

Even though the summer vacation season is at an end, many of us are still planning trips for our families in the months ahead. There are the typical things on your to do list such as packing and making airplane reservations.

And then there is the concern about who or what has been in the room before you. Last summer, my husband and I were on a trip without kids in tow. We got to our room and voila, there were fleas in the bed. We soon discovered it was a pet friendly hotel. Now, we always make sure it is a pet unfriendly hotel.

But fleas are not the only creepy crawlies that are making an appearance in hotel rooms. Bedbugs are sweeping the nation and I don’t mean in a good way. If you’re looking forward to relaxing in that soft, comfy bed at the W Hotel, you better check and make sure you are the only one in it! Our family is planning a trip to Yellowstone and one of the items on my to do list is to check the Bed Bug Registry. It is a free, public database where users submit reports of bed bugs. Sure, some reports might be made to get back at the rude desk clerk, but I would bet if a hotel has several reports of bed bugs it would be wise to avoid it.

In addition, there are some things you can do when you check into your hotel that will help you avoid bed bugs:

  • First, check the mattress thoroughly. Pull back the sheets, check around the seams, and look at the tags as they like to hang out there.
  • Second, remove the headboard if possible and look for the little boogers.
  • Third, look in the drawers of the bedside table and along the wall that is least likely to be disturbed by people.
  • Fourth, keep your suitcases off the floor.
  • Fifth, if you see anything suspicious ask to change rooms and then complete your inspection again. If you see something that looks like powder in the drawers or on the headboard it is likely the room has been treated for an infestation.

Bed bugs love to hitch rides on your clothing, suitcases, you name it — and once they move in they don’t want to leave. This video from National Geographic shows you just how hard these little nasties are to get rid of. Good Housekeeping also has a great article on how to avoid them. So if the idea of possibly sharing your bed with these gross little guys hasn’t deterred you from your vacation, then check out the registry and make your inspections to be sure you and your family will be the only ones sleeping in your beds.

Remember: Good night, sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite!