Since Mall of America opened 20 years ago, an aquarium beneath the mall’s east side has been one of its entertainment anchors. Originally known as Underwater Adventures, the aquarium underwent a name change and transformation about a year ago and now is one of a handful of Sea Life Aquariums around the United States.
We had visited Underwater Adventures a few times when our kids were younger, and were mostly underwhelmed with daily visits, although we found their educational programs to be well-done when we attended a special event. The moving walkway was a novelty, but it made it difficult to stop and look at specific things in the aquarium tunnel, and visits were often completed in 30 minutes or so.
I am happy to report that I see the changes at Sea Life Aquarium to be mostly positive. For those who have been to Underwater Adventures, these are the things you’ll find to be different:
- The order of your journey through the aquarium is reversed. Visits now begin at the touch pools and end after going through the tunnel and up the winding ramp.
- The winding ramp is now known as Mysteries of the Rainforest. It previously had a Minnesota theme.
- The moving walkway through the tunnel is gone, allowing you to move at your own pace.
- A scavenger hunt “quiz trail” keeps kids engaged.
Old favorites are there as well:
- The jellyfish (my favorites).
- The tunnel where you can have a shark swim over the top of you.
- The opportunity to touch various sea creatures (though now just tidepool creatures, not sharks).
We spent about an hour going through the aquarium on a quiet summer Monday morning, looking at everything from the eels and an octopus to corals and sea horses and frogs.
My children enjoyed the Quiz Trail, although some of the questions prompted a look at the “fin facts” for a clue when there were no fin facts to be found in that area.
They viewed the rays from the overlook area and looked at the caiman at both below-water and above-water vantage points.
They were more impressed with Sea Life Aquarium than they had ever been with Underwater Adventures.
A few notes of caution, however:
- I had been shown around the aquarium by a Sea Life representative earlier in the spring, on a busy day with both school groups and families there, and it was very crowded and loud. If you go, try to figure out a quiet time (first thing in the morning or later in the evening, avoid school holidays) so that you’ll be able to move more freely throughout the tunnel and other areas of the aquarium.
- Explore your ticket options before you go. Walkup prices currently range from $17 for kids to $22 for adults. You can save money by buying tickets online ahead of time or buying a combo ticket. There are often coupons to be found around town, so keep your eyes open for them. The good news is that admission is for a full day, so you can walk through a few times if you’re spending the whole day at Mall of America. Memberships are also available if you’d like to visit more frequently.
Overall, we found the Sea Life renovations to be an improvement over Underwater Adventures and my children enjoyed our visit. Merlin Entertainment, the owner of the Sea Life as well as Legoland (in both Florida and California) and Madame Tussauds, generally adds a new attraction each year, so repeat visitors should be able to see something new at the aquarium annually.
Have you been to Sea Life Aquarium, either in Minnesota or one of its other locations? What did you think?
Disclosure: Our family was provided with complimentary admission in order to review Sea Life Minnesota.
Small-town celebrations are always a lot of fun, a place for residents and visitors to gather to celebrate something that is cherished in the community or has made the city famous. Henderson, Minnesota, has Sauerkraut Days, Minneota has Boxelder Bug Days, and Barnesville has Potato Days (complete with mashed potato eating AND sculpting contests).
While these communities embrace their respective claims to fame, their celebrated icons may not be universally loved. Across the border in Le Mars, Iowa, however, there’s a community celebration that would be hard for most anyone to pass up: Ice Cream Days.
Le Mars is the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream and is also known as the Ice Cream Capital of the World. We visited the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum in Le Mars several years ago, and since then our kids have been asking to return, especially to see the visitor center‘s new location.
When a representative of Blue Bunny Ice Cream invited our family to Le Mars for Ice Cream Days, we jumped at the chance. My friend Jody from Family Rambling went last year and had a magnificent time with her family.
2012′s Ice Cream Days are June 13-16, so you can still make plans to attend if Le Mars is a comfortable drive for you. I like that the Ice Cream Days parade is held at 9 a.m., before the heat of the day begins, and that the festivities wrap up on Saturday so we can enjoy Father’s Day with dear old dad. Besides the parade, there are carnival games and arts and crafts for kids, a BMX/Motorcycle stunt team and R/C Airplane & Helicopter Fun Fly, arts events, historical presentations, and even maps of barn quilt routes available.
The best part, however, is seeing the ice cream cone notation on many of the events for the celebration, which means free Blue Bunny treats will be available.
Who wouldn’t want to celebrate that?
If you’d like to see more about Ice Cream Days in Le Mars, follow me on Facebook or Twitter, where I’ll be sharing scenes from our Ice Cream Days experience.
Disclosure: Blue Bunny is covering the cost of our family’s trip to Le Mars for Ice Cream Days.
When visiting California, our family’s goal was to learn about some of the history and culture of the state as well as visiting attractions like Disneyland and Legoland. As Minnesota farmers, we also hoped to learn a bit about agriculture in California. We found the perfect stop for this at California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside.
California Citrus SHP exists to preserve the history of the citrus industry that is shrinking in Riverside and its surrounding areas. While our children explored the exhibits and worked through the children’s brochure in the visitor center, my husband and I visited with the knowledgeable docents, learning about the citrus industry’s history in California and how it is changing in a time of population growth and urbanization.
After we’d had our questions answered and browsed the gift shop, the docent took us to the patio behind the visitor center, where we were offered tastes of a variety of citrus fruits.
We had our first experience with kumquats (little tiny oranges that are eaten like grapes, skin and all), really sweet clementines/mandarins, lemons, and juicy, red-orange Cara Cara navels. Even the choosiest eaters in our family were adventurous enough to taste the fruits.
The docent then led us down the sidewalk and showed us some of the other varieties growing near the visitor center. The rule was that we, as visitors, could not pick any of the fruit in the park, but our ranger could pick things and share them with us. It was a new and tasty experience to eat oranges that had just been picked from the trees.
After trying several of the varieties, the ranger left us to wander through the rest of the park on our own, and we walked the many paved paths through what is an actual working orchard. Throughout the park, signs indicate the varieties of the trees, from the Meyer lemons that are common in California backyards to the spiky Flying Dragon seedling that is good for root stock but does not bear good fruit.
Our kids liked learning about the trees and how they grow,
as well as just walking between the palm trees, which were originally grown in the orange groves as a navigation aid, so workers could find the roads among the acres of orange trees.
Displays along the paths explained things such as the importance of the local canal to the citrus industry and the citrus heritage of the area.
The orange trees were just beginning to bloom and I found that their sweet smell now rivals lilacs as my favorite scent.
The visitor center is only open on weekends, but the park is open daily for walking its tree-lined paths.
After leaving the park, we stopped at the Gless Ranch stand, conveniently located just outside the entrance, and purchased some fresh California oranges to take home with us. Sadly, they did not make it home, as we ate 16 pounds of oranges in a week’s time. Even worse, we cannot find anything that tastes nearly as good now that we are back in Minnesota.
We made one more stop before heading back to our hotel in Anaheim, at the ranger’s suggestion: We drove through Riverside to the corner of Magnolia and Arlington to see the Parent Navel Tree. If you’ve ever eaten a navel orange grown in the United States, it is likely a descendant of this tree that dates back to the 1800s. How’s that for a piece of history?
I highly recommend California Citrus SHP for visitors to California who want to learn about this type of agriculture or to taste a variety of citrus fruits, or to California residents who may know little about the citrus industry and its history in the state.
One of the most iconic landmarks of Los Angeles is the Hollywood sign. Watch a TV show set in LA or read a guidebook, and HOLLYWOOD is sure to be prominently featured. But getting a good look at the sign for yourself is a bit more difficult.
Say, for instance, that you’re driving on the 101 freeway from Disneyland to Universal Studios.
If you look at just the right time, and you’re not the driver who has to pay attention to traffic or the kid who’s in the backseat on the driver’s side of the vehicle, you might just get a good look at it like this:
Now, for some people, that would be good enough. But for others who actually wanted more than a glimpse, or who want to prove that they can find a better vantage point, or maybe have their photo taken in front of the real thing (as opposed to the fake photo op background at Universal Studios) as proof that they were actually along on the family vacation, it is possible to get closer to the sign.
In my somewhat-extensive Hollywood-sign research before we left home, I had read that you could see the Hollywood sign from Griffith Park. We, however, did not go to Griffith Park.
I also talked to someone from my hometown whose family had attempted to get up-close and personal with the Hollywood sign and had become hopelessly intertwined in the Hollywood hills, and never did successfully complete their quest to see the sign. I wanted to do better than that.
So I searched Google Maps. (Do you use Google Maps for as many things as I do?) And I looked for that sign and found it right here.
Do you see it? It’s that faint white line just below Mt. Lee Drive on the map. Yup, that’s the Hollywood sign from way up in space.
Then, I looked at the terrain. Obviously, any vantage point for the sign was going to be south of this location.
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And yes, those are some twisting, winding roads.
Next, I used street view to see exactly where the sign was visible from a public roadway.
This view? Not exactly the right spot.
View Larger Map
Then I got smart and turned on the photos layer. And voila! I could instantly see all of the spots where people had taken photos of the Hollywood sign with their fancy GPS-enabled cameras or cell phones.
Now, I realize it’s hard to see, but all of those pictures with blue sky and brown-green bottoms and a little bit of white in the middle? They’re pictures of the Hollywood sign.
Next, we had the issue of finding a place to park and safely take a picture without being chased off someone’s private property or being run down by people who actually knew how to quickly and accurately navigate these streets.
What’s that? A public park? With what looks to be cars parked safely and legally on both sides of the street? I think that’s our spot.
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And so it was that upon leaving Universal Studios, we made our way to see the Hollywood sign. Cahuenga Blvd W to Barham Blvd to Lake Hollywood Dr to Tahoe Dr to Canyon Lake Dr to Lake Hollywood Park doesn’t seem too tricky, but I’d advise having a map or smartphone navigation app to get you there. (It was comforting to see one small “Hollywood Sign” arrow along the way, but it alone wasn’t enough to get us there without getting lost.)
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At the southern tip of the park, we found a place to park along the street, and spotted the sign.
To the naked eye it looked like this:
Zoomed in it looked like this:
And proof that I was in California looked like this:
If you know of a better/faster/easier place to see the Hollywood sign, please share in the comments.
San Diego has a lot of attractions for families, and one of its best-known is outside the city itself. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park) is in Escondido, a 30- to 45-minute drive from the main San Diego tourist areas.
Before we went, I tried to get an idea of what the Safari Park would be like. I looked at satellite views on Google Maps and read the website extensively, trying to guess if it would be a good stop for our family, and how much time we would need there. Much of the guessing I did was wrong.
It’s hard to get a feel for the Safari Park from a map because the terrain is quite varied, and also because much of the park’s expanse is not in publicly-accessible areas. The vastness of the park that scared me when looking at the map was really not so much to worry about.
I had read that the Safari Park is extensive and the terrain quite hilly, so I was concerned that my already-troubled feet wouldn’t be able to take it, especially after several days in amusement parks. While it’s true that one does a lot of walking at the Safari Park, the only part that I thought was really steep was down into the tiger area. The other zone where there’s a big hill is near the cheetah and lion area, but there’s an elevator available at that location.
We arrived at the Safari Park just before it opened and parked very near the entrance. The ticket line was slow-moving but the agent was knowledgeable and helpful when it came to our turn. At $42 for adults and $32 for children, the Africa Safari is the most basic ticket available. There are many other ticket options available that include extras like Segway and zipline tours or behind-the-scenes options, all at increased prices. In fact, there are upsells throughout the park itself, including $5 to have a better view for the cheetah run. The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park do not participate in the AZA reciprocal program, and adult memberships are only available to southern California residents, so there isn’t a good way to get reduced admission. Visitors to southern California who want to save a few dollars should take a look at the Koala Club for kids, use their AAA card for a discount, look at the Go San Diego card*, or look at the multi-park/multi-visit options if visiting both the Zoo and the Safari Park.
The Africa tram is a 25-minute open-air ride that is included with the most basic admission ticket. During the tram tour, visitors are taken to areas of the park that are otherwise inaccessible by the public. Narration provides information about the various animals in this zone, many of which are severely endangered. Since the Africa tram tour is included with admission, it’s worth the time for visitors, especially those who are there for the first time.
After the tram tour, we wandered around the rest of the Safari Park. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of paths that were shady, lined with beautiful plants.
The walking was not nearly as difficult as I had envisioned. Paths and trails and specific exhibits were well-marked, making it easy to navigate to the areas we wanted to visit.
Because the animal areas at the Safari Park are often large, it’s not always easy to see the animals. After trekking down the tiger path, we learned that the tigers were not in a visible area at that time, and I had a disappointed six-year-old to lead back up the hill.
Food is available at several locations in the park. The $7.49 kids meal included two small chicken fingers, a bag of Pirate’s Booty, raisins, animal crackers, and a child-sized soda (with $1 in-park refills). While milk and chocolate milk could be purchased for $1.49, an adult soda (refillable for a charge) carried the price tag of $4.99. In my opinion, the food was high-priced and mediocre, and I’d recommend packing a picnic lunch if you can.
Our kids enjoyed an interactive screen show featuring Robert, the zebra from Madagascar, in an amphitheater, and begged to spend time in the splash area and play & climb zone in the park that give kids a chance to run and play. The carousel was also a hit with the kids.
We spent four hours at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In the future, if I had to choose either the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park, I’d go back to the zoo, where more animals were easily seen and more programs were available. Benefits of the Safari Park, however, included easier parking and a less-crowded atmosphere. I was surprised at the amount of duplication of animals between the two, and on future visits to San Diego, I would likely choose one or the other, but not go to both.
For my Minnesota readers who may be interested in visiting the Safari Park, I found it to be very similar to the Minnesota Zoo, and in fact, many of the animals are the same (tigers, takin, meerkat). The tram ride is similar in scope to the Minnesota Zoo’s monorail, and the terrain and amount of walking we did seemed very much like that of the Minnesota Zoo.
The San Diego Zoo and its Safari Park are known as some of the best zoos in the world, giving visitors to San Diego good options for a zoo experience while in California.
Disclosure: The San Diego Zoo gave us four free passes so we could check out the Zoo and Safari Park.
* Affiliate link
When our family visited California, we had a lot of fun, but we also wanted to have some educational experiences along the way. Visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum was one of these.
Set in the beautiful hills of Simi Valley, California, north of Los Angeles, the setting for this museum is breathtaking. Our children enjoyed seeing the banners depicting the order of the presidents as we wound up the driveway, until we arrived at number 40, Ronald Reagan, at the top of the hill.
Our first contact upon entering the building was a representative offering a membership to the library. We declined this option and moved to the admission window, where we paid for our visit and a Guidecam tour upgrade for an additional $7 per person. Though this price was somewhat high, we hoped that it would provide additional interest for our kids as we walked through the museum.
The museum itself is very large and well-done. The exhibits are informational and appealing to look at, with each area based around a specific period or topic of President Reagan’s life. Occasional interactive areas, like a radio show from Reagan’s early days, or a White House etiquette trivia quiz, livened it up a bit for the kids.
The Guidecams, which are specially-purposed iPod Touches, were indeed a good choice, as the exhibit areas were marked with audio locations. One daughter especially liked the option of using the Guidecam to take photos in the museum, which were e-mailed to us at the end of the tour.
Guidecam Photo taken by 7-year-old
On the downside, there is no child-specific audio option, so the kids got the same spiel as the adults. A special kid-friendly audio tour would make the Guidecams even better. Still, listening as we walked and looked made for a very well-rounded experience.
Docents were available at every turn should we have questions, and while some waited quietly in the exhibit areas for questions to be addressed to them, others interacted with the kids as we walked through. One even gave us tiny bags of Jelly Belly jelly beans (Ronald Reagan’s favorite) when we stopped to ask a question.
After learning about most of Reagan’s life, we made it to the Air Force One exhibit area. The large annex area is home to the Air Force One that was in use during Reagan’s presidency, and it was very interesting to step on board and walk through the plane, seeing the office areas, press seating, and how the president’s office in the sky is set up. While photography is allowed in the rest of the museum, there are no photos allowed on board Air Force One.
Other presidential and military vehicles, including a presidential limousine from the Reagan years, are also on exhibit in this large area of the museum.
From Air Force One, we continued the audio tour to its end. We kind of breezed through the last area quickly because we were hungry; we hadn’t realized just how much time we’d be able to spend in the museum. Using the Guidecam, we had spent nearly three hours learning about Ronald Reagan.
We ate lunch at Reagan’s Country Cafe, which was at the end of the tour. (If we had only realized when we entered that it was just through the doors by the Guidecam pickup point, we would have eaten first). There is also a pub in the Air Force One exhibit area, but we opted for the cafe with more menu options and beautiful views from the dining area.
Though it rained while we were in the museum, by the time we headed outdoors again it was sunny, so we took some time to see a portion of the Berlin Wall and the replicas of the White House gardens, as well as President Reagan’s gravesite.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is one of the largest and most-visited presidential museums in the U.S. With its excellent exhibits, the Guidecam tour, and Air Force One, we found it to be an excellent history lesson amidst the fun of other southern California attractions.
Have you visited the Reagan Library or another presidential library/museum? Was it interesting for kids?
I realize I’ve been away for a while; my time for the past month has been largely focused on an important community project. Now I’m catching up, and look at all the of the interesting ideas I’ve found on other blogs. I’m also trying something new by linking to these ideas on Pinterest. Are you planning a summer vacation? Maybe you’ll find an idea or two on this list.
- Alaska Native Heritage Center (Anchorage, AK) at AK on the Go
- Austin (TX) on a Budget at Road Trips for Families
- BIG Stuff in Philadephia, PA at Go Big or Go Home
- Biltmore Estate’s Family Playground (Asheville, NC) at Road Trips for Families
- Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (St. Augustine, FL) at Field Trips with Sue
- Colonial Williamsburg with Kids (Williamsburg, VA) at Ciao Bambino
- Colors of the Carlsbad Flower Fields at The World is a Book
- Corinth National Military Park (Mississippi) at Our Traveling Tribe
- Cruising Boston Harbor with Boston’s Best Cruises (Boston, MA) at Albany Kid
- Disney’s Fort Wilderness Cabins (Orlando, FL) at The Traveling Praters
- Dos and Don’ts of Disney’s Castaway Cay at Travel Mamas
- Eagle Watching in Decorah, IA, at Road Trips for Families
- Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum (McMinnville, OR) at Pit Stops for Kids
- Exploring Atlanta, GA, with Kids at SuiteTrip
- Exploring Eastland, TX, at Suitcases and Sippycups
- Exploring the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch (Carlsbad, CA) at Go Explore Nature
- Family-Friendly Activities in Nevada at Trekaroo
- Family Friendly Utah Ski Resort: Snowbird at Dotting the Map
- Favorite Things to Do in Yosemite National Park at Go Explore Nature
- Five Great Activities in South Central Alaska with Younger Children (Anchorage area)at AK on the Go
- Five Great Activities in Fairbanks with Younger Children (Fairbanks, AK) at AK on the Go
- Five Great Activities in Southeastern Alaska with Younger Children at AK on the Go
- The Florida Keys at New School Nomads
- A Guide to the White House Easter Egg Roll at Tulip Family Travels
- Half Moon Bay with Kids: San Francisco’s Secret Seaside Neighbor (Half Moon Bay, CA) at Ciao Bambino
- Hilton Times Square at More Kids than Suitcases
- Is a Disney Cruise Right for Your Family? at Pit Stops for Kids
- Justifiying the Cost of a Disney Cruise at Two Kids and a Map
- LBJ National Historic Park, Stonewall, TX at R We There Yet Mom?
- League Stadium in Huntingburg, IN at Little Indiana
- Lego Sculptures at Reiman Gardens (Ames, IA) at Family Rambling
- Manitou Cliff Dwellings (Colorado Springs, CO) at Six Suitcase Travel
- Metaphor, the Tree of Utah (95 miles west of Salt Lake City, UT) at Eccentric Roadside
- Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, at The Mother of All Trips
- National Museum of Naval Aviation (Pensacola, FL) at Our Traveling Tribe
- National Museum of Naval Aviation (Pensacola, FL) at The Rocket Scientist’s Guide to Raising Kids
- New National Historic Landmarks in the Capitol Region (near Albany, NY) at Albany Kid
- Panning for Gold in Alaska (El Dorado Gold Mine) at Gone with the Family
- Pennsylvania’s Amish Country at Intelligent Travel
- Play for All Abilities Park (Round Rock, TX) at R We There Yet Mom?
- Sequoia National Park with Kids at The World is a Book
- Shiloh National Battlefield (Shiloh, TN) at Our Traveling Tribe
- Solomon’s Castle (Ona, FL) at New School Nomads
- St. Augustine, Florida: Rich in History at New School Nomads
- Stones River National Battlefield (TN) at Our Traveling Tribe
- Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum (Waco, TX) at R We There Yet Mom?
- Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids at The World is a Book
- Top Five Reasons Keystone Resort is Great for Families at The Mother of All Trips
- Top Picks for Kids at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at Sherri May’s Traveling Classroom
- Vanishing Texas River Cruise (Lake Buchanan, TX) at R We There Yet Mom?
- What to Expect When Taking Disney World’s Magical Express at Two Kids and a Map
- What’s Included (and What You’ll Pay Extra For) on a Disney Cruise at Pit Stops for Kids
- 5 Items We Were Glad We Had on a Disney Cruise and 5 We Didn’t Need at Pit Stops for Kids
- 5 Multigenerational Travel Mistakes to Avoid at Kidventurous
- 10 Free Family Activities in Baltimore, MD at Kidventurous
- 10 Tips for Sailing Aboard the Carnival Magic with Kids at Suitcases and Sippycups
I had heard good things about the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting, so when I got to choose our family outing last weekend, this is where I decided we were going to go, despite the grumblings of children who wanted to go to Mall of America or the children’s museum instead. I wanted to go somewhere new and interesting without fighting crowds on a cool and rainy Saturday.
The Pavek Museum of Broadcasting is located in a business/light-industrial area of St. Louis Park, MN, just off Hwys 100 and 7. After paying our admission and hanging up our coats, one son noticed the audio tour option, but we instead went with the guided tour of the museum that was offered to us. Our guide cranked up a Victrola and a replica of Edison’s first phonograph, and we threw some nickels into an old-time juke box. We learned about electricity with Leyden jar experiments like they have at the Bakken Museum, and got a demonstration of a ship’s radio system from days gone by.
Then it was on to the next room, where three kids at a time competed in a quiz show, complete with Jeopardy-style buzz-in buttons and broadcast on an old-time TV right in front of us.
Our guide read the questions and kept score.
We tried our hands at playing the Theremin, and then were shown a video that proves that some people actually were able to get songs to come from this electronic musical instrument. We were taken to a back room where it was explained how film works, and after being given actual film clips to look at (something new for our kids’ generation), we watched the Roadrunner escape the coyote until the film broke.
Each child tried their hand at a telegraph, we heard music from old-time movie-theater speakers, and watched old-time TV shows on an old-time television.
The highlight of the visit, however, was doing our own radio show in the radio studio. With one child at the controls, two announcers, and two reporters, we followed the script and broadcast our very own radio show, which was e-mailed to us after we left the museum. Seeing how radio works, even though the studio setup was from the late-1960s, was an eye-opener for our WCCO-listening family.
Our Pavek Museum Radio Broadcast
We spent about an hour and a half at the museum; enthusiasts who want to examine all of the old radios and television sets on site could spend much longer.
At the end, even those children who weren’t sure about going to the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting said it was a lot more fun than they’d expected it to be. I’ve already recommended it to friends and to our school as a good field trip option for upper-elementary students. The Pavek Museum of Broadcasting does an excellent job of portraying the history of broadcasting in an informative and interactive way.
On our vacation, we each did something to challenge our comfort zones a bit. Our kids went on rides they weren’t quite sure about, and I rode to new heights in more than a few places.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway sounded like a good idea when I was planning the trip. I’d ask Californians if they’d been on it, and they’d say things like, “No, but I’ve heard only good things about it.” Comments like this, paired with the fact that it was open into the evening, made it a good stop for the end of our day in the Palm Springs area.
As we drove up the four-mile access road just after 4 p.m., however, I began to question my wisdom in putting it on our to-do list. “We’re going up THERE?” I asked as we pulled into the parking lot and could see the towers on the mountainside that held the tram cables in place.
By then, however, it was too late. We were there. We hiked up the parking lot and into the ticket building to buy our tickets.
Although it was in no way due to excellent planning on my part, we learned that we’d arrived at a good time. Tickets are discounted after 4:00 for the ride to the top of the mountain. Though still not a great bargain, the discount was appreciated.
Aerial Tramway tickets are issued for a specific time, and our tram car was boarding as soon as we’d finished the purchase transaction. We waited in a holding room until our tram car arrived, and then walked into the large car.
The floor of the car rotates throughout the ride, so passengers get a 360-degree view of the Coachella Valley without having to move around the car. Everyone stands, but a woman with a severe fear of heights was allowed to sit on a small step in the center of the car.
There are five towers that the car rolls over along the way to the top, and while the 10-minute ride is otherwise smooth, there’s a bit of an “oooh” moment as the car swings over the arms of each of these towers.
Soon enough, we were at the top, with the option to explore as long as we wanted. The top station includes overlooks, restaurants, a bar, a gift shop, and photo kiosk as well as restrooms and other amenities.
I wasn’t too sure how I was going to like looking down from the top of an 8516-foot mountain, but it wasn’t really so bad. Because it’s not a sheer dropoff from the lookout areas, the vegetation and landscape make it appear that you’re just on some uneven terrain, but with a really good view in the distance. I’m nervous about the third-floor railing at Mall of America, but I managed the fenced-in areas at the top of this mountain just fine.
The kids begged for quarters for the binoculars, and enjoyed getting closer views of the sights from these. We could see the mountains near Joshua Tree National Park to the left, Palm Springs and its nearby towns below, some of the many wind generators that line the Coachella Valley at the bottom of the mountain, and the Salton Sea to the right. I forgot to look for the San Andreas Fault, although I’d read that it can be seen from the top.
Looking the other way, we could see hikers in the distance; the land at the top of the mountain is a state park and is available for recreational activities.
We stayed near the station, however, and after getting our fill of the view, headed inside to find something to eat. We chose the cafeteria-style Pines Cafe instead of the fancier Peaks Restaurant, and were pleasantly surprised at the reasonable prices for basic but good food. The boys had a large slice of pizza for $4, I had tortilla soup for $3.50, and our daughter liked the $5 yogurt parfait. My husband had some kind of sausage and sauerkraut that was part of a meal deal but also sold a la carte. All in all, we ate for about the same cost as fast food would have been, but with a much nicer view.
While we were eating, the sun set over the mountain, so that when we boarded the tram car again and began moving, we had a beautiful view of the city lights below. Once again we completed two and a half rotations as we rode, but this time to upbeat music instead of the informational narrative we’d heard on the way up.
In some ways, I’d compare the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the Pikes Peak Cog Railway; both take you up about 8000 feet from the city below for some beautiful views. If I had to choose one over the other for my family, however, I’d go with the tramway. The 10-minute ride is much easier for kids than the hour-plus of Pikes Peak, and you can stay at the top as long as you wish.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was one of the high points of our California trip, especially since it was unique and not what I expected when I first thought of California.
If You Go:
- Call for ticket prices before you go. The after-4 discount is not listed on the website, although a ride-and-dine package is.
- Bring a sweatshirt or jacket, even if it’s warm in the valley. We were comfortable with sweatshirts on in mid-February.
- Don’t lean on the glass while the tramway is moving. Your feet will rotate right out from under the leaning part of you.
- Remember your camera.
- Go up just after 4 p.m., grab something to eat, enjoy the view, and come down after dark for a varied experience at a lower price.
- Check to see if any special activities are available during your visit.
We learned that my son is allergic to peanuts when he was three years old due to skin testing and bloodwork in investigating another condition. In the past six years, we’ve become adept at navigating restaurant menus and working with our school, friends, and family to ensure a safe environment for him. We’ve traveled far and wide, but always in a car where we could control the food that’s brought in.
Our recent trip to California created a new page in our book of dealing with food allergies: flying with a peanut allergy. Our experience flying on Delta follows; I welcome any thoughts about your own food allergy airline experiences, or tips for traveling families, in the comments.
My pre-trip concerns were two-fold: how to keep our son safe while on the flight, and how to handle epi-pens at the security gate.
About a month before our trip, I called Delta’s main information number and spoke to an agent about the peanut allergy. She said that Delta does not provide peanut-free flights, but recommended sitting in either the first three or last three rows of the cabin. We already had seats at the back of the plane, so this was not difficult. Another option provided was to talk to the gate agent one hour prior to the flight and ask to be assigned (him plus one adult) to the first economy row, which is reserved until that point in time for people with service animals or other special needs. We decided to stay with our seat assignments at the back of the plane, especially since our family of six was already taking up two rows on one side, which would create a bit of a natural buffer zone.
The phone agent also noted the peanut allergy on our son’s reservation.
Regarding the epi-pens, I checked the airline and TSA websites to see how to handle medications and learned that there should be no problem with them.
We did nothing special with the epi-pens we had in our carry-on luggage and no questions were asked at security regarding them.
Flight 1: At the Gate
We had arrived quite early for the flight, and as soon as the gate agent arrived, I talked to her about the peanut allergy. She was very kind, reiterating that there were no peanut-free flights offered on Delta, but that they would not offer peanuts in the three rows ahead of or behind my son. I asked if I needed to talk to the flight attendants, and she said no, that she would inform them.
Flight 1: On the Plane
We had brought along wipes with which to clean the trays and surfaces in my son’s row, in case there should be any peanut residue there from an earlier flight. Though we normally do not do this in everyday situations, the idea of having a reaction while in the air with no ambulance or hospital readily available caused us to take more precautions than usual.
When the drinks and snacks were served, the flight attendants worked from front to back. When they reached the row my son was in, they offered him peanuts. My husband quietly reminded them that there was a peanut allergy in the row, and they hastily backed up and took back the peanuts they’d just given to passengers in the row ahead. There ended up being just a two-row buffer instead of the three rows there were supposed to be. I give the confiscated-peanut passengers credit for not complaining, but I was disappointed that the flight attendants had forgotten the protocol and offered peanuts to them in the first place.
Flight 2: At the Gate
This time, we did not arrive at the gate until about 20 minutes prior to boarding. I gave the same spiel to the agent: “My son has a peanut allergy and the reservation agent said I should let you know.” He annoyed with me, and said he’d have to put us in the last row. I mentioned that we were already near the back of the plane, but he said the very back was what he was supposed to do, and now the plane was nearly full and he’d have to move people around. After pausing a bit, he asked how severe the allergy was. “Not airborne or contact-sensitive as far as we know,” I replied. “So just ingestion?” “Yes,” I replied. He then decided that where we were sitting was good enough and that they’d have to do a buffer zone of “4 rows or something,” and that he’d have to notify the flight attendants RIGHT NOW. He walked immediately down the jetway with this information.
Flight 2: On the Plane
When we boarded, we noticed two small pieces of paper taped to the seatbacks of the third row ahead of our son’s row, marked simply with “ø.” Once everyone in those rows had boarded, the flight attendant explained that there was a customer with a peanut allergy in this area, and that peanuts would not be served beyond that point. She also asked that any passengers who had brought a peanut snack not eat it during the flight, and that if a peanut snack was the only thing they had brought to eat, she would talk with them about trading it for something else from her cart. As during the first flight, I did not see or hear anyone complain about this.
As had been promised, the flight attendants discontinued offering peanuts when they got to the marked row. I did notice that there was still trail mix available for sale, but I did not see if anyone attempted to order it during the flight.
- I’m surprised that the peanut allergy was not flagged in the gate agent’s information. Sometimes it is not possible to arrive early enough for seat reassignment, especially if catching a connecting flight. Similarly, sometimes seat assignments are not available until arriving at the gate, so the allergic passenger could be assigned to a row other than that suggested for people with allergies on Delta. Delta’s computer system should be able to flag this so the gate attendant knows before we arrive that there’s an allergy on board.
- The demeanor of the gate agent isn’t what keeps the allergic passenger safe. The flight attendants are the key piece of the puzzle. Though Flight 1′s gate agent was much friendlier, the flight attendants on the plane were not very attendant. The gate agent for Flight 2 was more brusque, but the flight attendants on board were much better at communicating with the passengers and following the protocols we’d been told they would use.
- The allergic passenger was kept anonymous throughout the process. We were not in any way singled out as being the ones with a food allergy in our row. Any passengers who might be disgruntled did not know if the allergic passenger was right next to them or a few rows away.
- Our fellow passengers were kind and understanding. No one on either flight was visibly hostile about the absence of peanuts in their row.
- The cookies and pretzels offered as snacks besides peanuts were a may-contain, so my son couldn’t eat them anyway. We always travel with our own snacks for him in situations like this.
- It surprises me that Delta can’t create a peanut-free flight. I don’t think of myself as a warrior mom for whom everyone else has to change just because my son has a peanut allergy. But is the right to peanuts on a flight so absolute that they can’t simply be removed from the flight when given advance notice of an allergic passenger on board?
- I’d think twice about flying on Delta if the allergy were airborne-sensitive. Some people have severe allergic reactions by merely smelling or breathing small amounts of peanut dust. In an confined space like an airplane, I’d be very hesitant at having just a buffer zone with an airborne reaction history.
- Traveling with a larger group is a benefit. Our family created its own buffer zone of sorts, just as my son has a self-created group of friends who avoid peanuts so they can sit by him at lunchtime.
- It was still nerve-wracking. Being locked on an airplane without quick access to a hospital can be dangerous in any medical emergency, but with a severe allergic reaction, time is of the essence. An epi-pen dose only helps for 15 minutes or so, and a second dose will buy a bit more time, but that’s not enough in the case of a severe reaction while at 30,000 feet. Preventing a reaction in the first place is really the first defense.
Questions and Comments:
- Have you flown with a food allergy? What was your experience? What precautions did you take?
- Are there any airlines that offer peanut-free flights? What are the policies of airlines other than Delta?
- What could/should we have done differently?
Please share with a comment below.
During our time in California, we stayed at three different water/beachfront hotels. All had room for a family of six, and beyond that, their amenities varied. Read on to learn more about these California beachfront hotels.
- The hotel: Resort-style hotel laid out in several buildings with beautifully landscaped grounds and large pool and whirlpool. Restaurant on-site. Reasonably priced room service. Quiet except for baby crying next door. Most rooms open directly to outside walkways.
- Our room: Spacious 2-queen, 2-bath suite with living room, dining table for four, small fridge, and microwave. Large balcony with doors to both the bedroom and living room provides views of beach and ocean; has bar-height table and two stools.
- Breakfast, etc.: Free breakfast that includes made-to-order omelets and other hot items in large breakfast room. Complimentary evening reception includes snacks (nachos, popcorn) and drinks (alcholic and non-alcoholic) in breakfast area.
- The view: Hotel gate opens directly onto beach. Some areas are dune-like and others flat beach. Channel Islands and California mountains can be seen in the distance.
- What we paid: $166/nt (“partial view” AAA rate)+ $15 for parking in the hotel’s underground garage.
- Best for: A beach getaway with time to relax at the pools and enjoy the hotel’s resort feel.
- Hints: Ask for a partial view room for the best combination of view + cost.
- The hotel: Small (30 rooms?) hotel directly on Pacific Coast Highway. Restaurants within walking distance. Highway noise and passing Amtrak trains can be bothersome. Rooms open to outside walkways. Bathroom fan is loud and on when bathroom light is on. Hotel has outdoor whirlpool. Balconies face each other. Free underground parking.
- Our room: 2-king bedroom with huge living room, dining table for four, small fridge, and microwave. Mid-sized balcony off living room with patio table and chairs.
- Breakfast, etc.: Free continental breakfast (waffles, pastries, fruit, cereal, toast) in breakfast room with just four tables.
- The view: Beach is located across the road/railroad tracks; crossover walkway is about 2 blocks from hotel. Higher floors have best views of ocean and beach/park.
- What we paid: $95/nt (organizational rate); free parking.
- Best for: Budget-minded travelers who want to be close to the beach. People looking for a somewhat central location between LA and San Diego.
- Hints: Parking garage entrance can be hard to find at night. Our GPS had a hard time finding the hotel.
- The hotel: Two lodging buildings plus central “lodge” with lobby, breakfast area, etc. Outdoor pool and whirlpool, various patios and terraces, some with fireplaces. Game room with pool table, exercise rooms. Variety of restaurants (Greek, sushi, Thai, pizza/brewpub, Mexican, Starbucks, Subway) in strip mall just across parking lot. Snack shop in lobby. Grocery store (Von’s/Trader Joe’s) nearby. Airport is nearby but plane noise not an issue. Within 20-minute drive of most San Diego attractions. Quiet/no highway noise.
- Our room: 1-king, 1-queen, 2-bedroom, 2-bath with living room and full kitchen (except oven) and table for four. Tiny balcony with patio chair off queen bedroom.
- Breakfast, etc.: Free hot breakfast each morning. Weeknight manager’s reception includes light meal offerings and includes beer and wine.
- The view: Some rooms overlook the harbor inlet, greenway, and walking path.
- What we paid: $204/nt (AAA rate); free parking.
- Best for: Families looking for nice, centrally-located lodging in San Diego. People who want to cook instead of eating in restaurants.
- Hints: You pay the same whether you get a waterfront view or a parking lot view, and it’s luck of the draw whether you get a room with a view or not. One of the top-rated hotels in San Diego on TripAdvisor. Price fluctuates so keep an eye on it and rebook at a lower rate if you find it. Larger rooms can sell out quickly.
So there you have it–the skinny on three waterfront lodging options in southern California. Of all of them, the one I’d most like to return to is the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach with its convenient beach access and relaxed feel plus well-designed room and beautiful view. I would, however, stay at any of them again.
I’m going to start off by saying that some writers would mock a review of a Comfort Inn as much as they’d make fun of a restaurant reviewer’s writeup of the Olive Garden. But I’ve been reading Marilyn Hagerty‘s columns for almost 40 years now and I think she’s top-notch. And just as she’s said that she’s just doing things they way she’s always done them, I’m sticking with what my readers like best: real reviews of places we’ve actually visited.
Those who have been reading Travels with Children for a while may remember my Disneyland hotel-choice dilemma. I made and canceled numerous reservations as I found better prices or better promotions or better locations. On occasion, I even asked my husband where he thought we should stay.
In the end we went with the Comfort Inn Maingate.
It wasn’t a slam-dunk decision, mind you. After reading reviews on TripAdvisor and looking at Google street view and poring over the hotel’s website, we were pretty sure it would work for our six-night stay, but we agreed that if it wasn’t up to snuff we’d leave after the first night and find something better.
That was not necessary.
I booked the hotel at an association rate that’s usually a bit lower than the AAA/senior rates at Choice Hotels, netting us six nights in a two-queen, two-bunk, two-room with two bathrooms family suite for $102/night. As our trip dates neared, I checked the rates online and saw that the price had dropped, and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to rebook for the lower $95 rate. That $95 included free parking, free breakfast, and free wi-fi. Not bad.
I knew from my research that the location would be decent. Though it was a beyond walking distance to Disneyland for most people, it was a mere three-minute drive from Disneyland’s Toy Story parking lot, and about 15 from the Mickey & Friends parking structure. We never had trouble with traffic, and at the end of the day, it was nice to have a short ride back to our lodging. With restaurants and stores nearby, the location was good.
But would we actually like the room? The rate seemed almost too good to be true. Would we be happy there?
When we drove up, the kids gasped in delight. “It’s a MOtel!” they said. Apparently parking right in front of the rooms is rare enough for us that they thought it exciting. The birds of paradise blooming in the parking lot also drew oohs and aahs as our first real taste of California.
I checked in and asked for a room on the second floor, which I’d read might be the quietest. We were given room 220 at the back of the courtyard and parked next to the stairs. I took in my flashlight and did the first check I always do at hotels, for bedbugs, before letting anyone or anything else inside. Being satisfied that we were ok, we moved in.
The family suites at the Comfort Inn Maingate have been constructed by dividing a room in two and giving half of it to each of the adjacent rooms. One of the half-size bunk rooms gets the extra window, and the other gets the second bath. Paying a few dollars extra per night for the second bath was well worth it, especially since it meant we also had a second closet. With all of our luggage, we had plenty of room to stash our stuff.
The bunk room with a real door that closed was also a benefit when our children awakened at 4:45 a.m., having not yet adjusted to the new time zone. They could play quietly, read, or watch TV without disturbing us.
The two queen beds were comfortable, and even the small square pillows that hotels seem to stock these days were good enough. We had an upholstered chair and small table plus the dresser/TV stand with dorm fridge and microwave in the main room, and the bunk room had its own dresser with TV plus a kid-sized table and chairs. The safe in the corner was locked unless we wanted to pay a fee to access it.
This is an older building but it’s in good repair. Everything in our room worked as it should, except a sink with switched faucets and a delay in getting hot water to the shower in the morning, which were minor inconveniences. The room was extremely quiet and set back well away from the street.
We didn’t use the pool because we were too busy seeing the sights, so I can’t comment on it. There was a guest laundry area adjacent to the outdoor pool.
Breakfast was complimentary each morning, just a bit on the better side of basic. Besides the usual cereal, toast, and pastries, there were make-your-own waffles, scrambled eggs, and sausage. A refrigerator stocked yogurt and boiled eggs, and fresh fruit was available. The fare was identical each day of our stay, and while not exciting, there was certainly enough that everyone got a good start to the day.
The breakfast room itself was not large, with seating for perhaps 25 people, but picnic tables just outside the doors provided an acceptable overflow seating area. Most mornings, we were at breakfast just after it opened, and everything was well stocked. The only day there were empty shelves was the day we ate later in the breakfast time.
Though the Comfort Inn Maingate is not fancy, it was for us the perfect combination of price, location, and space. Having a room where each of the six of us can sleep on a bed for under $100/night is a bargain.
I recommended the Comfort Inn Maingate to a friend who was visiting just a week later with her family of six and they had a similar pleasant experience. When I started to apologize for the basic breakfast fare, she told me it was much, much better than what they’d been offered at their Days Inn in San Diego.
Families, especially with three or four children, visiting Disneyland on a budget should consider the Comfort Inn Maingate. We’re glad we did.
As soon as we announced our California trip to our children, our 8-year-old had only one request: Legoland.
Legoland theme parks are a whole lot more than the Lego store and play area at Mall of America. Legoland comes complete with rides and shows, but also has an array of impressive Lego block creations thrown in for good measure. Since I’d already been to Legoland Florida and knew that it met its target market of 2- to 12-year-olds very well, I agreed that it would be a good stop for our family with kids ages 6-11. It did not disappoint.
We arrived at the park bright and early and had time to get our tickets before the gates opened. There was a group of people waiting to get in on a February Friday morning, but not large crowds like at the San Diego Zoo.
It was our first time in the park, so we chose the let’s-see-what-we-find approach and headed to the left. First stop was Coastersaurus and it was a hit with everyone. The ride isn’t long, so they let us go around twice before boarding the next group.
From there, we wandered through the park and rode on almost all the rides that were open. We took a few minutes to see how Legos are made, and enjoyed the interactive musical fountain.
As is Legoland’s style, Lego creatures and people are part of the landscape.
The Volvo driving school allows kids to drive on “real” roads with lanes and stop lights in little Lego cars. At the end, they earn a paper drivers license.
For lunch, we tried the Brickolini restaurant with its variety of pizza and pasta. The portions were large, leading my husband and me to wish we’d split an entree. Kids meals were on the spendy side at $6.99 but included a souvenir cup that could be refilled in the park (which stocks Coke products) for $.99.
We’re not big souvenir spenders on vacation, but we’d promised the kids they could each get a minifigure at Legoland. They opted for the prepackaged minifigures ($2 for series 5 closeouts, $3 for the new series 6) instead of making their own (3 for $10), and gladly accepted the clerk’s offer of a scissors so they could cut the bag open and build their minifigures on the spot. Trading the minifigures was also part of the fun, although many “model citizens” (staff) did not have minifigures on their name tags.
Wandering around Legoland California was low-key. If we found a ride, we went on it, with 20 minutes being our longest wait. We walked through Miniland and oohed and aahed at the variety of Lego buildings and details there, and the new Star Wars section of Miniland was a hit with our family. The narrated boat ride gave us an up-close look at more of Miniland.
We got to Legoland at 10 a.m. and stayed until park closing at 5 p.m. Looking back now, it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what we did for those seven hours, but I do know that we enjoyed the entire time. The rides and such aren’t as memorable as those at, for example, Disneyland, but the day was filled with fun and more than one child begged to repeat a ride or two.
What I do remember clearly is that we wished we’d had another full day at the park. Our tickets included admission to the adjacent SeaLife Aquarium, and we didn’t have time to step foot in there. We didn’t see any of the shows at Legoland, or sign up for any of the building sessions and workshops, and the waterpark was closed. And despite our children’s begging, we didn’t get to repeat any rides.
For those visiting southern California with pre-teen kids, Legoland is worth a stop. With the ability to add a second day for $15, first-time visitors should consider this option if they can spend the extra time.
Our day at Legoland California was a happy day. Older kids might miss the excitement of bigger thrill rides, but for younger, or ride-timid kids, Legoland hits the mark perfectly.
Legoland California Tips
- The rides are “pink-knuckle” rides, and most are tame enough for young children.
- There’s a Duplo play zone for the youngest visitors, and family restrooms are plentiful.
- Keep your eyes open for Lego creations in unexpected parts of the landscape.
- There are a variety of ticket prices and combination options. Pick the one that’s right for your family.
- Sign up for the free Lego Club magazine for your children well ahead of your trip. It often includes coupons such as free child’s admission with purchase of an adult ticket.
- I thought the food was on the expensive side, but the portions were large. Try sharing a meal. There are health-conscious choices available.
- A 20-oz. bottle from the Coke machine is $3.35. Consider the $.99 kids-cup refills instead.
- Be sure to try the Granny’s Apple Fries, a unique Legoland favorite.
- If a Model Citizen has a minifigure on his or her nametag, it’s fair game for trading. Just ask.
- Though there’s lots to do in the park, it’s quite compactly laid out, so getting from one side to the other for to reach a specific restaurant or ride is not out of the question.
- General parking is $12. If you drive a Volvo, you get a better spot than everyone else.
- Legoland is in Carlsbad, California. From downtown San Diego, it’s about 45 minutes north, and from Anaheim, 60-90 minutes south.
Disclosure: Our family was provided with four media preview tickets to visit Legoland.
We had a marvelous time at Disneyland and I came up with a few hints for future visitors, especially those visiting Disneyland for the first time.
- Visit during quiet times. Use a crowd calendar like the one at touringplans.com to choose days when the crowds are expected to be smaller. Because our early February days were low on the crowd scale, we went on as many as 25 rides in a day, and that was when the park’s hours were relatively short. Did you know that there are almost as many rides in Disneyland Resort’s two parks as in all the parks at Walt Disney World? Because the parks are more compact, you can conceivably go on more rides in a day at DLR than at WDW because your walking/traveling time is much less. (If you go in the winter, remember that even warm days will turn into cool evenings, so bring a sweatshirt or jacket unless you want an unplanned souvenir sweatshirt to take home.)
- Use your magic mornings. If you buy a 3-day or longer Park Hopper (or combo pass like a CityPASS), you’ll get “Magic Morning” admission on one day of your choice. This allows you into Fantasyland and Tomorrowland an hour before the park opens to the general public. This is a great time to go on Star Tours or Peter Pan’s Flight or some of the other rides that inevitably have longer wait times as the day goes on.
- Arrive before the “rope drop” at least once. The entrance gates to the parks usually open before the park’s official opening time, and you can wander around Main Street USA before the attractions open. Ropes keep you back from the entrances to the different lands, and just before official opening time they’ll be pulled back, with instructions from cast members to wait for the official announcement that the park is open. It’s hard not to smile when you’re welcomed to Disneyland and hear Zippidy Doo Dah while wandering into Frontierland or Adventureland or Fantasyland. It also means you’ve got a pretty good chance at being one of the first in line on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or whatever ride you’ve decided to ride first in the day.
- Use the Toy Story Parking Lot if you’re staying south of the Convention Center. This lot is across from the road to the convention center, and if you’re staying at hotels south of there, will be just a few minutes’ drive (or walk if you’re close enough). From there a free shuttle bus (not a tram) will take you to the park and drop you near the entrance gates. The lot opens an hour before the park; if you’re using your Magic Morning you’ll want to park in the Mickey and Friends structure (which opens another 30 minutes or so earlier) so you can get to Magic Morning on time. We got to the Toy Story lot each morning just after it opened and parked just a few spots from the bus stop, and got to the park in enough time to wander around a bit without feeling rushed.
- Bring some snacks. Though officially you can’t bring food into Disneyland, the security check is prior to the lockers and picnic area where you can stash a backpack or cooler for access later in the day. We gave each of our children a waistpack and allowed them to pack it each morning with snacks we’d brought from home. They each had to remove and open the waistpack at security, but the guards were looking for things more dangerous than snacks . . . like Mouse traps, for instance. Having their own snacks worked really well; we allowed them to eat them when they wanted to so we never had to hear, “I’m hungry.”
- Have some Mickey Beignets. Sold at the Mint Julep Bar, which is tucked away in New Orleans square between the rest rooms and the train station, the Mickey-shaped doughnut-like treats are perfectly shareable, and at 3 for $3.99 or 6 for $6.99, might be one of the best food bargains in the park. We also shared a Mint Julep ($2.99), which is a mint/lime nonalcoholic beverage. We all enjoyed this little taste of southern charm, and both the beignets and mint julep were popular with the whole family. The Kids Power Packs sold at several Disneyland restaurants were also a hit, and with fish crackers, yogurt, string cheese, apple slices, and a beverage, could serve as either a shareable snack for the family or a meal for a child who doesn’t like burgers or chicken strips or pizza.
- Make your own lightsaber. The only place you can buy these is at the Star Trader, which is exactly where you’re spit out after riding Star Tours. Other lightsabers can be purchased at World of Disney in Downtown Disney (and other locations, I suppose), but if you want to make your own, Star Trader is the place to go.
- Use the package pickup. If you buy, for example, a make-your-own lightsaber at Star Trader, but do not want to carry it around with you the rest of the day, you can take it (with your receipt) to the newsstand near the Disneyland entrance. They’ll keep it there for you until you’re ready to head to your vehicle, and because they have windows both inside Disneyland and in the entrance plaza, it’s convenient to pick up while exiting California Adventure as well. They can’t keep food or specialty breakable things, but for general merchandise purchased in the park, it’s a great free service.
- Stay for the fireworks, but watch them from near the exit. Though the viewing area on the platform of the Main Street train station is reserved, and you won’t be allowed to watch from the stairs below it, you’ll have a good vantage point for the fireworks from the curb just in front of those stairs, and when the fireworks are done, you’re just steps from the exits. This means that you can be at the front of the line for the shuttle buses or parking trams and get back to your hotel sooner than those who watched from deeper in the park.
- Find a shorter tram line. When leaving in the evening via the parking trams, see if there’s a tram loading back farther (past the Wetzel’s Pretzels stand at Downtown Disney). People bunched up at the lines for the first tram, but by accidentally walking down too far, we found much shorter lines.
- It’s the little things. If you go to Disneyland, you’ll figure out all kinds of things on your own, such as: The Billy Hill and the Hillbillies show at the Stage Door Cafe is not to be missed. The Enchanted Tiki Room may seem odd to you and remind you a bit of Lawrence Welk, but half of your kids may ask to go back. Even the bravest kid may ask if he can sit by you at the Haunted Mansion. You can adjust how much the teacups spin, making them a possibility if you trust the person you’re riding with to abide by your minimal-spin wishes.
Gadget’s GoCoaster in Mickey’s Toontown is a good starter roller coaster.
If your kids can handle that, they might like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Goofy’s Sky School (at California Adventure) as well. They will likely want to ride the coasters many more times than their mother. One of your children may actually be brought to tears when you suggest that the whole family ride It’s a Small World. You’ll come up with all sorts of your own family memories.
- (Bonus) Your kids will surprise you. Despite timezone changes, early mornings, late bedtimes, and oddly spaced meals, we saw smiles throughout our three full days at Disneyland Resort. As is often the case as a parent, some of my favorite memories are of simply watching my kids have fun, and that’s what brings a smile to my own face. (That and the fact that I’m actually in a picture with my kids.)
The “11 Things” series is designed to give tips for traveling families to destinations well-known or off the beaten path. Learn how to share 11 Things about your favorite destination, or read other 11 Things posts.
A year ago when my husband and I went to LA, we were terrified enough of the traffic, and the rain that was falling, that we actually canceled our car rental reservation before we left. Even though we’d both driven in Chicago and Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, we’d heard enough horror stories about LA traffic and LA drivers and rain slicks to be scared off. Fortunately, we came to our senses and rented a car anyway, and found that LA driving wasn’t as bad as people had made it out to be. Still, some common sense and planning will make your driving experience much more pleasant.
Tips for Midwesterners driving in LA
- Don’t be scared. Sure, you’ve heard stories of crazy-fast drivers and no one using turn signals and bumper-to-bumper traffic all the time. Know that while these frustrations may be seen, they’re not a sure thing. Minnesotans will be able to relate to this: We found the traffic most of the time to be similar to Minneapolis’ 494, but with 6-8 lanes instead of 3-4.
- Signage is good. We drove over 900 miles on our trip and found the signage on California’s roads to be good and easy to follow.
- Plan ahead. There are a lot of freeways in LA, and often more than one route will get you where you need to go. While many of these roads have 4-8 lanes in each direction, some (like I-5 between Disneyland and Universal Studios) are only two lanes and can bottleneck even at quieter times of day. Zoom in closely or do a street view on Google Maps to see if this is the case. Sometimes a slightly longer route on a higher-capacity road will save time over the most direct route. Study maps before you go so you have at least a general idea of the routes you’ll be using.
- Time it right. If you can avoid driving at rush hour, do. Go against heavy traffic if you can. From Anaheim, we had no trouble leaving at 7:30 on a Friday morning to head west to Palm Springs. Leaving at 8 a.m. to go to Universal Studios on a Tuesday, however, was slow going. Weekends might be better than weekends, but it’s not guaranteed. Be prepared to be patient, and leave plenty of time in case you get in a traffic snag.
- Stay near your destination. Though LA and San Diego don’t look so far apart on a map, dealing with the traffic each day may make your trip less enjoyable. Stay in Anaheim when you’re going to Disneyland, northern LA for Universal, and San Diego for the attractions there. Though I usually don’t like switching hotel rooms throughout the trip, in California I think it’s a good idea.
- Have your best driver drive and your best navigator navigate. If you have two adults in the car, know their strengths and use them. My husband is a good driver, and I’m good at reading signs and maps and finding alternate routes if necessary. We’re a good team in the car as long as he lets me tell him where to go. “Exit in 1/2 mile; get in the right lane.” “You’re in an exit-only, move one or two to the left.” “Left turn at the light, get in the right-left lane.” (Are we the only people who say “right-left” and “left-left” for multiple turn lanes?) If you’re both the driver and the navigator, you should spend even more time in the Plan Ahead stage.
- Use a GPS. And a map. And your smartphone, if you have one. While our GPS was very handy for some things — indicating which lane we should be in, showing our arrival time — it was less than stellar at others. I usually had a map on my lap for a better overview of the area and to double-check the GPS, and the map feature on my phone was often better at locating destinations and giving better warning as to what our next road would be. Use all the tools you have to keep your from getting tangled up in the wrong freeway.
- Check with the experts. If you know people who live in Southern California, tap them for advice, or use social media to your advantage. Ask other family travelers for advice on Trekaroo, or ask your questions on Facebook or Twitter. Just as you’d help someone visiting your area, you’ll find people who are willing to share their knowledge when you’re coming to their home turf.
- Use the carpool lane. If you have two or more people in your vehicle and are traveling any distance on a freeway, use the carpool lane if it’s available. Besides the possibility of it moving faster, you’ll also have to worry less about lane-change and merging traffic. Though the carpool lanes generally are on the left alongside the regular lanes, there’s a solid line in most areas that indicates no entry or exit from the lane. Every so often, there will be an entrance/exit zone indicated by dashed lines, and that’s when you can move in or out of the lane. We found signage to be very well done in indicating when to leave the lane for specific highway exits.
- Gas is expensive. We paid $4.25 a gallon consistently in California, while the price back home was about $3.40. Budget accordingly, as gas almost always costs more in California than in the Midwest.
- Enjoy the ride. Even though southern California seems to be all one big city, there are amazing changes in terrain and views as you navigate it. Try to catch a glimpse of the mountains, the beaches, and the Hollywood sign even while keeping your eyes on the road, and enjoy your trip.
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