Monday, September 29, 2008
How does a novice NASCAR fan survive the first race? Let's just say I learned the hard way.
On the final day of my mother-son trip back East, I took 4-year-old Dante to a NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway in Delaware. This was my first race car event, and I did everything wrong: brought only $10 cash, hit the road on empty, packed a tiny tube of sunscreen, failed to bring a stroller, forgot to pack water and snacks, and most importantly I didn't leave for the races early enough. But even though we baked in the sun and I walked some five miles with my son on my back, we had a great time. As soon as the cars fired their engines, my son's eyes lit up and he was enthralled by the motor action. He quickly forgot that we didn't have cash to buy lunch and that the only ATM at the track was broken. (Don't worry: We eventually found one outside the track.)
Planning to go to your first race? So you don't make the same mistakes that I did, follow these tips:
1) Go online. The night before the race, consult the track Web site for directions and parking and shuttle info. If I had gone online, I would have learned that Dover Speedway offers a parking shuttle for $20--and this would have saved my back.
2) Fuel up. Also the night before, fill up at a gas station--so you can focus on getting to the race in the morning. Keep in mind that some tracks are in the middle of nowhere.
3) Go early. Arrive at least four hours before the race starts, and plan to sit in traffic. We were an hour and a half away from the track in Dover but it took us four hours to get there and park the car.
4) Dress in layers. You'll be outdoors for eight to 10 hours. At Dover, it was cool in the morning, baking hot in the afternoon, and then cold again in the evening.
5) Sport comfy shoes. You'll likely have to park far from the entrance. We were a full two miles away, so I was happy that I decided to wear my tennis shoes. Also, be sure that your shoes are closed toe.
6) Be prepared for rain. Sorry, no umbrellas allowed. Pack a poncho instead.
7) Bring sunscreen. Lots of it--and a hat.
8) Wear ear protection. Decibel levels at NASCAR races are dangerously high, according to recent studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. You should at least wear ear plugs but ear muffs are even better. You can also rent or buy special headphones that block out the car noise and come with a patch cable to connect to a scanner so you can listen in on the driver to pit communications.
9) Stuff your wallet with cash. The food vendors at NASCAR races generally don't accept credit cards so bring bills. At the race in Dover, we paid $3.50 for a bottle of water and $5 for a hot dog. You'll also need money for parking, shuttle buses, programs, and souvenirs.
10) Leave early. Unless you're a die-hard fan and don't mind sitting in traffic, leave the race an hour early. Most races last about four hours.
Monday, September 22, 2008
1) Play a round of putt-putt at Franklin Square. One of the five public squares that William Penn laid out in his original plan for the city boasts a miniature golf course (pictured above), a classic carousel, and a picnic area.
2) Take part in a bucket brigade at Fireman's Hall. Kids can play firefighter amidst some of the nation’s earliest hand-engines and hand pumpers, some dating back to 1730.
3) Satisfy your sweet tooth at Shane's. Ever tried vanilla butter creams? These rich and creamy treats are slowly cooked in a copper kettle and stirred with a wooden paddle--just the way they were made in 1876 when this candy store was founded.
4) Walk through a giant human heart at the Franklin. At this science museum founded to honor Benjamin Franklin, you can trace the route of a corpuscle through the world's largest artificial heart, play pilot in the cockpit of a T-33 jet trainer, and drive a 350-ton Baldwin steam locomotive. Don't miss: Franklin's lightning rod.
5) See real swords and daggers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Little boys will go nuts in the Arms & Armor gallery, filled with shiny medieval armor, swords, daggers, polearms, firearms, shields, crossbows, and equestrian equipment.
6) Watch pretzels being made at the Reading Terminal Market. At this clamorous farmers’ market (est. 1893), vendors sell produce, cookware, plants and flowers, books, handicrafts, and homemade pretzels, which were actually invented in Philly.
7) Ride in a hot air balloon at the Philadelphia Zoo. Want a sweeping view of the city? At the country's first zoo, a hot air balloon that lifts you high into the sky.
8) Order a bowl of baked mac and cheese at Jones. The Brady Bunch living room meets a New York lounge at this retro-hip restaurant dishing up American comfort food.
9) Sip an egg cream at the Franklin Fountain. At this meticulous replica of a 1905 Art Nouveau ice cream parlor, sodas are made from syrup and seltzer drawn on an original tap and banana splits are served in 100-year-old pressed glass boats.
What are your favorite kid attractions in Philly?
Photo credit: Photo by J. Holder for GPTMC
Sunday, September 21, 2008
What he's talking about is Ride the Ducks, an amphibious sightseeing tour. You hop into an unusual vehicle, a Duck (pictured above), that travels along the streets of the Historic District, South Street area, and Old City, before plunging into the Delaware River. The Ducks are based on the DUKWs that were first built by General Motors in 1942 for use in World War II, but today they make the perfect tour buses--and boats.
Our guide, Jake (pictured), laced the tour with humor and pop culture references. "Anyone seen the movie National Treasure?" Jake asked our group as we passed Independence Hall. "Well, in the movie Nicholas Cage runs to the top of the bell tower in that building. Oh yeah, and the Declaration of Independence was signed there too."
He also inserted all sorts of unusual facts. "Benjamin Franklin says that he did his best work in the buff. He called it 'taking an air bath.'"
And Jake played music over the radio to go along with the sights. Before our vehicle splashed into the Delaware River, he blared the song from Jaws.
My son found this all laugh-out-loud funny and I actually learned a lot along the way. Kevin Bacon's father, Edmund, is responsible for the restoration of most of the red brick homes in Philly's storybook-perfect Society Hill neighborhood. Who knew?
Saturday, September 20, 2008
While Campo's is known for the tastiest cheesesteaks downtown, Pat's and Geno's are the most famous in all of Philly. The rivals are located across the street from each other in South Philadelphia. If we have time, we hope to hit one—or both of—these spots. Do you have a favorite place for cheesesteaks in Philly?
At that moment, I kicked myself for allowing Dante to watch TV for an hour in the hotel room before breakfast. I wanted to check email and unpack our bags and setting him in front of the boob tube was so easy. But I knew, if I wasn't careful, that the TV would become the highlight of his trip.
After Independence Hall, we headed to the National Constitution Center, where interactive exhibits communicate the history and meaning of the U.S. Constitution. While we were sitting in the center's theater waiting to watch the show, "Freedom Rising," Dante said to me, "Mommy, you need to buy aqua balls."
"What are you talking about?"
"Mommy, I saw them on TV this morning. You stick them in the dirt next to your plants and they water your plants for you. Mommy, you won't have to water the plants. I saw it on TV."
In the evening we returned to the hotel for a break before dinner.
"Can we watch TV, Mommy?"
"No, let me read you a book."
"I don't know," Dante responded.
"You must see the Liberty Bell."
"Oh you must see the Liberty Bell. It's the most important thing to see in Philadelphia..."
So of course, Dante became fixated on the Liberty Bell. When we woke up on Friday morning in Philadelphia all Dante could say was, "Liberty Bell! Liberty Bell! Liberty Bell!"
After breakfast, we walked right into Liberty Bell Center, where we shared the bell with another small tour group.
"Is that it, Mommy?" asked Dante, who was clearly disappointed by the 2,000 pounds of copper.
"Yes, that's it."
"What does it do?"
"Well, it stands for freedom."
"Mommy, bells don't stand. They ring."
"Uh...this one doesn't ring."
"Mommy, this is boring."
As we left the center, I realized we made a wise decision to visit the bell first. There was a huge line out the door and we had beat the crowds--but more importantly my son's expectation were now lowered. Everything in Philadelphia would seem extraordinary when compared to the boring bell that doesn't stand—or ring.
Lesnewski is just the sort of guy you want greeting you when you check in to a hotel. He's quirky, charming, and funny and knows everything there is to know about Philly. "You'll probably want to visit Independence Hall. You need tickets for that--you can get them for free at the visitor center," he told us, pulling out a map of the city.
When I asked for a restaurant recommendation, Lesnewski's eyes lit up. "What are you in the mood for?" he inquired. "Do you want Japanese, Indian, Belgian, American, Afghani...?" I mentioned Monk's Cafe, which a friend recommended. "They serve an amazing trout," he said.
Right before we hopped into the elevator to go to our room, Lesnewski added, "You need to take the little one to the Franklin Museum. It's a hands-on museum, where he can touch everything. He'll love it."
Friday, September 19, 2008
Dante got all his ya-yas out at the Aviation Play Station in Terminal D at Philadelphia International Airport. He zipped down the slide, played pilot in a mini jet, and refueled a plane at a pint-size gas pump (pictured above).
To find more airport play areas check out the Kids' Guide to Airport Amusements at CheapFlights. Do you have a favorite airport play area?
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Before we ran out the door to catch our flight to Philadelphia, Dante said, "I want my cape."
"Your what?" I asked.
"What are you talking about?" My brain doesn't function well at 4:30 a.m.
Dante walked me to his bedroom and pointed to the silky, red superhero cape hanging on a hook. "Sure. Whatever," I thought, snapping the cape around his neck.
At the airport, my superhero and I received friendly service and lots of attention. When we went to check in, the ticket agent directed us to the shorter business class line. "He's just so cute! We can't let Superman wait in line." At security, people helped us feed all of our stuff through the X-ray machine. "Oh, Superman let me help you. You need to save your strength." And as we walked to our gate, nearly every other person stopped to say something: "Can I borrow that?"; "I feel so much safer now that I know Superman is at the airport"; "It's a bird! It's a plane..." Dante confidently marched through the airport as if he were a celebrity.
On the plane, the special treatment continued: "Superman, you need to meet the captain of the plane after we land"; "Superman, you need an extra package of pretzels so you have energy to save people"; "Superman, would you like another glass of apple juice?"
When we arrived in Atlanta (a stopover en route to Philly), the landing was bumpy and the plane dipped and dived. I nervously gripped my armrests. "It's OK Mommy. I can save us," Dante reassured me. That's when I realized that I'm always traveling with a superhero.
Dante's reaction to the early wake-up was even worse. I turned on the lights in his room. He remained asleep. "Dante! Dante! Dante!" He didn't respond. I turned on the iPod. Still asleep. I covered his face in kisses. "Go away!" he said.
I love early flights because they get you to your destination at a decent hour, but my new rule of thumb is to never book a flight that requires getting up at 4 a.m.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
While I was carefully putting together outfits for cold and hot weather and counting pairs of socks, he dumped his toy chest into his Scooby Doo rolling suitcase. Smurfs, Matchbox cars, random puzzle pieces--Dante mixed everything together.
"You can’t bring all of those tiny pieces because they'll get lost on the plane!" I told him. Dante threw a fit as I removed everything he had packed from his carry-on.
Once he calmed down, I helped him make wise selections: lightweight paperback books, a magnetic puzzle, a coloring book and crayons. An hour and a half later his Scooby Doo bag was zipped up and ready to go. Next time, I’m packing the carry-on after he goes to bed.
Monday, September 15, 2008
—Anthony, San Francisco
Answer: Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is only 25 miles from your hotel. It's one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs. On a guided boat tour ($6, offered daily) you'll see alligators, turtles, manatee, deer, and a dizzying array of birds—osprey, egrets, ibis, buzzards, ducks. You can also go for a short walk on the nature trail and break for lunch in the lodge built in 1937 by by financier Edward Ball. The dining room overlooks the springs, and through beautiful old arched windows you can birdwatch while munching on a po' boy sandwich.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
When Paris was 1-year-old and my friends Aimee and Nate invited me to their wedding in Mexico, I immediately said, "Of course, we'll all go!"
I always assumed I would be the adventurous type and tote my kids everywhere and anywhere. Istanbul? Sure. The Amazon? No problem. Mexico? A cinch.
I went through all the motions of planning our trip without any second thoughts—until a week before our departure when a friend asked, "Have you gotten shots?"
"What shots? No! Are you kidding? Do you really need special vaccinations for Mexico?"
I hadn't even talked to our pediatrician about the trip. Stupid me!
This led me to the Internet where I read a blog written by a mom whose infant nearly died from a strange bug picked up in Oaxaca. And then I visited the Center for Disease Control's site that recommended seeing a health-care professional four to six weeks before the trip.
I flipped! I called our pediatrician, Dr. Udovic, who by then was used to my freak outs. We talked about where I was taking Paris—Zihuatanejo and a small town called Troncones 30 minutes north—and determined that our family was headed for safe ground. No shots needed. In fact, the standard vaccinations are all that's recommended for most travel in Mexico.
As soon as I stepped off the plane into the warm, soft air, I kicked myself for worrying. Our trip was smooth, easy, and relaxing. We spent our days lounging in the pool and playing in the surf. Of course, we took precautions and drank only bottled water and we carefully selected restaurants, but my initial anxieties were unfounded.
Mexico is a great place for families—especially those living on the West Coast. The plane flight is short and accommodations are reasonably priced—compared to Hawaii. Our beachside hotel with two swimming pools was $100 a night. Best of all, the Mexicans adore children. At dinner, the waitstaff would take turns holding Paris while we ate. Once a waitress even rocked her to sleep.
Ever traveled with kids to Mexico? Please share your stories.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
I was wrong! We had a wonderful time and never waited in a single line. I think a lot of families were at bigger-name theme parks over the holiday weekend. And the tickets were quite reasonable, only $30 a person. I realized there's an advantage to visiting a smaller, lesser-known park.
Here's a list of the top 10 theme parks where you'll find shorter lines and more bang for your buck. Weekends in fall are a great time to go because the parks are even less crowded and they often offer deals on tickets.
1) Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif.
At the first-ever theme park, ride a train through a ghost town.
2) Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Don't miss the show highlighting Dolly Parton songs.
3) Kings Dominion, Doswell, Virg.
Roller coasters galore.
4) Magic Springs/Crystal Falls, Hot Springs, Ariz.
From the X Coaster for the brave to a log ride for wee ones.
5) Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, Winter Haven, Fl.
Botanical gardens, Florida-shaped pool, and water ski shows.
6) Carowinds, Charlotte, N.C.
Nickelodean-themed rides include Rugrats Runaway Reptar.
7) Frontier City, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Get your thrills on the Steel Lasso coaster; catch a country-western show.
8) Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, Calif.
The 100-year-old wooden Big Digger coaster is as fun as ever.
9) Silverwood Theme Park, Athol, Idaho
Blast through tunnels on Tremors; drop 140 feet on the Panic Plunge.
10) Silver Dollar City, Branson, Mo.
Ride a steam engine and listen to a bluegrass band.
Feel free to add others to the list.
The kids approached the map as if it were a candy store and studied each option closely. Flamingo Lagoon, Stingray Bay, Butterfly Garden--the possibilities were tantalizing. My son, Dante, quickly found the illustration of Batman and said, "I want that one." Rosanna wrote Dante's name in big letters across the Justice League Stage. My daughter, Paris, and Rosanna's daughter, Alegria, chose the Shouka killer whale show and Tiger Island. The group decided on Thomas the Train Town for Rosanna's son, Mateo, who is just learning to talk. "I want no whining," Rosanna reminded the crew. It was 10:30 a.m. and we had a plan.
On Labor Day Monday, we went to Six Flags in Vallejo with a family from Paris's kindergarten: Rosanna, her husband Mike, and their kids Alegria and Mateo. I was excited about getting to know some new friends but I dreaded visiting a theme park. The week before, I envisioned the kids melting in the sweltering heat and whining in long lines. And mostly I pictured Paris kicking and screaming in front of concessions stands: "I want a snow cone! I want a princess wand! I want a tattoo!" Luckily, we had Rosanna, a mom who tackles a theme park just as well as Crocodile Dundee once braved the jungle.
We started with a few attractions by the park entrance before diving into our selections: dolphin-viewing tank, sea lion show, Tweetie Bird character. Paris spotted cotton candy on the way to the sting ray touch tank: "I want cotton candy!" Rosanna was on it before I could even process the request. "We get only one treat today but not until we have filled our bodies with healthy food," said Rosanna, who immediately pulled a Tuperware of juicy watermelon from her backpack. Paris started wolfing down fruit.
We made our way to the tiger show where the girls asked the trainer what he was feeding the big cats. "Horse meat," he said. Wonder where they're getting that? And then we watched the Shouka Show. At the awesome spectacle, a killer whale leaps into the air and falls down into the water with humongous splashes. The folks in the front rows took home saltwater souvenirs.
The kids complained about the heat and Rosanna pulled a box of wipes from her bag and rubbed them on the kids' cheeks. Rosanna carried around a Mary Poppins bag with an endless supply of stuff. When Alegria got a scratch on her knee, Rosanna seemed to pull a tube of Neosporin from thin air. When I started coughing from a tickle in my throat, she handed over a cough drop.
We finally made it to the Justice League Stage and found an empty little pedestal. "Where's Batman?" Dante cried.
"He's off fighting the bad guys!" Rosanna responded. That's all Dante needed to know. "Let's go to Thomas!" he hollered.
And then it was the end of the day and I announced that we needed to go home. The kids' smiles dropped a hundred feet and Rosanna said, "You can do one more thing." We walked to an area of the park that we hadn't explored yet--and that's when Paris and Alegria spotted this gigantic play structure with water spewing all over the place. "I want that one!" the girls squealed. Rosanna pulled not one but two girls' swimsuits from her tiny backpack. When we go to Disneyland, I'm buying Rosanna a ticket, I thought.