Most of the traveling I’ve done with my kids has been on a plane, though that’s starting to change a bit now that there are three tiny people and all of their tiny travel “essentials.” (I use quotes around essentials for the 5 year old who believes that she needs to bring at least 42 stuffed animals to sleep with no matter where we go, a belief I fear is rapidly spreading to the 2 year old.) After a monsoon-season trip to Japan last year, we decided this year we’d take a less intense vacation rather than a trip. We struggled to figure out what we wanted to do, and ultimately decided we’d make our Spring trip to Disney World longer, so we had more of a chance to relax at the pools, and then spend a week in OBX with family friends. And then, with those destinations in mind, we made the biggest decision: We. Would. Drive.
We had steadily been increasing car sizes with each child: from a Mazda 3, to a Mazda CX-7 (it doesn’t even exist anymore), to a Mazda CX-9. So that’s where we were. A CX-9 and three children still in car seats. It wasn’t going to be so bad–except I seemed to be the only one who could figure out how to buckle in the big kid in the middle. And when I shut a back door, all the seats slightly shifted to the other side and then slightly shifted back upon shutting the other door. Oh, and the big one has always gotten car sick and asked if we’re there yet even before our driveway has faded from the rearview mirror.
The day to leave for Disney was inching its way towards us. We’ve made triannual trips to the magical place for five years. There was nothing to be nervous about. Right? Oh yeah, the drive. But what was the alternative? Then we figured it out. Comfort. We needed to make the drive part of the vacation. But how do you do that when the little people can barely lift an elbow without hitting one another? So Saturday night my husband and I had “the talk.” You know the one. Where you decide to trade in your SUV for a minivan? Where you leave behind yet another part of your Brooklyn Cool for Suburban Quaint. I mean, my husband wouldn’t even allow the term “minivan” in our household. Until that moment. It felt like a forbidden confession. We both knew we needed one but were afraid to say it. Honestly we went to the only dealer open and got one of the only two minivans they had available. The next day.
The kids were in love. They had space. They had movies. They had sliding doors they could get in and out of on their own (of significant importance to the 2 year old who thinks he can do pretty much anything on his own). The 5 year old didn’t have tummy aches anymore. The car seats didn’t shift when the doors shut. I had some moments of quiet (remember, they had movies). I finally got it.
I didn’t even need to defend myself when people I knew, other moms, family friends teased me about the decision. But that’s just the way travel goes. People question your decisions to fly 14 hours around the world with two kids while five months pregnant. They question your sanity. Stare at you with pity and anger, occasionally at the same time. Are shocked that you take trips for fun. Rarely do people root for you or get excited on your behalf. They only see and react to the chaos, real or perceived. But these people also rarely understand the depths of memories and moments you’ve made in the chaos and because of the chaos. They don’t see the creation of little people filled with wanderlust, destined to look beyond themselves. Those people don’t know what it’s like to see the world not just through your eyes, but through your children’s eyes too.
Forget about those other people. Go get your minivan. Pile your children in. And let your children show you their world.
The day you’re about to leave for a nine day vacation is not the day that you wake up, turn to your husband, and say, “Honey, I’ve got some uncomfortable, unusual, sort of alarming pain. I think I’d like to go visit the doctor before we leave in an hour. That’d be just fine, right?” So I didn’t. Maybe I should have. But, what if it were something silly, I thought. Like gas. Or a pulled muscle. Or last night’s wine.
Then we started driving. And I felt a little nauseous, and according to Google, that meant I had appendicitis, so I had to come clean. I was in pain and no position made it better. And another quick check on webMD assured me of the worst: I had appendicitis. For sure. I casually mentioned that if I was in so much pain I couldn’t speak or I actually began to get sick, to just swing by the hospital. Any of them we passed on the five hour drive from NYC to DC would do. NBD.
That night, minutes before sleep, I realized that I left my contact solution at home and would have to pick some up before we flew out the next morning. I have dry eyes though. Really, stunningly, dry eyes. So I did what any intelligent being with dry eyes would do: I soaked them in my nose spray. (PSA: Do not soak your contacts in your saline nose spray. It does not do the same thing. Like, at all.)
The next day was no better except my nausea was gone. I was still alive, so I figured my appendix had to still be in tact. So, really, who knows what was keeping me from bending down, sitting, getting up, and generally walking. I had a plane to catch and no time to think about it. And I had done my research: Orlando had good hospitals, so I wasn’t all that worried. Really. I bit my bottom lip, slipped my glasses on, and moved ahead as planned, which meant holding my tiniest little on my lap throughout our three hour flight to Disney World. And he showed me no mercy; he was a small Hercules battling for Olympus on my lap. He wiggled. He kicked. He ripped my glasses off my face. All of his abuses seemed to be directed to that one tender spot. Eventually, I had to send him across the aisle to sit with his daddy (and yes I may use this tactic in the future again…I’m not so scared to cry wolf when it comes to getting some down time on a plane).
Upon landing, I grabbed a cute doll size container of contact solution for about $852 at the airport convince store. At the hotel, I put my contacts in after rinsing them, with just a slight burning sensation (which I was pretty sure was caused just by my own exhaustion). And then we headed out for a relaxing afternoon at the park. After years of making this trip, we know how to conquer the park without feeling too crazy (read “How to Turn a Trip to Walt Disney World into a Vacation” for more on that topic).
Meandering at the park served to be painful and fairly blinding. With each hour I hobbled more and more and my eyes teared more and more. The skin around them ripped up with rubbing and more eye drops. A kind woman even stopped me and gave me a small arsenal of disposable saline packets because she just couldn’t stand to see me in so much visible pain (i.e. wretched squinted eyes and goopy eyelashes). Eventually I could only keep one eye open at a time, and even then it was a blurry, foggy disaster. Basically, I was a zombie. After having lost one of my middle little’s favorite lovies, we all admitted defeat and headed back to our hotel as the sun set in front of us.
Unable to keep my eyes open, I feel asleep as soon as my little people were in bed. I was unsure of how to get through the next day, my pain making me slower than my 14 month old and my eyes making me grumpier than all three of my littles when they haven’t been feed an appropriate snack in a timely manner. The day had been rough; I was sure the next would be rougher. But I still wasn’t going to bow out of the fight. Not yet at least.
That night my middle little crawled out of bed because his head itched (yep…his head itched…). As I picked him up to walk him back into his room to bed I felt a sharp pain. And then I knew. Like a flash. I had a hernia. After googling to assure myself, I told my husband and then spent the next day limping around the happiest place on Earth, feeling a bit of relief at having a clear diagnosis. We all worked our Disney magic; we rode the rides, snacked the snacks, and saw the sights. By four that day, we felt done (which is admittedly a privilege that comes from getting to Disney often), and my biggest little asked if we could leave the park. She never asks to leave the park. But she did. And my body was all too willing to comply. And that’s how we started to figure out how to get it right.
With pain shooting through my body, my eyes still recuperating from their little stint in nose spray, and a disinterested five year old, we decided to change our plans for the next day and do a late breakfast at a Hollywood Studios, which we could walk to, and then spend the afternoon taking the biggest little to the pool while the other littles napped. And that’s what we did. A slow morning without rushing to find shoes, scrambling to pack snacks, and repeatedly fighting to keep toddlers in clothes (seriously, it can’t just be mine…) served to create a stress-free stroll to brunch. A stroll my battered body could easily make.
After a few short hours exploring the park, we made our way back to the hotel. I waved good bye to my pool-seeking daughter and husband and put the other little people to sleep. Then, this momma opened the balcony doors and sipped a midday grown up drink. It was bliss. The sun was out and the grounds were quiet. And I finally felt like it was vacation.
The biggest little came back to the room singing and full of sunshine. She made a new best friend, Lily, and she was going to meet up with her at the pool again tomorrow. (“Um…by the way, can we go to the pool tomorrow?”) She didn’t mind missing the rides or the characters; she had a pool and a new best friend. And she didn’t seem to notice that the water was 60 degrees and the air a mere 70. Her pleasure at being able to be free of having to be somewhere or do something superseded any discomfort she may have felt. She was allowed to be a rowdy, energy-filled kid and she was happy in this moment. She was free. And in her wake, she left a taste of that freedom for me.
And we continued this trend for two out of the next three days we were at Disney. We cancelled all our morning plans, shifted our dinner plans, simplified our days, swam in pools, took naps, canceled “to dos”, and asked the little people what would make them happiest. Our days became less about squeezing every last Disney drop out of the day and more about taking advantage of every last family moment of the day. There were dance parties, ice cream treats, and aimless wanderings, surrounded by little people conversations, grown up chats, and new best friends. There were giggles and little people secrets, snuggles and new games.
It took a (self-diagnosed) hernia and a near blinding by nose spray to slow us down, but it set us straight. In our need to beat the system and conquer Disney, we had forgotten the human element. We were all apps and and reservations made months before. We forgot to remember down days, slow days, stop-and-smell the flower days that can’t be accounted for. We forgot about insular, family days and exploratory, new friend days. We just forgot. And all it took was a little hernia to remind us. No matter what wonderful plans we have laid out in front of us, we need to be in the moment and be open to what that moment is asking of us, even if it means changing those well-laid plans.
(Even though, it turns out, I didn’t have a hernia at all, it was still a good lesson to learn.)
Having a newborn is no joke. I mean it’s all powdery smells and silky baby fuzz heads, but let’s be honest. It’s a job. Like a real, I am working way more than 40 hours a week, job. There is no pattern. There’s sleep and then suddenly just no sleep…at all. There’s diapers and feedings. Don’t even get me started on the constant eating that newborns do. Days become timed to when we feed the baby and when the baby sleeps. Day. Night. It’s all the same. It can be draining. It can suck the spontaneity out of even the most unplanned, freeformed of days. So, what happens when that newborn makes its sweet little appearance months or weeks prior to a planned trip (or really even an unplanned trip) to Disney World? Well, I’ve done it. At least three times. So, hopefully, my mistakes and lessons can be of benefit.
My husband and I started going to Disney World regularly before children entered our lives. So, with three little people five and under, we’ve managed to make the trip with newborns of varied ages and with their siblings of varied ages in tow as well. Some of these trips have been successful. And, truth be told, some have not (there really is nothing like trying to bathe your tiny little in a small sink in a public bathroom, knowing full well that everyone eyes you with a mix of pity and disgust). But with each of our mistakes, we’ve learned a bit about how to survive the visually and physically overwhelming and exhausting landscape of Disney without completely losing our minds (at least I’m pretty sure I never did, but I don’t suggest you ask my husband whether or not I did…I feel his response may be slightly different and that’s probably not encouraging). Here’s a bit of what there is to know.
Take Advantage of What is Offered: Disney doesn’t try to hide that they’re geared towards families, especially those with small children, so of course they have facilities that are designed to make life better. Each park has a Baby Center. They have quiet, darkened nursing rooms (Epcot and Magic Kingdom are shared spaces while Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios have private areas for each mother), large changing tables, microwaves, rooms to play and relax (for those wiggly little toddlers), and an assortment of baby items to buy (diapers, medicine, clothing, food, formula, pacifiers, sunscreen, among others). They have it covered. And the bonus? It’s air conditioned, so obviously this momma here needed to go to the Baby Center every two hours or so during that late May vacation in Florida. Thankfully it was free; otherwise, I’d still be working off that debt.
Use the Rides to Your Advantage: I’m going to be frank. Some rides are a once in a lifetime experience. Once is enough. For me, that ride is “It’s A Small World.” Unfortunately, my daughter didn’t get that memo. So we rode it. Again. And again. And, well, you know how it goes. The thing about It’s A Small World is that it’s a long ride. And it always stops, and the boat sits in that white room brimming with singing children for chorus upon chorus upon chorus upon chorus. Knowing I had countless minutes (at least 30) sitting on this comfy (relatively) boat, I decided to do what any mother does: I nursed my newborn. No one was looking at me. They were interested in the animatronic little dancing kids. So, while I wasn’t thrilled to be on the ride, I was able to make the best of it. I got to feed my tiny without having to make the rest of my entourage stop their Disney exploration. And this little trick shouldn’t be restricted to It’s A Small World. I go big. I mean, if it’s my fifth time seeing Frozen’s Sing Along Show, do I really need to pay attention? No way. I can feed my baby (and if I’m lucky catch up on a little sleep myself). Those shows are a great place to sit and tend to a newborn. They’re Disney’s gift to mothers of newborns, really.
Bring Your Car Seat: It’s not often that I’m an advocate of the car seat and the car seat stroller. I find it restrictive, and for some reason I believe my newborn is hot and itchy all moments that he/she is in it. But at Disney? Bring it and use the snap and go stroller with it. Disney doesn’t really appreciate strollers in a restaurant, and many restaurants simply can’t accommodate them. Since tiny newborns can’t sit up in high chairs, they need somewhere to go. That somewhere is the car seat. With baby two we decided to fly down without the car seat. Not our best decision. I ended up trying to lay the poor tiny guy on chairs pushed together everywhere we went, if he wasn’t sitting in my lap (he’s always been a bit of trouble maker, so he was not one of those little people that could sit happily on my lap while I ate). Tiny baby three? We weren’t taking chances. Car seat all the way. And I couldn’t have been happier. The tiniest of my people was comfy and relaxed at meals. And (and this is incredibly important), I did not have to wake the tiny guy up from a nap to take him into or out of a restaurant or a car. Those naps were full and deep. Just the way a tired momma likes them.
Walk as Much as Possible: When we don’t have our car with us, we try to stay at hotels that provide us with as much of an opportunity to walk as possible. While the Disney buses are fine and easy enough, they do require all strollers to be broken down. It’s just one extra step of madness. (Add to that a toddler or two, their accouterments, another double stroller, and the toddler’s general rule-following demeanor and the madness only increases ten fold…at least).
Bring a Carrier: The carrier’s value is limitless. Even with a cars eat a carrier is mandatory. I mean, I certainly can’t drag said car seat into a twenty minute “Peter Pan’s Flight” line with me. But, I can easily drop that tiny nugget into a carrier and go about my way (hopefully with a lovely cocktail in my hand (just kidding…seriously, Magic Kingdom really needs to get on that though)). The carrier is essential when going on rides that are newborn appropriate. That tiny person doesn’t want to be in and out and in and out of that cars eat (hot and itchy remember?), so I keep them close and let them hang out. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten that it is also every mother’s secret weapon for when she wants her child to sleep. Another reason to have it all times.
Prepare for the Elements: The rules are as follows: if there is no rain covering, it will rain. If there is no fan, it will be hotter than the seventh ring of hell. Bring both. Rain covers for strollers are highly important. Florida is required by law to have one random burst of rain every day. Be prepared. The stroller cover will keep the little person happy and dry. And if that tiny isn’t in the stroller, it will keep the stroller dry. No newborn (or anyone really) wants to then be sat in a sopping wet, foam filled, seat. And even though they are less than fashionable, ponchos are necessary. It is impossible to steer a stroller through crowds while holding an umbrella (scientifically proven fact). On the flip side, prior to that rain and immediately after, Florida is required to have insanely hot, sticky weather. Car seats have all that soft cushy padding surrounding a tiny person. It’s polyester. It’s everywhere. And they can’t move themselves because…well…no muscles. Bring a fan. And extra batteries. And a tiny screwdriver. My new born has never said it, but I’m pretty sure those sweet little eyes are filled with tears of thanks. And speaking of heat, we always bring a muslin blanket for the little people (all of them, toddler and big kid included). They’re thin and keep the sun off of their skin. Sunburnt little people are grumpy little people, and I don’t think that’s allowed in Disney World (except around 2-3 pm when pretty much all children under 7 begin to melt). Tip: We bring binder clips to clip the blanket stratigically to the stroller.
Relax: One of the most important things I’ve found as a mother of a newborn at Disney is that I am not alone. I’ve never walked through the crowds feeling like I was the only one dealing with the difficult, albeit lovely, job of hanging out with a newborn in Disney World. Women and men are all over the parks with them. And there are glances that say, “I get it.” When I sit outside a ride with my tiny person as my husband takes the other two on it, I am surrounded by others doing the same. Waiting. With tiny people companions. It is reassuring to know that I am not crazy in this endeavor. There is a tribe, and I am a part of it. If I can do it, someone else can do it. And when I hit a low, I see another parent with a newborn and am reminded, that yes, we can do this.
Disney with a newborn isn’t always a walk in the park (…see what I did there?). But, with a little planning and a little flexibility, it can be pretty darn close.
I’d love to hear how you make Disney doable for you and your newborn. Leave a comment below.
Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas is my diamond in the rough. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t falling apart on the outside and it certainly isn’t in a questionable location. In fact, it may be one of my favorite hotels to stay at when we visit Disney World. The reason it’s a diamond in the rough is because it blends so seamlessly into the backdrop of a busy Atlantic shore boardwalk, but it offers so much tranquility at the same time. While well orchestrated chaos surrounds, I can slip off into a bench and watch it swim by, content in the knowledge that my little people are fully partaking in that chaos and I don’t need to do a thing to stop it.
We are members of Disney Vacation Club, with our home hotel as Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, yet more often than not, we try to book our rooms at The Boardwalk. Why? As a frequent visitor to Disney World, there are two aspects to this hotel that keeps this family coming back to it again and again.
First of all, we love the location. As a walking family, we appreciate that we can stroll easily to Epcot and easily to Hollywood Studios from the hotel (there are buses and boats as well, but nothing beats a nice walk). This is even more important since we have to bring strollers (there’s nothing worse than trying to grab all of our junk out of our two strollers, fold them (while keeping the little people from running into the road), throw them over my husband’s shoulder and get the three little people onboard a rapidly filling bus in a 30 second time period, especially when I’m not trying to look too crazy). Also, it’s not so bad getting to Magic Kingdom either, especially now that Disney offers the Express Transportation Option, which means we get to skip the security and entrance lines at MK because we’ve gone through them at Epcot. And what’s also great is that when we get to Epcot, we use the back entrance found quietly placed between France and England in the World Showcase where there is little to no line. This lack of line is of significant benefit when we are there for Food and Wine or the International Flower and Garden Festival. We can get in and out of the park quickly and easily. It also makes it quite simple to just slip over to Epcot for dinner after a day at another park.
The second reason that the Boardwalk is on my list of go to Disney resorts is the amenities of the property. To be honest, Disney, in general, does a great job of making sure each resort has enough to do that we’d never have to leave the property, but the way in which these amenities are presented at the Boardwalk are what make it a standout property. As a mother of three littles five and under, I’ve figured out that taking breaks and not pushing too hard are essential to having an enjoyable vacation (for more momma survival tips, see my post “How to Turn a Trip to Walt Disney World into a Vacation”). This was easy when all my little people took naps, but that’s simply (and unfortunately) not the case anymore. So, what to do with a five year old (and occasionally a two year old) who don’t want to nap while the tiniest little gets a real nap in a real bed in a real room (albeit a hotel room)? At the Boardwalk, one of the grown ups takes the non-nappers out to explore the actual boardwalk area. Instead of just roaming the hotel (which they’d actually be more than happy to do as they fancy themselves hotel connoisseurs) they get to feel like they’re going somewhere special. They eat ice cream, get drinks, sit and watch the water, and take millions of photo booth pictures (and the hubs grabs me a lovely little adult beverage and brings it back to the room for me…it really is true love (hello AbracadaBar, I’m looking at you)). In the evening, we can come back to the hotel before dinner and still “go” somewhere for dinner when we eat on the boardwalk. It’s different than eating at a restaurant in the hotel. It feels special and new to the little people. It’s an experience. And the evenings on the boardwalk? They’re filled with caricature portraitists, magicians, face painters, and a slew of other entertainment that helps make it feel like we’re not at just a hotel’s amenities, but at an entirely different place.
There are so many options to choose from when visiting Disney World, but my family and I keep coming back to Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas. Our days are easier without running to catch buses in enough time to break down strollers. We love having Epcot and Hollywood as options just to swing by to grab a bite to eat. It is the perfect combination of enough to do to entertain little people, but not so much that it is overwhelming and invites meltdowns. It’s a place to sit and watch the world go by without feeling like I’m missing out on that world.
A few other fabulous and not so fabulous aspects of the hotel are listed below.
The rooms are recently renovated (within past year)
The choice of floor is difficult to keep clean (grained wood=little people grime sticks in textured grains)
Variety of room types available (with a variety of amenities such as kitchens, clothes washers, and dryers and high chairs, if requested)
Rooms are relatively small (Villas) with no substantial table area (big enough for two only), and limited space for extra cribs/beds in bedrooms (only one would fit)
In the 1 bedroom Villa, the bathroom is split into two sections: shower, sink, toilet in section off of main living area and garden, jetted tub and sink off of bedroom (so toilet can be accessed without waking sleeping little people in bedroom)
There are just shutters separating tub from bedroom (rather than a solid wall), so it is impossible to get a bath while little people sleep in bedroom.
The rooms have balconies
The boardwalk side rooms can be loud if overlooking a busy section of the boardwalk as well as during the Epcot fireworks show
As a DVC member it is easy to access pool at Yacht/Beach Club
The main pool is small overall (though it does have a slide). And the secondary pool is also small
Magic bands provided
No on site character dining
Access to Magic Hours
No on site Children’s Activity Center
Ample Hill ice cream (we lived blocks from the original in Brooklyn and it is un.be.liev.able.)
Bathtubs (Villas) are large garden tubs, not ideal for bathing tiny little people
Outdoor play area
Kid activities (outdoor movie nights, smores, bike rental, etc)
Life vests for pool
Easy walk to Epcot and Hollywood Studios
Transportation to the parks (bus, boat, and walk)
Fireworks visible from both Epcot and Hollywood Studios (from room depending on room, but always somewhere outdoors)
Background of Epcot fireworks plays at the Boardwalk so you can experience the entire event from afar (yay for scared littles like mine)
Magical Express Service to and from airport
Resort Airline Check in (no need to drag bags to the airport or deal with lines at the airport)
A variety of eating and drinking options (from formal fish dinners to fried mac and cheese bites from a truck and onto a great drink at the AbracadaBar)
What’s important to note is that we are Disney Vacation Club members, so we stay in DVC rooms, which provide us with kitchens and clothes washers as standard (in a 1 (+) bedroom villa). If these amenities are desired, they need to be requested. Additionally, if view is important, then it needs to be taken into account when booking the room. Some rooms overlook the boardwalk, some overlook a pool, while other rooms may just overlook the entrance or the parking lot. It is important to be clear when booking the room as there are a variety of room configurations and amenities available. Be aware of what you are booking when you book. That being said, regardless of the type of room you book, the location of the hotel and its “Coney Island”-like theme create the perfect balance of excitement and tranquility.
Note: Hotels are based on a four level scale: Child Centered, Child Friendly, Child Accommodating, Unsuitable. A Child Centered hotel is a hotel in which the child’s comfort, happiness, etc. is paramount. A Child Friendly hotel has those implements in place to create a fun atmosphere for the child, though it is not the apparent mission of the hotel to continuously do so. A Child Accommodating hotel is that hotel where it will assist the parents in making the child comfortable at the parent’s request only. An Unsuitable hotel is a hotel that has no accommodations suitable for a child or the cons of the hotel make the hotel dangerous for the well-being of the child.
We are a beach-loving family. A little sand and diggers for the boys, water stretching forever for the little mermaid, and Vitamin D all around (through 400 layers of sunscreen, of course, Momma’s not dealing with little people sunburn): it’s just what this weary family needs to restore ourselves after too many months of winter. But once all the diggers have been lost, the waves get a bit too rowdy with the mermaid, and soft skin turns pink (seriously, even through all of that constantly reapplied sunscreen) the sweetness of sand meeting sea, frankly, comes across as a little bitter. So when we’re in Florida’s Emerald Coast (the North West Gulf Coast), we like to take few hours and reset by going to Ft. Walton Beach’s Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.
The Gulfarium, which was originally established in 1955 by a group of scientists and local residents, has a simple and inspiring mission. It is “dedicated to education, entertaining, and inspiring [their] guests to respect and preserve wildlife by providing unique and memorable experiences for visitors of all ages to connect to marine life.” And in their facility, they do just that through exhibits, shows, chats, and encounters with a variety of animals ranging from stingrays to loggerheads to tropical birds and to otters (and who doesn’t love an otter?).
The cost for seeing all of these critters starts at $21.95 for adults (13-61). Children 3-12 are $13.95, and infants under 3 are free. The Gulfarium also offers military discounts, Florida resident discounts, and Senior (62+) discounts. For those travelers who frequent the Northwest Coast of Florida, there are annual passes starting at $70. In addition to unlimited entrance, the annual passholders get invited to special events and discounts at the gift shop and on food.
Speaking of food (because there’s no getting through even a two hour stretch without feeding little people some type of snack), no outside food or drink is permitted except those with special diets and baby food. The Gulfarium does have it’s own food stand, the “Dive-In Eatery,” filled with the staples that little people generally love. Unless, of course, the littles are my littles who don’t like the things they usually like when those things are the only choices they have. Fortunately, the Gulfarium has thought of us poor souls lugging around little people who are fixated on eating merely cucumbers, salami, and chocolate chip pancakes. The pass into the Gulfarium is not a one time entry pass. In fact, it’s a daily pass, so it’s possible, and fairly easy, to leave the building and site entirely to get some good beach eats and then head back to finish up the task of exploring.
And the price and the food aren’t even the real reasons that the Gulfarium is a must do for anyone with little people who visits Florida’s Emerald Coast. And if I’m being honest (which I totally am), it’s actually a must do for everyone, even if the little people are no longer little or not even a spark in the eye. Here’s a few reasons why my little people (and their big people) love this place:
The Variety of Species: Upon pulling into the parking lot, the Gulfarium looks like there may not be much to impress beyond the door. It’s an older building that’s weathered not just a few years of hard salt-filled air, it’s also been battered in quite a few hurricanes. But it’s important to look beyond that. After buying the ticket, we open the doors into the amazing underwater viewing windows of the dolphin tank. There’s nothing like pushing those doors open and being surrounded in that deep blue. But beyond the bottlenose dolphins, the Gulfarium offers Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Sea Turtles, Stingrays, Sharks, Penguins, Alligators, and Otters (squeal!) to name just a few. And it doesn’t end there; there are Tropical Birds and a variety of Reptiles. There are animals everywhere. They’re inescapable, which is good because it’s the whole reason to be there (honestly I think it’s mostly the otters…but maybe that’s just me (doubt it though)).
The Manageable Size: So, now that we’ve dragged our little people from the beach, we’ve clearly got to substantially entertain them or we will be facing epic meltdowns. And the last thing I need to deal with on vacation is one of the little people throwing sand in the eye of another while the third dramatically falls to the sidewalk a la Old Hollywood. But, each and every time we have packed them up to head to the Gulfarium, there have been nothing but giggles, which can largely be attributed to the size and layout of the exhibits. The Gulfarium is basically all outdoors, so for the little people, it isn’t so much taking them away from the beach that they adore as much as it’s changing their perspective of that beach. They still feel connected to the space they love. (It is covered too though, so it also makes a great rainy day activity.) Additionally, even though there are a ridiculous number of animals for the little people to watch and fall in love with, the exhibits are fairly small and close together, so it’s easy to navigate and see each of the animals in a reasonable amount of time. The littles get to see their favorite animals (OTTERS!), and they also get to dip a toe in the ocean later in the day. It’s the best of both world. And because of the smaller size of the exhibits, the little people get to be up super up close with the animals they adore.
The Great Experiences: While looking at the animals is enough to awe the tiniest of the little people, there are a number of ways that can get them involved even more. The Gulfarium has two free shows: the Dolphin show and the Sea Lion show. In addition, the little people can learn about a number of their favorite animals through free chats that happen through the space. Here they can discover Sharks, Harbor Seals, Reptiles, Penguins, and Otters (!). And for those grown up little people, the Gulfarium provides “Animal Encounters,” which, so far, have been filled with the moments that memories are made of. The Encounters all have an additional cost and they have minimum ages starting at 3+ for the Kids Reptile Safari to 13+ for the VIP Trainer program. A list of the Encounters can be found on the Gulfarium’s website as well as posted at the entrance. As a side note, though they offer two different Encounters with Dolphins, the Gulfarium does not allow guests to swim with the dolphins (one does include being in the water with them though).
The Conservation Efforts: Just because we’re on vacation, doesn’t mean that I don’t want my little people to be learning, especially if it’s learning about how to be a better global citizen. One of the ways this happens is by paying attention to the conservation efforts put forth by the Gulfarium. This information is disbursed throughout the entire space; it’s in the shows and chats, as well as in writing throughout the exhibit. The conservation focus of the Gulfarium is focused both on the animals themselves and on protecting their natural environments in the wild. For obvious reasons, they are also interested in research pertaining to the husbandry of the animals in zoos and aquariums. Their website lists ways in which little people and adults can contribute to their conservation efforts. Additionally, the Gulfarium has the “Gulfarium Sea Turtle CARE (Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate, Educate) Program” where the focus is on rehabilitating and releasing various species of turtles found along the Gulf Coast. So far the Gulfarium has been able to rehabilitate and release hundreds of turtles. When the littes are focused on digging in the sand, it can be easy for them to lose sight of their place in the wide world. The Gulfarium gently reminds them of this through their focus on conservation.
Every trip we need to find a way to take a vacation from our vacation. Days upon days of little people burying each other in the sand and the ensuing rumbles call for a few hours out of the sun and away from the sand. The little people need a momentary break in their routine (and the grown ups need a few hours to be sand and salt free). When we’re at Florida’s Emerald Coast, we find that break, that grounding place, at Ft. Walton’s Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. And each time we’re in that part of the world, we keep going back (because, you know, OTTERS!)
Honestly, there is just something about going to Disney World. Whether it’s the first time, the fourth time, or the fortieth time, each experience is new. Rainy days, park additions, growing little people, time of year, crowd size, my own patience level (there are only so many times I can ask my husband to slow down or my son to sit in the stroller): each aspect of every trip helps shape and mold the experience. This is why we go back. My family and I go at least three times a year. And it’s not just for the littles. In fact, my husband and I are going to swing by for a weekend at Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival this year little person free (yes, we will be accompanied by a bucketload of parent guilt, but it’s a small price to pay to saunter through a park, a beer steadily in one hand, rather than spilling it all over as I try to push a stroller with the other).
True to form, on our most recent trip to Disney World, there seemed to be so many changes and additions since our last visit two months prior. Granted, I live in a world of three little people under five, so I often don’t get to actually look at the world surrounding me. And when I do, I’m usually so mom-brained that I’m pretty much just sleeping with my eyes open. So these “revelations” of mine are a combination of those things that are new to the park and those things that I just discovered myself, even after all these years and all these trips.
There are stand alone carts throughout Hollywood Studios that only serve alcohol. These popup carts have typically been in place in the park only during specific festivals or events like the Christmas lights. But because of the popularity of these offerings, the alcohol carts will now be permanent fixtures (and now all of the sudden Hollywood Studios has become the most popular of the four parks). Also, there is an absolutely amazing grapefruit beer. Amazing. To sip in the hot sun. Just. Amazing.
The best time to do anything is the time of changeover. Let me explain. We are not morning people. We simply cannot get ourselves together and get out of our hotel room before 9:30 am. And if we try to, at least one of us will collapse into tears (I include myself in this.) Knowing this, we booked our breakfast at Hollywood Studio’s Hollywood and Vine for 10:30. My daughter and I like breakfast. My husband likes lunch. (My three year old eats nothing and my one year old eats anything so they’re out of this competition.) Within minutes of being there, half of the buffet was rolled over to lunch from breakfast. And with that blissful changeover, we were all dinner winners that morning. We had breakfast; we had lunch. But the beauty of the Disney World changeover goes beyond just meals. Usually we hit up Epcot in the Spring for the Flower and Garden Festival, but because we now have a Kindergartener (gasp!) and we refuse to go the week of Spring break (did it once…big mistake…huge) we were forced to miss it. We ended up going the last weekend of the new Epcot International Festival of the Arts (more on that later). And as soon as this passed, the flowers and topiaries started to pop up. So yea, I got a little taste of the Arts and a little taste of the Flower and Garden. Double win. And with that, I have learned never to underestimate the value of the changeover; in fact, look for it.
Don’t worry if it rains. Go to Animal Kingdom and get on a Kilimanjaro Safari ride. When it rains, the animals are actually more active. We were able to see more animals in this single trip than we have on all our other trips combined (ok, a bit of an exaggeration, but honestly I had never been able to see a warthog before, so there’s that). There were elephants bathing, baby elephants rolling in mud, giraffe babies nursing. The animals were all over. And it was amazing.
There are now Passholder Entrances at all park entrances. For the annual passholder, this is such a convenience. Perhaps this is more of a convenience for the passholder who can’t seem to get out of the hotel room at a reasonable time (just saying, not saying). And, according to three castmembers I asked, they have been trained to turn away any person in line who is not a passholder, which means even people who are friends of passholders. I didn’t ask, but I’m certainly hopeful, that if I didn’t renew my five year old’s annual pass, she’d still be allowed to get in the passholder line with me.
Along the same line, the Disney Vacation Club has opened a new lounge in Epcot for members. This lounge can be accessed by going into the shop that is at the end of “Journey into Imagination with Figment.” They have soda machines, video games, TVs, computers, and pillows perfectly suited for little people to jump on and crawl on. It creates the perfect little spot for little people to team up and make some momentary friendships. And for parents to drink some caffeine and stare at one another.
Right outside of the vacation club, which is located in the lost corner of Epcot near “Imagination!,” high above Figment, near the entrance to the new “Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival” are two important, yet hidden, spaces. The first is giant water area for littles (and probably a bigger person or two) to play in. It’s filled with water spouts that shoot water into the air in giant arcs. It’s a great place to get away from the crowd, cool down, and let the little people blow off some steam. Right next to this is a Visa character photo spot. Any Disney Visa holder will be allowed into the room to meet a secret, special character. It can be anyone (and, no, I won’t give away who it is so don’t ask).
Some of the fountains found throughout the parks have been changed from fountains with water to fountains with flowers. We first noticed this in the small fountain that’s typically outside of the First Aid and Baby Care Center in Magic Kingdom. We didn’t think much of it and moved on. The next day, while at Hollywood Studios, we found that the Muppet fountain had also been turned off and filled with greenery. After asking a cast member, I was told that the construction going on in the park made the water a bit, well, less than perfect looking. So, the decision was made to temporarily drain the fountain and fill it with the greenery. (This still doesn’t answer why the fountain in Magic Kingdom was filled with potted plants given there was no construction, but, sometimes I just have to accept what I’ve been told and move on.)
Jasmine has a high-necked, long-sleeved, full length shirt now! It used to be that when eating at Cinderella’s castle, Jasmine came to greet the guests in the outfit she wears in the movie. Her shoulders are exposed and her midsection is exposed. Apparently, after a number of complaints about her outfit, Disney was compelled to change her outfit into the sad, shiny sack that it now is.
To some people it may seem crazy to keep going back to places again and again and again. It’s been done and has nothing left to give. But that’s simply not the case when traveling with littles. The little people are growing and changing every day. And whether we like it or not, nothing ever stays the same, even in a place as classic as Disney World.
A big thanks to Ali from What Ali Sees for nominating me for the Liebster Award. Her website, What Ali Sees, is a great resource for parents who are traveling with their children (or those just trying to get the nerve to). She provides tips for traveling with children as well as some amazing reviews of places to take your little people to. My favorite pieces of Ali’s to read are those that inspire and encourage parents to travel like her recent post “9 Persuasive Reasons to Travel When Your Kids Are Young” and “Tips for Raising Kids Who Love to Travel”. She has a knack for making the difficult task of traveling with children seem entirely doable. Her site is a great place for inspiration, both to get yourself motivated to plan to plan and to do the hard work of actually making a plan. You can also connect with her on FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
What is the Liebster Award?
The Liebster Award was started back in 2011 as an online-only award given to bloggers by bloggers. “Liebster” in German means “dearest.” Not only is this such a kind sentiment, it’s also my husband’s last name (well, Lieber), so I feel especially excited to receive this award. The award is a way for newer blogs to be discovered and also to connect with and support the blogging community. It works a bit like a chain letter, but the result is you get wonderfully connected to other bloggers who are fighting the good fight with you.
Liebster Award Rules
If you decide to accept the nomination, thank the blogger who nominated you and post a link to their blog onto your blog post.
Display the Liebster Award photo on your blog post and/or display it using a “widget” or a “gadget” on your home page.
Answer 11 questions from the blogger who nominated you.
Nominate 5-11 bloggers/blogs who you think deserve the Liebster Award
Create 11 questions of your own for the nominees to answer on their blogs.
Notify your nominees and provide a link to your post so that they will know what to do.
List these rules in your blog post.
Alright, now on to the questions. And then, on to the new nominees!!!
The Questions (and Answers)
What made you choose the name of your blog website? My husband made me do it. I think he’s full left brain, but for some reason, when it comes to titles, he is the most intense right brain I’ve ever met. It’s pure brilliance. In fact, it may be the reason we’re still managing this crazy life: good titles are important so I keep him around!
Why did you become a travel blogger? I, by no means, consider myself an expert. In fact, I think it’s basically impossible to be an expert to be at something that’s so fluid. There are no little people who travel the same way or respond the same way to new situations. But it does take a certain ability to abandon the rigidity of every day life. We’ve done that. And we’ve found a lot of people are scared to, so we just want to inspire people to not be afraid. Whether it’s a four hour road trip or a twenty-two hour flight, it can be done. And it is worth it.
Who inspires you most? And why? At first I would say my inspiration to travel came from the places I traveled and the people I met there. Everything and every one was new and overwhelmingly welcoming. I remember spending one night in the streets of Dubrovnik drinking and learning the language with some locals we met that evening. I can remember the way the air felt, the smells of the streets, dusk in the tiny alley-like streets. The laugh of the people we were sitting with: they were so delightful and proud of their country. Things have changed since then though. Now it’s so much more than just the countries and their peoples.
Now I have littles at home to inspire me too. My daughter brings me ideas every day. She wants Singapore, a cave, a new hotel, a tour of castles that real princesses lived in. This wanderlust she has is now has added to my inspiration. She wants the world. And as much as I’m capable, I want her to have it. Everything is new and beautiful to her, and in a world that can get jaded, that is a comfort and hope I don’t expect to get elsewhere.
What is your first travel memory? The first memory I have of traveling is being with my father. He was always different when we traveled–more excited, more talkative. Traveling brought a vibrancy to him that was contagious. My travel memories don’t start with the place we were but with the man my father was.
What’s your biggest travel regret? The biggest travel regret I have occurred when my husband and I took our four year old and 1.5 year old to Japan while I was five months pregnant. We had been meaning to get to Japan for years, and we finally found the opportunity to. We weren’t worried about traveling there with little people as we’d heard that it was an amazingly easy place to travel with littles. But for some reason, that didn’t work for us. While there and since we’ve been back, we’ve been able to reflect on what went wrong for us, and I think it comes down to a few different things. First, we didn’t do enough research. We narrowed it down to where we’d like to spend our days, but not how we’d like to spend them. We had a general idea of where we wanted to wander, but not specifics on what we wanted to do or see in those areas. As a result, we were a bit lost when it came down to it (largely because of a little thing called monsoon season). Next, the weather conspired against us. We were prepared for heat, but we were not prepared for days upon days of torrential rain. This made our plan of wandering through areas nearly impossible.
Our littles were crammed inside of their strollers with foggy rain covers over them, unable to see anything. They were restless, and we were struggling to keep them happy. The next place we went wrong? We went against one of the fundamental aspects of traveling that we’ve determined works for us: we went to an international city. Coming from New York City, traveling to other international cities can be less than exciting. They are interesting for about two days, but then we need to get away from these cities to go to smaller areas. In this trip we stayed in Tokyo for too long, and it was our first stop. The slump we hit because of that was hard to pull out of. Finally, the food was good, but being pregnant with a husband allergic to shellfish, our options for authentic Japanese food were limited. So we found ourselves eating Indian food, Italian food. All great places, but places we could find in NYC. This was a real issue for my husband who is a huge foodie. And when we asked for recommendations we were told, oddly more than once, to try the Denny’s because it was great food and the kids would love it. Now, I’m all for checking out an American chain restaurant to see what changes in the menu exist, but still…Denny’s? Like Moons Over My Hammy Denny’s? To sum it all up, I wouldn’t say the trip to Japan was a regret. I would say going when we had such young children confined to strollers was. The timing was off for us, and we struggled to find the Japan we had heard about.
What would you include in a two-day itinerary for someone visiting your hometown? I live about an hour outside of NYC, which means I should say that my two-day itinerary would be centered around taking the train into the city every day, but that seems too easy. I live in an area north of the city made of small hamlets and towns, each of them history-filled and quaint. I’m lucky in that I get the culture of the city permeating the town, but I also get the calm quietness of a small village. I’d first suggest a day going from town to town, avoiding the bigger cities of the area. The small family-owned businesses are always friendly and the collection of local goods is always interesting. The food is delicious no matter where you go, making finding a perfect lunch spot easy. Oh, and dinner. There are definitely some amazing restaurants, many of which pull their ingredients fresh from the local farms. Depending on the time of year, the next day I’d suggest going to one of the local festivals, whether it’s a food and wine festival, a nature festival, harvest festival, music festival, or heritage festival. The area is loaded with great events and places to spend the day. My favorite time of year to get out is the fall. Apple orchards and pumpkin patches surround us, so getting out and picking apples and pumpkins is one of our favorite activities. If there are no festivals going on, then my go to suggestion is hiking. Wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson River, my hometown has trails throughout this beautiful wooded area.
What place did you experience your biggest culture shock? When I was in Vietnam, my husband and I did a trip to Halong Bay. We stayed on a junk for two days and then Cat Ba Island for two days. It was an amazing trip (despite the sunburn you’ll read about later).
We were with a small group of six people (including ourselves) from all over the world, so it was nice to kayak through the waters, meet new people, and eat new food. This part, though, was not the culture shock. What was the culture shock occurred on the boat back from Cat Ba island to the mainland. Instead of taking a junk back, we were taking a faster speed boat. Unfortunately, the waters were choppy and the boat couldn’t get to the island, so we had to take the regular public transportation boat. No big deal we figured, but our guide kept apologizing to us. And we really didn’t understand why. The boat pulled up, and within minutes it was packed. We were put in the windowless belly of the boat, the only actual place to put people. Because the water was so rough, all the doors were shut tight and it got hot…sweat dripped from my shins. And then it started. And the reason for the apology became a bit more evident. Every person on the boat (literally all except our four other travel companions and ourselves) started getting sick. Literally, every single person was violently ill; even our guide was sick. And it was loud. The oddest part was, other than the moans and wretches, no one reacted. It appeared to be quite normal and expected. It was nothing more than the consequence of going to a resort on this beautiful island.
What is the tastiest food you have tried on your travels? Greece by far had the tastiest food I have ever had. I’d like to zero in on a specific city, area, or island, but I there is just no way to do it.
I don’t think I ever had or ever will again find such pure ingredients. I’m not much of a tomato-lover, but in Greece the tomatoes were unlike anything and the freshness just oozed out of them. They were bright red and firm but soft at the same time. And the gemista, Greek stuffed peppers, still make fairly regular appearances in my dreams. I could go on and on, but it’s really just distracting me from the task at hand…(stares wistfully out of window…)
What has been your worst travel “mishap”? The biggest travel mishap I’ve had occurred when my husband and I went to Cambodia and Vietnam. I took a cheaper version of anti-malaria medicine than my husband. It was known to make you more susceptible to sunburn. But I wear sunscreen, a lot of it, so I wasn’t worried. (You can already see where this is going, right?) At first, in Cambodia, I thought my skin was reacting badly to the water. It hurt when I swam or showered, but it wasn’t something that impacted my day to day activities. Unfortunately, after a day kayaking around Halong Bay in Vietnam, my sunburn had gotten so bad, even my fingernails had blisters under them. As a result of this, I stood out a bit when we returned back to Hanoi. I walked through the old town there with ice piled on my arms and was given reed fans by the Vietnamese women who were filled with pity. We had no shared language, but their kindness was clear. Even when visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum I was told by the guards to take my bags with me (they had extra bags of ice in them) after I sat them down and they saw the condition of my skin (you’re required to leave all bags behind when in the mausoleum). While I regret going the cheap route, it did allow me to see a soft side of Vietnam I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity to see otherwise.
Which place would you most like to go back to? For quite obvious reasons stated above, I think I’d be most likely to return to Japan. When my little people allow me a bit more freedom from being their source of entertainment and they can appreciate the world around them a bit more (really I just need to go when they can see it without the fog of a rain cover) I’d like to take them back to Japan so we can give it a fair shake. We need the gardens, the philosopher’s path. We need Mt. Fuji (we were there, at the highest point a car can get, but we had no idea as we couldn’t see it through the dense fog).
Where are you traveling to next? The next trip is back to Walt Disney World. But the next new place to visit rather than return visit is to the Dominican Republic. But stay tuned, we’ve got a lot more planned.
My Liebester Award Nominees
I look forward to hearing all of your responses and to seeing all the great pieces your publish on your sites!
I rarely manage to travel to the grocery store without bringing my little people with me, let alone anywhere of any significance. (I will admit though, those moments when I’m by myself that feeling of accomplishment is almost like the feeling of accomplishment I have when I get through an entire cup of coffee before having to reheat it in the microwave.) Those brief moments where I slide out the front door and into my minivan to take 60 minutes to myself (grocery shopping, as I said before, it’s just to go grocery shopping) usually come at the end of a full two days of planning. So, the thought of having to plan an entire vacation, perhaps a night or four, away from my children is mind boggling. And certainly if that requires a plane ride that culminates in spending a few days relaxing with my husband and perhaps a friend or two, the effort it seems is required to see these thoughts come to fruition is feels like trying to understand NYC’s preschool registration requirements. (You know the ones I mean, where you have to have your child put on the waiting list while still in utero? Yeah, those.)
But. Here’s the thing. It isn’t hard. Like, at all. We do it. And we love it. And our children are better at wandering this world because of it. Why?
I think it’s probably pointing out the obvious when I say that moments spent being a bit checked out as a parent have the ability to fill a cup that’s less than overflowing. Being a parent is hard. Running a household is hard. Put the two together and Bam! Welcome to a world of (rewarding) exhaustion. And I don’t mean it’s draining because we travel; in fact, those are the moments that are perhaps the least draining (there’s no house to constantly upkeep or dry cleaning to pick up or drop off or mountains of laundry to sift through). But the recharge that comes from traveling alone is different than the late night hours after the little people fall into their blissful slumbers. The last road trip we took had us driving seven hours a day for three days at both the beginning and ending of the trip that moved us out of the cold winter and into the warmth of Florida for five days in between. Somewhere along the way to that sun (probably day two of the drive) I caught my oldest little’s cold. Because of my own health issues, I don’t recover as quickly, and five days later I had pneumonia. Even with meds, it got worse on the drive back into winter and home, and I had to be seen again and have my medicines changed up. We had help come in to take care of the middle little and the tiny, but that doesn’t mean I was off the hook. There are still obligations, and those little obligations sometimes mean recovery is slow. But the light at the end of the tunnel? Wine. Within two weeks we were on a four day trip to Napa Valley without any little people. I attribute all of my recovery to sitting in the California sun, sipping wine, and watching vines grow. My movement was minimal, my focus limited to myself or others whose lives didn’t depend upon my watchful eye. My cup filled (albeit with Cab Sav, but we don’t judge here). I came home ready to take the next trip (a combo road trip/plane trip) that I had previously started to make plans to push back (I mean I had basically canceled the trip on the flight out to California). Getting out of the house and out of familiar space without my little people allowed me to gain a sense of my physical health back and my ability to keep moving forward to share my world with my littles. (And truth be told, when I feel better, I am a better mother and a better traveler, a win for my little people all around.)
There are periods in our traveling life where my husband and I have fallen into the trap of doing the same thing and going the same place again and again and again. (Yep, we visit Disney World three times a year. Guilty. And yep. We’re going to the same beach we went to last summer. Guilty again. And we’ll be staying at the same hotel we’ve always stayed at on our minitrip to Vermont. Guilty guilty guilty.) There is a particular ease in visiting places we’ve already been or doing the same basic types of trips we’ve always done. The planning is minimal and life is predictable. Doesn’t that sound appealing? Well, the truth is, sometimes it’s just what we need and just what our littles need. But other times, it is certainly not what we crave. When we travel without our little people my husband and I always get a glimpse of a world bigger than that which we planned or we predicted. We can more easily go to places we’ve never gone. We can talk longer with locals. There is a hint of understanding of how small we are or how privileged we are or how little we understand of this infinitely large, yet wondrously small, world. And this renewed vigor for discovering this paradoxical place calls us to break out of those habits of choosing the easy way when we travel with our little people. It drives us to show the littles the world and their ever-changing place within it. It reminds us we are not just in this to create vacationers; we’re doing it to create explorers.
Because I am a stay at home mom, my life, whether traveling or spending time at our home, is surrounded by little people and little people accessories. Some times, often times, we fall into habits. In a rush we opt for a restaurant that doesn’t push our little people’s boundaries because we just want them to eat. So we don’t have to work through exhausted breakdowns, we get the littles into their beds on time rather than going to that one last beautiful fountain. Getting the little people in and out of the car is a whole process, so we zoom past the scenic route and opt for the highway. We get mechanical, robotic. And robots don’t explore. Or think. Or wander. Getting away without my little people pulls me from routine. There’s no dinnertime. No naptime. No bedtime. And I like it. And I remember how great it is to stay up later than I want or push myself up that last hill for one final hint of the sun setting over the ocean. Little people need routine, but they also need to know that feeling of catching lightening bugs late into the evening or skipping a nap to view the world from the top of a mountain. Each time I travel by myself, I am reminded of this. And each time I bring this forgotten knowledge back to them, and we slowly change together. And on our next trip, we will walk down that smaller path to the river or pull the car over to walk out to the middle of that old wooden train bridge (on the walkway only of course…I’m not crazy crazy, just three little people crazy).
“Mommy loves to read. She reads all the time!…Or she did. A while ago. But I promise you, my sweet little pea, I really do love books.” I find myself saying things like this to my little people quite a bit. I am convincing them, and half convincing myself, that Mommy really does like to do things. She has interests, convictions, a life.
I’d like to imagine that when my little people are big people and traveling on their own they’d see some amazing meadow of wildflowers, an invigorating street mural, and think of me. At this point, I am a little worried that the only thing that will make me pop into their minds is an innovative vacuum. (Let me be frank here. This does not disappointment as much as I’m letting on. I have gotten a new vacuum for the holidays for the past three years. And this year? Oh, this year, I got three. You see, I’m on the hunt for the holy grail of vacuums. You know the one where you can vacuum once and your house stays clean for, at least, two days. This though, is another blog post for another blog…) The point I’m meaning to get to here is that I want my children to know the me that exists beyond my role as their mommy. I am first a mommy, but I am also so much more than that. And I want to present an authentic version of myself to them. But this wears away after time as I start to search out those travel experiences that are solely geared toward the interests of my littles…the easy experiences. The thing is, I want to enter their world, but I also want to invite them into mine. I like warming myself on a sun-filled porch sipping a glass of wine at an inappropriately early time while I watch the world move about me. While I’m not giving my littles wine, I’d like them to know the value of sitting on a porch, the morning sun warming their legs as the world makes little changes all around them. Traveling without my little people makes me reconnect with those pieces of myself that I have put on the backburner in order to raise these three amazing little loves. As a result of this rediscovery of self, when we travel together, I help make their worlds a bit bigger by sharing passions they don’t often get to see. And it’s those shared experiences, those moments of seeing each other authentically, that make family travel not just about the travel, but about our family.
Mommy brain is real. Very. Real. Or it’s a convenient excuse I use to avoid having to pay attention. I will never admit which one it is though. Needless to say, I forget things. (Or do I?) When I’m off exploring this world with no one but myself, I remember things. Most importantly, I remember what it’s like to push boundaries that I’d never dare to push when I have three little people to care for. I can go to restaurants that force me to eat food that I would never have thought I’d eat even two hours prior. I can step into situations I wouldn’t feel comfortable throwing my little people in. But, I have the ability now to assess these situations, these moments, with the eye of a mother but not the worry of a mother. I can determine if the place, the experience, is manageable for my littles, and I can plan accordingly for their future travel. When I was getting my MS in Education, one of the most helpful pieces of advice I was given was to always look ahead, anticipate any problems before they could occur, and replan accordingly. Traveling by myself affords me this luxury. I know how difficult it will be for my nonseafood eating little person to eat in a country where seafood is a staple. And I can plan for this. I can anticipate this bump. This is the privilege of traveling without my little people. I know what bridges are not ok to cross for my climbing-centric tiny person. I know what historic sites will be too much for my empathetic little. I’ve had time to look, to think, to judge. I anticipate. I adjust. I plan. I can gather information in a way that is greater than mere research. It’s a lived knowledge. Without my littles I can evaluate and reevaluate to make our family travel road a bit less bumpy.
Let’s be honest. Traveling with kids is hard. It’s like throwing thirteen balls into the air and trying to juggle them when you have just two hands and no thumbs. It’s this weird balance of two extremes: overplanning and being spontaneous. Somehow, though, we manage to make those two worlds coexist. Traveling without my little people is an important part of establishing that balance. I can watch so we can anticipate. I can remember so we can relax. It gives me a better me: a better mother, a better traveler, a better friend, a better wanderer, a better teacher, a better student, a better listener, and most importantly, a better guide to my littles as they travel their way through this endless world.