PLAYguide: Local People

Mompreneur: Holly Lesnick

Words by Lisa A. Beach  |  Photo by Erin Monroe

In 2005, with a 6-week-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, Orlando mom Holly Lesnick kept a busy schedule packed with naptimes, feedings and playdates. You’d think launching a new business wouldn’t be a high priority for this new mom. But Holly’s kids, Aiden and Anna, were instrumental in her decision to launch Grow and Sing Studios in Orlando that year.

Holly had been going to a local Kindermusik studio where she fell in love with this research-based music-and-movement program for early learners. Understanding the connection between music and learning, Holly loved this program’s whole-child development approach.

So, Holly was thrilled when, in 2002, the studio owner offered her a position as a Kindermusik educator. Holly aced the training and taught for three years, finding joy in the weekly sessions that helped families bond over singing, dancing and playing musical instruments together.

But in 2005, the studio owner moved and closed up shop, which gave Holly the blues (these music puns are just too easy!). Instead of lamenting the loss of a great music program, Holly decided to fill the void by launching Grow & Sing Studios. “I selfishly started the company because I had nowhere else to take my kids,” explains Holly, an early childhood specialist with a degree in music therapy.


 “You’ve got to balance family, work and self. Self has to go into the equation”


Without the power of social media back then, Holly relied on word-of-mouth to get families jazzed about her new business. Initially, she offered two sold-out classes to 24 families. Her husband, Will, eventually came on board, along with four other licensed educators. Together, these traveling minstrels took Kindermusik to malls, churches and community groups throughout the area.

“We wanted to serve the community and go where the need was,” Holly says. This philosophy served her well, especially during the recession. When other brick-and-mortar shops were closing, her program grew because it wasn’t tied to a physical location.

Flash forward to 2017, when Grow & Sing Studios just earned the Conductor’s Circle Maestro Award for the 10th year in a row. This prestigious award recognizes Holly’s program as one of the top 1 percent of Kindermusik programs among 5,000 programs worldwide. Now in nine locations across Central Florida, Grow & Sing Studios has served nearly 3,000 families since 2005.

With growth comes the delicate act of balancing it all. “You have to know when to stop and say, ‘That’s enough. I’m done with this today, and now it’s family time’,” Holly points out. “You’ve got to balance family, work and self. Self has to go into the equation.” Following her own advice, Holly created a meditation room in her house where she practices yoga, meditates and journals.

Ending on a high note, Holly reflects, “Do what fills you up with joy.”

Visit growandsing.com for details about Holly’s Kindermusik programs and for more information about a free preview class.

LISA BEACH is a freelance journalist, content marketing specialist and copywriter.
Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.

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Dress Up. Play Hard. Stand Out.


Words by Lisa A. Beach | Photo by Jessica Friend

With a company slogan of “Dress Up, Play Hard, Stand Out!,” mompreneur Tracey Currey of Winter Park is a force in giving back to the community and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Currey’s company, PonyTail Bows, caters to the equestrian market (with expansion plans in the works), providing handcrafted bows to horse riders of all ages.

Tapping into her love of horses, Currey started the company in 2013 when a friend asked her to create a set of hair bows for her daughter to wear in a horse show. Currey’s daughters, Anna (9) and Ella (12), also compete, so she understood the dilemma of finding durable, classic bows to complement a rider’s outfit. Happy to help, Currey handcrafted a precision-made, high-quality bow that not only wowed her friend, but also caught the attention of other equestrians. Soon, the requests poured in. After researching the market, Currey developed a proprietary method of hand-made bow craftsmanship that now sets the gold standard.

While her friend’s request jumpstarted the bow-making idea, Currey’s inspiration to launch a business hits closer to home.

“I began riding at age five and competing at nine,” says Currey. “When I got my horse Z, no one believed we could compete because Z suffered from a movement illness. I refused to listen to the naysayers! I had faith that we could work hard and overcome the odds. We ended up competing at the advanced level!”

She lost Z to cancer in 2014, but he still serves as her inspiration today. “I wanted to honor Z’s journey through the success of PonyTail Bows, and I wanted to build a company that would serve others.”

Currey makes good on her promise, as PonyTail Bows generously gives back. Through the sale of specialty bows, the company raises funds locally for breast cancer awareness, child abuse awareness and pediatric cancer. Nationally, PonyTail Bows gives a portion of equestrian bow sales to the USHJA Foundation, the charitable arm of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. Currey also launched the Blue Ribbon Project, a leadership program that connects girls from across the country and focuses on sportsmanship, philanthropy and integrity.

“Joining with these causes brought me into alignment with our purpose,” points out Currey. “I wanted to build a company based on inspiration and service but do it in a high-end, beautiful way.”

As she grows her company (in both profit and service), Currey deals with the challenges of juggling her work and family life. “I’m a wife first, a parent second and a business owner third. It’s a balance,” she says. “But the coolest thing is my girls have watched me grow. They’ve seen it’s not always easy. Our family motto is: Never give up!”

PonyTail Bows recently launched new product lines, including athletic bows that can be customized with players’ names, numbers, and positions — perfect for girls who want to dress up, play hard and stand out.


You can find PonyTail Bows locally at Chloe Lane Boutique in Winter Park, The Tack Boutique in Winter Garden and Stockman’s Harness and Saddle Shop in Orlando.

    PonyTail Bows sells three specialty “cause bows” to raise funds for the following local charities:

  1. Pink Out Winter Park, which benefits the Winter Park Memorial Hospital Mammography Scholarship Fund
  2. Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families, which benefits Central Florida’s at-risk children and their families
  3. Pediatric Runway to Hope, which benefits children with cancer and their families

Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist, copywriter, humor blogger and recovering homeschool mom who lived to write about it. Check out her writer’s website at LisaBeachWrites.com and visit her humor blog at TweeniorMoments.com.


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Mia Muniz Has the Write Stuff


Words by Lisa A. Beach – Photos by Jessica Friend
 
Many writers spend their entire lives trying to break into the big leagues, aiming to snag a byline in Time magazine or The Washington Post. But Lake Nona grade schooler Mia Muniz, age 10, can already add that feather to her cap, as she recently became a Time for Kids reporter.

Mia, a fifth grader at Eagle Creek Elementary, beat out over 300 applicants from across the country to be selected as one of 12 reporters to write for Time for Kids, a weekly classroom news magazine published by Time magazine.

What set Mia apart in this competitive field of kid journalism? “I think it’s because I’m very imaginative, and I have a sparkling personality!,” Mia declares without hesitation. She credits her mom, also a writer, and her teachers for inspiring her love of writing. “They’ve been really encouraging to me and have been my strength-builders,” says Mia.

Mia has been writing stories for years and has quite the imagination, according to mom Amanda. Fueled by her love of reading, Mia offers this advice for other would-be writers, “I think it’s important to read a lot of books and never to give up.”

On Mia’s Time for Kids reporter profile, she lists her top three dream interviews: Serena Williams, Michelle Obama and Taylor Swift. In the meantime, she’s tackling assignments about the new U.S. Tennis Association, which aligns with her passion for tennis, and a community outreach center where disadvantaged people go to shop for groceries. She also interviewed author Robert Hoge, discussing his memoir Ugly: A Beautiful Story About One Ugly Kid, and author Wendelin Van Draanen, who wrote The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones. Although she’s been interviewing nationally acclaimed writers lately, Mia also set her sights on some local stories, as she’s made a couple pitches about Universal Studios.

With some national writing clips already under her belt before middle school, Mia could be headed toward a long and highly successful career in journalism. Or theater. Or sports. When asked what she wants be when she grows up, Mia says, “I’m leaning toward a performer on Broadway, an anchor on the Today show or a career in sports, such as tennis or swimming.”

Regardless of where she’s headed, she’ll be taking her own advice on how to achieve your dreams, “Work hard, never give up, and it’s OK to make mistakes.”

Wise words spoken like a seasoned reporter.


Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist, copywriter, humor blogger and recovering homeschool mom who lived to write about it. Check out her writer’s website at LisaBeachWrites.com and visit her humor blog at TweeniorMoments.com.


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Mompreneur: Colleen Gonzalez

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Colleen Gonzalez

Founder of G.R.O.W. Central Florida Inc., a nonprofit that partners with unfunded elementary school health and wellness programs in Seminole County

 

Growing up, Colleen Gonzalez was the youngest of four children. “We were a middle-income family, but money was tight, so my siblings and I never participated in any sports. My family was heavy, so in my head, I assumed we would be heavy,” says Gonzalez, founder of G.R.O.W. Central Florida Inc., a nonprofit that partners with unfunded elementary school heath and wellness programs in Seminole County, such as the elementary school cross country running program. It took one adult to tell Gonzalez that she didn’t have to be like her parents, and her whole life changed. “I realized that if I put my body in motion by being active, I could change my life,” she says. Gonzalez took up running, which helped her deal with stress and anxiety.

When Gonzalez had children of her own (Morgan is 15 years old, and Isaac is 12 years old), she knew she wanted them to be active. “My son tends to be a very active child. When he was in pre-K, I was committed to walking and biking him to school daily as a way to release his energy and keep our family healthy,” she says. “During that time (2009), I read an article in Family Fun magazine about the Walk and Roll program, which encourages students to walk and bike to schools.” She decided to put her time and talent to work bringing the program to her kids’ school. “I formed partnerships with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and other local entities.”

From there, she started a weekly Starting Line Friday Fun Run to encourage kids to run before school. After taking some time away to help care for her sick mother-in-law, Gonzalez found that the program was evolving. “When my mother-in-law passed away, my husband Luis encouraged me to start up G.R.O.W. (which stands for Grass Roots Outreach Within) as an official nonprofit,” she says. The program’s focus has narrowed a bit to support unfunded elementary school health and wellness programs in Seminole County. However, Gonzalez would like to see it adopted by other countries as well.

“The middle and high schools have boosters and funding for sports programs, but the elementary schools rarely do,” she says. In the Seminole County school district, 38 schools have volunteer-led cross country running teams. “There isn’t any funding for the team, so each coach must raise money. I’m filling the gap and providing the durable goods they need, such as awards and t-shirts,” says Gonzalez.

In January 2015, G.R.O.W. organized and funded the Seminole County District Cross Country Meet at Seminole State College. “We had over 1,700 elementary school runners,” she says. This past January, Gonzalez partnered with her child’s ninth grade teacher, Fred Finke, to host a district cross country meet at Lyman High School. “A record 1,744 elementary students ran the event,” she says.

Through this program, Gonzalez says she hopes to “inspire other parents like myself, who went from a professional career to being a stay-at-home mom, to start this in other countries. I have resources and contacts. I’m here to support!”

For more information on G.R.O.W. Central Florida, go to www.growcentralflorida.org.

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Words by Tracey C. Velt
Photos by Jessica Friend 

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Pro Pokemon Players

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Meet: Tanner and Parker Hurley
Pro Pokemon Players

Five years ago, Tanner Hurley (12) found his older sister’s Pokemon  (a Japanese card game and video game) cards in the attic. “Morgan (now 25 years old) didn’t realize it was a game. She would just trade the cards,” says mom Shannon Hurley, from downtown Orlando. The cards piqued Tanner’s interest, so his dad, Rex, sought out a Pokemon league.

“They thought they were going to trade cards. They then learned it was a game,” laughs Shannon.

Flash forward to today, and it’s a family affair. Both Tanner and his sister Parker (9)  play Pokemon on a world stage. Rex plays in an adult league. “It’s a complex game,” says Shannon. “what is cool about Rex playing is that it adds an extra element to his relationship with his children. It gives them a connection.”

Both Tanner and Parker compete locally in tournaments. They also travel around Florida, the nation and the world to compete in tournaments, where prizes include college scholarships, paid expenses to tournaments and more. “You get championship points based on how well you do,” says Tanner. “If you have enough points, you get to go to the world championship.”

At the end of last season, Tanner, who plays the card game version, was ranked No. 1 in the world in the senior category (ages 12-16). He’s won a $1,500 college scholarship and gets his expenses paid to play in tournaments all over the world. Parker, who plays the video game version, was ranked No. 3 in North America in the junior category (ages 11 and under).

“If you’re in the top 16, you get free trips,” says Shannon. “they pay airfare, hotel and travel costs for the child and parent.” Those trips have taken the family to Italy, Scotland and throughout the United States.  “We’re going to Lima, Peru this year,” says Shannon.

The best part, says mom, is that the game complements their education. “Pokemon is strategic; when you put your cards your deck, you need to know the odds of winning against someone else’s deck,” says Tanner. “It helped me with my math and thinking strategically.” The game has helped Parker get ahead in math. “When I was  5 years old, I had to learn how to multiply to play the game,” says Parker. “In Pokemon you have to calculate which Pokemon is [the fastest], and you have to analyze your cards against your opponents,” says Shannon. “There is a lot of math and strategy, and it helps the kids to think analytically.”

Lest you think the Hurley children are obsessed with Pokemon (which is only half correct), they are also both involved in sports. Tanner plays tennis, and Parker competes in gymnastics, a sport she prefers to playing Pokemon. “I like the [uneven parallel] bars the best,” she says.

All members of the Hurley family agree that Pokemon has brought them closer as a family and has given them the opportunity to visit places they may not have visited otherwise. “When we travel, we take the opportunity to learn about the city or country we are in. It’s great for family bonding.”

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Want to learn the game? 
Tanner and Parker Hurley, along with mom Shannon, will be hosting a Pokemon Camp, July 18-22, from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. at The Parke House Academy in Winter Park. “We teach them how to play the game. One of the kids we taught to play last year at our camp  competed all year and received an invitation to play at the Pokemon World Championship this year,” says Shannon. For more info, email Shannon at slgmediations@aol.com.

Where To PLAY:
The Game Academy Orlando
thegameacademyonline.com
10077 University Blvd., Orlando, Fl 32817

Campus Cards and Games
12226 Corporate Blvd., Ste. 130, Orlando, Fl 32817

Gathering Place Games
953 State Road 436, Casselberry, Fl 32707

Cool Stuff Games
coolstuffgames.com
Three locations:
– 8550 S. US Hwy 17-92, Maitland, Fl 32751
– 504 N. Alafaya Trail, Ste. 115, Orlando, Fl 32828
– 12720 Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, Fl 32837

 

Words by Tracey C. Velt
Photo by Jessica Friend 

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Moms Making Six Figures

(Sponsored post)

Bringing Women Home To Their Lives

Work From Home • No Selling • No Inventory • No Party Plan • No Risk

Karee and daughters at Oak Haven Farms in Sorrento, FL

Karee and daughters at Oak Haven Farms in Sorrento, FL

After 3 & 1/2 years of fertility treatments and then blessed with the gift of twin girls, I was bound and determined to be home with them to enjoy every little moment. With that came the financial stress of cutting back, coupon shopping and praying at the end of the month that we had made ends meet. Which was a far cry from the plentiful days of medical sales. I missed having the freedom of money but was not willing to go back to the stress. I knew I needed something flexible and that would work around my girls’ nap schedules.

I went out to California to visit my sister and she introduced me to Mom’s Making Six Figures. It is a group of woman who all support each other to do the impossible, be the mom you want to be and still work hard on your own schedule. It sounded too good to be true. The more I looked into it the more I was intrigued, so I decided to give it a try and it has exceeded my expectations.

Photo by Pam Neff Photography

Photo by Pam Neff Photography

We are partnered with a US based manufacturing company of products that are safer for the home and the environment at a price people can afford. My job is to just simply help people. Educating people on the sneaky toxins in the home and then simply providing a solution. I do not sell anything, I do not have a inventory or have a huge overhead. It really has become the perfect fit for my family.

If you are interested in learning more feel free to go to our website at
www.momsmakingsixfigures.com

MomsMakingSixFigures.com/biography/karree

Earn Full or Part-time Income
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The Dance Happy Project

DanceHappy

Georgia Bernbaum, age 11, had to come up with a community service project for her bat mitzvah. That’s how The Dance Happy Project was born.

Words by Tracey C. Velt  Photos by Lisbet Photography

When it came time to develop a community service project, Georgia, a sixth-grader at Maitland Middle School, knew she wanted to create a project that would incorporate the nonprofit dance studio she attends for classes. Over time, her idea took shape, and she decided to bring dance classes to children living in homeless shelters. A quick call to the Coalition for the Homeless, and Elizabeth Bernbaum, Georgia’s mom, discovered a program called Art by Coalition Children (ABC). “They bring in artists for different programs offering everything from movie-making to puppetry,” says Elizabeth.

What Georgia liked so much about the idea is a dance class was something the children could always use. “All you need to dance is you, not paints, paper, clay or anything else. I hope the dance lessons will give the children confidence so that no matter where they are, they can feel powerful,” says Georgia.

As a dancer with The Center for Contemporary Dance (CCD) in Winter Park, Georgia immediately decided to meet with Dario Moore, the artistic director of the dance studio, to find out how to bring the classes to the homeless. “The CCD has a history of working with Title One schools and loved the idea,” says Elizabeth. With the idea and execution in place, Georgia needed to get working on fundraising. “We named it The Dance Happy Project, and a friend of ours designed the logo,” says Georgia. “I came up with The Dance Happy Project [name] because I want people to feel happy when they dance. This is why I wanted the logo to be smiley-face yellow.”

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Raising Money
After brainstorming with mom, Georgia decided to do a project asking designers from dance and Broadway to donate their artwork, which would be sold at an auction. “Georgia wrote the letters on her own; I just corrected the grammar,” laughs Elizabeth.

“One of my favorite pieces is the costume design for Glinda the Good in Wicked. It is the original sketch, signed by the designer, Susan Hilferty. She won the Tony that year. I cannot believe that she sent this to me!” says Georgia. “It is exciting when a new piece arrives. I cannot believe how many donations I have received from artists all around the world. Some of them have sent me personal notes, which I will save forever.”

With artwork pouring in, Georgia and Elizabeth continued to research ways to earn money for the project. “Our goal is to fund this class for three years,” says Elizabeth. They discovered The Pollination Project, an organization that provides thousand-dollar seed grants to “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” Georgia wrote the narrative. “I made sure the tax information was correct,” says Elizabeth. At the same time, Donna Dowless, Orlando’s official Ambassador of Love, told Elizabeth about The Awesome Foundation, which provides thousand-dollar grants to fund small projects that make the area a better place. Georgia’s Dance Happy Project won both grants. The auction fundraiser will be held February 9 at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center. Moira from the Philips Phile will be the emcee. “I am looking forward to my fundraiser because it is going to be really exciting to see art and dance come together on stage,” Georgia adds.

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Bodies in Motion
Thankfully, with the two grants, Georgia didn’t have to wait for the auction to start the dance classes. “The intention is to do it four times a year—every three months. Each time, it will run for four consecutive weeks,” says Elizabeth. “Georgia has the funding for it to be held three times this year, plus to rent the space for the auction.”

While the dance classes take place when she’s at school, Georgia recently took an afternoon off to see the fruits of her labor. “I was moved by the dance class. Mr. Dario was teaching the children how to choreograph their own dance, using their ideas, and I could tell that The Dance Happy Project was already successful!”

Dance Happy
The size of the classes depends on the number of children at the center. “There could be up to 200 children staying at the shelter at one time,” says Elizabeth. “Although, the first class had 20 kids.” Says Moore, who was hired to teach the classes, “I like to say that I have a 12-year-old boss. It is amazing what this young lady is accomplishing. This is an important project for reasons that extend beyond the technical aspects of dance education. The classes at the coalition teach young people, quite literally, how to take control of their movement through time and space. Through dance, students learn to see that they can create choices and that their choices have both value and consequences.”

Says Elizabeth, “I’m so proud of Georgia. She’s worked really hard on this. I’ve helped, but I’m staff. I do what she can’t do, like sign contracts and checks.” The whole experience has been rewarding for Georgia as well. “When I go to college, I want to major in nonprofit management,” she says. It’s obvious Georgia’s heart and head are in the right place.

www.facebook.com/thedancehappyproject

Take a sneak peek at the art to be auctioned off for The Dance Happy Project:
http://dancehappy.wix.com/auction.
If you click on a piece of art on the website, you can read about its origin.

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Implant Surgery On Ten-Year-Old Boy

AP

Cardiologists at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children performed Florida’s first pediatric implant of a new device to prevent sudden cardiac arrest.

The device, called a subcutaneous defibrillator, protects patients from sudden cardiac arrest by providing an electrical impulse to muscles surrounding the heart. It is the world’s first device to provide protection from sudden cardiac arrest while not touching the heart or blood vessels.

Sudden cardiac arrest is a condition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. If this happens, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. The condition usually causes death if not treated within minutes.

Cardiologists at the hospital implanted the subcutaneous defibrillator into Jose Ramos, a ten-year-old Kissimmee boy who went into sudden cardiac arrest in February 2014 and received cardiopulmonary resuscitation from his father to save his life.

“With the subcutaneous defibrillator, we now have a way to prevent sudden cardiac arrest in pediatric patients without having wires running through their veins and into the heart,” says Dr. Rodrigo Nehgme, electrophysiologist and cardiologist at Arnold Palmer Hospital. “It is a less invasive solution with fewer risks and will save the lives of young patients at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.”

The subcutaneous defibrillator is about the size of a deck of cards and is implanted just beneath the skin below the armpit. Cardiologists then run a wire, also beneath the skin, from the device to the front of the chest and up toward the neck. Whereas older technology monitored individual heart beats, this new device actually analyzes heart rhythm and provides an electrical impulse when the heart goes into a dangerous rhythm.

Approximately 2,000 of the subcutaneous defibrillators have been implanted in the United States, with Jose being only the fifth pediatric case.

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Locals Only Gift Guide

In support of #SmallBusinessSaturday we’ve come up with a local’s only gift guide to make supporting your community, and conquering your holiday shopping list a little easier. Check out these PLAYGROUND-approved, locally owned businesses and the gifts we think are definitely worth giving.

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Learning Express: Iliana and Vik Mavinkurve opened Learning Express in Ocoee earlier this year. This specialty toy store breaks the mold of big-box toy stores with its wide array of unique toys and gifts, along with customized services like free gift wrapping, complimentary personalization of select items, birthday registries and even a curb-side gift pick-up for those extra busy days. A hot buy for the holidays is the Mini Ogodisk Set — perfect for outdoor fun.

 

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Leisa Lovely Designs: Five years ago, mom Leisa Covelli started Leisa Lovely designs out of her Central Florida home. She now operates out of a Fern Lake storefront where she specializes in unique gifts and monogrammed items. Need a gift for someone with team spirit? Leisa Lovely will create custom embroidery orders with that person’s favorite team logo.

 

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Liapela: Owner and founder Alejandra Salazar opened her first Liapela store in 2007, expanding to Orlando in late 2012. The Millenia-area location features high-end baby products and a kid-friendly show room. Standout item this holiday season: Prince Lionheart’s Balance Bike. The bike teaches children balance and steering, helping in the transition to pedal bikes. Check out the website for even more options.

8141151_fpx.tifMacrobaby: Macrobaby is Central Florida’s one-stop-shop for all of your baby needs. The Florida Mall-area store offers a wide array of products, in-store 3D and 4D ultrasounds, a photo studio, limo service and more. Florida residents with valid ID get 10 percent off their entire order (some exclusions may apply). The item they’re most excited about this season—the Bugaboo Stroller. Suitable for a newborn or toddler, the multi-terrain Bugaboo Cameleon³ can seamlessly adapt to your journey, whether that’s through the city, woods, sand or snow.

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Pigtails and Crewcuts: This Dr. Phillips-based shop is as cute as its name. With an inviting décor, video games and an exceptional staff of stylists, the children’s-only salon has turned haircut time into party time. Check out the line of organic hair care products by Original Sprout. They are 100 percent vegan, free of parabens and sulfates and designed to be safe for all members of the family. Plus: Pig Tails & Crewcuts offers superior ear piercing services, and for the month of December they are offering their fashion earrings for just $10! 

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Qubits: As seen on NBC’s Shark Tank, Qubits, the toy that teaches modular design and geometric shapes is brought to you by Orlando locals, Mark and Lisa Burginger. This toy makes a great gift for curious kids who love to build, and can be purchased online at www.qubitstoy.com. Want to check it out in person, ask for it by name at the Orlando Science Center, or any of the Orange County Libraries.

 

slide2The Sacred Olive: The Sacred Olive is the creation of Carolyn Hill whose passion for cooking came from spending time in the kitchen with her mother from a very young age. The Sacred Olive provides specialty olive oils and vinegars in a variety of flavors, perfect for the foodie on your list this season. Oils and vinegars can be purchased online at www.thesacredolive.com or in person at the tasting room in downtown Winter Garden.

 

Screen shot 2013-11-25 at 10.00.50 AMSimply Shelby: Shelby Finkelstein, owner of Simply Shelby, is an on-location photographer specializing in modern lifestyle baby, children, family and maternity photography. Shelby is located in Central Florida and offers sessions on weekdays and weekends. If you can swing it, a shoot during the week will save you $75. Set up a photo shoot for the New Year at www.simplyshelbyphoto.com and tell Shelby that PLAYGROUND sent you to get 10 percent off!

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 4.41.12 PMTugboat & the Bird: This adorable Park Ave. boutique features classic children’s brands like Florence Eiseman, Amanda Remembered, and Vive La Fete, as well as their own private label. Owner Laura Haftel opened Tugboat & the Bird in September 2001 and has been filling our children’s closets ever since. Any new mommies on your shopping list? Tugboat & the Bird carries the Sweet Seraphina line of bib and cloth sets that are functional, yet stylish.

 

Screen shot 2013-11-25 at 10.03.04 AMWalk on Water: Orlando-based business guru Roxane Mann opened her first Walk on Water store in Lake Mary in 2004. Three years later, she opened her second location in the Winter Park Village shopping center. The sophisticated boutiques bring you all of the best brands in women’s clothing, accessories, jewelry and gifts. For the leading lady in your life, pick up an Alex and Ani bangle set with personalized charms that match her personality.

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Wondermade

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 Talk about a cloud-based business — Wondermade is producing clouds of fluffy goodness in the form of marshmallows. It all started one Christmas when Nathan Clark was at a loss for what to get his wife, Jenn. “Every Christmas we come up with a creative gift for each other, and I was stumped,” says Clark, who is also a pastor at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood. “The gift is never about dollars; it’s about intent. It’s a week before Christmas, and I don’t have a gift for the person I love the most.”

Googling for Gifts
Clark decided to hit Google for inspiration. In the process of searching for candy recipes, he realized that he had everything except a candy thermometer in order to make marshmallows. So, he bought a thermometer and put together a stack of marshmallow recipes. “I wasn’t quite sure she would be impressed with a bundle of recipes as a present,” he says. But she was impressed, and they quickly got to work making a batch. They were fabulous. “When you make marshmallows, you can’t just make a few. Each batch produces hundreds,” he says. The Clarks, parents to four children — Sebastian (9), Harper (7), Arden (4) and Augustin (2) — shared them with friends from church and school. “Soon we had people asking us to make them a batch for Teacher Appreciation Week, as gifts and more,” says Clark.

A Marshmallow Is Born
Thus, Wondermade was born. That was in 2010; by 2011, the Clarks officially started the business. “We realized there was an opportunity to do what we loved, and it also made people feel special, so we spent a year designing our logo and developing a business plan. We wanted to do it in a way that communicated that sense of love and wonder that we had experienced along the way,” says Clark, whose title is marshmallow agent. Jenn’s title is marshmallow maker.

Wondermade now has a “magical marshmallow workshop” in downtown Sanford and employs anywhere from six to 40 people depending on the season. There you may even catch the Clarks’ older children putting together boxes while the younger children conduct taste tests. After all, says Clark, “It is a family business.”

At the workshop, the Clarks create and test recipes for flavored marshmallows, such as lavender, orangesicle, lemon, root beer and even adult faves, such as Guinness (yes, the beer) and bourbon. Plus, the Clarks have seasonal specialties, such as pumpkin pie and maple bacon flavors for fall. “We use real ingredients — no fake coloring,” he says. A box of 16 marshmallows will run you $7.50, and the adorable packaging is delightful for gift-giving.

Growing a Business, Growing a Family
Clark says the growth of Wondermade has been a blessing. “When you’re doing something well, people notice, and they ask you to do it well often. We thought we prepared for the business by setting sales goals, but we hit them, and it was surprising to us,” he says. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Growing a business parallels so well with growing a family. There’s a constant level of surprise. You can’t plan for everything that will come along, so you just hope and trust you built a solid foundation so things will continue to run smoothly.”

Check out all the Wondermade marshmallow flavors at www.wondermade.com.

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Buddy's Brick Bunch Ambassadors

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Three Central Florida kiddos were selected to be special ambassadors for Florida’s newest theme park.

Imagine having unlimited (free!) access to Legoland Florida and the chance to go on camera promoting super fun rides. We talked to the three Central Florida kids who were chosen from more than 400 applicants to be part of the first ever Buddy’s Brick Bunch, a panel of six children from around the state who are serving as ambassadors and kid reporters of Legoland Florida for one year. It’s easy to see why they were selected. These kids are amazing!

Alek Schoneck, Age 11, of Sanford (pictured above)
When Alek Schoneck was only 6 years old, he built the Lego Galactic Enforcer set in one morning. “I’ve been building with Lego bricks ever since I saw them when I was 18 months old,” says Schoneck, who is in sixth grade. Schoneck says his mom saw the call for Buddy’s Brick Bunch applicants on the Legoland Facebook page. “It was my birthday, and she asked if I wanted to apply. Of course, I said yes,” says Schoneck. “I like going behind the scenes, seeing the Lego stuff that’s coming!”

  • Number of times at Legoland: “I lost count!”
  • Favorite ride: Quest for Chi
  • Coolest perk: “They gave me an Ambassador package that lets me into any Legoland in the world for free — forever!”

Alexander Rodriguez, Age 9, of Orlando
Alexander Rodriguez’s passion for Legos is obvious. “I’ve been playing with them since I was little. I just kept getting better and better at building,” says Rodriguez, who is in fourth grade. His favorite Lego set is the Marvel Super Heroes Hulk’s Helicarrier Breakout. Once Rodriguez was selected, he says, “I got to go to Legoland and meet the other kids who were chosen. I was so surprised to get picked.” So far, he’s gotten to ride the World of Chima rides and talk to reporters about the newest section of Legoland Florida.

  • Number of times at Legoland: “About eight times.”
  • Favorite ride: Quest for Chi
  • Favorite activities: Swimming and playing video games

Angela Winiewicz, Age 9, of Orlando
After getting the call from Legoland that she was selected as a member of Buddy’s Brick Bunch, Angela Winiewicz says she “ran outside and screamed. I was so excited!” The fourth-grader says she plays with Legos because “I want to be an architect when I grow up.” Participating in her first ever media day was a little nerve-racking for Winiewicz, who says, “I was kind of nervous, but I was selected to put the chi in the chi stand. That was my special moment. The chi stand is where the energy comes from, and it powers the whole ride.”

  • Favorite Lego set: Lego Friends: Olivia’s Tree House
  • Favorite activities: Dancing, singing, climbing and building forts
  • Favorite Legoland activity: Island in the Sky
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Local Mom Anne Rue On HGTV

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We know Central Florida’s got talent, and here’s validation that we are correct.

Lake Mary mom and business owner Anne Rue was selected, out of applicants from around the country, as one of the top 10 finalists to compete on HGTV Star (formerly HGTV Design Star), whose season premiers Sunday, June 9, at 8 p.m.

If you’ve ever met Anne Rue, then you already know why they chose this charismatic woman to be a contestant. Her star has been shining brightly in the Central Florida area for years. Anne, whose expertise is interior design, spent six weeks with nine other creative finalists to display her star quality on camera …. And man, she’s got a lot of it! The HGTV Star contestants are competing for a product featured in One Kings Lane, a feature in HGTV Magazine and their own show on HGTV.

Of course, Anne’s lips are sealed when it comes to who won, but we’re looking forward to watching this season and cheering on this local mom every step of the way. We’re team Anne Rue!

AnneRue

  Anne’s website

  Anne’s Blog

Anne’s Facebook Fan Page

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Chocolate Kingdom

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Orlando’s new chocolate factory tour.

Want to know what heaven smells like? One visit to Chocolate Kingdom, and it’s pretty clear. It’s a family affair for the Schaked family, who just developed the royally fun, interactive family tour in Kissimmee.

This chocolate adventure got started when Edgar’s father announced that he was retiring and selling his chocolate shop in South Florida. Third-generation chocolatier Edgar, determined to keep the family`s passion alive, scrapped his engineering career to continue the family legacy. In 1995, the first Schakolad retail store opened in Winter Park. “We wanted to make it special,” says Schaked, who is married to Aileen and is dad to Max (9) and Sophie (7).

In addition to the Schakolad retail stores, the Schakeds also produce the annual Festival of Chocolate. From there came the idea for Chocolate Kingdom, an interactive chocolate factory tour. “We noticed the eagerness from people to learn more about how chocolate is made,” says Edgar. That’s when Edgar packed up his family and the group traveled to Germany and France and throughout Europe visiting chocolate museums. “I wanted to see how my children would react to the museums,” says Edgar. The reaction? Not good. “They were bored. There was a lot of reading,” he says.

Upon their return, the Schakeds developed a story that would make the Chocolate Kingdom tour entertaining for both adults and children. As a former Disney producer, Aileen created three characters, modeled after her own children, who help tell the story of chocolate. “Prince George the Good Looking is my son (complete with different-colored eyes), Princess Chocolina is my daughter, and the silly dragon is modeled after our dog, Lucy,” says Aileen.

The adorable story line follows Princess Chocolina on her 21st birthday. “Princes from around the land are coming to the castle to bring her a gift in hopes that she will choose one to marry,” says Edgar. The animated story comes replete with a dragon, a dashing prince and a fairy tale ending. “The dragon melts the prince’s gift of chocolate shoes, so the poor prince has to create a new pair,” says Edgar. The animated prince interacts with the audience throughout the 45-minute tour as tour goers learn how chocolate is made. Of course, the prince makes the chocolate shoes, and he gets the girl. Never fear, the audience gets a piece of the fairy tale action by receiving a pair of yummy chocolate shoes.

Tours run daily from 1  to 7 p.m. The cost is $15 for adults and $12 for children 4 to 12 years old.

Chocolate Overload
If you find your kiddo wanting more after the tour, good news! Chocolate Kingdom offers customized birthday parties, private group tours and even summer camps.

Summer camps will run one to three days. The children will learn how to make things with chocolate. We can’t think of a better way to get your chocolate fix!

For more information, call 407-705-3475 or go to ChocolateKingdom.com.

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Thiago: My Miracle Preemie

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One Cool Little Dude – Thiago’s Story

Written by Aixa Acevado, Thiago’s mom

I was 24 weeks pregnant when David and I got the horrific news from a maternal specialist that I would have to deliver my firstborn son within 48 hours. I remember desperately asking, “Why? What’s wrong? How is he going to survive?” According to my week-by-week pregnancy book, his lungs weren’t even developed yet. How was he going to breathe? The doctor just said, “You need to check into the hospital right now.” I was suffering from severe preeclampsia. Delivery of the baby, or bad placenta, is the only cure.

David and I walked quietly to the car, where I called my mother to give her the news. I began to sob, and so did David. Several hours after my arrival at Winnie Palmer Hospital, the doctor explained that the pregnancy would be induced. A C-section was going to be avoided at all costs due to the risk it posed on my life and the high possibility of not being able to have children in the future. The doctor explained that the baby would not survive the labor and delivery due to his size (less than one pound) and fragile state. He even said that if by some miracle the baby survived delivery, his lungs were too underdeveloped and his health was too poor to be able to survive on the outside, on his own. It was likely the baby would be dead before labor even began. We were emotionally drained.

I began to feel a little better and was able to hold off on the inducing for a few days in hopes that the baby could have that time to develop more. Every hour was crucial. I was given steroid shots to help his lungs grow. All too soon, my health got worse, and the doctor said they really should focus on my health because the baby’s chances for survival were slim. After five days of an emotional roller coaster, to say the least, I was induced, and Thiago Gabriel Torres was born — still in the sack, completely unscathed by the labor and delivery and alive. He weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces.

Although Thiago was born alive, that didn’t mean he would ever come home with us. Preemies sometimes die within a few hours of being born and as far out as two months later. Our story is one with a good ending, but an emotional and tough journey. Throughout Thiago’s stay, there were many people (my mother and sister specifically) and organizations that offered help and prayers. David became a solid rock and foundation for me, and Thiago’s biggest fan. I personally turned to the March of Dimes website for support and to read other preemie stories. I found comfort there. Thiago received a blood donation from Florida’s Blood Centers, and the Ronald McDonald House offered us a room to stay in while Thiago was in the NICU. We were blessed to have Dr. David A. Auerbach and the amazing staff at Winnie Palmer’s NICU. Three months and one week after Thiago was born — 99 days exactly — I got a call from Dr. Auerbach informing me that we could take him home.

Today Thiago is completely healthy. Most preemies are born with countless hurdles to overcome. Thiago only gets occupational therapy once a week because of minor residual effects from the intubation. Other than that, he is our amazing little miracle — he’s healthy, walking and talking. He is one cool little dude.

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Winnie Palmer Hospital
Donate Items
Knitter and crafter volunteers donate preemie hats and blankets to be used and enjoyed by babies, children and their families. If you enjoy knitting or crocheting and would like to donate your items, please contact volunteer services at 321-841-5932.

Florida’s Blood Centers
Donate Blood
One single blood donation can save up to three lives, lives like Thiago’s. Blood is always needed. The minimum age to donate blood is 16 years old. You can host a blood drive or visit one of the blood donation centers near you and save lives. www.floridasbloodcenters.org

March of Dimes
Donate Money
It’s estimated that $10.5 billion in loose change is sitting idle in American households. Imagine how far that would go in helping babies be born healthy. Donate your loose change to the March of Dimes. www.marchofdimes.com

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The Godfather of Wakeboarding

The Byerly family was photographed at their home on Lake Georgia in Winter Park. Photo by Katie Meehan

The Byerly family was photographed at their home on Lake Georgia in Winter Park. Photo by Katie Meehan

Scott Byerly is idolized in his industry.
But at home, the man behind the name is known simply as Dad.

Intro by Sabrina James Interview by Jana Waring Family Portraits by Katie Meehan Artwork by Son Duong

 

The Godfather of Wakeboarding

The wakeboarding industry has affectionately dubbed Scott Byerly the Godfather. The founder. The innovator. The star. Featured on FUSE TV and ESPN and having graced countless magazine covers (covered in tattoos and sporting an entire wardrobe of board shorts and oversized t-shirts), this 36-year-old looks like a kid himself. But behind his bad boy image is a down-to-earth family man.

It is no coincidence that Central Florida is now known as the Mecca of wakeboarding – after all, the Godfather grew up here. Living on a lake, right here in Casselberry, spending time doing water sports with his family,  cultivated Scott’s talent. From the age of four, he found his calling on the water, surfing and waterskiing.  Scott may not get the local credit that Walt Disney does for creating an industry, but he should. Now, talented riders from all over the world move here to pursue their dreams on the countless lakes and waterways that fill our area.

The Godfather of WakeboardingNestled in the midst of this “scene” is the Byerly’s home on Lake Georgia in Winter Park. Scott shares his home with his wife Kim and three daughters: Chelsea (15), Kirra (8) and Raina (2). Scott met Kim in 1996 and was immediately smitten. He asked her on a date and Kim politely declined. Later he courageously asked her out again. Kim wasn’t used to guys like Scott. At the time, his hair was dyed fire engine red. “He had this crazy colored hair and tattoos. I didn’t date guys like him,” Kim explains. She finally agreed, on one condition: That he dye his hair a different color. Scott obliged, and dyed it dark blue. “It looked black to me,” laughs Kim. “We got pizza, went to Rocky’s Arcade and have been together ever since. I married my best friend.”

Scott and Kim have turned the Byerly name into an empire. With the Byerly Toe Jam (an annual wakeskating contest in Central Florida) and the 2009 Byerly Bus Tour, Scott is increasing the awareness of wakeboarding and wakeskating across the country. He’s had his hand in designing signature Byerly versions of board shorts, t-shirts, wakeboards and shoes for well-known brands like O’Neill and Reef. In 2005 he took it one step further with the creation of his own board company – Byerly Boards. Scott has successfully evolved from star rider with raw talent, to hard-core, respected businessman.

The Godfather of Wakeboarding

Scott may seem like an unlikely parent, but it only takes a moment to realize that wakeboarding is not the only thing that comes naturally to him. He was meant to be a dad. And his girls are his most important achievements. Even though he is living a life that every teenaged boy would envy, the legacy this Godfather will leave is happy children who grew up as he did: On a lake, together as a family … living the dream.

PLAYGROUND’S Jana Waring sat down with Scott and Kim to find out what the Byerly family is all about.

Tell me about your life growing up here in Central Florida?
I really just remember being outside all the time with my family – especially on the lake. That is what I did my whole life.

Where did you go to high school?
I went to Lyman. School wasn’t my passion. My “education” was being on the water. That is how I learned to be successful. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had gone to college.

What is the significance behind your tattoos?
I have my kids’ names on me, and my name tattooed on my back. Those are the most significant. Oh yeah, and I have my wedding ring tattooed on my finger-that’s meaningful, too. [Laughs] My girls are pretty used to the tattoos because I have always had them, but the other kids at their private school always stare at me when I drop my kids off. Whatever.

Tell us about your girls… what are they like?
Kirra has so much energy and is really athletic. She is on the volleyball team and wakeskates a lot. Chelsea is in high school. She likes hanging out with her friends and her boyfriend. She is almost 16 and is doing what high school kids do. She is the most like a girly girl, even though she likes to wakeboard. She always has her nails and hair done and looks really nice. The little one, Raina, is much more of a handful than the other girls were at her age, for sure. But she’s only two.

 

The Godfather of Wakeboarding“I want to be remembered as someone who put everything into a sport he believed in and who was a good father and role model.”

 

So you’re the only guy stuck in a house full of girls?
I guess technically I am, but a lot of my team riders come and ride at the house. We’re always riding, filming or doing something here. And my 5-year-old English Bulldog Deuce is the other guy in the house. He loves the water. He’s a really good dog.

What is the hardest part of being a parent for you?
Trying to tell my kids what to do, like the whole, “Don’t do what I did” thing. I wasn’t always the best kid. I also think the boyfriend thing is tough. I know exactly what the guys are thinking and I really want to teach my daughters to respect themselves. I don’t want to be that super strict dad, but … I guess it’s all about finding that balance. I am just going to take it one daughter at a time. Sometimes I feel though, that by having three girls, I am somehow getting paid back for something I did when I was younger.

Do you think any of your girls will follow in your footsteps?
I want them to be involved in the company, Byerly Boards, for sure. But not like what I did with contests and stuff like that. They should focus on education and doing something they are passionate about. But I do want them out there on the water enjoying it.

The 2009 Byerly Bus Tour started in May, promoting wakeboarding, wakeskating and Byerly Boards across the country. What’s it like?
You wake up to being in a new place every day, new lake, different people. Everyone wants to ride behind the boat, try all the new products and hang with the team and me. That’s pretty much the typical day. Just being out on the water all day. It’s cool to wake up in a new city, new lake, new atmosphere, and everyone’s there for the same reason.

What age groups are coming out to ride with you?
Last year, we had younger kids, from the age of 7, to guys in their fifties come out. Anyone can do the sport. There are people who have been following me since I first started. They hear that I’m coming to town and turn out just to see me. Then there are people who don’t know who I am. They have a Byerly board because it was at the shop. You get all different types of people.

With the creation of Byerly Boards with Scott Bouchard in 2005, your name has become a brand. How does that feel?
It feels really good. I have been in the industry a long time as a rider, and this was the next step for me. It makes me feel good that people still like to see me out there in their towns and in the magazines. Now I am trying to make the best boards and have the best team. It just feels really cool to see my stuff all over the world everywhere I go. I never would have dreamt that I would have all of this.

The Godfather of Wakeboarding

Your wife helps runs the business. What is it like mixing business with pleasure?
In marriage, you are partners in everything you do, so it’s only natural to partner with her on the business side.

Another event you have coming up is the 2009 Toe Jam right here in Orlando. Can you tell us about that?
I used to wakeboard a lot, wakeskating was something I did on the side. Then I started wakeskating a lot more and got into it. So, Sean Dishman and I started The Toe Jam. It’s a wakeskate-only contest that started out at The Projects [a privately-owned lake in Bithlo]. This is our sixth year coming up. It’s grown larger every year, with more and more people riding in it. More tricks are getting landed. It’s even on FUEL TV now. It’s been really good.

Kevin Michael, Editor of Wakeboarding Magazine, dishes on why Scott is known as “The Godfather” of Wakeboarding:
“Scott stormed onto the scene In the early 90s with a relaxed “wakeboarding” style that resembled what was happening in skateboarding and snowboarding. He was really focused on grabbing his board while in the air and tweaking his moves into a true art form. That, combined with his long hair and tattoos, created an industry image that drew a lot of people to the sport. As time went on, Scott’s style became universally accepted as the most appealing way to ride and he invented moves that are still some of the most respected. That’s when people started to look at him as a type of ‘Godfather to wakeboarding. Outside of his celebrity status and contributions to the industry, Scott’s reputation as a loyal and genuine person has transcended the sport and really added to his legend.”

How did wakeskating evolve from wakeboarding?
You ride on a wakeboard strapped in all the time. It kind of got repetitive. I started wakeskating to get away from it. We always kind of copied skateboarding stuff when we wakeboarded and now wakeskating is more like skateboarding, but in the water. I enjoy wakeskating more, I think. I used to skateboard when I was kid. Wakeskating is more free form. You do fall more, and it requires more practice, but it’s a nice change.

Are families welcome to come out and watch The Toe Jam?
It’s definitely a family-oriented contest. All of my kids will be there. Half of the kids entered in the contest are under 18 years old.

The Godfather of Wakeboarding

What direction do you see these sports heading?
With the economy like it is, people are doing more family stuff. I think we’re going to see a lot more people going on the boat with their kids, which is a good thing since the kids are the future, especially in wakeboarding and wakeskating. As for me, I just want to keep doing the contest, keep it simple, and keep it to the roots. I want to progress the sport and the awareness of it.

What is the legacy you hope to leave?
I want to be remembered as someone who put everything into a sport he believed in and who was a good father and role model.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
No way. I like my life just the way it is. If I didn’t have kids, I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without my wife, that’s for sure.

Kim: You’re sweet.

[Scott laughs] I’m serious.

 

Local Byerly Favorites

Places to shop: Home Depot and Publix. I don’t have to shop for clothing because I get clothes and accessories from my sponsors. We usually wear O’Neill clothing, the whole family does. I’ll go to the mall, but I don’t really like to.

Date Night Spots: We go to the Orlando Magic games a lot for our nights out. The last place we went to dinner alone was the Ravenous Pig, and it was for Valentine’s Day.

Family Dinner Spots: Fujiyama Sushi on University Boulevard. The girls love sushi. We don’t go out to dinner very much with our toddler, but we do a lot of take out from Outback and Thai Villa. Kirra loves Kobe Steakhouse.

Places to go as a family: We enjoy going to Lake Eola. Chelsea really likes to go shopping at the mall. And Raina loves Sea World.

Theme Park: We like to go to the Not So Scary Halloween and the Mickey’s Very Christmas at Disney. It is great to go to the park when the crowds are so much smaller. But the rest of the year, we love Sea World.

Place to go unwind: I unwind at home and on the lake with my family, but the beach is probably the only other place that I get to unwind.

Family Travel Destination: We love the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Texas. But we also went snowboarding a couple of years ago in North Carolina and had such a great time getting the kids to try and ride.

The Godfather of Wakeboarding

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Queen of Versailles

Jacqueline Siegel

In a town known for making “Dreams Come True,” it should come as no surprise that just outside the Disney gates a real-life fairytale exists, complete with a castle, king and queen. Jacqueline Siegel, well-known socialite, wife to David Siegel (the Westgate Resort timeshare mogul), and mother to eight children is building the largest home in America, right here in Windermere.

Written by Jana Waring
Portraits by Katie Meehan

It seems hard to define what is normal in the world today. For example, I asked for and received a $130 electric toothbrush for Christmas. The Triumph, as it is appropriately titled, comes equipped with a video timer that tells me where to brush again and when I’m brushing correctly. I can never go back to a regular brush. I know I don’t actually need the Triumph, but now that my perception of reality has changed, I believe I do. This is what I imagine it’s like to be the wife of a billionaire. Because as Jacqueline Siegel tells me about her life, I am not sure she knows how extraordinary it sounds and how different it is from my life.

“Even though we are building the biggest house in America,” she tells me as we are touring her “temporary” home in Isleworth, “We want it to be a home.” Jacqueline didn’t set out to break any record; her good friend Robin Leach (of “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams” fame) was the one to tell her first. The Siegels broke ground on the 90,000 square foot “Versailles” a couple of years ago. It sits adjacent to Lake Butler and is named after the French palace that inspired its design.

The digitally-created rendering gives a sneek peek of the front of the largest house in America.

The digitally-created rendering gives a sneek peek of the front of the largest house in America.

It wasn’t always palaces and champagne for Jackie (as her friends call her). She grew up in Binghamton, a tiny town in upstate New York, in a modest home with two hardworking parents and three siblings. The entire family shared one bathroom during her childhood and she remembers the inconvenience of having to wait in line to use it. Perhaps that is the reason “Versailles” will boast 30 bathrooms. Jackie will never have to wait in line again.

Looking to escape her small town and make something of her life, Jackie put herself through college and received a Computer Engineering degree. She landed a job at IBM. Her dream of owning a home valued at $100,000 was well on its way to becoming a reality. But when she noticed her cube-dwelling office peers were counting down the days to retirement, she was motivated to move to Manhattan to model. After finding success there, she moved to Florida to compete in the Mrs. Florida pageant (and won). Then, as David explains, when Jacqueline walked into a party hosted by a mutual friend, it was love at first sight. David romanced Jackie and whisked her into his world: The world of a billionaire.

Coming home to a house full of at least fifteen people is typical for the Siegel family. After all, there are eight children and five nannies that roam the marble floors there. As we tour the backyard complete with a lakefront custom pool, three of her dogs, all of them with white fur, are jumping all over her. “We like white animals. See our peacocks over there? They’re white. We used to have a white tiger too, as a pet, but not anymore.” She talks of her peacocks and pet tiger in the same way that most American families talk about their family dog.

Top to Bottom Row, Left to Right: Jonquil, Debbie, Jacqueline, Daniel, Victoria, David, Jacqueline, Jordan, Drew

Top to Bottom Row, Left to Right: Jonquil, Debbie, Jacqueline, Daniel, Victoria, David, Jacqueline, Jordan, Drew

It’s not until I am driving her to the site of “Versailles” or what she describes as her new home (and I describe as a potential Disney resort) that it dawns on me that I am responsible for a beautiful billion-dollar commodity sitting in my van. This unsettling realization makes me want to floor it to our lunch destination as quickly as possible, although I am driving more slowly and carefully than ever before. It gives us time to make conversation.

“David and I did not exchange Christmas gifts this year,” she says, “We decided not to, you know, since times are tough.” For one second, I am rushed with guilt for selfishly wanting a luxury toothbrush. “How sweet … and normal,” I think. Then, I see “Versailles” and think again. Perhaps there is no such thing as normal.

The following interview with Jacqueline Siegel was conducted during a tour of her current home in Isleworth, while visiting Versailles and over lunch at Bravo on Sand Lake Road with her mother Debbie Mallery and friends Nita Bass and Shari Crabtree.

What are the names and ages of your eight children? I’ll start with the twin girls, Jacqueline and Jordan, who are two years old. Then we have Drew, who is a boy and five. Then we have Debbie who is seven, Daniel who is eight, David who is nine, Victoria who is 12 and Jonquil, who is 15 [and actually an adopted niece]. Everyone’s name begins with a D or J, named after one of us. All three boys have the same birthday and were born on Memorial Day … conceived on Labor Day.

Wow, how did you do it? That is a lot of kids in a short period of time. I was the most fearful for the first one. I didn’t start having kids until my thirties. I was afraid because I was a model. I thought it would ruin my figure. But after the first one, I got my figure back pretty quick. I went to the beach and was wearing a bikini, like, a week later. So for the rest of them, I went into auto-pilot.

Nita: And she had them all naturally.

Yeah there were no c-sections. We love having a big family. Even though we are building the biggest house in America, we want it to be a home. Sometimes you hear fighting and screaming but other times you hear laughter. I think that when the day comes that I don’t have that anymore, I’ll really miss it.

 

A digital rendering of what will be the exquisite ballroom inside the biggest home in America.

Did you set out to build the biggest house in America? No, not at all. We were just building the house that we wanted for our family. Then we kept adding things to it, so it slowly started getting bigger. Robin Leach was actually the person who told us. We’re friends with him and he used to have that show, you know, about those big homes. [She is nonchalantly referring to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. ] Then other people starting approaching us to sell us things like security systems and they would tell us, too. It turns out it’s the biggest house under one roof that will be resided in. The Biltmore in North Carolina is bigger, but it’s a museum now, not a residence.

Do you have an estimated time of completion for the house? No, it will probably take a few more years. My husband was originally pushing to get it done so we could throw his mother’s 100th birthday party at the house, but then she passed away. So, now there is less of a sense of urgency. Then all this stuff with the economy hit and the banks are in trouble. We’re still doing stuff slowly, but we are also using a lot of our personal money to fund my husband’s business and the Westgate Foundation that provides money for David’s employees who are going through financial hardships. It is really important to us that we help these families who have helped us so much. They have children and we want to take care of them, too. So the home building process has slowed down, but we are still working on it.

What is going in your house that you are most excited about? We are looking forward to all the fireplaces and cozy bedrooms. There are so many different sections, so the home will not feel as large as it is. There will be two movie theaters, one for us and one for the children. Ours will look like the Paris Opera House and will have those private balconies on the second floor. I think my husband is most excited about that room. He just got me Gone With the Wind and the Godfather series. I have never seen those movies. The whole reason I am waiting, is to experience the movies in the new theater. My husband wants me to see them there. I am also pretty excited about the water slide for the kids and the ballroom. I am so looking forward to throwing some amazing parties there.

How many people do you have on staff in your home? We have five nannies right now. They each have their own assignments, with one specifically for the twins. One of the nannies is considered the driver and takes the kids to school, lessons and friends’ houses. We also have a housekeeper. We used to have more, but my husband thought we should cut back because of the bad economy and the layoffs he had to make at his company. He thought we should suffer too. We even have our kids doing chores now. They take out the garbage and stuff like that. We explained that the whole country is going through a hard time right now and they have to pitch in. They understand.

What do the nannies provide that you cannot? For one thing, they provide safety for our children. Living in a big home, with two-year-old twins, it’s difficult. One twin starts running down one hall and the other twin runs down the other. As one person, you don’t know which one to go get. Or sometimes they can even get lost in the house. We have a big pool and we live on a lake. I wouldn’t tolerate it for one minute if they were not being watched and ended up floating in the pool or something. They also provide love. For me, nannies are employees. But for the children—and I talked to a pediatrician about this—they are like extended family.

What is a typical day like in the life of Jacqueline Siegel? Every day is a new day—I have no regular routine. My day usually starts off with three of the four dogs jumping on me. One of the nannies will be cooking breakfast and that will wake the dogs up and they’ll come find me. That’s at around 5:30 a.m. Then I have breakfast with the kids, ride to school with them, exercise and get my husband off to work. And then I usually have a lunch meeting for charity, social obligations, the Mrs. Florida Pageant or TravelHost Orlando Magazine . [She is the producer of the pageant and a partner in J&S Media which publishes the magazine.] But then my day can change. My husband can call and tell me, “Hey, we have to go to Las Vegas this afternoon.” We have our own private plane. In an instant we can take off to go look at a property in Cancun or meet with a banker in New York.

Has having so much money affected the people you choose to surround yourself with? I remember when I had my 20-year high school reunion. One of the friends I reconnected with started emailing me all the time. She wanted me to buy her a new car. I told her that I didn’t earn the money and didn’t have the right to do that. She never called me again. Some people are moochers – others are true friends. I have closed down my huge circle of friends. Now I focus more on my family and have a smaller handful of friends that I enjoy more.

Some people may think it’s easier to raise kids having money. Would you agree with that? Money certainly helps. The kids need clothes and a nice pair of sneakers. [Jackie asks her friend Shari what she thinks.]

Shari: I would say no. Raising kids is difficult no matter what.

Both David and I came from modest beginnings. He was raised in a one-room apartment in Miami Beach. His parents would hang a sheet to separate the room so they could have some privacy. We never forget where we came from and that helps us to not spoil our kids.

Do your kids know that your financial situation is not like everyone else’s? They do know there is a difference. They see it when they go to their friends’ homes. They are not spoiled by any means. I do remember a funny story though. One time, we flew commercial for some reason, and one of the younger kids asked, “Mommy, what are all these strangers doing on our plane?” They are used to traveling on our private jet.

Do you think having money changes the way you must parent your children? It doesn’t for us, because my husband is very careful about how he spends money and doesn’t spoil the kids. We have to shut the lights off every time we leave a room. We drive regular cars and keep them for a long time. The only reason we own a plane, we actually own two, is so that David can run his business efficiently and easily visit his resorts. Before he owned all of the resorts, he could have had a plane, but didn’t. It’s not a luxury for us; it’s more of a necessity. We believe in hand-me-downs for the kids’ clothes. And if you look at our current house—to go through the whole tour it takes about 45 minutes—we use every single inch of it. It’s very lived in.

How do you set rules and boundaries in your household? I’m not a super strict mom. I think I use my husband, like, “If you don’t listen I’m going to tell Dad.” I don’t know if that’s the best way to do it but it seems to work. I put the fear of Dad … or God. [Laughs]

Were there things in your upbringing that you felt necessary to incorporate into your children’s lives? Show the children a lot of love. Give them hugs. Give them praise. Something may not be that important to you, but it’s important to them and you have to acknowledge it. Even if they pick a flower and give it to you and you’re really busy, you have to take the time and say, “Thank you so much.” My twins did that. They picked some flowers and I stuck them in my hair to show it meant something to me. [During the photo shoot, little Debbie Siegel did pick a flower for her mom and you could see Jackie’s face light up.]

You’ve mentioned that you think Central Florida is a great place to raise a family. Where do you and your family spend time outside the home? We ride our bikes down trails and through Isleworth. My kids love having me around. We play kickball. Just last weekend, we went out on a field and had chicken fights and played Ring Around the Rosie. We enjoy the water parks and theme parks: SeaWorld, Universal and Disney. We can see the Disney fireworks from our backyard. We don’t overdo it with the parks, but we go a few times a year to each one. After all, we live where every child in the country dreams about.

Is there ever a time when you take a moment to realize how different your life is from what you imagined as a child? My biggest wish for myself, as a child, was to find love. I remember thinking on our wedding day that I couldn’t believe it took me 30 years to find my true love. David is the man of my dreams. I sat back and took a moment to thank God for that. I do feel like I have to pinch myself sometimes. My life is like a fairytale in so many ways.

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Versailles

Exactly what does it take to be the largest home in America?

90,000 Square Feet
30 Bathrooms
15 Bedrooms
11 Kitchens
6 Pools
2 Movie Theaters
8,000 Square Foot Master Suite
Two-story Front Door (weighing more than a ton)
3.7 Million Dollar Custom Windows
Full-service Health Spa (with massage rooms)
Indoor Roller Skating Rink
Two-lane Bowling Alley
Stadium Tennis Court (seating 200 spectators)
Full-sized Baseball Diamond
Underground Parking for 30 Cars
Wine Cellar (holds more than 20,000 bottles of wine)

Information provided by Joe Bathalter, Project Manager for Versailles
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