PLAYguide: Travel

10 Downtown O-Town Spots for Kids


Words by Amanda Keefer
themammamiablog.com

Think downtown Orlando is off limits for families and especially kids? Think again. Downtown features some great places your kids will love.

Flip through the pictures below to explore downtown O-Town:

Click anywhere to see next slide, or use arrows at the bottom to navigate.

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LEGOLAND Beach Retreat Photo Tour

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat Bookings Now Open

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat bungalow interiorLEGOLAND® Florida Resort just announced that bookings are now open for its second on-site accommodations, the eagerly anticipated LEGOLAND Beach Retreat. Reservations are available for stays beginning June 1, 2017 through Sept. 4, 2017.

New images released today reveal even more of the brick-tastic, beachy details that guests will discover at this recreational paradise #BuiltForKids. LEGOLAND Beach Retreat combines the fun of surf and sand with the creativity of LEGO® building sets, and will offer picturesque lake views from nearly every sun-kissed corner.

To make a reservation at LEGOLAND Beach Retreat, visit www.LEGOLAND.com/florida. Room rates start at $182 and vary by season, date and availability. Packages including theme park tickets are also available.

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat amenities include:

  • 83 beach-themed bungalows offering 166 separate rooms
  • Whimsical LEGO décor inside and out
  • Spacious rooms that sleep up to five, including a cozy area designed just for kids with a bunk bed and trundle bed
  • Shaded patios where parents can put their feet up, kick back and relax
  • Multiple outdoor play areas where kids can slide, jump and climb in view of bungalow patios
  • Large themed swimming pool with an expansive sandy play area
  • Centrally located clubhouse featuring a restaurant, pool bar and LEGO building area for kids
  • A bountiful breakfast buffet included with each night’s stay
  • Early access to the nearby theme park

Announced in March 2016 as part of the largest period of growth and expansion in the resort’s nearly five-year history, LEGOLAND Beach Retreat will join the 152-room LEGOLAND Hotel, more than doubling on-site accommodations and giving guests even more reasons to play-and-stay — at LEGOLAND Florida Resort.

Grand opening festivities and additional amenities will be announced at a later date. To be among the first to receive the latest news about LEGOLAND Beach Retreat, sign up at www.LEGOLANDBeachRetreat.com.

For more information about visiting LEGOLAND Florida Resort, including savings on advance purchase of admission tickets, multi-tier annual passes, special events, VIP experiences, educational programs, services for guests with disabilities, on-site accommodations and much more, visit www.LEGOLAND.com/florida.

 

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LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

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LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

LEGOLAND Beach Retreat at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. (PHOTO / LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)

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11 Kid-Friendly Things To Do in NYC

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Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Playground Magazine.
Words by Tracey C. Velt

New York City
11 Kid-Friendly Things to Do in NYC
Navigating “The Big Apple” Can Be a Fun Adventure For You and The Kids. 
Afraid that New York City (NYC) is too adult for a family vacate? No way! After spending the last six
months hauling my 8-year-old daughter, Sofia, around to her big brother’s football camps and college visits, it was time for a mommy-and-daughter trip. So, I persuaded a friend, Suzi McClain of Clermont, to come along. We had a jam-packed schedule with a ton of walking and shockingly few complaints from our kids, Sofia, Gracie (8) and Connor (10). The first order of business is always finding a hotel that is convenient. I like The Westin New York at Times Square (43rd Street and 8th Avenue) because it’s just off the beaten path, but close to the action of Times Square. We upgraded to a roomy suite so all five of us could stay together. After that, it was adventure time. Here are the top 11 things to do:
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  1. American Girl Place
    A trip to NYC wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the American Girl (AG) store. It’s three floors of “Mommy, can I get this?” happiness. We had reservations at the American Girl Cafe ($26-plus per person) for a late lunch. We showed up about an hour before to do some shopping. Even Connor found a goody—Meatloaf, the AG dog. Lunch was in a perfectly pink cafe, where they set the dolls in special chairs at the table. I had a veggie sandwich, while Sofia noshed on chicken fingers. Both regular and children’s menus are available. Have a birthday to celebrate? Pay a little extra for the birthday package, and you get a cake and singing. Not in the frame of mind to drop big bucks on a meal? You can make an appointment to get your child’s doll’s hair done at the AG Salon. Kiddos can choose from tons of different styles. Prices range from $10 to $20 per hairstyle.
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  2. Top of the Rock
    If you want beautiful views of the city, Top of the Rock (30 Rockefeller Plaza) is the place to be. I think it’s better than the Empire State Building because there are three viewing levels with clear plastic barriers, rather than the walls and railings at the Empire State Building. Give the kids a history lesson by pointing out famous buildings and bridges. Plus, there are some great photo opps here. Prices range from $27 per adult to $17 per child.
  3. Serendipity 3
    Dining in the city is always a challenge. Many of the best restaurants for adults aren’t great for picky kids (or don’t even have kids menus!). While a bit touristy, Serendipity 3 is a perfect place to bring the kids. The décor is kitschy, and the menu is full of kiddie faves, such as mac and cheese and burgers. Or, skip dinner and go for dessert. While the frozen hot chocolate is a well-known favorite, I prefer the hot fudge sundae. Plan to share, as the portions are humongous.
  4. Ellen’s Stardust Diner

    Another touristy place well worth the trip is Ellen’s Stardust Diner. We chose to go there for breakfast. Portions are large, and the place is loud, in a good way. It’s a blast to see your waiter jump up on the back of the booth and belt out a show tune. Seriously, the waiters are super talented and take turns singing during your meal. Sofia and Gracie squealed with joy when a waitress sang Let It Go from the Disney movie Frozen. Did I mention that the wait staff members are all trying to make it big on Broadway? Quite a few of them succeed.
  5. Central Park 

    No trip to NYC would be complete without a trip to Central Park. At the entrance to the park, on Columbus Circle, there’s a huge park, so the kiddos can swing, slide and climb. Our kids had a ball navigating the huge rock at the end of the playground. If you want to spend a small fortune, take a

    carriage ride around the park.
  6. Brooklyn Bridge
    From Central Park, walk to 59th and Lexington to catch the subway down to the Brooklyn Bridge. A subway ride is always an experience for the kids, and the train drops you off right at the entrance to the bridge. About a mile long, the bridge is a fun walk. The cars running under our walkway fascinated our kids. The walk will generate a robust appetite, so plan to eat. Just over the bridge, in Brooklyn Heights (about a 10-minute walk), are some great eateries. Try the organic goodies at Siggy’s Good Food (76 Henry St.).
  7. Broadway Show
    My favorite part of the whole trip was the Broadway play we saw—Matilda. Based on the book by
    Roald Dahl, this fast-paced show featured lots of children singing and dancing. I recommend you carefully select a kid-friendly show and try to see a matinee, if possible. Evening shows start at 7:30 or 8. After a full day, the evening shows can be a bit late for little ones. Spring for the more expensive seats so the kids can really get in on the action. If possible, have your child preview the movie before you attend. My daughter watched the movie Matilda so she would have a better grasp of the show. It’s not vital, but it is helpful. In the past, we’ve seen Mary Poppins and Spider-Man. Our tickets in the front, center orchestra cost about $200 per person.

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  8. Statue of Liberty
    Everyone I talked to told me the kids would be bored with this. They were wrong. We took a taxi down to Battery Park and hopped on the ferry—a fun 15-minute ride to the statue. For $18 (per adult) and $9 (per child 4 through 12 years old), you can take the ferry and walk (or ride the elevator) to the pedestal. For $3 more per person, you can access the crown. Access to “Lady Liberty’s” crown recently reopened after renovation, so we paid extra to walk up to the crown. Warning: There are no elevators up to the crown. It’s a very narrow, steep, winding walk—almost 300 stairs to the top. Our kids bounded up the stairs with just a few “Are we there yet?” comments. The crown is a very small area, big enough for the five of us to crouch together for a picture. After about two minutes, the kids were ready to walk back down. However, Sofia has announced that
    it was the best part of our trip. Don’t forget to go to the information booth and grab a junior ranger worksheet. Kids can fill out the worksheet, turn it in and get a junior ranger badge.
  9. Doughnut Plant 
    If you’re looking for a quick snack or after-dinner dessert, then hit up Doughnut Plant, with locations in Chelsea and the Lower East Side. The doughnuts are heavenly. I prefer the crème brûlée doughnut, while the kids liked the chocolate and glazed doughnuts.
  10. FAO Schwarz
    Not into American Girl dolls? Then head to the FAO Schwarz toy store. Say hello to the toy soldier at the front door; then head to the second floor to jump on the big piano made famous by Tom Hanks in the movie Big. Gracie decided on a stuffed lamb from Build-a-Bear with an adorable Statue of Liberty outfit. Connor bought a box of crazy and disgusting-flavored Jelly Belly jelly beans and begged us to try such hideous flavors as baby wipes and barf. Sofia bought a Frozen Anna doll. Good times.
  11. American Museum of Natural History 
    Have your own night at the museum, and check out the dinosaur skeletons in this famous museum. Connor was our Indian specialist and told us all about the lifestyle of the American Indian. It’s easy to get lost in this huge museum, and the dioramas are incredible. Admission is free, although a donation is requested, generally around $12.50 for kids and $22 for adults. For an additional fee, I recommend a walk through The Butterfly Conservatory.

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MANGIA!

Best Breakfast Sarabeth’s Kitchen: I’m a sucker for the lemon and ricotta pancakes, while my daughter loves the eggs Benedict. Connor and Gracie both had the kids pancakes,w which are fluffy and delicious.

Best for Celeb Spotting: While not necessarily kid-friendly, this East Village restaurant is great for a parent night out. When I was there last, Jake Gyllenhaal and his girlfriend were dining at the table next to us. Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux had been in just a week before. The food is out of this world. Try the risotto; it’s to die for.

Best Pizza: John’s Pizzeria. With several locations, including one in Times Square, which was converted from a church, John’s Pizzeria had delish pizza and is close to the theaters. Great for an early dinner before heading to a show.

 

 

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Hidden Gems

We go off the beaten path to give you relaxing Gulf of Mexico beach vacations.
Words by Brittany Perry. 
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There’s something for everyone on the white sand shores of Sarasota. Whether you’re looking for the No. 1 beach in the United States (Siesta Beach on Siesta Key), amazing art museums or the worlds’ best pancakes, you can fi nd it all in this quaint Gulf town. It’s the small crowds, welcoming community and laid-back vibe that will keep you coming back for more. Start your vacation with giant pancakes, stuffed French toast, fresh omelets and homemade biscuits from Yoder’s, a traditional family favorite (yodersrestaurant.com). Featured on Food Network for their amazing pies, Yoder’s also stands out for its seasonal breakfast options, like

cinnamon roll pancakes. The Amish market right next door sells handmade goods, local honey and fresh produce.
Siesta Key beaches rank No. 1 in the United States, trumping even Hawaii’s postcard-perfect beaches. The powder white sand is unbelievably soft, the walkways and restrooms are clean and the water is crystal clear. Arrive early to get good parking, which may be limited during peak season, or take a short walk from one of Siesta Key’s many hotels and condos. Rent a bike to explore, enjoy the incredible sand sculpting competition every November or just kick back and enjoy the beach.
Beat the heat wiScreen Shot 2016-06-21 at 12.42.36 PMth a visit to Mote Aquarium, a marine research facility, animal hospital and interactive aquarium in one. Shark lovers will enjoy the open-water Shark Zone and budding marine biologists will love the touch tanks and other interactive marine life exhibits. Finish the day with a meal at Owen’s Fish Camp, a quirky establishment with live music, a tire swing for the kids and colorful, delicious Florida eats. Or do some shopping, strolling and dining at St. Armand’s Circle, which offers superb exotic boutiques, art galleries, beach shops, sophisticated restaurants and nightlife.
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Known as the tarpon fishing capital of the world, Boca Grande is the ultimate old Florida
hidden getaway. From kayaking through mangroves with manatees and exploring lighthouses
to enjoying fresh-caught, mouth-watering seafood along the shore, this charming town at
the fringe of Gasparilla Island is the perfect fit for a relaxing, no-fuss, tourist-free weekend
on the Gulf.
The Outlet at the Inlet kicks off your day with some of the best Belgian waffles, home fries and custom-order omelets on the coast. Then, head to the miles of beaches along Gasparilla Island State Park for a unique, secluded experience. Tour the local Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum or the historic Gasparilla Island Lighthouse, which has been used in both Delaware and Florida. Miles of bike paths wind through Boca Grande around historical streets and under shaded trees, making bike rental a fun and easy activity to enjoy.
Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 12.54.39 PMBook a fishing trip with a local charter service hailed for kid-friendly guides, such as Reel
Intense Inshore Charters, so you don’t miss out on the catches that make Boca Grande one of the most popular fi shing destinations in the world. Some charters will even clean and cook your fi sh for you. If DIY dinner is not on the menu and you’re looking for a hearty meal, stop by what many locals consider the best establishment in town, The Temptation Restaurant. The fresh seafood from this small, quiet eatery rivals the flavors of some of the fanciest restaurants on the Gulf but in an easygoing atmosphere.
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Nestled in Florida’s Panhandle, Destin is a definitive blend of upscale charm and southern
spirit. Not only does Destin boast some of the most secluded and well-kept beaches in
Florida, but it also has a thriving community and outstanding restaurants everywhere you
turn. Nightlife in Destin scales up in the summertime when in-the-know travelers escape to
Destin for resort-style relaxation and weekly fireworks lighting up the night sky over the Gulf.
No visit to Destin would be complete without a taste of its eclectic, award-winning restaurants. Kids will enjoy feeding gators at Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar and Grillright after a tempting meal of seafood and burgers. Don’t forget to add your name with Sharpie to the colorful walls as a reminder of your trip! If you’re looking for the best BBQ in Northwest Florida, look no further than the award-winning pulled pork, ribs and brisket at the Buck’s Smokehouse. 
Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 1.05.55 PMDestin’s Henderson Beach State Park lets you enjoy preserved Florida nature at its finest while still keeping close to world-class resorts and culture. Pay a small fee (per vehicle) to drive on the beach and enjoy the gentle waves and seashells of Henderson Beach State Park. Or, pack a picnic to enjoy on the sand. End the day at the Destin Harbor Boardwalk with a line-up of boutiques and side attractions. If you’re in Destin on a Thursday night in summer, you may be in luck. Starting June 2, fireworks will light up the sky when Emerald Grande at Harbor Walk Villageputs on a spectacular summer show you can catch from the docks or harbor.
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Escape to Asheville

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Run through the flower garden at North Carolina Arboretum

Tucked into the palm of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the tiny town of Asheville, North Carolina, never ceases to amaze visitors looking for an action-packed getaway in an unforgettable setting. From zip-lining to hiking to white-water rafting, Asheville’s adventure offerings are as seemingly endless as its options for amazing farm-to-fork dining. The area is filled with excellent parks. The welcoming downtown boasts a bevy of whimsical independent boutiques and family-friendly cafés, and nearby towns, including Black Mountain and Brevard, make for perfect side trips for those who like to wander.

Words by Kristen Manieri

GETTING THERE

Allegiant Air out of Sanford offers direct flights to Asheville with a schedule that’s ideal for long weekends away and at prices that are easy on the wallet. For those looking to drive, expect a straightforward nine-hour trip.

STAY

Anchor a weekend or weeklong stay by checking into either Aloft (from $150 per night) or Grove Park Inn (from $199 per night). Aloft is centrally located downtown, and its colorful modern decor and floor-to-ceiling chalkboard at check-in are popular with the kids. That being said, the palatial Grove Park Inn will give your brood the sense that you’ve checked into a colossal stone castle, complete with mammoth fireplaces, a sprawling golf course, a lavish spa and some of the best sunset views in the city. Both properties offer outdoor pools with stellar views of Blue Ridge’s shadowy peaks.

Aloft Asheville Downtown

Aloft Asheville Downtown

PLAY

Families with kids under 7 years old will enjoy the dozens of kid-friendly hikes Asheville offers, including the 0.75-mile Natural Garden Trail, located at the 434-acre North Carolina Arboretum. Check in at the Education Center, where you can borrow Discovery Day Packs, which come with binoculars, nets and laminated cards detailing the trail’s flora and fauna. These are free to borrow and only require a driver’s license to reserve.

 

Kids as young as 3 years old can tackle the Lookout Trail, located in the quaint town of Montreat, about 18 miles from downtown Asheville. While the latter part of this 45-minute, 0.57-mile hike climb is fairly steep, the moderate exertion will be well worth the effort, as unforgettable views of the summit of Lookout Mountain await. While you’re in the area, don’t miss a visit to Robert Lake Park, loved by kids for its ample playground space and a winding creek that is ideal for splashing in.

Robert Lake Park

Robert Lake Park

A few other spots for the younger set include the free splash pad at Pack Square, the gemming experience at Elijah Mountain Gem Mine and the Western North Carolina Nature Center. This smallish zoo showcases such animals as bears, wolves, deer and foxes, and is easily tackled within a few hours.

 

Pack Square Park Photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

Pack Square Park
Photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

Those traveling with kids 4 years old and up won’t want to miss Asheville Treetops Adventure Park, where a course comprised of 50 climbing, zipping, walking, jumping, swinging and rappelling challenges sits just minutes from downtown Asheville. It’s also home to the area’s only kid-friendly zip, which features nine zip lines and four challenging, but surmountable, climbing elements.

Asheville Treetop Adventure Park

Asheville Treetop Adventure Park

Rafting on the rapids of the French Broad River is easy, thanks to a handful of outfitters offering everything from gentle floats to heart-pounding white-water rides. The faint of heart may opt instead for river tubing, often offered by the same outfitters. Try Blue Heron Whitewater.

Finally, be sure to set aside a day to explore the Biltmore Estate, George W. Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre retreat, which continues to leave guests awestruck. Besides getting tours through the 175,000-square-foot French Renaissance chateau, guests can wander through 75 acres of gardens, visit the working farm and winery, and dine at the numerous restaurants that dot this stunning, sprawling acreage.

America's Largest Home, the Biltmore, is one of Asheville's most popular attractions and the historic home of George W. Vanderbilt.

America’s Largest Home, the Biltmore, is one of Asheville’s most popular attractions and the historic home of George W. Vanderbilt.

EAT

Asheville’s farm-to-fork food culture is a hugely flourishing cornerstone of this city. Nearly every restaurant touts its allegiance to the scores of local farms and breweries, so it can be tough to sift through the choices. Following are a few suggestions.

For date night: Blink, and you’ll miss The Admiral’s unassuming cinder block building. Don’t let the hole-in-the-wall veneer fool you. Chefs are cranking out culinary magic inside the very tiny kitchen. The ever-changing menu features dishes bolstered by creative flavors, lots of indigenous fare and a decadent series of cocktails that make the experience of this “gastro-dive” all the more delightful. Reservations are strongly recommended. www.theadmiralnc.com

The Admiral  Photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

The Admiral
Photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

For family night out: Asheville’s Mellow Mushroom is a site to behold. Inside the downtown dining room, a plethora of colorful objects—from airplanes to Cheshire cats—dot the interior for a kaleidoscope of color. The result is one of the best places to play I Spy with your kids while you wolf down delicious cheesy pizza and sip root beer by the pitcher. www.mellowmushroom.com

For your most memorable meal: If you’re looking for an unforgettable place for a late Sunday morning repast, the Grove Park Inn serves up the area’s best Sunday brunch. Spread across three entire buffet rooms, the feast features multiple carving stations, made-to-order omelets, eggs Benedict, freshly made chicken and waffles, chilled salads, bacon, sausage and more. There are also bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys, as well as an entire room devoted to desserts.

The Dessert Room at Grove Park Inn's Sunday Brunch

The Dessert Room at Grove Park Inn’s Sunday Brunch

 

Kristen Manieri is the founder and editor of The Orlando Date Night Guide, which houses hundreds of ideas for sharing fun and meaningful quality time together in Orlando. From cooking classes to hidden gem restaurants to unique and exciting things to do, you’ll find the best of Orlando’s date night offerings inside the pages of this comprehensive online guide.

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Hawk Cay Resort's Mermaid Academy

The Mermaid Academy at Hawks Cay Lagoon

The Mermaid Academy at Hawks Cay Lagoon

Available select days in November, December and January–Hawks Cay Resort’s Mermaid Academy brings the mystical and magical creatures to life with mermaid tails and swimming lessons for kids

Have you ever wanted to swim like a mermaid?  Think back to the 1980s when Splash was released and I bet you did.  Or if you’re younger, maybe it was The Little Mermaid that got you thinking.  Regardless, I think it’s safe to say that pretty much everyone 50 years old and under has probably thought about life as a mermaid.

Well, now kids of all ages (and those who are just young at heart) can see what it’s like to swim like a mermaid at Hawks Cay Resort’s Mermaid Academy. Available over Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 29, then again during the holiday break, on Dec. 26 and 27 and January 2 and 3, Hawks Cay Resort’s Mermaid Academy brings the mystical and magical creatures to life with new, affordable and comfortable mermaid tails and swimming lessons.  The classes include the tail rental (or a shark fin for boys) and an hour-long mermaid swim lesson in one of the resort’s five swimming pools. A one-hour session with the mermaid tail is $25 and $15 with the shark fin.

Managed and created by the official Orlando-based Mermaid Academy, Hawks Cay’s school is a natural fit with the resort’s setting and family-friendly environment. Guests interested in dipping their tail in the water can call 305.289.4906 or visit www.hawkscay.com to make a reservation. For more information about the Mermaid Academy, please visit www.themermaidacademy.com.

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Zoology Class

 

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I’m not a big planner. I prefer to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, so when my husband had to work in Crystal River for a few days, I decided to take the kids and join him. I knew we would have fun lounging at the pool and hoped we would get to swim with the manatees. What I didn’t realize was what an incredible learning experience it would be.

WHERE TO STAY

Since I’ve been labeled the “hotel snob” by my family, I’m not ashamed to say that the typical discount hotel my husband opts for on work trips was not where we were going to be staying. Even though he insisted there wasn’t much luxury in the little town of Crystal River, I proved him wrong when I found the Plantation on Crystal River. It looked like the only resort in town, in a great location, with a beautiful pool, restaurants and a golf course to boot. Bonus: The resort has its own marina and dive shop, so we could easily schedule a manatee boat tour.

MANATEE TOUR

We had to get up extremely early to make it to the Adventure Center at 7:30 a.m. for our manatee pontoon boat tour. That’s crazy early for a mom with a toddler and a grade-school boy who both have to get dressed and eat before we head out. Trust me, it was worth it! We were greeted by Captain Sandman. He quickly got us outfitted in wet suits so we would be comfortable in the 72-degree spring water. Then, we watched an informative video on the Florida manatees. They are federally protected animals, so there are a lot of rules on how humans are able to observe and interact with them in the wild.

Next, we were on the boat heading to the famous Kings Bay (only a few minutes by pontoon boat from the Plantation). Captain Sandman was a wealth of information regarding the manatees. He talked extensively about why they are protected, how important it is for tourists to obey the rules of engagement, and everything else about the cute little sea cows — like their preferred habitat, migration rituals and curious personalities.

I was a little anxious about getting in the water with my son, Kai, who is a mediocre swimmer. And he was donning fins, snorkel gear and a wet suit for his first time. Thankfully, the wet suit provided buoyancy, which was a help, but we quickly had to replace the mask and snorkel with regular goggles (thank goodness I brought those!). It was just too much for him to try to figure out while in deep water.

Captain Sandman mentioned that a manatee boat tour is not a good time to try to snorkel for the first time. He also frequently mentioned that to invite a manatee encounter, you must be quiet and swim horizontally — with your feet and head up toward the surface of the water. I thought for sure that this was not going to go well. You see, my son is one of the loudest kids I know, and he only swims vertically — with his head above water and his feet toward the bottom. (I know, I know, he needs more swim lessons.)

But to my surprise, he did everything exactly the way he was instructed. It was amazing! It was like seeing a whole new side to my child. He was listening, engaged, and following directions and swimming horizontally! So, he had manatees swimming up to him constantly. The first one that came up to see him was a baby. He was very playful and kept rolling on his back, so Kai and Captain Sandman could rub his belly. His mother was close by our boat, and the baby would frequently go over to her to nurse. Yes, I saw a wild baby manatee nursing right next to our boat! After that, another adult female came up to say hello. She kept getting chased away by two males that were pursuing her. Later, we saw a few others that were relaxing in protected areas.

We soon moved on to the Three Sisters Springs, which had crystal clear shallow water and was beautiful. We were able to see the leftover fences from where Jacques Cousteau had created a manatee hospital years ago. Kai was able to try out the snorkel again there to get a little more practice. Apparently, in the winter, the manatees all flock to the small Three Sisters Springs area, as that is the warmest area of water that time of year.

RECOMMENDATION

I can’t speak highly enough about the amazing educational experience that we had. The combination of the informative video, knowledgeable captain and hands-on interaction with these large, but gentle, mammals was a real learning moment for my son. I highly recommend this trip, as it’s not far from Orlando, moderately priced and so darn exciting! It was just one of those moments with nature that humble you, inspire you and connect you to this beautiful planet that we all share.

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Boys Trip

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Father-Son Bonding in Montreal

Written by Brant Muekeley

The birth of my baby girl left me contemplating just how much our family dynamic had changed. I spent more than a few sleep-deprived hours thinking about our new normal — for what was previously a family of three was forever changed as we became a family of four. My 6-year-old son, Kai, soon realized that he would have to compete for mom’s and dad’s attention. Our dance parties and Lego builds, and his comedy routines would now be interrupted by “little sissy’s” diaper changes and feedings.

I wanted to do something special for my little man, who had just gone from being numero uno to the older brother. It’s tough on those older siblings, as they can quickly begin to feel as obsolete as a VHS tape at the Blockbuster store. A boys trip could provide us the chance to explore together and enjoy each other’s company, but where to go? We needed a destination that would be fun, safe and new to both of us.

Timing couldn’t have been better when I was invited on a kid-centric media tour to the French-speaking metropolis of Montreal by the Ministère du Tourisme Quebec. A boys trip out of the country would be a great adventure. Mom gave us her blessing, and we were off to an exciting foreign land. This was just the opportunity to place my son in the captain’s chair and have him decide on our excursion options.

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While I’d be happiest in a downtown hostel, I was well aware that Mom’s taste for the finer things in life had taken root within my young son. So, he was very happy with our modern accommodations at the Delta Montréal hotel. It was obvious that our hosts were showing us the best they had to offer. Delta Montréal is located in the downtown entertainment district. That was a definite plus, as we explored the surrounding streets several times during our stay and found surprises on each trek.

Summer in Montreal means festivals. Our trip coincided with the Juste pour Rire (or Just for Laughs) annual comedy festival. A walk through the Quartier des Spectacles placed us in the middle of the interactive laugh-out-loud comedy acts. Most of the street performances needed no interpretation because despite the fact that they spoke French, the slapstick humor was international. Did I mention it was free? Trying to explain this festival would be like trying to tell you about a dream. There was everything from art projected onto buildings and trapeze acrobatics to a live band walking through the festival dressed in alien costumes. It was a unique experience.

The next day, we took the Montréal Métro (subway) north and explored the Biodôme de Montréal (four separate ecosystems and the flora and fauna all under one roof) and the Montréal Insectarium. We marveled at the Olympic Stadium, built for the 1976 summer Olympics, and walked through residential neighborhoods and Chinatown. We admired the fantastic graffiti art throughout the city. I was impressed by the amount of art everywhere. From large landscape paintings that scaled entire apartment buildings to video wall art installations in the underground city, Montreal has successfully fused art into daily life.

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A highlight of the trip came on the third day when we rented a bicycle-built-for-two to tour the St. Lawrence Riverside. The bicycle ride inspired my son to lose those training wheels as soon as we got home. We finished the day with a visit to La Ronde, a Six Flags-style amusement park located along the waterfront and close to downtown.
Since our daily activities were unplanned and proceeded based on my son’s interests, I must admit that I was surprised by some of his choices. He declined to visit the riverfront at night to watch the annual international fireworks competition and instead wanted to stay in the hotel and lounge in the cushiony bed, exhausted from the day’s events. Also surprising to me was that he opted to swim in the hotel pool instead of shooting the rapids of the St. Lawrence on a jet boat.

This trip created memories that I will keep with me forever. Yes, we missed Mom and baby, but it was worth it.

SNAP SHOT ITINERARY:

Day 1: Arrive at the Delta Montréal hotel. Dinner in the Quartier des Spectacles and after-dinner laughs at the Juste pour Rire festival.
Day 2: Subway ride to the Olympic Stadium. Tour the Biodôme. Tour the Insectarium. Fancy French lunch at Le Valois near the Joliette station. Walking tour of residential and downtown neighborhoods. Souvenir shopping.
Day 3: Bike rental and tour of the St. Lawrence Riverside. Lunch on Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montréal. Hotel pool time. Rides and games at La Ronde amusement park.
Day 4: Graffiti art walk. Travel home.

MONTREAL FUN FACTS
Because what kind of boys trip would it be without getting to learn some fun little facts?

• Montreal is the world’s second-largest French-speaking city, after Paris. Bonjour!
• Montreal is built around Mount Royal (hence its name) and is located on an island in the St. Lawrence River.
• The French word for “states,” as in the United States, is “etats,” or the word “state” backward.
• Montreal is the capital of the Quebec province and home to approximately 1.6 million people.

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Escape Orlando in 90 Minutes or Less

RoadTrip

Hop in the car, crank the tunes and take a trip back to your dating years when getaways were simpler and required much less “baggage.” Road trips are the perfect escape from the everyday (and who are we kidding … the kids). Orlando is surrounded by many quaint and quirky towns just waiting to be explored. So book Grandma, tank up and hit the highway.

Written by Kristen Manieri of Great Dates Orlando

Eccentric Excursion: Cassadaga . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ETA: 40 minutes
Did you know we live in very close proximity to the “Psychic Center of the World?” Cassadaga’s old-world streets are where you’ll find more than 40 mediums, psychics and healers. With roads named Séance Circle and Metaphysical Street, this is a very interesting corner of the world to get lost in.

MUST DO  Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you’ve been wondering what the future might hold (or what your stock portfolio might do), perhaps it’s time to consult the experts at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. Check out their website ahead of time to pre-book a session with one of their world-renowned spiritual healers and psychic mediums.

MUST SEE Legend has it that spirits can reveal themselves to us as glowing balls of light called “orbs.” Experience this phenomenon during the 90-minute Orb Photography Tour, each Saturday beginning at 8 p.m. $25/person. RSVP by calling 386-228-2880.

MUST EAT  If your psychic experiences put you in the mood for some food and liquid enlightenment, head over to the Lost in Time Cafe (located in the Cassadaga Hotel) for some “Spirit” burgers and real-life characters sure to entertain you.

MAKE IT SPECIAL Arrange a couple’s astrology consultation through the Cassadaga Hotel and Psychic Center. In this one-hour session, local astrologists will consult the stars to chart out your fate. Uh oh… is that another bambino on the horizon?

Rural Ride: Clermont . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ETA: 35 minutes
In the heart of Lake County amidst (yup, you guessed it) more than 1,000 lakes, Clermont might seem like an unlikely destination for us city slickers. But we think you’ll be surprised to find a ton of delightful day trip diversions on and off the water.

MUST DO  Ever dream about hitting the open road on a Harley? Stormy Hill Harley in Clermont runs a weekend motorcycle course in this ideal locale, thanks to its hilly terrain and lack of traffic. Once certified, easy riders can rent gear and bikes onsite. Class is $250/person.

MUST SEE  If you do one thing this summer, take a trip to Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards on the weekend of August 22 and 23, when you can squash grapes between your toes at the annual August Stomp. Also enjoy complimentary tours and wine tastings at this 77-acre vineyard.

MUST EAT Shop the huge gift boutique at Lakeridge Winery for your gourmet picnic provisions, then sip your freshly purchased Pink Cresendo sparkling wine at a picnic table or shady spot amidst the vines. www.lakeridgewinery.com

MAKE IT SPECIAL  If wine isn’t your thing, you can enjoy some peace and quiet on one of the area’s namesake lakes on your very own pontoon boat. Half-day rentals are $129 and a full day will cost you $199, including fuel.  www.clermontwatersports.com

Old World Outing: St. Augustine . . . . . . . . . ETA: 90 minutes
Discover America’s oldest city during one of the many popular tours offered in this historic community. The cute cafés, artisan shops and character of St. Augustine’s Colonial Spanish neighborhoods have been luring romantics for centuries.

MUST DO Don’t miss the hilarious (and informative) St. Augustine Haunted Pub Tour departing every day at 8:30 p.m. Although you’re not likely to see any actual ghosts, bartenders will be serving up plenty of spirits.

MUST SEE  Take a self-guided wander through Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine’s most notable historic landmark. Ancient dungeons with cavernous corners provide ideal secret make-out spots.

MUST EAT  Catch your breath at one of St. Augustine’s famous bakeries such as the Bunnery Bakery & Café on St. George Street, where notorious sticky buns are finger lickin’ good. 904-829-6166

MAKE IT SPECIAL  Schedule your trip to take part in the First Friday Art Walk. Evening tours begin at Rembrantz on King Street, and you can stroll hand-in-hand enjoying art exhibits, music, entertainment and great food. www.artgalleriesofstaugustine.com

Small Town Spin: Mount Dora . . . . . . . . . . . . ETA: 45 minutes
Cafés, antiquing and nature walks are all great reasons to visit Mount Dora, a small town dripping with charm. Thousands of people visit each year during its many famed festivals, like the Old Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration. www.mountdora.com

MUST DO Sail Lake Dora’s pristine waters with Captain Doolittle’s Eco Tours offering day and sunset cruises (352-434-8040), or explore Mount Dora’s picturesque downtown streets, historic B&Bs and scenic nature trails during a 60-minute Segway tour. www.segwayofcentralflorida.com

MUST SEE Anyone with the slightest interest in antiquing needs to check out Renningers Antiques & Farmers Market, open Saturdays and Sundays. Make a game of it by deciding on one particular item to seek out at more than 180 shops.

MUST EAT  Lake views and live music make Pisces Rising a popular dining option. Do not – we repeat – do not leave Mount Dora without devouring a frozen key lime pie-on-a-stick, found at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.

MAKE IT SPECIAL  Snuggle up with your honey in the back of a horse-drawn carriage ride through Mount Dora’s scenic streets. Departing from the corner of 4th and Alexander, private rides are available. Don’t forget your bottle of bubbly. www.ahitchntime.com

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3 Days In (Kid-Friendly) Paradise

3 Days In (Kid Friendly) Paradise

If you’re like us, canceling your summer retreat this year is NOT an option (recession or no), but spending money wisely is a definite must. We have an idea: Skip the airfare, shorten the time away from work and take a long family weekend in paradise. Clearwater Beach is only a two-hour drive, but a world away from it all. Written by Heather Reneau

No, we wouldn’t recommend you go to just any beach town. This little community along the Gulf Coast has it all when it comes to family fun: Unique activities, restaurants and shops are all within walking distance. You can even jump on the beach trolley for a faster ride and a great adventure for the kiddies. Either way, for a laid-back beach town, Clearwater is the PLAYGROUND destination of choice for a great extended weekend getaway this summer.

Hands-down, the only place for you to stay is the Sandpearl Resort. This brand new property is the only one of its class in the area. Seriously, don’t even bother researching other places. Just stay here. Not only is it the nicest resort for families, it has THE BEST spa in the area, a chic restaurant, a beach bar & grill, the most impressive service we’ve experienced, the perfect location along Mandalay Avenue, and (wait for it…) childcare. We’re telling you, IT ROCKS!

So, you can have a killer three days in Clearwater Beach, however, here’s the rule: Traveling time isn’t included. Figure in one travel day on each end of your itinerary and you will have a great little vacation that will be relaxing for you and a blast for the kids.

Day 1
Kids Highlight:The “fire eater” at the Sunset Celebration
Parents Highlight: The Starbucks that’s in the lobby of the resort

3 Days In (Kid-Friendly) ParadiseWe recommend getting your bearings the first day. Explore the hotel, enjoy the totally kid-friendly pool, bond with that other family you’re sure to befriend during your stay, take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico, just let the sand settle in between your toes and start living in the “now.”

We know the best part of vacation is the food. And remember we’re on a limited time frame here, so drag the kids out of the pool and head over to Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill for lunch. It’s easily accessed by taking a quick stroll down the beach (heading north). It’s conveniently located next door to the Sandpearl, and is a local favorite. (All savvy travelers know to hang out where the locals go.)

Your evening activity is a toss-up, since there are two really cool options. The SandPearl has a killer fire pit right on the beach where families can gather around to cook s’mores and take in the vibrant West Coast sunset. Then there’s the nightly Sunset Celebration (Key West-style) at Pier 60 that is NOT to be missed during your stay. Pier 60 has the biggest sandy playground that we’ve ever seen, and it’s covered by a giant pavillion. Street performers, Captain Jack Sparrow, Jamaican-style hair braids, great chotchkies to browse and live music make this a really great (and free) family activity.

TRAVEL TIP: If your kids are still at napping age (lucky you), make arrangements to rent a poolside cabana for the day. These luxurious indoor/outdoor living spaces are a great spot for the kids to take a siesta while you enjoy the poolside amenities.

Day 2
Kids Highlight:The ferry ride to Caledesi Island
Parents Highlight: The pure white “sugar” sand

3 Days In (Kid-Friendly) ParadiseA trip to Caledesi Island will be a unique activity for your day. This Florida State Park was rated the best in the United States in 2008. (Seriously, look it up on www.drbeach.org.) You can only access this natural wonder by ferry or kayak. We recommend letting Sandpearl Resort coordinate the excursion for you, which will include a picnic lunch and your transportation from the hotel. (Sweet!) While you’re there, it’s easy to play “castaway” or enjoy the three-mile nature trail running through the center of the island.

After a full day on a secluded, primitive island, it will be nice to go back to the resort and enjoy an awesome dinner at Caretta on the Gulf. This isn’t just any ol’ resort restaurant. It’s been highly ranked as one of the best places to dine in the area, and is trés chic!

TRAVEL TIP: Opt for outside seating at dinner, with a bird’s-eye view of the Gulf at sunset.

Day 3
Kids Highlight:Touching the sea urchins in Camp Ridley’s aquarium
Parents Highlight: The complimentary beer & wine on the pirate ship

3 Days In (Kid-Friendly) ParadiseYou might want to cash in your “Kid-Free Card” and let them enjoy a half- or full-day experience at Camp Ridley, another awesome amenity at the Sandpearl. They will love the underwater- themed kids’ lounge, and enjoy coastal activities with camp counselors. (Shh… Don’t tell them, but it’s educational too.) Not only is Camp Ridley available during the day, they are also open on weekend evenings. Score!

We highly recommend that you take this opportunity to get in some Spa-Ahhh time for both of you. This very relaxing (and romantic) experience will start with a dip in the co-ed hot tub that’s nestled between the men’s and women’s lounges. It’s complete with a plunge shower, if you’d like to take it to the extreme. Then, follow up with a treatment together in the couple’s room. It will be a bonding experience like no other.

We’ve saved the best for last. Your evening activity will blow your kid’s mind (and ease your guilt for sticking him in “daycare”). Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise is the coolest thing since sliced bread. Your family will become true buccaneers when the pirate crew hands out hats and (squirt) guns upon boarding. There is pirate face painting, treasure hunting, pirate stories and dancing during this two-hour sail. By the end of the cruise, everyone will be acting like pirates and having an awesome time.

TRAVEL TIP: We recommend going on the Sunset Cruise that sails from the intracoastal out to the Gulf of Mexico. You will have front row seats to the sunset and the added bonus of a champagne toast to a great vacation, PLAYGROUND-style.

Somehow, Fit It In:

 

Island Way Grille
This Sunday Brunch is the best that we have ever experienced. No, really … ever! It’s a true dining extravaganza and a hop, skip and a jump from the Sandpearl Resort. www.islandwaygrill.com

Clearwater Marine Aquarium
The Sandpearl can arrange a VIP behind-the-scenes tour to make your family feel special. Kids will fall in love with “Winter,” the resident dolphin. www.cmaquarium.org

Freaky Tiki
This über-rad little surf shack is a nice change from the usual “cheesy” tourist trap. You’ll find custom Freaky Tiki brand clothing items that are all limited designs. Couture surf shirt, anyone? www.freaky-tiki.com

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