A fun diversion and family afternoon at the San Francisco Zoo

I’ve only been to a handful of zoos to make my comparison – Detroit, Toledo, Binder Park (Kalamazoo), Madison and San Diego – but the San Francisco Zoo is a well-laid-out, compact zoo that packs a lot of punch.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Land's End

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End

I remember from my youth that walking around the Detroit Zoo could make your feet hurt and have you on the brink of exhaustion. But after a few hours in San Francisco, we were able to see everything we wanted to see have lunch and even have time for the kids to spend at the playscape area.

And speaking of lunch, I was expecting your typical hot dog, hamburger or nuggets selection but was pleased to find sushi, made-to-order salads and even a decent clam chowder at the zoo.

As for the animals, the baby ones are always fun to see, and the baby giraffe and gorilla were no exceptions. The gorilla, Kabibe, stole my daughter’s heart and even though she bought a stuffed zebra at the park, she named it Kabibe after the baby gorilla.

We had grandparents with us who wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was an easy, short drive to Land’s End, where we stretched our legs, used the facilities and walked around a short path to a spectacular view of the bridge. It was a perfect viewing area and saved us time and headaches by avoided city and bridge traffic.

Baby giraffe at the San Francisco Zoo

Baby giraffe at the San Francisco Zoo

Parking was a little difficult to find at the zoo. The side road had a sign that all parking was full, and all of the spaces up and down the street were taken. I remembered seeing an entrance on Great Highway, so we drove back around there and it still had dozens of open spaces

Fun at the San Francisco Zoo

Fun at the San Francisco Zoo

We didn’t try it out on this trip, but you can buy a “key” at the zoo, which gives you information on each animal near the exhibit when you put your key in the slot. It looked perfect for younger kids to keep them engaged and also teach them at the same time.

We’ll definitely come back to this family-friendly attraction, and it’s a great place to bring out-of-town visitors, too.

*Post script: After I wrote this and a month or so after our visit, we found out in the news that Kabibe had been inadvertently killed during a zoo accident. My daughter and I are deeply saddened to hear this.

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Great times at California’s Great America

When we lived in Michigan, I never took our kids to Cedar Point. My son is afraid of heights and my daughter was too short to go on the rides that she wanted to try.

But just after a few weeks in San Jose, we found ourselves at California’s Great America with one of my son’s friends.

I asked my son “What will you do if he wants you to go on the big coasters?” and my son said, “I’ll close my eyes.” And that’s just what he did.

Linus and Sally at Great America

Linus and Sally at Great America

The boys are old enough that we let them explore the park an hour or so at a time and then meet back up with us to check in. Meanwhile, my daughter had both of her parents to herself to explore all of the rides. She’s a swing girl, and she loved the swings there. After watching the Tiki Twirl she decided to try it. Her and I screamed the whole time and she deemed it her favorite ride of the day.

Aerial view from Great America

Aerial view from Great America

We also had a fantastic aerial view of the park, Levi’s Stadium and Santa Clara on the Star Tower

After exploring the park, getting our fill of cotton candy and having lunch, we decided to head to the water park. My daughter is a big fan of wave pools so that’s where we landed for the rest of the afternoon. It also was a great place to dry our clothes in the sun, which were soaked after a few turns on the Loggers Run.

As babies, the nursery for my kids was decorated with baby Snoopy, so my daughter was thrilled to find the Peanuts merchandise at the park. We came home with a big stuffed Snoopy as well as photos with the characters that we found in the park.

The boys found their way to the arcade and won a line-skipping pass for one of the rides.

Snoopy at Great America

Snoopy at Great America

Because we were there on an early fall weekend just after school started, the crowds were low, parking was easy and the lines for rides weren’t too bad.

We may have been spoiled by the off-season day but we decided that it would be one of our go-to places next summer for waterpark and letting-off-steam fun.

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Never bored at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

There’s a certain allure of roller coasters, a fair atmosphere and an ocean backdrop. OK, it may not be for everyone but when you hail from the Midwest, it’s certainly a novelty.

Waves in Santa Cruz

Jumping waves in Santa Cruz

After moving to San Jose, our first day trip was to Santa Cruz. I was able to get discount tickets ahead of time through Costco and we were on our way.

I’ve been told that the drive can be a bear during popular hours on weekends when everyone wants to head to the ocean, so we planned our day when the kids had a day off of school. The traffic was smooth sailing and there were very few cars in the parking lot when we arrived just before the boardwalk opened.

The draw of the ocean temporarily outweighed the thrill of the rides so we headed to the water first. Even though the water was cold, my kids jumped wave after wave after wave. After they tired out a bit, we checked out the arcade and used the tokens that came with our Boardwalk admission.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Then it was on to the rides. There are still a couple of them that my kids are weary of, but there are many more that they love or wanted to try. The gondola across the boardwalk was a great way to see what was available before we decided where to start.

Ferris Wheel Selfie

Ferris Wheel Selfie

My daughter says that her favorite was WipeOut where it looked like a regular circular fair ride underground. However, when it gets going, the lights go out, flashing lights come on and off and the room erupts with glee-filled screams.

My son enjoyed the log ride the most, and especially enjoyed hiding behind me on the way down so I would get wet and he wouldn’t.

On our way home, I was told that it was a must-do to get Marianne’s ice cream. It is heavenly ice cream and I’m glad to have found that it’s available near my house, too.

We had a great day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and we capped it off by checking out the ocean one more time, where some dolphins came by and wished us good evening.

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Star Wars weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Yes, girls like Star Wars, but bringing two little girls who don’t have a passion for all things Tattoine to Disney’s Hollywood Studios didn’t seem like the best idea. But here we were so we made an adventure of it.

Chewbacca signs an autograph

Chewbacca signs an autograph

I had planned our Disney dining ahead of time and was dismayed to find out that our reservation was changed just a few weeks before arrival from one meal credit to two, due to a new Star Wars-themed dining event. But we were determined to have our passes to Fantasmic so we kept the reservation.

I’m sure that if you are a dedicated Star Wars fan, you’d see more of the themed weekend. However, as visitors wandering around the park, we only saw a few things that gave us a clue that it was a different kind of weekend.

Star Wars weekend at Disney

Star Wars weekend at Disney

Besides the themed dining event, which included Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy dressed up as Star Wars characters, we were able to get in line and have our photo taken with Chewbacca.

Of course, we rode on Star Tours but that’s always a part of the Studios experience. We also had our first experience with Disney’s magic bands and the new fast pass system. It was certainly easy to have our park tickets, dining reservations, fast passes, photo passes and charge cards all on our wrist without needing to carry around any extra items.

Star Wars cookies

Star Wars cookies

The highlight of our visit and the best way to cap off a day at this particular park is definitely Fantasmic. The music, build-up and excitement of the show get me every time, and we always leave the park re-energized and happy.

So if you have any hesitation about coming to Star Wars weekend as a casual movie fan, it’s completely doable and accessible as a “regular” visit to the park on any other day.

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Mixing veterans and newbies at Disney World

We have something of a routine when it comes to a visit to Disney World. It involves at least two days at the Magic Kingdom, one day at each of the other parks and depending on the length of the trip, a second day at another park or a hotel (non-park) day.

ARtAnimation2We’ve seen the parades and fireworks many times, so now we head to the rides and attractions while the hoards of people stop to watch the entertainment. We know to stay at the park if it rains because the crowds are much better when it’s done. If there’s extra magic hours at night, it’s a good bet you’ll have shorter lines.

So when my sister-in-law asked my daughter and I to go to Disney World with her and her daughter, I went into planning mode. They had never been before, and my daughter and I have been several times. I cautioned my daughter early on that we might have to alter our usual routine if her cousin really wanted to see our experience something – it was, after all, a trip for her cousin’s birthday.

Disney's Art of Animation Mermaid pool

Disney’s Art of Animation Mermaid pool

But Disney being Disney, us veterans had our new experiences, as well. We stayed at the Art of Animation in the Little Mermaid area. If you have trouble walking, I don’t recommend it. We were in the building furthest from the check-in and dining area and it was a good hike.

We stayed at the Art of Animation during Memorial Day weekend, and my biggest complaint would have to be with the dining area. Half of it was roped off under construction, making the other half pretty crowded. Near the end of our visit, we arrived one morning to find that everything had been switched overnight – the closed area was open and the other area was now roped off, causing even more chaos and confusion.

Enchanted Tales with Belle

Enchanted Tales with Belle

The refillable mugs with electronic sensors are a good idea in theory, except when you are traveling with an independent child who wants to do it herself. When she pushes the button and stops because she slipped, you have to wait two full minutes before she can attempt to fill her mug again.

But those were the only downsides of the trip. The highlight was the new Fantasyland area, where we enjoyed the new rides and attractions. We were thrilled to find the Enchanted Tales with Belle open during late-night extra magic hours. We had a small group of people and my daughter and her cousin were both able to participate. We also had a surprise – the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was not officially open but they started testing it so we ran to the line. My daughter deemed it her favorite new ride.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

We included the dining plan and the photo plan on this trip so our new visitors would be able to make the most of their first visit. We had a ball playing with the various poses and loved the ease of having reservations for Cinderella’s castle.

Maybe because they are the same age and gender, but we really didn’t run into many instances where our group wanted to do separate things. Just a couple of times when the newbies wanted to go on a bigger coaster that my daughter wasn’t sure of, we just wandered nearby to another ride and met up again shortly after.

 

It’s always a good time to go to Disney World, but we had the most fun being able to show and share “our” world with those who have never experienced it before.

 

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Yes, we know the way (we’ve moved!)

To our new home in San Jose. It’s been a whirlwind summer as we made the decision for me to take a job offer across the country and to move our family. It’s amazing what a big move can do for your hoarding skills. We sold and donated so many things while cleaning out and downsizing our house.

Moving from a colonial with a basement to a ranch with a boxed-in backyard is quite a change, not to mention the sticker shock in Silicon Valley. On the plus side, our kids are adjusting quickly and making friends.

New home palm trees

Welcome to the land of palm trees

I’m also embracing the lifestyle and opportunities here. While Californians complain about the public transit, I’m just thrilled to have public transit at all. I always joke that coming from the Motor City, it was almost a law that you should have more than one vehicle and have a strong aversion to driving with someone else in the car. I’ve been biking to and from the train station and taking the train to work. It’s my first experience commuting without a car and although I’m sure I’ll complain about it at some point, I’m really liking it so far.

I’m learning that like a car, your bike also takes care and maintenance. I have new tires, lights, a rack and still need to get some fenders on the rare chance of rain. I also have callouses on my hands from gripping the handlebars.

I’ve also started my travel list of things to see and do in San Francisco and northern California. Also, it’s not a bad thing to be within driving distance of Disneyland! I also have an entire new home base from which to plan trips, so I’ve been playing with the flight comparisons to figure out where the deals are.

Of course, we had to take the grandparents to see the Golden Gate Bridge and made a stop at the San Francisco Zoo. We also made a trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and California’s Great America. But we’ve barely scratched the surface.

It’s hard to leave family and friends behind but it’s really not hard to leave the Polar Vortex behind. Seeing dead, brown grass in the midst of a drought will take some getting used to, but I’ll take that trade over ice and snow.

See you on the West Coast!

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A short sightseeing trip to Paris from London

While we were planning our 10-day trip to London, I kept reading TripAdvisor message boards and other blogs to determine if we should head to Paris for a day or two. Some say it’s not worth it for that short of time because you can’t do it justice and others say it’s easy enough to go back and forth between the two countries.

Because I didn’t know if or when I would ever have the chance to go to Paris again, we decided to go for it. The Eurostar ticket was the same price whether we came back the same day or the next day, so we opted for an overnight stay, giving us about 36 hours in the city of lights.

Pont des Arts

Pont des Arts or love lock bridge in Paris

Most of the recommendations I read said to stay in the lower number aridonnsements but they were also more expensive. We ended up near the Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) at the Hotel Avenir not far from where the Eurostar stops. During the day, it had the hustle and bustle of Paris but in the evening, we never had a problem getting into a local restaurant and enjoyed the slow pace when compared to the sightseeing adventures of the day.

Apologies to the French who may have heard by 9-year-old yelling from the balcony “Bonjour, bon apetit” – her only French vocabulary. (Can you image someone yelling from a hotel in the U.S. “Hello, eat well!”)

Eiffel Tower

Playing catch at the Eiffel Tower.

After learning the London Underground, we decided we could tackle the Paris metro. I had pre-booked a behind-the-scenes tour of Eiffel Tower in order to avoid the long lines and it was well worth it. When we arrived, we saw lines everywhere. Our tour took us a few yards away from the tower, down into the basement where we learned about the inner workings. We then took the short group line to the elevator to the second floor. With one child afraid of heights, we decided not to venture to the top floor, and the second floor views were spectacular enough. As part of our tour, we were able to go up on top of the second-floor restaurant for our own private views. The tour guide let my daughter unlock the gate (you just opened the Eiffel Tower!)

Arc du Triomphe

Arc du Triomphe

After the tower, we took the metro stop near the Arc du Triomphe and walked down the Champs Elysee, which boasted crowds similar to Disney World.

Paris Catacombs

Touring the Paris Catacombs

The next day, I was determined to see the catacombs, so we took the Metro there and waited in line more than two hours. It was worth it to see such a stunning display of history and learn about the past and how it came into existence. My husband and I took turns in line while the other would throw a tennis ball with the kids (always pack a ball for diversion!) and maybe a visit or two to the nearby pastry shop (pain chocolat became my son’s new favorite). After, we went back to the Seine and walked by Notre Dame, down to the Pont des Arts bridge (and added our lock of course) and then played in the gardens of the Louvre.

Crepes in Paris

Crepes in Paris

I debated a trip into the Louvre but with our short time frame, we decided that we wouldn’t be able to do it justice, and after our short trip to the science museum in London, we figured the kids didn’t yet have the appreciation for what was inside. The other site that we missed was the Sacre Coeur although we were very close to it. Alas, maybe another trip to Paris is in my future …

Overall, it was worth our time and travels to see another country, get a brief taste (that means lots of crepes in my daughter’s world) of Paris and break up our days in London. The Eurostar was very efficient and easy to get to and from. I’d love to take it again to the other countries that it visits.

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Seeing London with kids

Seeing another old building or castle may not sound appealing to kids, and it might be hard to wrap your head around a castle that was started in 1066, but when you talk about beheadings, getting married six times and starting your own church, things tend to get more interesting.

Before we left, I read the TripAdvisor message boards and learned about the National Rail 241 offers. You need to go to a National Rail stop (there are many in London) and provide them with a small photo (about 1 1/2 inch square) and request a 1, 3 or 7-day travel card. They should also have a booklet of two-for-one offers, or you can search and orient them before your trip. I never had anyone check to see if we had the travelcards while using the offers. These travelcards also work on the London Underground.

Some of our top sights were:

Big Ben

Big Ben clock tower at London’s Parliament

Carriage at Royal Mews

Carriage at Royal Mews

Big Ben: There’s not much to do except look at it, but we made it our first stop of the trip. It’s on the river Thames by the London Eye and Westminster Abbey so you get a good feel of London and the crowds of tourists right away.]

Royal Mews (241): because my daughter and I like horses, we toured the royal horses and carriages. It was fun to see the history, up to present day of the carriage that William and Kate used for their wedding.

Queen's Guard

Queen’s Guard

Buckingham Palace: it wasn’t open yet for summer but there were still crowds of people at the gates looking at the guards. We had a better photo opp down the street with some more guards. Nearby St. James Park is a great place to let the kids run and play for a bit.

Ripleys Believe It or Not (241): part museum, part activities, it was a little overpriced but an OK way to spend the afternoon. The kids really liked the spinning tunnel and the laser obstacle course.

Greenwich: we took a boat ride (241) on the Thames and I highly recommend it. It’s very relaxing and you can get some great photos of famous sites with a water view. In Greenwich, we had lunch, went to the Royal Observatory and straddled the Hemispheres at the International Dateline. We then played in the large park, walked by the Queen’s Castle and Cutty Sark before taking the boat back to London.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace (241): We took the Underground to a train station and took the National Rail to Hampton Court. The Palace and grounds are huge and you can spend a day wandering around. We got lost in the hedge maze, learned how they made chocolate and explored the rooms. We left the palace and crossed the street and had lunch at a restaurant on the river, then went back and explored some more. They have robes you can put on to become a member of the royalty and some quizzes for kids to find the answers as they tour the palace.

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens: The Peter Pan statue is not well marked and it took quite a bit of wandering around to find it but it was well worth it to see where history was made. My kids had a great time letting off some steam, seeing some waterfowl on the water and running around in the grass.

Peter Pan statue at Hyde Park

Peter Pan statue at Hyde Park

London Tower beefeater

London Tower beefeater

Tower of London (241): We altered my original itinerary because the website said the Tower would be very busy on Easter weekend and we were very glad that we did. The Yeoman Warders were one of the highlights of the trip, and my kids remember the most about this day. It was a fairly short line (under 20 minutes) to see the Crown Jewels, and my kids were intrigued with the torture devices, carvings of Tower prisoners and the former menagerie (zoo).

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey: We arrived fairly late in the day so we only toured a small portion. It’s amazing to think of how many ancient burials have taken place here. My daughter became more interested when I told her kings and queens are married and have coronation here.

The science museum (241): It was raining so both museums had huge lines. We picked the shorter of the two. The museum was packed, but my kids liked the Imax movie and the children’s area. There were a few interesting exhibits but overall it was too crowded to enjoy.

Photo opps

Abbey Road in London

Abbey Road in London

I didn’t schedule every single day in order to maintain some our sanity, so one part of a day we rode the tube around London to get in the photo opps we wanted. My husband wanted Abbey Road, so we made our way there and tried to re-enact the famous Beatles album cover, along with a couple dozen other tourists who were weaving in and out of traffic. We also made our way over to Kings Cross train station to find platform 9 ¾. The Harry Potter store now has a professional photo opp with a line where you can buy your photo in their store but they let you use your own camera, as well

With a lot of research and pre-planning, we were able to see many sights and have once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It was extremely easy to have our children along with us, and my son learned the underground stops much faster than I did.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

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Airbnb is a winner for London family accommodations

I searched and searched and looked again. I read every review and blog and could not find any affordable rooms for a family of four in London. We could do two rooms, we could do a b&b, and I found many triples but no four-person rooms fit within our budget.

When I go on vacation, I like to spend less on the room and more on the sights. A room is a place to rest and lay your head, but the experiences are what makes our trips memorable.

Rented flat in Earl's Court London

Rented flat in Earl’s Court London

So I started looking at Airbnb and narrowing our choices. I had never used the site before so I did my homework and made sure the place had good reviews and that the owner was responsive. I researched the area (we stayed in Earl’s Court) and the transportation options nearby.

For the same price as one hotel room, or a little less, we had a two-bedroom flat with kitchen, washer and dryer and wifi. It was everything we needed and more for our 10-day stay in London.

Living room of rented flat

Earl’s Court rented apartment

Yes, it was on the third floor and we had to hike our luggage up there, but it was well worth it. Our block was in between to underground stations and bus stops were right outside, too. We never took the bus but always saw many others doing so. The grocery store was a couple of blocks away and we were able to stock our kitchen for some homemade meals and to pack snacks or a picnic.

Restaurants and pubs were close, too, and we felt like we had everything we needed. We met the owner, who lives on the first floor, and one of his employees gave us the key and showed us how everything worked.

We were very pleased with our stay and I’m glad we went with a flat, especially with kids who need snacks and some downtime.

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Surviving a flight to Europe with kids (thanks, Delta)

This was a trip of firsts – first time taking the kids overseas, first time using Airbnb and the first time flying business class on delta. All three experiences went off without any major issues and made our spring trip to Europe one to remember.

We used Skymiles to book our trip over the Easter school break and I did it well in advance. I was surprised to find that business class on the redeye to London was only 2,500 miles more per person so we booked that without thinking twice!

Delta lay flat seats to Europe

Kicking back in Delta business class to Europe

It was well worth it. We were able to visit the sky club for snacks before the flight, and the kids were thrilled with the lie flat seats. Dinner was amazing, especially for an airline meal. Shrimp appetizer, salad, a main course and dessert. The kids thought some of the food was a little too fancy but the adults loved it.

The business class seats also came with a travel pack with headphones, ear plugs, tissue, a comb and some other things you may need while traveling. I have to admit, the lay flat seats were a little strange while flying. I felt like I had to incline just a bit so I didn’t feel like I was sliding around.

During dinner, the attendants come around and ask if you’d like to be woken up for breakfast, and then you place your breakfast order. We had a choice of omelettes or yogurt and granola.

It was a smooth flight, the kids slept well and we were up and ready to explore London.

Delta business class fold flat seats

So many buttons for the seat in Delta business class

Getting through London Heathrow was easy and we were able to find the underground and purchase our passes easily. The trains had plenty of room for luggage and it was a great way to se some of the countryside as we traveled to our rented flat in Earl’s Court. I’m glad I didn’t book a cab – it would have been a lot more expensive and we wouldn’t have had the time to figure out the train system.

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