Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Tour With Kids

July 5th, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

I’ve always wanted to be special.

Waiting in line at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm or the San Diego Zoo, you see those people with shiny badges hanging around their necks, being ushered to the front, getting the royal treatment from some bright-eyed tour guide.

Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be them.

So, when I heard about the VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood, I knew I had to include it in our family trip to California. Even if it did cost an arm and a leg, and the other arm and leg.

Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience Tour

At $329 per person, I did hesitate slightly, but then realized it would be a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Universal for my family, so why not do it in style? My kids were old enough to know and appreciate movies and how they’re made, so I went ahead and happily booked the VIP tour through Universal’s website about a month before our trip.

The day began with real VIP treatment in a special lounge, where a continental breakfast was served while the classic sci-fi film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” played on the big screen. Our tour guide, a well-known Los Angeles stage actor named Lary Ohlson, made sure the dozen people in our group were well-fed and laughing throughout the morning. I was feeling special right from the start.

Soon, Lary was leading us out into the park, past all those poor folks waiting for the regular bus, and onto our very own VIP trolley.

Our first stop was a walk-through of the workshops responsible for set construction and prop design. Not terribly exciting for the kids, but interesting to see the nuts and bolts of movie production.

Next was a leisurely stroll to the Universal backlot, where my son perked up considerably when Lary told him that the very spot on which he was standing had been featured in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

There was movie history all around us as we walked through the streets of the backlot. The kids thought it was very cool to be able to peek into the buildings and touch the sets. Every now and then, one of those regular buses would go by, filled with people staring at us and wondering why they weren’t special enough to get off the bus and touch things too.

Yes, I was definitely feeling like a VIP at that point.

Universal Props Warehouse

Next was one of the highlights of the tour, a visit to the multi-story Universal Props Warehouse, the largest collection of movie props in the world, where we wandered down various aisles to gawk at everything from fake sausages to a Meryl Streep mannequin. I’ve never seen so many salt shakers in one place, but it makes you realize that when any kind of kitchen or restaurant set is decorated, they need to have a pair of salt and pepper shakers on the table. There were also tikis, street signs, parrot figurines, skulls and Chinese terracotta warriors. Everywhere I looked, there were props that tugged at the movie memories in my brain.

The rest of the tour took us through other backlot locations, as well as the regular parts of the Universal tour. We were attacked by Norman Bates and the shark from “Jaws,” parted the Red Sea and lived through an earthquake. At one point we passed by the Wisteria Lane set of “Desperate Housewives” and had to be very quiet, as cameras were rolling at that very moment. Then we stepped off the trolley again to walk through the airline crash set from Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” while the regular tour buses drove by with their gawking passengers.

All this time, our tour guide, Lary, was a fountain of movie knowledge and humor, tailoring his spiel to everyone in the group. He took the time to learn where we were from, and what kinds of movies we liked. His engagement of the kids in the group helped make them feel even more like VIPs, and kept them interested all throughout the tour.

It was finally time for lunch, and we were treated to the most incredible gourmet meal by one of Universal’s executive chefs. They really went all out with the food, as they should for a VIP. We went back for seconds and thirds of everything, and definitely got our money’s worth.

After that, we took a peek at a set from the TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” and then made our way to a sound mixing studio for a quick demonstration of the technical mastery of sound in movies. We then walked to the studio commissary to take a look at several Academy Award Oscars on display, including the Best Picture statuette for “Gladiator.” No photos were allowed in any of those places, unfortunately.

My kids were quite pleased with the tour so far, but the best for them was yet to come. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to all the rides at Universal, including Jurassic Park, The Simpsons and Revenge of The Mummy, where we were ushered straight to the front of the line. Let me just repeat that, because it’s an amazing experience for kids: Front. Of. The. Line. Those shiny VIP badges around our necks were golden tickets to every single ride in the park.

Also included in the tour was priority seating at all the live shows, including WaterWorld, Shrek 4D and Animal Actors. My kids were blown away by the spectacular WaterWorld show. Lary, our tour guide, had us at each show promptly on time, and we didn’t miss out on anything. By tour’s end, we had seen and done everything, so with a few hours left before the park closed we just had to go and do some of it again.

All in all, it was a wonderful day for my family. From beginning to end, I felt like a VIP. Yes, it was expensive, but the memories were worth it, at least this one time.

— Phil Corless

Phil Corless is an at-home dad of two living in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2004, he has been writing about fatherhood and family at the Idaho Dad blog. He believes the best way for kids to learn about the world is to travel through it.

Enjoy The Great American Campout in Myrtle Beach

July 4th, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

Head to Myrtle Beach this year to celebrate the annual Great American Campout. The summer-long event, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, is encouraging families of all ages to get outside and camp now through Sept. 7, 2015, and there’s no better place to do it than at the Ocean Lakes Family Campground.

Aerial view of the Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach

As the largest campground on the East Coast, and one of the largest in the U.S., the Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach offers 310 oceanfront acres for families to park their tents or RVs. There are 893 campsites, complete with water, sewer, electric, cable TV and phone hookups, free Wi-Fi, daily trash removal and picnic tables. And for those who don’t own an RV or a tent, the property has nearly 300 rental houses and trailers that are fully furnished to feel like home.

While camping at Ocean Lakes, families will enjoy direct beach access. For those who need a break from the sand, the Ocean Lakes Sandy Harbor Family Fun Center offers an arcade, a mini-golf course and a swimming pool, and a new water park is set to open in 2016. Kids may also like exploring the Ocean Lakes Nature Center Discovery Lab, with its 10,000-plus shells and fossils on display.

For families who still don’t think camping is for them, Ocean Lakes also offers a Camptown Center that features conveniences like dining options and a Laundromat. The Sandy Mart sells snacks, groceries, souvenirs and more, while Sandys Meet n’ Eat serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner with indoor and outdoor seating. Sandy’s Center Stage is also located here; it plays host to magicians, singers, storytellers and other entertainers.

If your family can’t make it to the Ocean Lakes Family Campground, then plan a night of camping in your own backyard in honor of the Great American Campout. Take the pledge on the National Wildlife Federation’s website now to help raise money for nature and wildlife. Supporters have agreed to donate $1 for every person who pledges to camp this summer, hoping to raise up to $100,000 to help protect the great outdoors.

For more information on the Great American Campout, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s website.

— Hilarey Wojtowicz

New Innovation Wing at Smithsonian Museum Features Food Fridays

July 3rd, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. debuted its new Innovation Wing on Wednesday, July 1, and today it kicks off its first Food Friday cooking demonstrations, a new program that will take place every Friday throughout 2015.

The National Museum of American History entrance

The free 45-minute program will show how food and innovation have and can work together to create lasting recipes, traditions and culinary techniques. Guest chefs will be featured every Friday along with Smithsonian host Jessica Carbone, demonstrating recipes and discussing the history and traditions behind the ingredients, along with other culinary topics. Ingredients in the kitchen are all courtesy of Wegman’s Food Markets.

Food Friday demonstrations take place between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Fridays from July through December. During the month of July, the demonstrations will focus on summer traditions in America.

July 3
Curtis Atkins will cook up sauces, rubs, summer salads and summer treats with inspiration from his Georgia roots.

July 10
Chef Llewellyn Correia and nutritionist Krystal Register will guide visitors through the basics of marinating, seasoning and grilling chicken and vegetables on a real barbeque grill.

July 17
Chef Angie Lee of Sur La Table will discuss the history of seafood and demonstrate how to prepare coastal favorites, with inspiration from the Chesapeake Bay area and New England.

July 24
L’Academie de Cuisine chef Brian Patterson. Details to be announced soon.

July 31
Restaurant Associates chef William Bednar. Details to be announced soon.

August’s theme will be “Food Movements that Changed America,” September’s will be “Hispanic-Heritage Month,” October’s will be “Harvest Season in America,” November’s will be “Thanksgiving Celebrations and Native-American Heritage,” and December’s will be “Food Celebrations.”

Additionally, the demonstration kitchen at the National Museum of American History will play a part at the Smithsonian Food History Weekend, which will be held Oct. 22 to 24, 2015.

The new Innovation Wing at the museum is 45,000 square feet in size, and also includes 12 exhibits, galleries and program places with central themes of invention, creativity and business.

The National Museum of American History is open daily during the summer from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., except on July 4, when it will close at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

— Hilarey Wojtowicz

8 Outdoor Summer Events in Vermont

July 2nd, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

Everyone knows that the beautiful Green Mountains of Vermont are the ultimate place on the East Coast to play during the winter, but don’t overlook this magical New England state for summertime fun. From outdoor adventures to fabulous festivals, the Vermont ski resorts have you covered all summer long.

Killington's Dirty Girl Mud Run
Adventures in the Great Outdoors

Here’s an event where Mom can get down and dirty and the family can cheer her on. At Killington’s Dirty Girl Mud Run, participants ages 14 and older will run, jump, hop, bounce and splash their way to the finish line through challenging and fun obstacles. After conquering the course, plan to celebrate at an awesome after party. Most of all, expect to leave with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. This year’s Dirty Girl Mud Run happens on July 11, 2015.

Have a pair of kids angling for some serious fun? For the second year running, the Kids Adventure Games are returning to the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. Kids ages 6 through 14 team up and enjoy the thrill of an adventure race that encourages teamwork, problem solving, sportsmanship, environmental awareness and fun. The Trapp Family Lodge is situated on 2,500 acres just outside of the charming town of Stowe and is a veritable outdoor playground for families. This year’s games will be held July 11 and 12 , 2015

Never had the opportunity to go to camp as a kid? Here’s your chance. Now in its second year, Mount Snow’s popular family camp offers families the chance to unplug and reconnect through activities like hiking and mountain biking, high ropes course adventures, capture the flag and evening bonfires. Big, family-style meals, pool time and comfortable, spacious accommodations round out three-, four- and seven-night all-inclusive packages. Family camps begin on either July 26 or August 2, 2015.

The Jackson Gore Summer Music Series
Musical Celebrations

Head to Okemo Mountain every Friday throughout the summer for what Yankee magazine considers the best free music series in New England. The Jackson Gore Summer Music Series brings a variety of local and regional bands to the courtyard of the Jackson Inn to kick off the weekend from 6 to 9 p.m. each Friday. Bring lawn chairs or picnic blankets and enjoy the evening. Jackson Gore Village is full of summertime action for families. Spend the rest of the weekend bungee jumping or zooming down the mountain coaster at the Adventure Zone, play golf or hike the nearby trails.

Pack a picnic and relax with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra at Woodstock’s Ski Resort. Soft green grass and flitting fireflies provide the backdrop for an evening with the symphony under the stars. The theme of this season’s concert is one of enchantment and whimsy — perfect for a magical night in Vermont. The concert concludes with the spectacular 1812 Overture, marches and fireworks. Woodstock is another quintessential Vermont village. Spend a few days strolling through town, visiting the Billings Farm and Museum, hiking in the National Historic Park, and indulging in a stay at the Woodstock Inn. The concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 9, 2015. Grounds open at 5 p.m.

For a different kind of musical celebration, don’t miss Quechee, Vermont’s Ottauquechee MusicFest. Now in its second year, this festival is held in an amphitheater set up at the Quechee Club’s ski area. Theatrical vocal and dance performances feature well-loved hits by artists like The Eagles, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Maroon 5, and Supertramp. This year’s performances take place on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.

Family hiking through Vermont
Fun Family Festivals

Few things say summer like a handful of plump, juicy blueberries and Okemo Mountain Resort has a whole day dedicated to celebrating these sweet, blue orbs. On Sunday, July 26, the resort is celebrating everything blueberry at the Okemo Blueberry Fest beginning with a pancake breakfast in the Jackson Gore courtyard. Spend the day enjoying live music and games, try your luck in the pie eating contest, and pick-your-own blueberries on a nearby farm.

Make your way north to Jeffersonville for the town’s annual Festival of the Arts. A highlight for area visitors, enjoy a day strolling along Jeffersonville’s charming Main Street and viewing the works of dozens of talented regional artists. Beyond the artwork, family activities include music by the Green Mountain Swing Band and Eames Brothers, games and fun for the kids, and plenty of food offerings. Jeffersonville is a short drive from Smugglers’ Notch resort, a haven for classic Vermont-style summer adventures. This year’s festival takes place on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015.

— Gina Vercesi

Gina Vercesi is a freelance writer with a passion for exploring nature and the outdoors. Gina features off-the-grid family travel adventures on her blog, Kids Unplugged, and writes as the “Unplugged” Traveling Mom for the Traveling Mom Writer’s Network.