14th Annual Library of Congress National Book Festival for Families

August 30th, 2014 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

The 2014 Library of Congress National Book Festival logoThis weekend the U.S. is observing a national holiday – Labor Day – but families can celebrate something else today, too. The 14th Annual Library of Congress National Book Festival celebrates favorite authors and titles from every genre. From poetry to young adult novels to non-fiction, families of all ages are invited to meet authors and listen to new stories that have yet to be read.

This year’s festival begins at 10 a.m. at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. More than 100 authors will be stationed around the center at various pavilions devoted to the individual genres. The Library of Congress will also have a pavilion where guests can get a behind-the-scenes look at how the department works to distribute resources to people all over the country. A Pavilion of States is another must-see area and families can learn of the various literary traditions of the 50 states and territories. Kids can even pick up an interactive map where they’ll get a sticker every time they visit a different state or territory’s table (see if you can get all 52!). Pavilions will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Evening events, such as a poetry slam and author panel, will also take place, beginning at 6 p.m.

Let’s Read America is where every family will want to take the kids. The Washington Post will host a bookmark-making station and the newspaper’s mascot, Ned the Newshound, will be available for photo-ops between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Right next to the Let’s Read America exhibit is the PBS Explorer Zone, with even more fun activities for children. Meet the characters of The Cat in the Hat, Curious George and other classics; spin the PBS Kids Wheel for a chance to win a prize; and create your own puppet show.

The 14th Annual Library of Congress National Book Festival begins at 10 a.m. today, with doors opening at 9 a.m. Admission is free and food and drinks will be for sale; no outside refreshments are allowed into the venue. For a full schedule and more information on today’s event, visit the Library of Congress website.

– Hilarey Wojtowicz

Labor Day Weekend Fun for Families

August 29th, 2014 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

Two young boys hold sparklers in front of American flagLabor Day is Monday, September 1 this year and that means we should start celebrating the American labor movement today! Kick off the last official weekend of summer with one of these fun family events in one of these six major cities across the U.S.

Philadelphia has so much American history for families to explore. While visiting the city this weekend, watch a free movie, take a train ride or check out the fireworks display.

Friday, Aug. 29, 2014
Free family movie in Hawthorne Park at 7 p.m. with activities for kids beforehand.

Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014
Fireworks at Longwood Gardens at 8:15 p.m.

Saturday to Monday, Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, 2014
Franklin Square family activities from noon to 3 p.m., including carousel rides, mini-golf, food, drinks, and more, plus rides on Lightning Bolt Express Train.

If you’re in the southeast this weekend, head to Atlanta for two family-friendly festivals.

Friday to Sunday, Aug. 29-31, 2014
Callaway Gardens Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival at Pine Mountain from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with live music, a Kids Zone, car show and more.

Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014
Annual Labor Day Weekend Catfish Festival in Kingsland, Ga., from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a parade, arts and crafts, a children’s amusement area and more.

Check out a circus in a park or fireworks over the pier in Chicago this weekend with your family.

Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014
Fireworks over Navy Pier at 10:15 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 30-31, 2014
Circus in the Park at Grand Crossing Park at 2 p.m. daily, with proceeds benefitting the upkeep and improvement of the park.

Los Angeles
Enjoy Labor Day in southern California this weekend, with parades and fairs for families in Los Angeles.

Friday to Monday, Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 2014
Los Angeles County Fair at the Fairplex in Pamona, with rides, music, livestock, food and more, beginning at noon on Friday and at 10 a.m. on all other days.

Monday, Sept. 1, 2014
The LA/Long Beach Labor Coalition Labor Day Parade at 10 a.m. from Broad Street to Banning Park in Wimington, with food, music and more at the park.

Celebrate Labor Day in Seattle with free movies and a delicious festival.

Friday, Aug. 29, 2014
Free outdoor showing of “Frozen” in Tacoma at 5 p.m. at Stewart Heights Park.

Saturday to Monday, Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, 2014
25th Annual Blackberry Festival at Bremerton Boardwalk, beginning at 10 a.m. daily, with music, food, drinks and fun.

Boston will be full of patriotism this Labor Day weekend with an arts festival and fireworks.

Saturday, Aug. 30-31, 2014
The Boston Arts Festival at Christopher Columbus Park, beginning at noon daily, with live music, art and sculpture displays, refreshments and more.

Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014
Fireworks over Boston Harbor at 9 p.m., with spectacular views from every spot along the waterfront.

– Hilarey Wojtowicz

Puerto Rico: City Hotel vs. Island Resort

August 28th, 2014 by Amanda Geronikos No comments »

In Puerto Rico, you can have oceanfront accommodations (that is the goal after all, isn’t it?) in the city and the country, yet still be close to popular destinations, such as El Yunque National Rainforest and Old San Juan. So, which one is best?

During a recent trip to the island, we had a chance to visit two hotels in two locales. We discovered that neither one was better than the other; both hotels offered unique experiences for families… but we’ll let you decide.

El Conquistador Resort
Views of the mountains near the El Conquistador Resort in Puerto RicoSituated on a cliff in Fajardo — approximately one hour from Luis Munoz International Airport in San Juan — El Conquistador offers families a quintessential island vacation; it’s exactly what you picture when you think of Puerto Rico (but better). The property, which also includes Las Casitas Village, is the largest in Puerto Rico; it expands more than 500 acres and feels like an island in itself, far removed from the humdrum of surprisingly run-down businesses below.

Highlights for Families

Palomino Island
Exclusive to hotel guests, Palomino Island offers opportunities to hike, kayak, paddleboard, horseback ride, snorkel or simply relax on a beach chair or at Iguana’s Cafe. Speaking of iguanas, don’t be surprised to see several – they’re everywhere! Palomino Island is just 15 minutes from the resort, and accessible by a catamaran.

Ki’ Spa
The highlight of a visit to El Conquistador Resort might just be the Ki’ Spa, an adorable facility that offers special massages and scrubs for kids. Mommy & Me and Daddy & Me Packages are also offered.

Coqui Water Park
Never mind the hotel already offers three pools – Coqui Water Park, available for an additional fee (or with a Water Park Package), features a lazy river and several slides, most notably El Gigante.

Scout About
This, the ultimate scavenger hunt, encourages youngsters to explore the resort in exchange for fun facts and a collection of colorful bracelets.

The Condado Plaza Hilton
Views of the pool area at the Condado Plaza Hilton in Puerto RicoSituated in Condado, a neighborhood in San Juan, the Condado Plaza Hilton is a traditional high-rise hotel… except it offers a beach (a surprisingly calm one at that). Inside, a swanky lobby and luxurious rooms welcome families; outside, restaurants (mostly chain names), shops and a lovely park necessitate an evening stroll (and you’ll see many families doing just that).

Highlights for Families

Condado Beach
Adjacent to the hotel, this beach is open to the public, though you’ll hardly know it — it doesn’t look or feel crowded. The water is shallow, too, and an artificial reef trail welcomes snorkelers (gear is available to rent at the hotel).

Water Sports
Guests can enjoy more snorkeling, plus stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, pedal boats and floats on Condado Lagoon (at an extra fee).

The hotel has four pools, including the only one with saltwater in Puerto Rico. Others include a Toddler Pool and Activity Pool, where a swim-up bar and waterslide create a happy balance for parents and kids.

Scout About
Similar to El Conquistador Resort, Hilton Condado Plaza touts Scout About, a scavenger hunt that allows kids to learn about the area and collect souvenirs.

– Amanda Geronikos

Hotel Chains With Free Breakfast for Families

August 27th, 2014 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

A mother, daughter and father eat breakfast together at a hotelThere are always a few perks that help make a family’s stay at a hotel a little more comfortable. Large suites, mini-fridges, microwaves, pools…all are awesome amenities to have during a vacation. But we know of one that beats the rest — a free breakfast. Not only can you save money, but time, too. Whether it’s hot or cold, a free breakfast makes vacation that much easier. Here’s a list of 17 hotel chains that always serve up a free breakfast to their guests daily:

  • Best Western
  • Comfort Inn & Suites
  • Country Inn & Suites
  • Drury Hotels
  • Element Hotels by Westin
  • Embassy Suites
  • Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott
  • Hampton Inn & Suites
  • Holiday Inn Express
  • Homewood Suites
  • Hyatt Place
  • La Quinta Inn & Suites
  • Residence Inn
  • SpringHill Suites by Marriott
  • Staybridge Suites
  • TownePlace Suites by Marriott
  • Wingate by Wyndham

Another great perk is free Wi-Fi. Read Wi-Fi: Where to Find Free Wi-Fi When Traveling for a list of hotels with complimentary Internet access.

– Hilarey Wojtowicz

What to Know Before Spending a Day on Disney’s Castaway Cay in the Bahamas

August 26th, 2014 by Guest Blogger No comments »

Families on beach of Disney's Castaway Cay island in the BahamasOne of the highlights of our recent Disney Cruise vacation was the day we spent on Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., our ship had the entire island to ourselves. I left for this trip without doing a lot of my normal intensive research, so I wasn’t as prepared as I could’ve been for our adventure ashore. Here are some things I wish I had known in advance.

First of all, if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, it’s pronounced Castaway “key,” not “kay.” And if you want a beach chair, get off the ship and onto the beach no later than 9:30 a.m. There is a tram that makes stops at the three main beach areas.

And there are a few important things to bring with you: sunscreen, sunglasses, bottled water and beach toys. We brought our own reusable water bottles on this trip, so we filled them that morning at the complimentary drink stations on the ship. Towels are provided to you after you disembark. You can buy bottles of water on the island, but this can get pricey. Sunscreen, beach toys, goggles, etc. are available for sale at the two gift shops if you don’t have them, but why pay when you can bring your own?

Castaway Ray's Stingray Adventure sign on Disney's Castaway Cay in the BahamasThere’s a lot more to do than just laying on the sand, like biking, snorkeling, watercraft rentals, parasailing, etc. However, there’s a charge for every activity. I was surprised and a little disappointed to learn that there was a hefty fee for Castaway Ray’s Stingray Adventure, especially since the planning DVD doesn’t let on that there’s a charge for this. There’s even a $10 rental fee for inner tubes and foam rafts. Had I planned better, I would have packed my own inflatables.

Regardless of the fees, you don’t need to bring any money with you. As long as you have your “Key to the World” card, you can charge anything you purchase to your room. The only exception is if you want to send a postcard from the island’s Post Office. It will need a Bahamian stamp, which you can purchase with cash there.

The amazing supervised children’s program isn’t just onboard the ship either; it’s on the island, too! You can drop off your kids at Scuttle’s Cove, and head off to the adult-only beach, Serenity Bay. They will be cared for, entertained, and fed by the same well-trained childcare staff, with games, activities, and water play area. There is no extra fee for this program; it’s included in your cruise fare.

Pelican Plunge water play area on Disney's Castaway Cay in the BahamasThe main water attraction is Pelican Plunge, which contains two fast-moving waterslides, two water cannons, and a large bucket that pours out overhead every few minutes. However, it’s on a dock, and you have to swim out to it — through deep water — to reach it. There are life jackets provided, and anyone under 38 inches is required to wear one to swim over to it.

Eat lunch early; it’s served from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. This is not only to avoid crowds, but also to get there before the seagulls start swarming. We heard a high-pitched whistle tone over the PA system the entire time, which presumably is used to keep the birds away. It didn’t really work, and it bothered my son and husband, who are sensitive to certain sounds. You can, however, bring your lunch tray to the beach if you want to eat there.

The two gift shops — Buy the Seashore and She Sells Sea Shells and Everything Else — carry special Castaway Cay souvenirs that you will only find there. If having unique Disney merchandise is your thing, stock up there.

What other tips do you have for visiting Disney’s Castaway Cay? Comment below!

– Traci L. Suppa

Traci L. Suppa drags her small-town family to see a quirky array of the world’s largest, longest, or tallest things, and blogs about it at Go BIG or Go Home.

A Visit to Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Vermont with the Kids

August 25th, 2014 by Guest Blogger No comments »

Two boys peek through the Ben and Jerry's Factory sign in VermontOn a recent visit to Vermont, we were excited to find out we were staying just a few miles from the Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury, V.T. I’m a long time fan of the ice-cream company myself, having grown up watching their business expand while devouring their awesome flavors. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for their involvement in local and global issues. I was not only eager to learn about their humble beginnings but I was anxious to see the factory. My kids were equally curious and eager to taste a few flavors, so it was indeed a “family-approved” fieldtrip.

The factory offers 30-minute guided tours led by fun people who truly love working for Ben and Jerry. We happened to be given a tour on Pajama Day, so our guide was decked out in her favorite PJ’s. We learned that Ben and Jerry met when they were both kids in gym class. They started the business after taking a $5 course in the 1970’s on Long Island and moved to Vermont to open their first scoop shop in a renovated gas station. They have created hundreds of flavors, many of which no longer exist and are given homage to in the factory’s “Flavor Graveyard.” It’s an actual graveyard with headstones dedicated to their long gone flavors with engraved poetry saluting their legacies. We were given a sample during the tour of their Strawberry Cheesecake flavor and naturally stopped for scoops in their scoop shop at the end of the tour.

The factory itself is really something to see and my kids really learned about the ice cream manufacturing experience. We saw where the milk and cream are pumped and stored and how the mix is made in a 100-gallon stainless steel mega-blender, adding sugar, egg yolks, cocoa powder and natural stabilizers. The completed batch is taken to the surge tank where the mix is stored until pasteurization begins. Then it enters the homogenizer before being pumped over to the Tank Room (a 36-degree (F) room with six 5000-gallon storage tanks). Who knew there was so much involved in getting a scoop of ice cream made?

Our guide explained that in 2000, Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever, but Ben and Jerry remain advisors. They still buy milk from Vermont dairy farmers who aren’t allowed to use any growth hormones on their cows. They also still contribute more than $1 million annually to employee-led Community Action Teams and their Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. I liked having my kids find out about successful people who help people with their money. It was both an educational and inspiring day, topped with a scoop of Chunky Monkey (my favorite flavor)!

The factory tour is affordable at just $4 per adult, $3 per child, with kids 12 and under free. They also have a tour package for $20 that includes a T-shirt with factory tour admission. The factory is open year-round, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, with extended hours June through October.

– Holly Fink

Holly Rosen Fink is a mother, marketing consultant, writer and blogger for a number of sites, as well as her own, The Holly Chronicles.