Archive for the ‘U.S. Travel’ category

A Taste of Venice: Gondola Tours in the U.S.

April 20th, 2016

When most people hear the word “gondola,” they picture an Italian guide steering them through the romantic waterways of Venice. But did you know that you can take a gondola ride without ever leaving American soil (or, well, American water)? If a European trip isn’t in the cards for your family anytime soon, treat the family to one of these gondola tours around the U.S.

The Venetian in Las Vegas

The Venetian, Las Vegas
Las Vegas has something of everything—so why not gondolas? Whether you’re staying at The Venetian or elsewhere, you can take a short authentic gondola ride down the Grand Canal inside the hotel. For about 15 minutes, a singing gondolier will take you floating under painted blue skies through the Venetian’s vibrant streetscape, complete with cafes, bridges, and balconies. Also available, weather permitting, is an outdoor ride which takes you around the outside of the property.

Las Olas Gondola Tours, Fort Lauderdale
Enjoy the sights of South Florida from a tranquil gondola (some are open, some enclosed) on the miles of unique canals winding through Fort Lauderdale, the city known as the “Venice of America.” The gondoliers at Las Olas are personable and love to entertain you with stories and music, and you’re welcome to bring your own refreshments to enjoy on the water (ice buckets, glasses, and bottle openers are provided). Their tours are specifically designed for you, so the length, departure location, and price will vary based on your requests.

Gondola di Venezia, Boston
Arrange a group tour for the whole family at this Boston-based gondolier, which takes you on a relaxing ride down the Charles River in authentic Venetian gondolas. Snacks and ice buckets are provided, as are wine glasses, but plan to bring along your own beverages. For a little extra entertainment, book the accordion player and sing along to some tunes!

Old World Gondoliers, Indianapolis
Book either the half-hour or hour-long tour with Old World Gondoliers to enjoy the beautiful views of gardens and estates from the downtown Indianapolis canals. During the ride, you’ll learn a little about the area, and be serenaded by the beautiful voice of your gondolier, true to Venetian tradition. Choose either a private gondola for your family to have to themselves, or a public gondola ride where you’ll share the boat with strangers.

La Gondola, Providence
See Providence, Rhode Island from a new angle on the boats of La Gondola. Your enthusiastic gondoliers will keep you safe, comfortable, and smiling, and as you cruise down the water, you’ll learn about some of Providence’s history and culture. Ice buckets, glasses, and bottle openers are provided, so feel free to bring along some Champagne. For an extra-special experience, try to book during WaterFire, an annual fire sculpture event on the rivers which usually occurs twice monthly from May to November. Drifting down the water surrounded by flickering light, incredible music, and the scents of cedar and pine will make it a trip to remember.

— Kaitlin Braun

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From Duct Tape to Woolly Worms: Weirdest U.S. Family Festivals

April 1st, 2016

Think there’s nothing more interesting than Ferris wheels and cotton candy to experience at fairs and festivals this year? There are plenty of ways to prove yourself wrong. Don’t settle for “normal” this summer and fall: plan a trip to one of these unique family festivals that the kids won’t forget anytime soon.

Duck Tape Festival

Duck Tape Festival
It’s long been claimed that duct tape can fix anything—and as it turns out, that list includes “a boring weekend.” From June 17th to the 19th, hundreds will flock to the Veteran’s Memorial Park in Avon, Ohio, (near Cleveland) to experience family fun in the “duct tape capital of the world,” sponsored by the Duck Tape brand. Enjoy games, rides, food, music, a parade with floats, and the Duck Tape Fashion Show, in which participants model head-to-toe duct tape attire.

Northern California Pirate Festival
Take your would-be swashbucklers to make some mischief at the annual Pirate Festival in Vallejo, California, on June 18 and 19. Nautical entertainers will take to the stages for sea shanties, sword fighting, and plenty more. Little buccaneers have dedicated “Wee Pirates” events and activities, ranging from a parade and costume contest to a Kraken bounce-house and hands-on fun at the “Schoole of Piracy.”

No, this event doesn’t involve boxing: the annual Eatonville SlugFest is all about celebrating actual slugs—specifically, the Northwest’s own banana slug. On June 25 and 26, visitors will dress up as slugs and head to the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Tacoma, Washington, where they can play games, sing the “slug anthem” (yes, it exists), and participate in human slug races down a soapy-slimy plastic track (wearing clothing-protective gear, of course). If your kids are enthused about the idea of becoming a slug for a day, this may just be their only chance!

Cardboard Festival

World Championship Cardboard Boat Races
Visit Heber Springs, Arkansas to watch as teams race down the water in cardboard box boats decorated in all kinds of themes, from space ships to monster trucks. This year, the challenge is to decorate the boat as a favorite Pixar character. The boats are made entirely out of cardboard (covered with waterproof varnish), and some can be truly impressive! (Those that aren’t can always compete for the “most dramatic sinking” award.) Other activities of the day include a treasure dig, watermelon-eating contest, and “lucky duck” races. This year, the action starts at 10 a.m. on July 30th at Sandy Beach. If you and the kids want to compete yourselves, register online and check out the basic boat building guide!

Potato Days Festival
Potato lovers, welcome to heaven. On August 26 and 27, you and your family will have the chance to dine on potato pancakes, dumplings, lefse, donuts, and other unique potato foods, and compete in sack races, mashed potato sculpting, a potato hunt, and a “potato derby” featuring, you guessed it, homemade potato cars. Kids have special events, which include a kiddie parade, spud-themed games in the park, and pony rides (in a shocking twist, the ponies are not made out of potato). On Friday evening, local 5- and 6-year-old girls will compete to take home the title of Miss Tater Tot.

Hollerin’ Heritage Festival
It’s a widely known fact that most children enjoy yelling their heads off at any possible opportunity, so give yours a chance to show off their lung capacity at this annual competition in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina. The hollerin’ contest is the main attraction, but the event also features live music, food, a classic car show, farm activities, and a kids’ entertainment zone. 2016 dates had not been officially announced at time of writing, but it traditionally takes place on the second Saturday of September.

Cat Video Awards

Internet Cat Video Festival
This uniquely modern event is the perfect place to catch up on all the great cat videos you’ve been missing. The “cativities” take place in a variety of locations along the festival tour, which is put on by the Walker Art Center; this year, you can catch it in cities ranging from Tacoma, Washington on the West Coast to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania on the East, and a number in between. Many attendees paint whiskers on their faces and don costumes, and in addition to the cat videos themselves, there will be other forms of live entertainment…sometimes including a “celebricat” like Grumpy Cat. (If you don’t know who that is, ask your kids.)

Woolly Worm Festival
On October 15 to 16, the town of Banner Elk, North Carolina will host its 39th annual Wooly Worm Festival. A sort of autumn counterpart to Groundhog Day, this festival relies on a woolly worm race to determine the severity of the upcoming winter. Contestants bring their worms to compete throughout the day by crawling up three-foot lengths of string, and the last one standing (well, crawling) will have the honor of completing the final prediction ceremony. The day also includes live entertainment, food, and arts and crafts vendors. (A similar annual event is held in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, if that’s closer for your family.)

Punkin Chunkin
After a two-year hiatus, pumpkins will once again find themselves hurled into the skies of Sussex County, Delaware on November 4th, 5th, and 6th. Kids will be thrilled to watch as the “punkins” are launched from air cannons, trebuchets, catapults, and other machine types—or try it out themselves in one of the youth competitions. If you have a child who’s more “artist” than “engineer,” have them submit a creative masterpiece to the 12-and-under art competition; this year, the theme is “what a pumpkin would look like celebrating your favorite holiday,” and a grand prize is awarded.

— Kaitlin Braun

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National Theater for Kids in 2016

March 14th, 2016

Live theater for kids? Tickets are pricey, the downtown drive is annoying, and who needs one more battle in dressing up a kid? But introduce kids to live theater — with kid-friendly seats (nosebleeds and partially obscured views are out) — and you’ll hook them for life.

The live touring shows lighting up our 2016 nights — and matinee afternoons — are perfect for steeping your sweethearts in the wonder of live theater.

“The Sound of Music”
“Let’s start at the very beginning — a very nice place to start.” The story, the fabulous songs and singing, the adorable kids, the sweet romance between Captain von Trapp and Maria – magical. Live theater at its best.

“Disney Aladdin the Musical”
Disney’s movie, “Aladdin,” came out in 1992 along with Robin Williams’ genie who had us rolling in the aisles. In 2011, Disney’s “Aladdin the Musical” hit the stage to thunderous applause. Today’s genie – tutored by Williams’ comedic genius via film — continues to wildly entertain as he grants Aladdin’s three wishes. Disney outdid themselves in this gorgeous show with sets that take Aladdin and Jasmine on a carpet ride. Totally worth your time.

Reviews give it “four mouths” open. The onstage costume changes seemingly happen by magic and when the beggar transforms into the fairy godmother, a gasp goes through the audience. The elaborate show picked up a Tony for costumes.

“Disney’s Newsies”
Reviews agree that the male dancing cast is out of this world. Street urchins — based on a newsboy strike back in 1899 – fly into the air with nary a BMX bike or skate board in sight. Because the sets soar and move in a vertical direction, many suggest sitting in the Mezzanine level (the first balcony or first few rows of the first balcony) of the theater to get a rockin’ view.

Something to keep in mind — here and there, “Newsies” floats adult innuendo and one woman runs a men’s entertainment theater.

“Matilda the Musical”
Based on Roald Dahl’s novel, “Matilda the Musical” began wowing audiences of all ages in 2010 in England. The show has garnered five Tony awards, including the Best Book of a Musical. The Wall Street Journal says, “The makers of Matilda have done the impossible—triumphantly! It is smart, sweet, zany and stupendous fun.”

“Disney’s Beauty & the Beast”
Often live shows take place in grand dame theaters dripping in opulence, allowing you to introduce your kids to a show and a theater from yesteryear. Seeing theater in Atlanta – where we live – usually means spending time in the insane grandeur of The Fox Theater, a jewel-box treasure built in 1929.

Our budget can usually manage one – maybe two – theater shows a year and I’m thrilled we chose “Beauty & the Beast.” The elaborate sets reminding me of the gossamer wings of a butterfly, the singing, and the special effects (when the Beast turns Prince) dazzled.

But when Lumiere begins singing, “Be. Our. Guest. . .” chills flew up our legs and didn’t stop until the number concluded with forks and plates and whatnot dancing and singing as they welcomed Belle to their magical castle.

“The Lion King”
At age ten, I had to pull my boys out of a sandbox of friends, cram them into clean clothes, and endure grumpy comments from the back seat all the way to “The Lion King.” But as a particularly cool animal (puppet like you’ve never seen) emerged on stage, one son leaned in and whispered, “this is AWESOME!”

“The Lion King” became the gold standard for live theater in my family.

When I saw that “Wicked” – based on a novel by Gregory Maguire — was about to hit town, I Googled its appropriateness for kids. I wanted to know: is “Wicked” more interesting for girls or boys? Were the themes too over-21? Would a scene make my then 10-year-olds uncomfortable? Answer: no, no, and no.

The songs, including “Defying Gravity,” “Popular, “and “For Good,” are fabulous and, along with the story line, drive home the message that a thoughtful, caring life is a more vital pursuit than a pouf-ball, party lifestyle (let’s just say Glinda matures).

Ironically, this show put Idina Menzel on everybody’s play list; she originally played Elphaba — a character who doesn’t care about being popular.

Wicked is probably best for kids who’ve seen other live shows.

— Wendy Irvine

Wendy Irvine is a homeschooling mom of twin 12-year-old beach fanatics. Follow Wendy’s family travel tips on Twitter @WendyIrvine.

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Exploring Nature Beyond the Sands of Daytona Beach

February 22nd, 2016

Each year thousands of visitors flock to Daytona Beach, where they enjoy playing in the sand, surf and sun along the Atlantic Ocean. However, this Florida city offers more natural experiences than just those found along its oceanfront property, many that are just minutes from the beach, yet feel like a world away. Here is a closer look at three such sites: Spruce Creek Park & Campground, Tuscawilla Preserve and De Leon Springs State Park. As a bonus, these natural beauties are either free to the public or simply require a low entrance fee per car.

Spruce Creek

Spruce Creek Park & Campground
Just a 15-minute drive south on U.S. Highway 1 from Daytona Beach, Spruce Creek Park & Campground in Port Orange spreads out across 1,637 acres that include more than 3 miles of hiking trails around the marshes of Spruce Creek. During my visit, we headed out on the 536-foot boardwalk out over the marshland, where we took in the scenic views. A family occupied one of the seating areas, trying their luck at fishing. After a hushed conversation to see how the fishing was going, I turned my attention to my surroundings, soaking up the quiet sounds of birds flying overhead and the occasional fish jumping in the water. Although I was unable to do so, visitors to Spruce Creek Park can spend the entire day here, making the most of the picnic area, playground and canoe launch. It’s a different, yet equally enjoyable way to enjoy fun in the sun in Daytona Beach.

Tuscawilla Preserve

Tuscawilla Preserve
Located at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, Tuscawilla Preserve is a 90-acre virgin Florida coastal hydric hammock; in other words, it’s a wet forest similar to a swamp, but it’s drier because it has standing water for shorter periods. Ready to explore, I set out on the boardwalk, which travels more than half a mile through the trees and fauna. Along the way, I passed a number of interactive learning stations that provided more information on the wildlife and fauna found throughout the preserve. There also were a number of benches where I could sit and absorb the sights and sounds surrounding me. In fact, there were a couple of “overlook” areas next to small ponds. I hoped to spot an alligator or two, but luck was not on my side. Nonetheless, I loved seeing another side of Daytona Beach’s natural side, one that was wholly unexpected, yet surprisingly delightful.

De Leon Springs State Park
A little farther from Daytona Beach than the others, a visit to De Leon Springs State Park is totally worth the 40-minute drive. First, this park overflows with activities: boating, fishing, hiking, swimming, birding, canoeing, picnicking — the list goes on and on. You can even snorkel in the swimming area here! I especially like the two hiking trails. The first is a half-mile paved trail that takes visitors into a flood plain forest where you can see a cypress tree that is more than 600 years old! To catch a glimpse of the wildlife, set out on the 4-mile Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail and see if you can spot a deer, turkey or even a Florida black bear. As much as I love the natural offerings at De Leon Springs State Park, I must admit that my favorite activity was breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugarmill Pancake House, a 100-year-old replica of the original 1830s sugar mill. Here, I made my own pancakes right at my table, which included a griddle in the center. With a la carte toppings including blueberries, chopped pecans and chocolate chips, I made my own culinary creations.

Daytona Beach offers much more in the great outdoors than just sand and surf, so don’t be afraid to get out and experience it with your family. When you do, let us know what your favorite nature spot is in Daytona Beach.

––Karon Warren

The mother of two children, Karon enjoys bringing her kids along for the adventure, and seeing and experiencing new sites and cultures through their eyes. When she is not traveling, Karon resides in the quiet tranquility of the North Georgia Mountains with her family.

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