4 Boston Events for Families

July 23rd, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

Spend time together as a family in Boston before the kids go back to school. This August, the New England city is hosting family-friendly events for all ages.

Boston skyline

Family Film Festival
Aug. 1-29, 2015
Throughout the month of August, Boston radio station Magic 106.7 will host a Family Film Festival at the Shops at Prudential Center. Movies include “UP” on Aug. 1, “Paddington” on Aug. 8, “Ratatouille” on Aug. 15, “Toy Story” on Aug. 22, and “Despicable Me” on Aug. 29. Admission is free.

Boston Seafood Festival
Aug. 2, 2015
Boston is known for its seafood, so what better way to enjoy it than at a festival that celebrates it? Families will enjoy food, contests, arts and crafts vendors, a kids’ activities area and a lobster bake. To enjoy all the fun, just head to the Boston Fish Pier on Saturday, Aug. 2, between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults and teens ages 13 and older, $5 for kids ages 6 to 12, and free for children ages 5 and under.

Boston GreenFest
Aug. 21-23, 2015
Learn about the environment and how to be healthier at the eighth annual Boston GreenFest. The free event offers families music, food, interactive exhibits, movies, a kids’ activities area and more. All events and activities will be held at the Boston City Hall Plaza.

Kiddies Carnival
Aug. 23, 2015
The Boston Carnival Village promotes island culture throughout Boston year-round. On Sunday, Aug. 23, the Kiddies Carnival offers children a chance to learn about and enjoy it, too. Families can head to White Stadium in Franklin Park for musical performances, dancing, face painting, Caribbean food and more. Kids ages 12 and under receive free admission with a paying adult. Admission is $10 for adults and teens ages 13 and older.

Planning on attending one of these great events? Book a night at a family-friendly Boston hotel for your trip!

— Hilarey Wojtowicz

Backstage Pass at the San Diego Zoo

July 22nd, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

Many consider it to be the best zoo in the world. It’s certainly one of the biggest. So, when you visit the San Diego Zoo, you’re seeing something quite special.

But why not make it just a little more special by going behind-the-scenes with the zoo’s memorable Backstage Pass program? That’s what my family did on our visit to San Diego, California.

Like the Universal Studios VIP Tour that I wrote about earlier, this excursion was also pricey, to the tune of $109 per person (which does not include zoo admission of $48 for adults and $38 for kids under 12 years).

A cheetah at the San Diego Zoo

For a trip of a lifetime, however, it was worth the extra expense. You don’t really go “behind the scenes,” and they don’t advertise it as such, but instead, you get first-class treatment in a special staging area, where you receive a private viewing of a variety of the zoo’s animals.

Our encounter began at lunchtime, so it’s a good thing the zoo served us up a delicious box lunch. Sitting at our comfortable tables, it wasn’t long before the animals appeared.

We were getting our money’s worth right away as various wild creatures were paraded right past our outstretched legs. A zookeeper took a good amount of time to discuss and show off each animal.

My kids were enthralled by the up-close and personal views of a cheetah, Asian Bearcat, wolf, hedgehog and various birds of prey.

Up next, we left our seats to get even closer to the biggest animal I’ve ever touched — a rhinoceros. The rhino was just about worth the entire price of the Backstage Pass. We fed him with our bare hands, gave him a good rubdown with brushes and then jiggled his skin folds.

Phil Corless's kids brushing a rhino at the San Diego Zoo

You haven’t lived until you’ve jiggled a rhino’s folds. If you’re looking for something to leave your kids awe-struck, this definitely qualifies.

After the rhino, zookeepers led us to an area for photo-ops with a baby zebra and an elderly emu. Again, it was very cool to be able to pet these animals and pose for pictures. How often do you get to put your arm around a zebra?

The 90-minute program ended here, and it seemed rather abrupt. For the price, I felt like I needed a bit more. Putting us all on a bus or trolley for a guided tour of the zoo would’ve been a nice way to end things.

Instead, we were left to tour the zoo ourselves. For the next three or four hours, we wandered through the vastness of the place. By itself, the San Diego Zoo is a marvel. We especially loved the gorillas, polar bears, pandas, and sea lions. There’s plenty to do all throughout the zoo to keep your family busy the entire day.

The Backstage Pass experience just gave us that extra little special memory, helped by a couple of free family photos included with the program. The zoo offers a few other behind-the-scenes tours that are cheaper, but they do not offer the same opportunities to get up close and personal with the animals. And then there is the very exclusive all-day VIP Experience that will set you back $599 per person. That one was out of our price range, so I can only imagine how amazing it might be.

We would recommend spending the extra money on the Backstage Pass if it’s your first time to the zoo, and if your kids are old enough to appreciate it. I know mine will never forget giving that rhino a good scrubbing.

— 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.

A Weekend in Long Island With Kids

July 21st, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

When you think about visiting Long Island, New York, you may automatically envision the Hamptons, or Montauk Point. I certainly did, until I planned a weekend family getaway earlier this month. We didn’t attempt the long drive to the eastern end of the island, especially during the crowded summer season. Instead, we concentrated on the middle of the island, in Suffolk County, but just barely over the Nassau County border. We found plenty to do!

Fire Island Lighthouse

Our first day was perfect for the beach, so we chose Robert Moses State Park. This is a 5-mile-long central barrier island off the southern Long Island coast, in between the popular Jones Beach and Fire Island. There are numbered beaches, one through five. Since they face the Atlantic Ocean, you can expect real waves, decent shells to collect and chilly waters most of the year.

We brought a picnic lunch, pitched an umbrella, and played in the surf for hours. Since it’s a state park, the entrance fee ($10 per car) was nominal, and the facilities were good. There are picnic areas, playgrounds, snack bars and even a golf course. Lifeguards are on duty in zones marked by flags, and swimming beyond these areas is discouraged. Swimming hours are generally 10 a.m. 6 p.m., but fluctuate on weekends and by beach.

One word of caution; as you get further east toward the Fire Island lighthouse, the “Clothing Required” signs seem to be more of a suggestion than a law to some sunbathers. We were on Beach 5 beyond the lifeguard zone, and my teen got an eyeful. Luckily, my 8-year-old was blissfully unaware!

Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium

That evening, we enjoyed a narrated planetarium show at the Vanderbilt Museum, Mansion and Planetarium in Centerport, New York. Built between 1910 and 1936 by William K. Vanderbilt, this Spanish-Revival style mansion he called “Eagle’s Nest” sits on 43 acres, and is one of the few remaining Gold Coast mansions. Before the show, we got to explore the grounds, and the highlight was the discovery of a “secret” sunken rose garden overlooking Northport Bay and the Long Island Sound beyond it.

The unassuming, 147-seat planetarium was renovated in 2013, and now houses one of the world’s most advanced projectors. There is a rotating schedule of nine different shows; some are narrated and educational in nature, and others are more musical entertainment. After the show, if the sky is clear, you can view the actual star-filled sky from the Observatory. While Planetarium shows are generally in the evening, the rest of the estate is open every afternoon during the summer, except on Mondays.

Old Westbury Gardens

The next day, we continued our exploration of how “the other half” lived in the early 20th century with a visit to Old Westbury Gardens in Westbury, New York. The former home of the Phipps family, the 1906 English manor home sits on 200 acres of formal gardens, woodlands, ponds and lakes – all open for exploring. My daughter spent the day pretending she was Peggie Phipps, the young girl of the family who grew up on the estate. We took a self-guided tour through the mansion, peeking into the grand rooms with fine English antiques, and then went outside to look for ducks in the ponds.

We stayed for the free children’s program — there are several scheduled every month — that included a storytelling tour of the grounds, followed by a craft. Westbury House and Gardens are open every day, except Tuesdays, from late April through October.

— 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 Weekend in Denver With Kids

July 20th, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

Thanks to a late start from Kansas City and stops in Topeka, to see the outstanding Brown v. Board of Education site, and Manhattan, to peruse the Kansas State University bookstore (what can I say, my youngest daughter loves purple and cats), we didn’t even get the thrill of a daytime Rocky Mountain approach to Denver. And then came the rain.

It was a rough nine-hour driving day that didn’t end until we tossed our keys to the valet just before midnight. Thankfully, Hilton’s mobile check-in had us on our way up to a top floor corner room (that I was able to select on my phone!) in less than 20 seconds. Thank you technology…and thanks also to the Toyota Sienna’s Blu-Ray entertainment system that kept two young ladies smiling through Kansas’s flat nothingness.

Jeff Bogle's daughters stand on the steps of the state capital building in Denver, Colorado

The Hilton Garden Inn Denver Downtown is in a hotel cluster near the convention center, which, at first blush, save for the giant blue bear statue out front, didn’t seem ideal for a weekend in Denver with kids. The location, however, proved perfect for us because just two blocks east is the pedestrian nirvana of the 16th Street Mall and its free MallRide loop bus, which my youngest daughter would have been content to ride all day long.

A few more blocks in the same direction is free Ping Pong, mini-golf, foosball and more at Skyline Park (quick side note: my kids are terrible at ping pong…and foosball). A five-minute walk north from the hotel are the shops and restaurants of Larimer Square while the U.S. Mint in Denver waits for your family just a couple of minutes south. Coors Field and Elitch Gardens, other havens of childhood fun, are also within reach on foot or by bike.

Jeff Bogle's wife and daughter riding B-cycles in Denver

After a tasty huevos rancheros breakfast around the corner at the Supreme Bean Cafe, my wife and oldest girl rented B-cycles from Denver B-cycle, the first large scale bike sharing program in the country, and explored downtown in two separate 30-minute segments, picking up bikes in one place and then dropping them elsewhere. They saw Larimer Square, Union Station and Coors Field, while my youngest and I grabbed our cameras and snapped photos of the eye-catching Denver Center for Performing Arts and the massive blue bear, which inspired us to sing Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band’s kindie rock classic of the same name.

Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater

After we worked up a sweat, the hotel’s oversized square hot tub offered us much needed respite before The Avett Brothers concert at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in nearby Morrison, Colorado. This carved-into-a-mountain venue is the most beautiful place in America to see live music. As you plan your own Denver weekend with kids, consult the Red Rocks calendar and consider spending an evening there – it’s pure magic.

Jeff Bogle's daughters on the DragonWing ride at Elitch Gardens

The next day, we were up early for Elitch Gardens, America’s only urban amusement park, which is celebrating its 125th birthday this year. We started on the Ferris wheel together, scoring sweet views of the park and city skyline, before my daughters ran wild on dry rides like DragonWing (which fans of “How To Train Your Dragon” will love), and got soaked on the wet ones. We tried not to spend too much money on food while at Elitch Gardens (although we couldn’t escape the gift shop without shirts for all of us!), so we just shared a delicious chocolate mousse parfait and a Siberian Chill.

Our day of fun was just getting started because we were told by a friend to make the 15-minute drive out of Denver to experience Lakeside Amusement Park at night. He was adamant about the “at night” portion of the command, so we followed orders and allowed the county fair atmosphere, mid-19th century lights and art deco rides like the Cyclone to be an amusing cherry atop our Saturday sundae.

In between roller coaster screams and Ferris wheel spins, we stumbled into the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank, a fascinating, free, two-room hall of cash. We thought we’d missed our Denver greenback experience since the U.S. Mint is only open Monday through Thursday, but here we saw bank notes from the birth of our nation through the futuristic new $100 bill, designed our own currency, and ogled the $30 million U.S. dollars stacked up behind a thick pane of glass.

In between tours of money, amusement parks and concerts, we did eat more than chocolate mousse and eggs! It’s a goal of ours to avoid chain restaurants, but we made a tasty exception for Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, a regional chain that started in Denver. My wife and I saw the words “Gyro” and “hummus” and ran through the door. Once inside, our girls were in heaven thanks to the iPad-esque touchscreen drink dispensers and the passcode protected bathrooms. They’ve never been so excited to refill water cups and wash their hands.

Debating the best pizza in any city is always an acrimonious affair, but we feel as though we found the spot in Denver: Sliceworks. Get treated to a free sliver of cheese pizza while deciding between slices of baked potato or vodka cream. Tip: order one of each!

Despite the Rockies and Rapids both playing games at home, we regrettably didn’t get to scratch our sports fan itch, but we still had a thrilling time with our kids in and around the city of Denver.

Keep reading the Family Vacation Critic Blog for more on Jeff’s three-week cross-country road trip with his family. Next stop: Southern Utah!

— Jeff Bogle

Jeff Bogle is an at-home dad of two pre-tween daughters. He writes about parenthood, family travel and all things childhood on his site OutWithTheKids.com. He considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world, although he needs to be reminded of this fact from time to time. Jeff also writes for PBS.