Gators and Gardens in Sarasota, Fla.

January 13th, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

Two things you’ll find in abundance in Florida are alligators and green space in public parks and gardens. During my family’s December visit to Sarasota, the weather was perfect for outdoor exploration; sunshine, breezes, and low humidity! These were the three best places we found to discover gators and gardens in the area.

Myakka River State Park
Myakka River State ParkOne of Florida’s largest and oldest state parks, the Myakka River State Park is off the beaten path, but still technically within Sarasota. It’s worth seeking out and spending an entire afternoon enjoying a nature walk, canoeing or biking. The narrated seasonal Tram Safari tour through shady oak and pine forests is also a must. Make the effort to seek out the Canopy Walkway, a pedestrian bridge suspended 25 feet in the air connecting two wooden towers.

Our goal at this park was to take a ride on the world’s largest covered airboat. The Myakka Maiden and Gator Gal are twin vessels, both 53 feet long. During the 45-minute ride on Upper Myakka Lake, our captain and narrator Jamie pointed out visible wildlife along the way. We saw a lot of beautiful birds we don’t get to see up north, like egrets and herons, as well as osprey and bald eagles. Of course, the main attraction is the alligators, and since up to 1,000 gators live in this lake, it’s easy to spot a few peeking their heads above the water.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Sarasota Jungle GardensThe Sarasota Jungle Gardens, which opened in 1939, is one of those old-time Florida tourist attractions that offers more simple fun than high-tech adventure, which is exactly why we enjoyed it. My daughter adopted the make believe role of jungle explorer as she followed the red brick canopied pathways through the dense palm hammocks; there is a total of 100 different palm species in all. We stopped along the way to observe wildlife, both out in the open and in protected animal habitats. Highlights included the outdoor alligator pen and the indoor Reptile Exhibit with a collection of albino creatures — a turtle, cobra, and python — as well as a close encounter with a flamingo family.

There are also several daily wildlife, reptile and bird shows. Jeremiah, the animal trainer, introduced us to Cheyenne, the Red-Tailed Hawk, Francis, the Great Horned Owl, and Spike, the African Pygmy Hedgehog, providing plenty of information about their life habits, as well as giving the kids the opportunity to pet Spike.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens waterfallOn the shore of Sarasota Bay, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a pleasant tropical surprise in urban surroundings. For families, the Ann Goldstein’s Children’s Rainforest Garden, which opened in November 2013, makes it worth the visit. The centerpiece is the 100-year-old Banyan Tree with an extensive root system that our kids enjoyed climbing over. There’s a challenging Canopy Walk and Rope Bridge that gives you a view of the rainforest from 27 feet above. Activity huts were scattered around the Kids’ Corner, offering them the chance to draw and make their own crafts. On a hot day, you can stand by the waterfall and get cooled off by the mist.

We also spent time strolling around the Butterfly Garden, and walking along the Mangrove Bay Walk, enjoying views of the Sarasota Bay and the Ringling Causeway Bridge.

– 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.

Traveling Abroad is Cheaper in 2015

January 12th, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

Woman holding an American one-dollar billDid you know that the American dollar is worth more today than it was one year ago? One U.S. dollar is equal to .84 cents in Euros now, and according to the Associate Press, in an article printed in The New York Times last week, this means that traveling abroad in 2015 is cheaper for families than it was last year.

The stronger U.S. dollar allows travelers a better rate when converting money in various countries in Europe, thus allowing them the ability to afford better hotel rooms, more delicious meals and even cheaper flights. According to the article, England is cheaper than it was six months ago because of the pound’s decline. And the Euro, used widely across Europe, has slumped due to weakening economies across seas.

So how much can you save now? The article used the example of a dinner in Paris. In June 2014, a dinner in Paris could cost you around 75 Euros, or $103 American dollars. Today, that same 75-Euro dinner would cost only $89 American dollars. For other comparisons, Google has a great currency converter.

Let’s say you want to visit Florence, Italy. One night at the Hotel Pendini, a Family Vacation Critic Favorite, costs about 127 Euros for a family of three (if visiting in early February). That converts to about $150 American dollars. In February 2014, that same room for the same night would cost about $176 American dollars (note: $1 American dollar was equal to .72 cents in Euros in February 2014).

So if your family has been itching to head overseas to Europe, there’s no better time than now! Start planning your European family vacation now and save while the American dollar is stronger than ever. Check out our Europe Family Vacations to get started!

– Hilarey Wojtowicz

Beginners Ski for Free in New England

January 11th, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

Girl holding skisWhether young or old, beginners will ski for free at three New England ski resorts on two Terrain Based Learning days this winter. Head to Vermont, New Hampshire or Massachusetts on Jan. 19 or March 15, 2015, and enjoy lift tickets, equipment rentals and introductory lessons for free!

Bromley Mountain, Peru, VT
The Start Fun, Start Free – Intro to Ski & Ride Free deal at Bromley Mountain in Peru, Vermont, includes a Learning Zone lift ticket, rental equipment (skis or snowboard, boots and helmet), lessons from 10:30 a.m. until noon, and all-day access to the slopes. Guests must be at least 6 years old to sign up for this deal, which is on a first-come, first-served basis and limited to just 75 guests. Offer valid for Jan. 19 and March 15, 2015 only. To book, call 802-824-5522, ext. 301.

Cranmore Mountain Resort, North Conway, N.H.
First-time skiers are invited to Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, New Hampshire, for the Free Terrain Based Learning Days on Jan. 19 and March 15, 2015, where beginners ages 8 and older receive free rental equipment, one lower mountain lift ticket and a 90-minute class – all for free! The two Free TBL Days are open to the first 50 guests who register. Lesson times are at 9 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. To book, call 603-356-5511, ext. 333.

Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, Hancock, Mass.
The Start Fun, Start Free deal at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Massachusetts, offers beginners free rental equipment, free admission to an introductory lesson, and one free lift ticket for three easy lift chairs. Offer is valid for Jan. 19 and March 15, 2015 only, and is open to the first 75 guests who register. Guests must be at least 6 years old to participate. To book, call 413-738-5500, ext. 3002.

For more information, read about Family Ski Vacations.

– Hilarey Wojtowicz

SnowDays Opens With a Bang in Banff Nat’l Park

January 10th, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

2015 Banff SnowDays logoThe fourth annual SnowDays Winter Festival kicks off today in Banff National Park and families should gear up for a month of chilling fun. Now through Feb. 8, 2015, enjoy ice-carving demonstrations, snowshoeing adventures, ice-skating, and more. After cooling down with the kids during all of the excitement, heat up with hot chocolate and stories about the region. Here are a few highlights of this year’s SnowDays Winter Festival for families:

SnowDays Opener, Jan. 10, 2015
Visit the tipi for stories about Banff and traditional tea beverages before heading over to the downtown ice-climbing wall. Watch as artists turn snow into animal sculptures and then try your hand at curling with the help of instructors from the Banff Curling Club. Skate on the ice afterwards, and then heat up with hot chocolate and storytime with the kids.

The first day of SnowDays ends with a street party on the 200 block of Banff Avenue. Listen to music, enjoy Alberta BBQ, roast marshmallows and more. Today’s events begin at 11 a.m. and run through the late evening. Fees may apply for some activities.

All-Star Curling Skins Game, Jan. 16-18, 2015
Catch an All-Star Curling Skins game on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. This year will feature a women’s competition for the first time since 2003. Games take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, 11 a.m., 4 p.m., and 9 p.m. on Saturday, and 3 and 8 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets start from $30 CAD each.

Ice Magic Festival, Jan. 17-25, 2015
Now in its 20th year, the Ice Magic Festival at Lake Louise allows families to experience incredible ice-carving demonstrations, ice-skating, and indoor kids’ activities for little ones who need to warm up. Kids can enjoy face painting, crafts, games, and more. Activities take place on weekends and additional fees may apply for some activities.

MEC Ice Climbing Festival, Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2015
Kids ages 8 and up can try ice climbing at the wall on Banff Avenue before watching or joining in on the competition (open to all ages and levels) during the MEC Ice Climbing Festival during the weekend of Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2015. Admission is free and ice climbing will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on all three days.

The Big Bear Weekend, Feb. 6-8, 2015
Close out SnowDays by attending the Big Bear Weekend for a street party, terrain park showdown, snowboarding demonstrations and competitions. Tickets are $10 CAD each. The Big Bear Street Party will be Friday night at 9 p.m. and will include music, food, beverages, activities and prizes for kids, teens and adults.

For more information, visit the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website.

– Hilarey Wojtowicz

How to Cancel Your Flight for Free

January 9th, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

Airplane landing on runwayFlying in the United States is pricy and all too often we book our round-trip airfare only to see it drop up to $50 over the next day or two. Well now you can cancel your flight for free. Actually, you could do this for a while now, but I only recently became aware of it thanks to a Huffington Post article from October.

According to the article, which credits Hopper for most of its information, eight major airlines in the United States allow passengers to cancel flights for free. Some stipulations may apply, such as it must be within 24 hours of when you booked and it may only be allowed on flights that were purchased at least seven days in advance of the travel date, but still – you can get your money back for free! The eight airlines, according to Hopper, include Delta, United, American, US Airways, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and Frontier.

Technically, as the Huffington Post points out, it is a federal rule that airlines must allow customers to cancel their flights within 24 hours of booking as long they were purchased at least seven days in advance. The Department of Transportation’s website states that “U.S. and foreign air carriers regarding compliance with the customer service rule requires carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty.”

Now that you know you can ancel your flight and that its your federal right to do so, you may be asking why you’d want to at all if you still plan on taking a trip. Well what if you could cancel and then repurchase the same flight for a cheaper price? According to Hopper, about 68 percent of the time customers can find a cheaper price for their flight within 24 hours of their original purchase. You could save just by cancelling and rebooking, which means more money in your pocket for vacation!

– Hilarey Wojtowicz

Family Escape to Traverse City in 2015

January 8th, 2015 by Hilarey Wojtowicz No comments »

Traverse City, Michigan, at nightThis winter and spring, families are invited to visit Traverse City, Michigan, where low hotel rates and discounted attractions and activities await. The Traverse City True Escape Package is the city’s gift to you, and with 14 hotels participating in the promotion, it’ll be easy to find accommodations that fit your family’s needs.

To reap the benefits, first book the True Escape Package at one of these participating properties, which are offering discounted nightly rates and more.

Then, pick up the Escape Coupon book, which features discounts and deals on everything, from lift tickets, to ski rentals, to spa services, to restaurants, shopping and movies. Enjoy shopping and restaurant discounts at places like:

  • Camp Critter at Great Wolf Lodge, up to 25 percent off your entire bill for up to eight people
  • Dunkin Donuts at Great Wolf Lodge, one free medium coffee with a purchase of equal value
  • West Bay – A Holiday Inn Resort, up to $10 off any food, beverage or gift shop purchase
  • Cherry Republic, free BOOMCHUNKA cookies upon visit

The Traverse City True Escape Package is valid now through May 13, 2015. Black out dates may apply and availability may differ according to resort. For more information, visit the Traverse City tourism website.

– Hilarey Wojtowicz