Visiting Mount St. Helens With Kids

December 11th, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

I will never forget that day in 1980 when a mountain in Southwestern Washington suddenly exploded with the force of several nuclear bombs. The deadliest volcanic event in U.S. history laid waste to hundreds of square miles around Mt. St. Helens.

It sounds like an unlikely destination for a family vacation. But, in fact, the Mt. St. Helens Volcanic Monument in Washington is an amazing place to spend a day with kids. From areas of utter devastation to hidden hollows teeming with new life, a trip to Mt. St. Helens will be both fascinating and educational.

Mount St. Helens

Located about 3 hours south of Seattle, and 90 minutes north of Portland, the monument is easy to reach via Interstate 5 and State Hwy 504 from the west. The first main visitor center after you leave I-5 is not worth stopping at unless someone needs a bathroom break. Instead, continue on another 25 miles or so to the Forest Learning Center, where you and your kids can begin your discovery of Mt. St. Helens.

The Forest Learning Center is free to enter, and will start you off with a better understanding of what the area was like before the volcano erupted, and just how much it changed after. Kids will love the wildlife and nature exhibits, and the eruption chamber will prepare them for the next leg of your visit. There’s also a playground at the Forest Learning Center, but you might want your kids to conserve their energy for the walking trails still ahead.

From there, you’ll want to drive straight to the end of the highway, where you’ll find yourself staring out at the stunning crater of the Mt. St. Helens volcano. My kids were initially disappointed not to find rivers of lava everywhere, but they soon discovered that the eruption left behind a wasteland of devastation that was just as amazing.

Johnston Ridge Observatory
There at the end of the road, on a bluff overlooking the crater just 5 miles away, is the Johnston Ridge Observatory. This will cost you an admission fee of $8 per person, but it’s well worth the price. First, go inside for the awesome and kid-friendly displays. Everything you need to know about volcanoes, earthquakes, geology, and that fateful day in 1980 is covered here. Kids will enjoy the widescreen multimedia presentation, which is followed by a little surprise that will take everyone’s breath away.

Armed with a new understanding of the history and geology of the area, you will all be ready to check it out up close on just a few of the nearly 200 miles of trails in and around the volcano. Yes, you can hike up to the rim of the crater. No, you don’t want to do it with young kids. It’s an exhausting 10-mile round trip, requiring special permits.

Eruption Trail
Instead, just outside the Johnston Ridge Observatory is the Eruption Trail, a paved 1-mile round trip hike that offers stunning views of the crater and surrounding blast zone. All along the way are educational kiosks, not to mention the remains of trees that were shattered like toothpicks by the blast wave from the 1980 eruption. Nothing else quite illustrates the power of the volcano than seeing and touching the jagged remains of what was once an old growth forest. It’s very humbling, to say the least.

Hummocks Trail
Next, hop in your car and drive back along the Spirit Lake Highway about 5 miles to the Hummocks Trail #229. Here, you’ll find a small parking lot and the trailhead to a family-friendly 2.5-mile hike through the debris field left after the volcano’s massive sideways blast and avalanche. Hundreds of feet of mud, rock, and ash covered the thick, forested valley. Over the years, the resulting erosion has created an eerie place of conical mounds and wetlands.

Even 35 years later, there are places along the trail that look like the surface of the moon. But then, you round a corner to find a lush forest or a cool pond teeming with new life. In no other place around the volcano will you see all the different ecosystems that are returning to the area. My kids enjoyed this hike more than any other part of the Mt. St. Helens Monument. We took our time on the Hummocks Trail, stopping frequently to watch animals and insects, and to marvel at just how resilient nature can be.

With stops at the Forest Learning Center, Johnston Ridge Observatory, and the Hummocks Trail, you will have worn out your kids over the course of the day. There are over a dozen other trails all around Mt. St. Helens, with breathtaking views and stunning geology, but very few of them are appropriate for young children. You’ll just have to plan a return trip for when they’re older.

— 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.

More From Family Vacation Critic:
6 Things to Do in Spokane With Kids
Washington’s Olympic Beaches With Kids

The Force Is Strong on Disney Dream

December 9th, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

“Guess what?” I squealed into the phone, my parents on the other end as I struggled to contain my excitement. “I. Flew. THEMILLENNIUMFALCON!”

Their reaction wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as my delivery of the news that their adult daughter refuses to grow up, but I did, indeed, fly the Millennium Falcon … sort of.

Let me rewind. I was aboard the second post-dry dock sailing of Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream, which had just received several upgrades, including a “Wreck-It Ralph”-themed candy shop; a spruced-up adults-only sun deck; and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a salon where kiddos can bankrupt their parents in an effort to look like Cinderella. (Ok, I secretly think it’s super cute.) However, the addition that left me — and likely many a Chewbacca-loving kidult — the most impressed was a replica of the iconic Star Wars spacecraft.
Fast forward to the morning of my scheduled Millennium Falcon tour. Like a 5-year-old drunk on Mountain Dew, I practically bounced down the hallway to the Oceaneer Club and Lab (in my C-3PO leggings, of course). I met my group, and as we were whisked inside, there it was: a giant silvery gray arc, housing a mess of levers and buttons and red and blue flashing lights.

“It’s so shiny!” I thought to myself. “This is better than Christmas! This is –”

I was distracted briefly by a loud whistle-beep and turned to my left to meet the friendly stare of R2-D2. (Unfortunately, they’ve imprisoned him behind glass, but he didn’t seem to mind.)

Star Wars on Disney Cruise Line

I stifled a giggle — and the overwhelming urge to attempt conversation with a droid — and made a beeline for the cockpit, sliding into one of the captain’s chairs. (It was the one on the left, so I’m pretty sure it was Han Solo’s.) This was it.

I chose a simulation by pulling one of the dashboard levers, and suddenly I was zooming through the air, twisting and turning wildly, desperately trying to steer. I expertly maneuvered through a hole in a giant rock formation, narrowly missing the sides, and then … I crashed somewhere in the desert. (I find my lack of skill disturbing.)

Sheepishly, I slunk away to explore the other equally impressive areas of the play space. On one side of the cockpit is a replica of the Millennium Falcon’s control room, where even more blinking lights and buttons give way to video game screens. To the other side is a likeness of the common room, which offers seating and a place for activities.

Star Wars on Disney Cruise Line

This haven of geekery is also where kids can attend the ship’s Jedi Academy, complete with visits from costumed stormtroopers. Amid all of the flashiness, you’ll find real props from the films, which have been used to decorate the space.

Just across the hall is another newly added children’s area that’s dedicated entirely to Disney Infinity. After choosing from an impressive collection of characters — including some that haven’t yet been released to the public — kids can play the popular Disney game at one of ten stations, each equipped for two players. There’s also a life-sized Disney Infinity board that allows kids to become the game pieces by controlling the on-screen characters with their body movements.

Lest adults start feeling like kids get all the cool stuff, grownups can visit the Oceaneer areas during special open-house hours on each sailing. (Mommies and Daddies can even enjoy a smooch in front of the Millennium Falcon’s “kissing wall,” which many will remember from Han and Leia’s first kiss in “The Empire Strikes Back.”)

–Ashley Kosciolek

More From Family Vacation Critic:
Disney Cruises for Families
10 Best Cruise Ships for Teens

First Family Cruise on Carnival Sunshine

December 7th, 2015 by Guest Blogger 1 comment »

As evidenced most recently in our sprawling three-week, cross-country road trip, we Bogles have developed a rather specific way of traveling. Our vacations generally involve getting lost on purpose (and sometimes not), exploring the nooks and crannies of a place, eating local cuisine, and assimilating into a culture as best we can while there. Sure, we’re tourists by definition, but we try not to be tourists, you know?

After reading the above, it’s probably not much of a surprise that we’d never taken a cruise before the Carnival Sunshine. What we saw from afar were only tourist traps at ports of call, neverending buffets, an inability to wander from the pack, and the lack of any native culture. But then we cruised and our minds have been changed.

We won’t go on to become avid cruisers, but it’s likely that our inaugural sea voyage on the impressive Carnival Sunshine will not be our last.

Here’s a photographic look at our eight days on board and off as we cruised out of Port Canaveral to Aruba, Bonaire and Grand Turk.

Carnival Sunshine

The Carnival Sunshine is a stately vessel, a refurbished ship previously known as the Carnival Destiny, with guest capacity of 3,000 and 1,000 onboard crew. Here she sits docked at Grand Turk, our final port of call during our maiden voyage.

Carnival Sunshine

Bedrooms on cruise ships are famously small, but my family of four fit nicely, if not snuggly, in a quad balcony room near the front of the 6th deck. The Carnival Sunshine make deft use of minimal square footage, with plenty of closets, cabinets and drawers to easily stow away all of our stuff and four large suitcase… and with extra space to hide those famous Carnival Towel animals if you, like my daughters, believe that a new one won’t be delivered if last night’s is still in tact. (Not true, but I couldn’t tell them because it was too cute watching my girls scramble to find hiding places every day.)

Carnival Sunshine

Carnival Sunshine

There’s a lot for a family to do on board the Carnival Sunshine — maybe not enough to occupy 2.5 days straight at sea, which is how our first cruise started as we made our way all the way down to Aruba — but with a chilly pool, warm Jacuzzis, mini-golf, arcade, billiards, basketball, shuffleboard, a running track, video games (or watching a live game) in the EA Sports Lounge, a massive water park, tricky sky course and the amazing Camp Carnival all included, finding something to do isn’t difficult. Plus, there’s first rate evening movies under the stars, musical performances, stand-up comedy shows, Hasbro Game Night, karaoke, and lots of yummy food.

Carnival Sunshine

Carnival Sunshine

Carnival Sunshine

Surely you are hungry after all of those activities! Good, because the food on board the Carnival Sunshine is plentiful, fresh and the options are diverse, with a rotating assortment of vegetarian choices, too, so you won’t have to rely on pizza every day… although the hand tossed pizza is incredible (especially the Quattro Formaggio variety with gorgonzola).

Whether you indulge in the specialty restaurants, which will cost a little bit extra, or rely on the Lido Marketplace, Guy’s Burgers, Blue Igauna Cantina or the Main Dining Room, the choices are eclectic and delicious. This was easily the most surprising find for me, discovering just how good and downright inventive some of the dishes were. I was expecting chicken marsala or spaghetti and meatballs to be the food of choice on the Carnival Sunshine, but instead came away impressed with the bevy of talented, passionate chefs making truly inspired meals like Caribbean jerk brisket, buttery herbed escargot, citrus kissed mahi mahi and many more culinary masterpieces each and every day. Add to that a fun character filled Dr. Seuss breakfast and skilled pastry chefs baking all the bread, croissants, pastries and cookies fresh every morning, and my once held fears about banal food on a cruise ship were left back on dry land.

Carnival Sunshine

Carnival Sunshine

— 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 He considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world. Jeff also writes for PBS.

More From Family Vacation Critic:
Carnival Cruises for Families
Boating Fun in Disney World

Happy Holiday Scavenger Hunt at Renaissance Boston Waterfront

December 4th, 2015 by Amanda Geronikos No comments »

Considering a holiday trip to Boston? Your family will love the new Happy Holiday Scavenger Hunt at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront. Here’s what it includes:

Exterior of Renaissance Boston Waterfront

– Accommodations for a family of four (two adults and two children)
– Map of Boston and scavenger hunt list, which encourages visits to the Boston Christmas Tree, Frog Pond for ice-skating and more
– A cookie decorating kit

The festive package is available through Jan. 10, 2016, with rates starting at $194 per night.

— Amanda Geronikos

More From Family Vacation Critic:
Grapevine: Christmas Capital of Texas
10 Magical Hotels for the Holiday Season