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Travel In The Sweet Spot!

Travel in the Sweet Spot!

17 Tips, 2 Trips, and 5 Adventures for Families with Young Kids

Incredible news! Those adorable cherubs who never slept? Well, they’ve ditched their diapers and sippy cups for undies and CamelBak bottles.

So whether you’re planning a spring break trip (that’s April 1 to April 5 in Richmond), a summer vacation, or a fall getaway, know this: The sweet spot for travel is ages four to ten, and these kids can go, go, go! The best news is this age group allows us so many travel options to delight the entire family – like cruise ships, theme parks, water parks, and yes, even big-ish cities. 

That said, because the sweet spot window closes so quickly, I highly recommend catering to the kids’ travel interests. Short backstory: When my twins were seven, I took them to see Monticello. Yes, they politely participated in the Monticello kids’ activities, walked the rooms quietly, and ran a beautiful lawn when a lawn presented. But Jefferson forgot to build a pool or a sandbox – which would have been better for kids – as one of my sons patiently explained.

My point? Enjoy these precious ages. They don’t last!

To build a fabulous sweet spot trip, choose a wondrous destination (incredible trips in a moment), and begin each day with waffles and whipped cream topped by an afternoon toss in a body of water – pool, lake, ocean, bath tub – even a sprinkler will do.

And when you need sustenance, count on the following to keep your kids’ party in full swing. 

Before You Boogie

1. Involve your kids in the trip’s planning process. Ask questions like, “Would you rather see the IMAX movie on sharks or the one about space?” Or “Would you rather feed the stingrays or take the sandcastle-building class?” Even if you know the answers, these questions spur kids into crafting their travel experience versus being passive participants. 

2. Have you heard of the “smart expectations” discussion to have with kids before a trip? During this talk, you gently explain the rules of spending money at the various travel venues like the beach boardwalk, the theme park, the gift stores, and so forth. In a friendly way, teach your kids how marketing geniuses aim their high voltage strategies at kids and unsuspecting adults to get us to spend ourselves silly. Kids love getting the behind-the-scenes scoop on what adults – marketing professionals in this case – are up to. And in the end, don’t blame your kids for wanting to buy everything in sight. After all, the marketer’s job is to monetize every square inch of a travel spot. 

3. A day or so before you leave, explain the trip’s itinerary to your kids. You understand how the trip will roll because you booked it, so take time to clue the kids in about what will happen and when, and your life will be easier. Say, “We’ll leave the house at six in the morning, park at the airport, take our shoes off in the TSA line, and then we’ll…” Maybe you’ve done this travel thing a million times, but the kids are still new to the planet, so show them how the travel world works.

Saving Your Sanity

4. I don’t take selfies or post on Instagram, but I do love beautiful – albeit rare – family photos (all two of them!). So, I don’t like it when my kids make a monster face at the last second and mess up a photo op. When my boys were young, I discussed how pictures would be handled in advance by saying, “Whoever has the most smile-pictures gets to choose ________.” Fill in the blank: tonight’s dinner, movie, or tomorrow’s activity.  I’m not proud of this, but one year I growled, “Look, every picture you mess up will cost you a buck.” A friend, however, uses the best plan of all: She lets her kids make one silly-face picture and then requests
one lovely-face picture. (Pam wins!)

5. Once on your trip, carry backpacks loaded with healthy snacks, bottled water, Calvin & Hobbes books, interesting audio books, etc. (A backpack of food and fun will save a tired parent whether on a plane or in a museum.)

6. Exhausted as you might be, you don’t want to sleep in on trips with kids in the sweet spot. Your goal is to get to the theme park, museum, or beach early – before the herd arrives (around eleven at most destinations). You’ll have more fun at the travel venue if you’re not sharing it with a stadium-sized crowd. Word to the wise – once your kids are teens, their bodies require more sleep, so enjoy getting up early with your 4- to 10-year-olds and avoid the crowds while you still can.

7. No matter what, keep your kids well-fed and on a firm sleep schedule. Hangry kids irritate everyone in their vicinity. Just sayin’.

8. Here’s the crown jewel tip to saving your sanity: A reframe. Stuff will go wrong on your trip. Because it just does. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad planner or a bad traveler. In my mind, if 60 percent of the trip unfolds without a hitch – it’s a home run. So smile, laugh, and point out that adorable dog on the corner. When the kids see you smile, they’ll smile, too!

Saving Money

9. Before you book a flight, research airfare on Google Flights (the new Kayak if you will). Also book flights as many months in advance as you can to locate the best deals. google.fr/flights

10. Plan to fly early in the morning so you can avoid delays and cancelled flights on the big day. 

11. Consider sleeping in my favorite hotel chain: the Comfort Inn & Suites. This brand delivers one simple-to-understand price (which means no horrifying resort fee at the end of your stay). Each room comes with a fridge and microwave, plus you’ll receive a daily hot breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi. The guest rooms are clean and face hallways (not the parking lot). Crunch the trip math, but I often think this brand offers families the best value. If the region you’re visiting doesn’t have Comfort Inn, I also rely on the Country Inn & Suites.

12. Whichever property you book, try to find one with a mini-fridge and microwave in the guest room that also serves a built-in hot breakfast each morning.

13. Bring a cooler from home – and use your hotel’s ice machine to refill your cooler when you’re leaving the hotel. (Pack large ziplock bags to hold the ice.)

14. For inexpensive dinners, order pizza to be delivered to the hotel, or grill dinner at the beach or a nearby park (we travel with a small portable grill). Too hot for the family to eat outside? Have one of the adults grill outdoors, but plan to eat in your air-conditioned hotel room. 

15. Renting homes on VRBO.com used to be a no-brainer. Today it’s still a smart way to travel with one caveat: Pay close attention to the many added fees (especially the funky service fees that all rental sites have these days).

16. Always search groupon.com for deals on theme parks, restaurants, and even hotels. 

17. Research the heck out of your destination to avoid visiting a region during popular local festivals or when, say, the Queen of England is visiting. Fun fact: Her Majesty dropped by Colonial Williamsburg twice – in 1957 and 2007.

Places, Please!

Here’s the deal! Kids in the sweet spot are the happiest of travelers – whether you’re exploring Miniland USA in LEGOLAND Florida or checking out a Darth Vader grotesque in D.C. Best of all? Whatever or wherever they’re visiting, they’re doing it with their favorite people. If you can swing it, try to plan a few kid-friendly trips for this stretch of time. These are their good old days! 

Florida Bound:

If you’re living with LEGO lovers, then a visit to LEGOLAND Florida is practically a requirement. You see, LEGOLAND was built for the ten-and-under crowd, many of whom are borderline-addicted to playing and learning with LEGOs. Boasting fifty pink-knuckle rides, your little people will be right at home in LEGOLAND. If you’re also traveling with a toddler, LEGOLAND has Duplo Village that caters to the age group. 

It’s a 12-hour drive from Richmond with potty breaks. Don’t feel like driving to LEGOLAND? Consider taking Amtrak or flying (about $250 per person) to the park.

To find the best discount passes to LEGOLAND, visit costco.com. Plan a 2-day visit (day-one for land rides, and day-two for the fabulous water park or vice-versa, depending on the weather). The theme park is forty-five minutes from Orlando, just in case you’re thinking about additional destinations for the family.

Families can save on LEGOLAND hotel costs by staying outside of the fun-zone. The Comfort Inn & Suites Maingate South in Davenport, Florida, comes with daily breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi wrapped into one nightly value price. It’s an easy 30-minute drive to LEGOLAND and a breezy 20-minutes to Disney World. legoland.com/Florida

On a Florida trip when you have ample time to chillax, consider treating your kids to my sons’ all-time favorite Orlando hotel: the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek (a 50-minute drive from LEGOLAND and very near Disney World). This property – shouldering Disney World – has a ginormous water park with two zero-entry pools and a 3-acre lazy river that isn’t (It’s speedy!). The water slides are friendly, yet deliver an impressive thrill for your tweens, and the beautiful outdoor eatery serves snacks (and margaritas!), poolside. 

The downside? Expect a resort fee and a parking fee. Wi-Fi is free, but only in the lobby. But here’s the thing: Only plan to book a few nights in this kind of resort when you have the time to stay and play and use the amenities to the hilt. Otherwise, you’re paying big bucks just to sleep in luxury after you’ve played elsewhere all day. hiltonbonnetcreek.com

They say “getting there is half the fun,” and when it comes to traveling with kids in this age group especially, they’re onto something. Don’t miss these sweet years to travel by Amtrak. Seats are much roomier than today’s plane seats, and sleeping in the seats really is possible when everyone is still little. Seat-sleeping becomes more difficult as the kids get taller. Or for a truly wondrous experience, spring for an Amtrak roomette that sleeps two and comes with its own sink and potty. Plus, enjoy 3-course meals in the dining car. amtrak.com

Closer to Home:

When we think D.C., we automatically picture the Smithsonian (world’s largest museum complex with nineteen mind-blowing buildings) or the National Mall with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument (re-opening in spring 2019). 

But did you know the Washington National Cathedral is a super-duper cool visit for kids, too? It’s true! The sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the second-largest in the U.S. (after the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC if you’re counting) is the Washington National Cathedral that holds delights around every corner for our little people. 

The breathtaking English neo-gothic architecture boasts 215 stained glass windows – the most popular being the Space Window that holds a piece of moon rock at its center donated by the crew of Apollo 11 (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins).

Binoculars are a must so you can take in the 288 angels crowning the two west towers. Same goes for the 112 gargoyles that spout rainwater from the eaves of the cathedral and the 1,000 “grotesques” that don’t spout rainwater, but do count Darth Vader among their ranks. There was a children’s competition in 1985 and a Star Wars fan was one of the winners, and we love him for it!

Designed just for kids, the Cathedral’s Children’s Chapel boasts a lilliputian pipe organ, baby animals on the needlepoint kneelers, and a gorgeously carved ceiling that has been lowered so the little guys can appreciate the intricacy. The Great Organ with 10,647 pipes and 53 bells in the carillon can be heard on most Mondays and Wednesdays during the lunch hour. An organist gives a brief talk about the Great Organ, followed by a mini-recital.

To get a feel for why this place works for families, a kid-friendly tour and scavenger hunt can be found at cathedral.org/visiting-children.

For adults, the history of the place is inspiring as well. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon in the Cathedral’s Canterbury Pulpit four days before he was assassinated in 1968. The Cathedral is the burial place of notables including Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, and state funerals for four American presidents have been held at the Cathedral: Eisenhower (1969), Ford (2007), Reagan (2004) and George H.W. Bush (2018).

All are welcome! The Episcopalian services (Congress made it the non-denominational National House of Prayer) are held on Sundays (8 a.m., 9 a.m., 11:15 a.m. – the largest – and a choir-led service at 4 p.m.). Services are also held on the weekdays and holidays, check the Cathedral’s schedule or visit the Cathedral’s YouTube channel at cathedral.org.

• Entrance price: Ages 5 to 17, $8; Adults, $12; four and younger, free. No admission charge on Sundays (but tours are limited). A highlights tour is included in the admission price. Other tours are an additional fee. 

• Parking: The Cathedral has an underground parking garage. Prices vary depending on the hour from $6 to $22 for all day. Parking is free for the Sunday service. cathedral.org 

Nearby the National Cathedral (just a 5-minute walk) is a don’t-miss visit for kids: the Beauvoir Playground at the Cathedral’s elementary school. After exploring the Cathedral using their best manners, kids will appreciate racing down a zip-line, careening down giant slides, climbing through a rope bridge, and checking out the cool and creative grounds. When the weather’s right – read: spring break! – bring a picnic. Beauvoir Outdoors is open to everyone after school and on the weekends. When school or camp isn’t in session, the playground is open all day. beauvoirschool.org.

Another hidden treasure in D.C. is the 1,700-acre Rock Creek Park, the oldest natural urban park in the National Park Service. The park boasts a ranger-led program, free planetarium shows, and star-gazing programming. You’ll find miles of trails crisscrossing Rock Creek, eight foot bridges built during the Depression, and wildlife galore in this jewel of a park nestled inside D.C. Check out their website for everything happening in this beautiful wild space, including twenty-nine picnic areas. NPS.gov

Hanging your hat in D.C. Sitting on eleven acres (and on the edge of Rock Creek Park) is the Omni Shoreham Hotel, an amazing 4-star hotel experience for the history lover in your family. The Omni Shoreham, opened in 1930, will wow you upon entrance with six chandeliers, enormous vases of roses and framed photos of world leaders, celebrities, and presidents who’ve stayed here. This gorgeous hotel welcomed the Beatles (who took over an entire floor), Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Bob Hope, and President-elect Clinton who played the sax at his inaugural ball.

One look at the property’s patio and you’ll swear you’re a million miles away from a city center. The Omni’s resort-style pools harken back to a bygone era when kids were barefoot and the lemonade flowed. The outdoor fun includes an enormous pool, a kids’ pool, and a hot tub. The Splash! Pool Bar & Grille keeps everyone fed and happy all summer long. omnihotels.com  

photos: Danielle E. Thomas, Chip Litherland, Hilton, and Omni

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Wendy irvine is a family travel writer who recently relocated to the East Coast and a regular contributor to Trip Advisor and Expedia online, as well as local and national magazines. She homeschools her twin boys and lives with one foot in RVA and the other in Atlanta. Visit JellyFishinJuly.com for more from Wendy on the reality of family travel.

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