Friday, March 22, 2013

Go To The Beach!!! (As Often As You Can!)

The (unintentional) highlight of our vacation was going to the beach. We planned to go to the beach. We just didn't plan to have so much fun! Now that I am thinking about it, the same thing happened the last time we went to the beach (Sanibel Island) in May. So here's my advice, Go To The Beach!

Kids love the beach! Adults love the beach! Everyone loves the beach! Unless of course you are allergic to the sun in which case I think I would cry.

We rented a teeny tiny little car from our hotel and headed over to Cocoa Beach. (Sorry, I didn't take any pictures of the car.) The drive took about an hour and it was easy peasy. Well, I guess I should ask Steve if it was easy peasy but as a passenger in the car that got to stare out into the ocean, it was easy peasy.

We went into Ron Jon's first to load up on our beach gear. We could have parked in the Ron Jon lot and walked over to the beach but with all of our gear, it would have been a trek. We bought 3 of the 4 boards you see in this picture. I'll let you guess which 3.

So we drove (maybe 1/2 mile) to a parking lot just over the beachy dunes, paid our $7 to park for the day and headed out to the sand.

And this my friends, is what we did all day. The boys went back and forth from building sand castles, digging holes, skim boarding and wave jumping.

Halfway through the day I walked over to the beach side restaurant and got us some lunch. I had the mahi burger and it was delicious! The kids barely wanted to stop and eat but it gave them a chance to warm up.

 The water was chilly and my husband saved me from having to go in on that first day. God love him!.

That is Steve standing out there freezing while Colin rode the waves. Colin had a great time but came out freezing. Cam too. The only thing to do after that was to put on dry clothes and make sand angels in the hot sand. Of course. Why not?

We met a little friend as we were about to leave. This cute little guy was running for his life from the pack of seagulls that followed everyone around that had any resemblance of food in their hands.

You know you have had a good day at the beach when it ends like this....

The next day we went kayaking with the manatees. It was a great experience. There are all types of tours out there but we decided to make it an active trip rather than sit on a boat and have someone drive us around.

Our trip was supposed to be 1 1/2 - 2 hours in length. About 4 hours later, we were finally pulling back into the dock. Our trip was great (a little long for the boys but still great). Our guide was surprised that the boys paddled as much as they did so he figured he would extend our trip out since we were the last group for the day. That would have been nice to know before hand. I ran out of drinking water 2 hours into the trip, didn't bring any extra sunscreen and chose to leave all of our snacks back at the dock.

Here is my super guide that helped me paddle all over the ocean waters. He was a great navigator and motivator.

We had a great time on our 4 hour tour and none of us were any worse for the wear. Other than the flaming sunburn I had on the tops of my shins (didn't take extra sunscreen) everyone seemed to be in pretty good shape when we docked. Of course, they looked like pros.

The manatees were close enough to touch (but we weren't allowed, very protected species) The photos don't do them justice. It is amazing how graceful these creatures are in the water. And they are HUGE!

This one was nicknamed Barney for the barnacles on it's back. Our guide said it was the only manatee in the grove to have barnacles and they weren't exactly sure why it had them. The barnacles make this particular manatee easy to spot in the water.

We saw a few other fun animals along the way. The birds were not scared of us at all. We saw lots of seagulls and pelicans.

I thought this was adorable. The little puppy just sat right on the paddle board with his owner. She said his name was Hercules.

We also saw several dolphins but I wasn't quick enough with my camera to get shots of them. Taking pictures was a little tricky while drifting in the water. The narrow mangroves were even trickier. There were spots where we had to put our paddles in the kayak and just pull ourselves along the branches.

All in all the kayak trip was a lot of fun. It was a really great experience for all of us to get an up close look at nature but not disturb it.  

Do's of Taking Kids to the Beach/Kayaking

Do bring a lot of extra clothes including jackets. If you are there all day and the wind kicks up, the breeze off the water can be cold.

Do bring a lot of extra towels. It's hard to dry off with a super sandy towel.

Do bring your camera and money. In all my years of going to the beach I have never once had anyone (other than some really aggressive crows) mess with my stuff.

Do bring ziplock bags to collect sea shells.

Do stop and get some plastic cups or buckets at the local dollar store if you can. The kids will have a great time digging and building. You can donate them to another family on the beach when you are done with them.

Do bring lots of drinking water and snacks. Swimming in the ocean makes you thirsty and hungry.

Do encourage your kids to actually paddle the kayak. It will be a great help to you.

Do take your camera on the kayak. If they say it won't get wet, it won't.

Do take water, a snack and extra sunscreen on the kayak. As it turns out, you might not be back as soon as you think.

Do spend the extra money to park close to the beach if you have to drive there (i.e., not staying at a hotel on the beach). It will save you a lot of tears and frustration from tired kids walking miles back to the car.

Do promise your kids you will be back to the beach someday as you haul them off crying...this WILL happen.

Don'ts of Taking Kids to the Beach/Kayaking

Don't feed the seagulls or walk around with food in your hand. Also, don't toss sea shells like they are pieces of bread. The seagulls on the beach are aggressive (as are the crows). They will swoop down and peck at your food. Eat quickly.

Don't leave your sunscreen on the dock when you push off for kayaking. Take it with you.

Don't expect the lifeguards to keep a vigilant eye on your kids. That's your job as a parent. When there are 100 people in the water, the lifeguard can only do so much.

Don't skimp on the sunscreen. Sunburns are no fun, especially for kids.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Do's and Don'ts Universal/Islands of Adventure

We had a great time last week on our family vacation to Florida. Steve had a laser conference to attend (and was speaking at) so we tagged along and extended it out to turn it into a vacation. I wish we could travel with him whenever he goes out of town. He has a trip to Mexico and a trip to Germany on the docket. Both places I would love to take the boys to see. Someday....

Last May we took a trip to Disney World and Sanibel Island. We weren't expecting to take a trip again so soon but we couldn't pass up the opportunity. I learned a few things on this trip so I thought I would share my sage advice.

We stayed at the Doubletree Hilton right across from Universal. It was a great location and the walking distance to Universal was very doable. Although it was about a mile each way the walk was enjoyable (lots of pretty flowers and along a little man made river). We could have purchased a ticket ($15 per person round trip) to ride the bus over to Universal but the cost versus walking was not worth it to us.

Universal Studios and Island of Adventure are two separate parks that make up what is typically called "Universal Studios". Again, the distance between the parks is walkable but you have to buy a specific ticket to be able to get into both parks on the same day. You can also buy single park passes. Here is our view from our hotel. You can see Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) on the left and the Rock It Ride (Universal Studios) on the right.

"Do" at Universal:
Do only plan on 2 days for both parks (do one park each day or buy the 2 park pass so you can hop back and forth but you won't need more than 2 days to see everything). The only way you can get back and forth is to walk, so plan accordingly. Wish we could have taken one of these but this one was bolted into the ground.

Do buy 1 day of the Express Pass. This will increase the cost of your ticket by nearly half but you will be able to ride all of the major rides in one day (again, with the 2 park pass you can get express pass for both parks). Be aware that this pass only lets you use the Express Pass once per ride. We didn't realize that and went to get back in line at a ride and were told it was only good for 1 turn per ride. Again, lesson learned.

Do purchase the $11 refillable drink cup. It's only good for 1 day but you can add another day for $9. If your family can share this cup, you will get more than you money's worth out of it. (On the other hand, that might be why Cam has strep and I am getting checked later today). A bottle of water at the park costs $2.75 and soda is even more. The water from the water fountain is warm and tastes like dirt.

Do have Butterbeer. 'Nough said.

Do go to Harry Potter as early as possible in the morning. The ride lines get very long in the afternoon (90 minutes or more) and you can not use the express pass for the Harry Potter simulation ride (among others). It was worth the 45 minute wait for us to ride that once, but I wouldn't stand in line for it again. It was scary and short. Even though Cam was tall enough for the ride, had I known what it was I probably would not have let him ride it...too scary.

Do go over spring break. The lines were short (for every ride except Harry Potter) even without the Express Pass. Our favorite ride, the Rock It was never more than a 20 minute wait an sometimes only 5 minutes. It didn't take the Express Pass but the line was short enough anyway.

Don't at Universal:

Don't buy the Meal Plan unless you are going to eat three meals at the park (drinks are not included in this..again, buy the drink cup to get your money's worth). The meal plan does not start until 11am so don't plan on eating an early breakfast on the meal plan. We bought it the first day not realizing you were limited on the menu for kids. They are only allowed a few choices from the kids menu. Also, the lines at the meal plan restaurants were long. Although your meals on this plan are "unlimited" we only ate two meals per person. We were too tired to stay at the park much past dinner time to get a "late dinner" snack. We broke even with our money but did not purchase the meal plan the next day.

Don't split up buying your souvenirs at different shops. Plan your shopping strategically. Some of the stores offer a deal that is you buy $50 worth of merchandise, you get a free $10 gift card. We didn't realize this as we were buying one souvenir at a time. Although our receipts totaled more than $50, you could not combine receipts. The amount had to be spent in one transaction. Lesson learned.

Don't go to Universal/Islands of Adventure if you are looking for a super kid friendly theme park. Unless your kids are really into Dr. Seuss there are not many rides there for little kids. Even the shows can be scary for kids with all of the 4-D effects and scary content. It was okay for my kids but I would say toddler to age 5...head to Disney World instead. As it was, Cam couldn't ride 4 of the main attractions because he was too short. Several of the rides we did go on were probably not appropriate (Simpsons, Harry Potter and a few others come to mind). Universal/Island of Adventure are definitely geared towards and older crowd. It was not as clean, not as friendly and certainly not as magical as Disney World.

All in all we had a good time at Universal. The trip was worth the effort and planning but I don't know that we will go back to Universal again. It's a big "movie" theme park and we are just not that in to movies. If we do a theme park again, it will be Disney World. Universal was fun to see but just not something I need to do again. Next up, the beach review!