Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Contained Kid Fun: Great Wolf Lodge

In an unusual turn of events, E and his sitter/our family friend A got an opportunity to take in Williamsburg, Virginia's Great Wolf Lodge this summer!  Great Wolf is simply kid legendary in the area--E was thrilled and gave it two thumbs up.  The lodge itself is convenient to I-64 in the Williamsburg area, which also makes a fabulous excuse for visiting Colonial Williamsburg and other great area attractions including but not limited to JamestownYorktown, the Virginia Living Museum, and the US Army Transportation Museum.  We opted to have E and A enjoy a total in-resort two days (really a half day, full day, and a half day) to take full advantage of the water park, however, on their trip.

E had a lot of fun in the water park area, which is nicely contained and thoroughly supervised.  It was a bit smaller than we expected, and the more grown up slides, which are basically all enclosed, had a clear element of mystery about them.  If you can, go sliding with friends and family after dark--there are many options for tandem/group slides and some unique lighting in the slide tubes.  The lazy river and the wave pool are also winners, being reasonable places to relax.  Do, however, expect sensory overload--it's a noisy, busy place.  Other places where you can get a dose of sensory overload include the sprayground water playground in the center of the park.  You will get seriously drenched here, and you will do serious climbing as well--consider water shoes if your feet are sensitive.  Other items we enjoyed included the water obstacle course, which is more difficult than it looks but which E navigated with skill.

If you go, know the resort area can definitely keep kids busy for at least a day or two, particularly if they have a friend present.  We'd recommend taking full advantage of the indoor water park, but summer travelers should know there are not a lot of water features outside.  E also recommends MagiQuest and thinks it's cool you can keep your wand for playing at other sites.  If you already have a wand, consider bringing it along for potential cost savings for your MagiQuest play.  Take a look at various packages offered for activities--and know you can trade passes between kids.  Not every kid is going to want to do every activity (and we judged some overpriced), so take a good look at the resort layout itself.  Also, consider toting your food in from the very nearby Walmart for a cost savings.  And adults, the play areas of this resort can get loud--bring some quiet activities for the kids to chill with in your room (some nice board games or something) so they can get away a bit every now and again.  Other items you may wish to be aware of: life jackets are available, everyone wears digitized room keys that are plastic bracelets (and to which you can load funds for incidentals), the resort grounds are quite large (expect long hallway walks), there are long lines at peak check-in times in the lobby, and there are a handful of casual restaurants including Pierce's Pitt BBQ really nearby if you wish to leave the resort and sit down and eat as well.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Fantastic Fiction: Natural Bridge's Dinosaur Kingdom II

For those who look to the Halterman Weekend to point them towards Roadside America, you are in luck!  Enter Dinosaur Kingdom II, a Mark Cline attraction, in Natural Bridge, VA.  A walk-through outdoor park of sorts, Dinosaur Kingdom II tells the fantastical story of what might have happened if latent dinosaurs had been awakened and used as weapons of mass destruction during the US Civil War.  Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, it's awesome!

Local artist and author Mark Cline has invented a story where, during the battle of Natural Bridge's Saur Hill, dinosaurs cryogenically "sleeping" in nearby caverns are awakened by the sounds of the battle.  The Union then tries to train them to fight the Confederacy--albeit unsuccessfully, largely because the dinosaurs just eat all soldiers without regard to their loyalties.  The story line is pure fun and never intended to be any form of scholarship--but for the nerds in us, it made a great place to discuss the formation of a good story.  In fact, Kim could totally see a field trip here for budding fantasy/sci fi authors.  There's a companion comic book, and seeing the pages from the book posted at parts of the exhibit honestly inspires reading.

If you go, walk slowly on the gravel paths, looking for surprises beyond the path in the woods, and take a second lap instead of exiting when you come to the out door.  For the most part, the dinosaurs don't move and aren't going to startle you, but there are several fun animations to activate by pushing buttons in the "village" through which you enter.  Be sure to check out the concept art featured in the art gallery of the village and watch the fake documentary about the Natural Bridge Civil War paleontologists--it has a bonus feature of one of the very first cartoons, a short about a dinosaur that G, age 4, adored.  Skip the strollers if you can--this gravel on a gentle grade, but enough to lock most wheels.  Relax and enjoy the all-ages fun--we saw couples, groups of teens, families with young kids.  To make a day trip of this adventure, know you are close to Natural Bridge Caverns, where we understand the DK admission stamp will yield a discount, as well as Natural Bridge State Park, not to mention Lexington, VA--a great place for a stroll and visits to various small museums.  For more fantasy-type fun with kids, check out Boxerwood Gardens.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Old-Fashioned Fun: Holden Beach Waterslides

This year on the annual beach trip, E had reached the requisite height to slide on the Holden Beach waterslides, officially known as the Magic Mountain Waterslide of Magic Mountain Fun Park.  The waterslides, just about as old as Kim herself, are in great repair and are a heap of good fun.  They may not be a thriller water park to feature on the Travel Channel, but they are very enjoyable classics with a wonderful retro cool factor.  They remind Kim of the three slides that were on the vintage Myrtle Beach oceanfront near what is now Family Kingdom (they were taken by Hugo and replaced by more modern, honestly less cool slides) and honestly reminiscent of the Water Boggan. She was too young to go to those slides then but not too old to go to Magic Mountain now.  And the height requirements for these slides?  It's not posted in inches--you walk up to a sign and check your height.  We estimate it is around 42-44 inches, but don't quote us.

There are three slides that wind down the hillside including Thunder, the gentlest slide; Lightning, the fastest slide; and Tornado, the slide with the most opportunity for you to bank, or "slide up" on the fiberglass sides, of the slide.  While Thunder features small tunnels, the slides are not truly enclosed at all and serve as a pleasant introduction to water parks for younger kids.  We had a hard time picking a favorite slide, but it was probably Tornado, as Tornado was long enough to make for a nice ride but fast enough to add a little thrill.  The climb up the hill to the slides is a great aerobic activity in and of itself, with the adults present obviously tiring a little more easily.  We did, however, see sliders of all ages.  Kim is glad she went and did the slides herself--the memory of E getting out of the pool, smiling and jumping up and down, hands aloft, waiting on Mom to splashdown will not soon fade.

If you go, plan to spend at least an hour, probably 90 minutes to two hours or so, at this piece of Roadside Americana.  You purchase slide time, and at the time of our visit, the rates were $15 for 90 minutes with all-day and three-hour options available for not much more.  In addition to the three big slides, there are two smaller, very basic slides reserved for small children.  Sliding is done with few rules, except not plummeting on your stomach feet first and being sure to slide solo, and with flexible sliding mats.  After sliding, you emerge in about three feet of water and can easily navigate to the exit of the pool as the water becomes increasingly shallow.  Kim was submerged a few times; E less so. The lifeguards and staff, while serious about important safety like height requirements, are not uptight in the least about managing the lines and pool exits--we never felt rushed, which kept everyone in the friendly, community mood that is appropriate for Holden Beach.  There seemed to be a lull on the day of our visit, owing either to lunch or a slightly overcast sky, that made for essentially no waiting (although waits were generally short anyhow).  If hungry, you can call ahead and place a lunch order at Mankin's across the street or enjoy the small snack bar, which had plenty of ice cream. While we think night slides would be fun, this attraction is closed evenings--the owner, local legend and businessman Jimmy Hobbs, just indicates it is a daytime thing.  All told, this is a great outing--and would be especially splendid for older siblings or new beach friends.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

One of the Best for Every Kid in a Park: Booker T Washington National Monument

It's delightful to live where there are so many treasures nearby.   We had part of a Saturday open ahead of a graduation party and decided to strike out to the Booker T Washington National Monument, a beautiful National Park Services site not far from Smith Mountain Lake, Bedford, and Roanoke, Virginia.  Incorporating a small gallery-style museum, a working farm site with animals, and an expanse of land for exploring, this is a National Parks Services site that can captivate a whole family, including kids of varying ages.  E, age 8, definitely came away with improved understandings of African American history, educational history, and agricultural history.  This site always reminds K of what a privilege it is to be an educator.

E, G, and K set off primarily to earn another Junior Ranger badge while J was giving a tour of Lexington to students.  E is so enamored with the Junior Ranger program that he now says that any day that he earns a Junior Ranger badge is one of the best days of the year.  If you are unfamiliar, persons of any age, but primarily kids age 5 to 13, can become Junior Rangers at most National Park Service sites by completing a few activities. Most are provided in a small booklet you can ask for (or download in advance from some park websites) and include a variety of activities like scavenger hunts and topical word games.  They really do help cement the understandings of young kids on site at various important places, and the Booker T. Washington Junior Ranger booklet does a particularly good job of incorporating a good variety of activities and providing space for children to record their own thoughts. If you are new to the Junior Ranger program, this is a fabulous site to begin your adventure.

When you arrive, check out your Junior Ranger booklet and take in the orientation film--it is definitely worth your time and is narrated by a grandchild of Booker T Washington himself.  Then, spend some time in the interactive gallery with exhibits, a helpful place to discuss the realities of life before the Emancipation Proclamation in particular.  In the interest of time, K had to pull E and G along to the outside--we spent over 45 minutes in this area.  As regular blog readers know, we Haltermans are serious about our museums--and it was great to see the kids so involved in learning in this space.  Outside, there are several interesting plantation buildings including barns and multiple places to observe livestock; we saw ducks, horses, cows, and a very bossy turkey.

If you go, know that admission is free, the rangers are friendly, and the parking is ample. There are generous picnic grounds and two hiking trails that can be tackled with kids.  There's also a small gift shop.  Check the event schedule, perhaps by calling the park and/or checking their Facebook page, as there are many intriguing events for kids and others, especially in the summer. You are also about five short miles from locally-famous Homestead Creamery for ice cream--check and see if Laker magazine has any current discounts.

Monday, May 29, 2017

History's Variety: A Day in Richmond

Richmond, VA--close but far.  It's an easy drive from the Roanoke Valley, and it is a whole different place.  It's also full of treasures--multiple museums, National Parks sites, just plain interesting places. J had heard that the Virginia Historical Society was running a fun special exhibit on toys, and we had to go see what overlapping things we own or with which we played.  Really.

The Toys of the 50s, 60s, and 70s exhibit alone was worth every effort to visit.  This is a grand display of true life as it was often imagined from a Sears Wish Book, complete with period living rooms and commercials to watch.  Items on display range from Raggedy Ann dolls to Barbie Dream Houses, early Legos to lawn darts.  The interpretation makes it easy to understand changes in toys related to changes in parenting styles and popular culture overall.  In the back of the exhibit, there are a few play spaces including a Nerf ball area in a simulated garage that will remind you of the Brady Bunch backyard.  There's a modest cost ($10 per non-member adult).   We're often flattered to be asked how to help young people interact with museums and understand their relevance--it isn't hard to engage kids in conversation about personal and family history here.

The Virginia Historical Society itself is a free museum (excepting special exhibits) to visit with interesting galleries.  There's a large exhibit of Virginia's story, prehistory to the present, that includes many interesting artifacts and some interactivity.  Other exhibits focus on various firearms, silver, interesting Virginia homes, and the like.  The Landscapes of Virginia exhibit is an excellent primer on Virginia geography, too.  If you have a student in Virginia and US History (usually about 4th/5th grade), everything here is on point with the curriculum expectations.  Additionally, part of the museum was once known as the "Battle Abbey" and pays tribute to the US Civil War, including through lovingly-restored large murals.  The gift shop is splendid, featuring a good selection of academic resources as well as more popular-press histories at various price points. Our least-expensive buy, a book on Jewish history in the Commonwealth, was just $1.

After the museum visit, we took our National Parks Service Passports and went over to Tredegar Iron Works, a site at which many Civil War-era cannons were made.  Interestingly interpreted, the Iron Works is a site of American history as well as industrial history.  The interpretation includes information about Richmond, about the Civil War, and about industrialization in the region.  E completed the Junior Ranger program here to his enjoyment and at no cost.

At the Virginia Historical Society, there's free onsite parking--and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (also free) is right next door.  At Tredegar, you'll pay to park--but a pretty modest $5/day.  Just take the parking times seriously--you have to have your car out before the lot closes for the evening or pay a hefty $50 fee to have the gates opened.  If you go and do this same trip, take some snacks and eat dinner as your main meal.  We headed out to the Short Pump area for a bunch of options.

Bargain DC: Halterman Weekend's Memorials and Monuments Edition

When in DC, take in memorials and monuments.  It seems like a no brainer: These places represent so much American history for anyone visiting our capital.  E and K, however, would still like to share our recommendations from the wonderful National Mall and Memorial Parks.

First, our biggest "risk" was our greatest gain: We took in a few of these sites at dusk/early evening.  E wanted to see the exterior of the White House, so we hopped on the Metro.  The Washington Monument was in sight, so we took off towards it.  We wound up ambling down by the World War II Memorial and Reflecting Pool before reaching the Lincoln Memorial right at nightfall--and a pretty spectacular lightening storm.  So, why do we say it was a "risk?" Well, while the National Mall is a reasonably safe area, you need to walk with overall city safety in mind.  We wouldn't recommend a late, late night, but through 9 or 10 PM, there were many school groups and families out enjoying the lights and the cool of the evening.  It helps if you know the landmarks of the Mall well, particularly the locations of Metro stations, and are mindful of the time--some Metro station doors begin to close around 10 PM even though trains really stop around 12 AM.

Next, we went with our gut on a particular combination:  After visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, E was in the mood to see more of the sacred--and we headed to Arlington Cemetery.  He has seen similar cemeteries before, including in Gettysburg, but there is nothing quite like the expanse of Arlington.  E has enough understanding of American History to be mindful of the significance of the Kennedy graves, and we took in a Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

We took our final morning in DC, a Sunday, to enjoy the bulk of the monuments and memorials.  We took our time at the Vietnam, Korea, and Lincoln Memorials and then crossed over to the Tidal Basin to visit King, FDR, and Jefferson.  This path looped right back towards the Smithsonian Metro Station.  Get your National Parks Service Passport stamped at a whole host of monument and memorial locations, and earn a Junior Ranger designation or two if you are so inclined.  Walk carefully on the Tidal Basin with young kids--there is no barrier between the water and the sidewalk. Our walk was complimented by the presence of the George Washington University commencement at the Washington Monument--pretty impressive.

Yes, some walking distances are deceptively long, particularly between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, but you can do it.  Get out early and make it happen.  We saw two veterans' groups have ceremonies--one involved with the Changing of the Guard and one making an early morning stop at the Vietnam Memorial. If you go, keep a look out for them--especially relatively early in the day. Visit the small gift shops in and near the memorials--we actually found some of our best souvenir deals at the Jefferson--the rest were primarily found at Union Station's Union General shop and the Union Station Walgreen's.  If you didn't know this already, always check Walgreen's in tourist areas for souvenirs--we are often impressed.  (A quick note on Union Station:  It's beautiful, but it is also an active train station.  Keep young kids close.  As you may know, Union Station has a nice food court during the business day and several outlets open at later times, particularly upstairs. We recommend Pizzeria Uno--great views of the lobby complete with its own bathrooms.)

Notice we keep mentioning the Metro--which means it is always our preference to have a Metro-convenient hotel.  A friend helped us find the Courtyard by Marriott in Dunn Loring.  Less expensive than most by DC standards, this hotel's real win is its fabulous location.  In a residential section easy to find traveling "up" to DC from US 29/I-66, the hotel is simple (and well-lit) steps from an orange line Metro station (Dunn Loring-Merrifield), making everything convenient.  It's also steps from a handful of casual restaurants and a 24-hour Harris Teeter, which is awesome traveling with a kid.  For example, we stayed out relatively late two nights, and dinner was easy because we could go grab some Lunchables--something E thought was wonderful.  Plus, there is free parking, a hotel pool with a lifeguard (it's small, but it's a pool), and an overall safe feel.  The only concern about selecting a Metro-convenient hotel is that the DC Metro is undergoing extensive upgrades, making some stations and sections of track construction areas with alternate shuttles and the like.  Check WMATA for updates.  

Bargain DC: Halterman Weekend's Smithsonian Edition

OK, so if you actually know the Haltermans, you know Kim is Coupon Kim.  We'd rather spend our money on travel and similar experiences than things--but in all ways, we emphasize the frugal still.  So, on K and E's recent mother-son Halterman Weekend in DC, notoriously free DC Smithsonian Museums were part of how we lived up to our thrifty standard.

K knows this sounds like a "duh" moment for DC, but remember how many museums are free as you plan your trip.  Because they are free, though, they can be crowded.   Try to time your visit when crowds are less likely if you can.  Where we could avoid the crowds:  Smthsonian's National Zoo, E's pick for the Smithsonian he most wanted to visit.  We arrived early and, while we did start seeing exhibits as soon as we entered, we were deep in the zoo when most people started showing up.  We recommend ensuring you reach Amazonia, a simulated indoor rain forest with "loose" animals like birds, and the Small Mammal House in particular.  The Elephant House has been substantially renovated, becoming an elephant community room--a very interesting place to ponder how zoos are changing.  If traveling with small kids who can get wet (think summer and quick-dry clothes), there is now a small fountain play area near the sea lions and on the way to Amazonia.  It's perfect for about age 4 or 5, but E also adored it at age 7.  Park in the shade as a parent--there's only one way in/out of the fountain system.  A knowledgeable dad nearby suggested eating lunch in or near the "cave" used for viewing the sea lions to continue enjoying the cool.  An aside:  E had WAY more interest in this zoo than K has seen him have at the North Carolina Zoo and at Mill Mountain Zoo.  We don't know if this was a function of age, changing interests, the zoo itself, or what--but it was delightful.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was also clearly navigable, even with field trip crowds.  Just head to the interesting-but-less-traveled exhibits when you can.  E was fascinated by the Human Origins exhibit: it was the first time we had a great opportunity to discuss different views on creation timelines and some scientific timelines, and it was great.  E also adored the current Objects of Wonder special exhibit and its interactive quiz, as well as the opportunity to play a rebranded classic 1980s "Can you become a fossil?" arcade-style computer game that looked a lot like old MECC Oregon Trail software.  Even with the main dinosaur hall under construction (it is right now), there's still plenty to take in here.

Where we had trouble avoiding crowds:  The Smithsonian Museum of American History.  Our experience of most of the security staff was that they seemed frustrated with large crowds, the design of the museum itself was a bit of a challenge (lots of sections are under renovation), and there were throngs of middle schoolers just walking around.  We were there at closing time, and it felt like an emergency evacuation--we're talking security barking that everyone had to leave right NOW with no "We will be closing in 10 minutes"-type warning.  To avoid some of this, find the transportation exhibit--it's often not crowded and is quite interesting--or make this an early day stop if it is a priority for you.  Security check in is cumbersome here if you have any bags of any type as well--consider walking around "back" and entering from the entrance that is not right on the National Mall where lines are often shorter.  Note to those traveling soon: A new exhibit opens June 28, 2017, which may produce more crowding.

If you go, we highly recommend Metro subway transportation to and from the National Mall.  We found the best subway deal for us to be to buy a 7-day pass even though we were only there a few days.  This pass allowed us better travel options during "peak use" times.  If your trip is going to be over the allowable rate, just get off a few stops ahead and get back on--kids adore the process of getting on and off the train anyway.  Before you plan your trip, search your favorite museums on Facebook and similar tools.  This is how you'll find out about special events, like Hirshhorn's now-touring Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors installation.  It's also how you will find more reasonable prices for the museums that do have a price tag, including the awesome non-Smithsonian Newseum. You can also check coupon outlets like CertifiKID for deals on cool places like the National Building Museum. The Halterman standard would be that one or two large museums a day is plenty--we are museum people, and we definitely don't just coast through them.  On our next museum visit adventure, we'd like to stop by the Newseum (E saw it on the Travel Channel and really wants to go) and Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (so popular it still requires timed passes, available at 6:30 AM online each day).

You'll want to pack in some food, too.  K knows this seems obvious, but a bag of 99-cent-Mega-Sale-at-Kroger Goldfish makes a great breakfast, and 49-cent-Kroger-is-having-a-flash-sale giant Powerades are more refreshing than the smaller $2+ kind in the city.  Taking a few things--it doesn't have to be a picnic--is a great savings and allows you to feel justified in a fancy dinner splurge.  K took E to Dupont Circle one night for dinner, allowing E to select an interesting and upscale restaurant as part of the experience.  We ate at Bistro Bistro DC, which was really still pretty reasonable.  If you are eating in the Mall area, a good tip we heard was to head to a federal office building cafeteria--look up the one at the Department of Agriculture on weekdays (it's very near Smithsonian Metro).