Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Winterfest Festivities: Delights of Christmas at Carowinds

On a fall flight, Kim (K) flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, in the early morning.  Upon landing, she admired the lights glowing at Carowinds Amusement Park below, thankful that they had left the pretty lights on.  A little website wandering later, and she realizes Carowinds is hosting a holiday celebration called Winterfest, debuting in 2017.  Our family typically travels to Williamsburg, Virginia, for part of Christmas, taking in Christmas Town at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.  Christmas Town, however, has become exceptionally crowded, including during the "off days" of the week between Christmas and New Years.  Looking for something that was a little less overrun, we were very pleased to find Winterfest.  It was simply magical.

The park was bedecked in lights and had several festive zones, including a Dickens Christmas Carol display and a Peanuts land J found especially delightful.  Visiting was a lot about admiring the lights and enjoying experiences like strolling carolers, photo ops, and a nativity petting zoo.  We took in a fun Charlie Brown show and especially appreciated the references to the nature of the season, including a gorgeous display of Holy Family figures and a lighted Hanukkiah.  Rides were understandably limited by the season, but we immensely enjoyed ourselves on J's new favorite ride, Snoopy's Pirate Ship, and others.  This was our first visit to Carowinds, and we were extremely impressed with the friendliness of the staff, their engagement with visitors, and the fun they were sincerely having.  We hope to return--E was especially intrigued by the roller coasters (mainly closed for the season) and the planned expansion of Camp Snoopy looks like a ton of fun.

If you go, arrive at opening and plan to stay til closing.  The parking process is easy, but you want as much time as possible in the park. Look into preschool passes for anyone qualified in your party in advance, and enjoy the relatively flat landscape of the Carolinas, another difference from Williamsburg.  While in town, we also visited the awesome holiday display at Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, IKEA, Charlotte Premium Outlets, and SouthPark's American Girl and Lego stores.  Hotels catering to business travelers were well-priced for the season.  We'll always recommend to you that you "holiday" during Christmastide, so see what you can do between December 25 and early January.  Virginians, get ready:  Cedar Fair Parks Kings Dominion is also hosting Winterfest in 2018!

If you are looking for really detailed pictures and videos of 2017 Winterfest, try the Coaster101 blog.

Simple and Delightful: Holiday Lights at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

If you follow this blog, you know Kim and E, age 8, traveled south in the early fall to see the Great American Eclipse.  On our way, we saw signs for the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.  Kim checked them out online and decided having a membership would inspire a few trips to the Charlotte, North Carolina, area over the course of the year.  The rest is history.

This winter, we took a trip to Holidays at the Garden, an enchanting Christmas light display with fun features like model trains.  Lights can be enjoyed by walking about as well as by taking a short tram ride for a different view.  Kids can move station-to-station enjoying simple activities that further engage them--at one stop, we played color bells; at another, we learned about the seasons of the year, for instance.  The orchid building at the holidays is a little oasis complete with an imaginative fairy village also featuring model trains.  Don't miss the gloaming--arrive early and enjoy watching the lights come alive.  You'll get improved parking this way, too.  We've enjoyed similar enchantment at these gardens at their Chinese lantern display earlier in the fall.

If you go, consider getting tickets for the week between Christmas and New Years. Everyone is still in a festive mood, and crowds aren't too large.  Dress in layers for the weather and bring your camera--there will be outstanding photo ops, even for unskilled photographers like me.  Food and drink is available for purchase, although our traveling family also found nearby fast food and a relatively close supermarket for snacks.  It's a perfectly "sized" adventure for an evening out with the family in the Charlotte area, and for us, it paired very well for a trip to Winterfest at Carowinds.  And by the way, we are pretty pleased with Kim's membership--member guests receive discounts, so even given that visitors pay for some special events like the Holidays, the value is solid when you consider reciprocity to other gardens including the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia--it's on the to-visit list.

Based on recommendations from a colleague, we drove about 20 minutes to McAdenville (say Mc-Add-enville) after our visit to enjoy this town's delightful light displays.  Almost every home and business is decorated with particularly beautiful lights in trees and festive set ups of carolers, nativities, and the like at homes and churches.  We visited on a cold night, so we drove instead of parking and walking, but walking the town is an option and will afford you some nifty photo ops.  There's no charge and the atmosphere is very community and family oriented (picture kids riding hayride style, passengers making videos from their sunroofs, etc.).  We had a relatively long wait in our car, so have a full tank of gas for your own peace of mind. By 9ish, crowds were dying down, so perhaps time your visit for later as well. Check the dates and times at the website--we caught the lights on December 26, which may have been the last "official" night!  How fortunate.

Chinese Lanterns are Tremendous: Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens

Having seen a Chinese Lantern botanical garden installation at Norfolk Botanical Garden a few years ago, Kim became quite excited passing a billboard for a similar installation at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden while on a road trip to see the Great American Eclipse.  K, G, and Nana Lana were inspired to make the trip to see the lantern display in October, enjoying delightful weather for roaming outside in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area evenings.

The Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden's installation featured a ton of animal displays and some pieces that were animated, delighting G.  This garden has several fountains, which made for gorgeous reflections. This type of exhibit encourages you to walk, talk, and stare, being equal parts art, culture, and simple delight.  The lanterns are illuminated as the name implies, of course; what is less obvious is how sculptural the displays actually are.  K adored the construction of the immense, tall jellyfish; G was unusually fascinated by the dinosaurs; and Nana liked the birds placed on the fountain ponds. This garden also highlighted Chinese culture, putting on shadow plays and hosting a more elaborate marketplace than we'd seen at similar events.  G was so enchanted by the shadow plays we even bought a handmade duck puppet.

If you go, know that the gardens are still beautiful but the installation at this location has moved on.  However, you might check out LanternAsia, a similar temporary display in spring 2018 at Norfolk Botanical Garden.  Expect crowds--these exhibits are amazing!  Go early, including early in the "life" of the exhibit and early in the evening to catch the twilight if you can.  Buy tickets in advance--try not to take the risk on a sellout.  You'll need a camera that takes good pictures at night, like the one on your phone, and take your time--plan to stay for most of the duration of the evening.  These exhibits are high interest and certainly help new audiences connect to art and botanical gardens, and you could even get a membership for a discount and return for next year's Garden of Lights at a discount as well. Check out our prior visit to LanternAsia for inspiration!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Bedford Area's Best Pumpkin Patch: Layman Family Farms

Our area of Virginia includes many fun "pumpkin patch" ongoing fall festivals for kids.  Two of the best are Jeter Farm, winning the Roanoke area, and Layman Family Farms, winning the Bedford area. Region-travelling families could actually take a nice weekend and drive 460, spending time at both. This year, we took in opening weekend and teacher appreciation day at Layman Family Farms first. It was a great blast from the past:  K and J went on a date to their original corn maze at their previous site, and we have great memories over the years of our tiny kids visiting this type of attraction, like these of young E at Layman's just a few years ago.

Vast and full of little amusements, Layman Family Farms includes a variety of fun attractions for elementary-aged kids in particular, including a corn crib "sandbox," a train of "cows" pulled by a tractor, hayrides, a corn maze, a treehouse-type playground, an "underground" slide, a farm animal "zoo," a set of short zip lines, and more.  General admission gets you in--and gets you a few chances on some of the attractions that are sort of "ticketed."  These attractions include one of our kids' favorites, the jumping pillow.  Other attractions do not require any form of tickets and include E's pick, the Bee Line zip lines, and G's pick, the corn crib--but don't worry: you can purchase more tickets as needed if you like other areas more.  We smiled with pride, though, as our kids enjoyed some of the simpler things to do, including also a ball toss game that caught E's attention (no prizes, but lots of fun).

Layman Family Farms is likely the area's largest such pumpkin patch site.  Active kids can spend a long time here, especially when the site is not terribly crowded and their adults are willing to indulge them with lots of time on the jumping pillow, on the zip lines, and/or in the corn crib.  We've found less crowding early in the season (September) and later in the season (November), making it easier to spend a little more time on these attractions.  Take time to admire the views, especially from the hayride and "pumpkin patch" area.

If you go, dress to play and be comfortable--and be set to get dusty.  If you are doing photos on site as lots of families do, consider doing them first before you start serious exploring and get a little messy. Take some money for fair food available at the farm; we very much appreciated the lemonade and twisty fries.  Deal hunters should follow the Layman Family Farm Facebook page seasonally for advance purchase and season pass savings; many others can save on special admission days for educators, first responders, and others as advertised on their website.  Early season admission tends to be less expensive as well.  Layman's is home to a small gift shop-type store, and you can, of course, buy Pumpkins.  And definitely review them on TripAdvisor--they just got added!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Hidden History: Petersburg National Battlefield Park

For Labor Day weekend, we visited Petersburg National Battlefield Park, an excellent destination for families of all interest levels in the US Civil War.  We had been impressed by the park on a previous visit, and it continues to be a well-interpreted, surprising, and off-the-beaten path site.  This time, we found extremely friendly rangers, a simple-and-effective Junior Ranger badge program, and no entry fee (it was small before but has been dropped).

The history of the site is simply impressive.  Petersburg is the start of modern trench warfare (and provides a contrast to the understanding of earlier trench warfare you can obtain in nearby Yorktown, just 45 miles away "as the crow flies").  This is also one of the best sites we've found in Virginia for African-American Civil War History. Of course, no visit is complete without seeing the famed Dictator mortar, a huge cannon of sorts with about a 2-mile range, incredible for the time.  Also not to be missed?  A visit to the Crater site, now even more approachable thanks to some resurfacing of the direct path to the tunnel.  The Battle of the Crater, part of the 9-month long siege interpreted at the park, will tap your interests in military tactics, spying, infighting, and more. Our sense is it is little studied in most history classrooms, but it is one of the most interesting historic sites within driving distance of Roanoke, Virginia, period--and regular readers know that we have a good frame of reference for our rating.

While you are there, we highly recommend finding the recently-restored Poplar Grove National Cemetery.  Much smaller than Arlington, visitors can feel as if you have fully seen this site within a relatively short time.  Take time to wander and reflect, and if you read grave markers carefully, you will find soldiers from both the US Civil War and the Spanish American War, interesting placements of Confederate dead in a national cemetery, rows of US Colored Troops who died quite valiantly, and numerous unknown soldiers.  There is an interpretive leaflet available from boxes at the site that will help you understand the context of the cemetery.

If you go, start at the Visitors Center and take in the introductory film that plays on the hour and half-hour.  Get out and enjoy nature while you visit, which will also afford you a better understanding of what the area's land was like 150 years ago. Good news: It won't be hard to take a walk in the forest on a standard visit.  There are two small "hikes" we particularly recommend for families--the path to the Dictator mortar near the visitor's center that also help guests understand the features of the earthwork trenches, and the very accessible (flat) .5-mile trail into the woods at stop three on the driving trail.  Consider taking a snack lunch or picnic (there are plenty of picnic tables at driving tour stop four) so that you do not need to leave the site for a break, which may require a bit of driving.  If you are combining trips, you are also very near Richmond National Battlefield Park and will even find signs for the park on some of the routes in to Petersburg.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Totality!: Congaree National Park and Newberry, SC, for the Great American Eclipse

A reasonably close by total solar eclipse?  Well, that is a definite reason for a E and K road trip!  We took off for upstate South Carolina, visiting Congaree National Park along the way.

Congaree National Park was a great destination.  E quickly gave it five stars for a wonderfully easy-and-interesting hike along its boardwalk, affording outstanding glimpses of old cypress trees, cypress "knees," golden orb spiders, and other natural delights.  K finds "swamps" fascinating, and this was no exception.  There's a small visitor's center, decked out for the eclipse on our visit, with interpretive exhibits that highlight the conservation of the area in particular.  From the center, it's easy to catch a brief interpretive hike that will get you started with a rich experience on the boardwalk.  This is another fine park site for Every Kid in a Park--the boardwalk loop trail is easy to take with kids, and the Junior Ranger badge tasks are accessible and interesting.  

As the highlight of our trip, we enjoyed totality for the 2017 Great American Eclipse in the small South Carolina town of Newberry for Newberry Eclipse Fest.  Newberry itself is a nifty treasure of a town--and truly extremely friendly.  The residents did a fabulous job making sure everything was prepared and safe for a ton of visitors, and they set a great tone in being exceedingly welcoming to visitors.  We met great people from Maryland, New Jersey, and South Carolina; supported a fundraiser lemonade stand; spent a ton of time in festival bounce houses (well, E did); got a book signed by an astronaut; and generally hung out in a great, safe atmosphere.  We'd highly recommend your any day visit to Newberry--they have a beautiful opera house that hosts an impressive performance series spanning bluegrass to contemporary "circus-style" acrobatics.  They are also delightfully close to various National Park Service sites and other natural and cultural treasures, including being about a half-hour from Ninety Six National Historic Site (a Revolutionary War site) and locally-recommended Musgrove Mill State Historic Site (also a Revolutionary War site).  Really, Newberry is not that far from Greenville, SC, either.  In short, Newberry fully impressed us, and we will be back. (For photos of the eclipse in Newberry, click here and check out their Facebook pages for both the town and the Eclipse Fest.)

If you go out Eclipse-ing in 2024 (or at any other point), E and I would highly recommend heading for totality.  We'd been told our hometown Roanoke, VA, would be much darker than it really was, and we were so pleased with our decision to "move to totality."  Definitely consider planning to be at a well-interpreted National Park Service site and/or in a small town, and keep a special eye to where the NASA folks are--they, unsurprisingly, know what they are doing when it comes to celestial events.  Book early and take more than one set of eclipse glasses per person--you can share them or have a spare if you get a scratch.  Expect lots of roller-coaster style screaming during totality--it really is spectacular and awe-inspiring, creating diamonds in the sky.  Do bring a generous spirit for crowds, a full tank of gas, food and drinks you can keep with you in your car, and similar "think ahead" travel provisions.  Trust us, it will all be worth it.

Yorktown, Virginia: The Revolutionary Experiment

Yorktown, Virginia--well, it can be a little overlooked.  Part of America's Historic Triangle, it previously hadn't seen the "updates" to visitor spaces and museums of nearby Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown.  However, a major renovation resulted in the newly-revitalized American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.  Not to be confused with a similarly-named museum in Philadelphia, this site updates the museum space that contextualizes the last battle of the American Revolutionary War.

The museum does do a bit of "dazzing" as indicated in its promo materials--there's a video with multi-dimension effects, multiple exhibits that make use of touch screens to provide different perspectives and data, and kid-oriented hands-on components that intrigue younger and older visitors alike.  The changing exhibit space is large and currently contains AfterWARd, an exhibit about what happened to various revolutionary figures after the war (and yes, it includes Alexander Hamilton). There's also an outdoor living history area where one can visit a small Virginia farm and see artillery demonstrations.  There are not, however, a ton of artifacts on display in the museum; this space is designed in a more open, less busy contemporary style.  However, we Haltermans missed more artifacts and more related signage--that is still something we enjoy.  We will still recommend your visit, forgiving some points of weaker interpretation in favor of the overall importance of Yorktown.  While visiting the museum, your experience will be enriched if you pay close attention to the photographs--there are some common individuals that figure in several exhibits if you are paying attention.

The nearby National Parks Service Yorktown Battlefield Park is worth your time as well--and the nominal entry fee.  In the visitor's center, check out George Washington's actual tents from the Revolutionary War, as well as the kid-famous walk-through "boat."  On the battlefield, the cannons are unique.  And in the town?  Visit the Thomas Nelson House and Grace Episcopal Church.  We passed by a guided tour, which appeared to be quite well-interpreted.  Engage the staff in chatting about the role of the Nelson House(s) and Cornwallis Cave--like many historic sites, Yorktown has its share of real history and myth.  There's even a ghost tour we'll have to take in someday.  For more on our previous adventures in this park, including the Moore House, click here.

If you go, know that the American Revolution Museum as well as the nearby National Park Service site provide ample free parking.  There are walking paths between the sites that are reasonably easy to access and that also connect you to Riverwalk Landing and the Yorktown Waterfront.  The living history area at the American Revolution Museum is gated, making it a great place for a trip with kids. In the busy and hot summer, consider starting your visit early in the day and making the museum area your air conditioned destination for last.  A family could easily make a day of Yorktown, especially with a picnic.  There are restaurants on the waterfront that are lovely--but there are not a ton of super-casual, hot-day, just-grab-a-bite family options.

Several friends have asked us about our lodging on this trip--we stayed in Colonial Williamsburg at the Colonial Houses.  This was a great experience that was paradoxically both quaint and luxurious, an excellent choice for a couples weekend.  We secured a nice rate on  Do ask questions upon reservation, especially if you are looking for particular accessibility features.  Staying in the Houses comes with nice perks associated with the Inn at Colonial Williamsburg and affords you the opportunity to say you've stayed at an Historic Hotels of America property.