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.

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.