A Visit to Washington, D.C., with Kids – Day 3

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Get out early in D.C. to beat the crowds.

(Earlier I blogged about Day 1 and Day 2 of our road trip.)

On our second full day in Washington, D.C., we strategized to beat the crowds of teenagers by waking up early and driving to the Smithsonian National Zoo to be there when it opened.

The Zoo actually never closes, which would be great if you live in the area as it appeared you can take a walk or jog through the winding trails and exhibits at any time. We saw quite a few joggers running alongside the employees who were reporting for work.

By arriving early, we were able to get a great view of the most popular exhibits – starting with the Giant Pandas. We’d heard the pandas are most active in the morning, too.

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The Zoo has 4 giant pandas, including one baby panda, and six elephants.  (If you can’t go to D.C., but want to see the pandas, check out the Zoo’s Giant Panda Cam for a look at what they’re doing any time of day or night. My bet is on eating bamboo or sleeping!)

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Compared to most zoos that struggle for funding, the National Zoo clearly has put its federal subsidies to good use. Admission was free, and it was clean, modern and generally a very pleasant atmosphere. This was our kids’ favorite place in Washington, D.C.

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Where the elephants go for Bingo and family reunions?

We’d driven our car to the Zoo from Arlington. When we left, we drove by the National Cathedral and through the streets of Georgetown on our way back into Virginia.

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We took a few hours to rest in the hotel before heading back out in the early evening. This time we took the metro to the campus of George Washington University, where my husband’s beloved Florida Gators basketball team was playing GWU in the NIT tournament. It was just luck that they were playing in D.C. during our visit and we were able to purchase tickets. The Gators had a respectable contingent of fans in our nation’s capital! Sadly though, G. Dub (as their fans call it) won the game.

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We metroed back to Arlington and called it a night.

Our last day in D.C. (including visits to the monuments and memorials) is up next on the blog.

A Visit to Washington, D.C., with Kids – Day 2

Day 2 of our road trip to Washington, D.C., took us to the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Arlington National Cemetery.

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We took an Uber from our hotel in Arlington to the Russell Senate Building. The driver navigated the D.C. traffic much better than we could have, even taking us on a shortcut through the parking lot of the Pentagon. I’m not sure he was supposed to do that, but it was interesting to see!

We’d arranged a private tour of the Capitol Building – You can do this by contacting your senator or representative’s office. We first toured the Senate building where we met up with our tour guide. This included a few interesting photo ops in the Senate Rotunda, where you’ll often see senators interviewed on CNN or Fox News. We also had the pleasure of riding the Senator Subway, an underground trolley that carries members of Congress to the Senate floor when the Senate is session. When we visited, the Senate was in recess so it was a light traffic day on the subway. We arrived moments later inside the Capitol.

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In the lobby, we saw the large statue of Freedom, a replica of the actual statue that sits atop the capital rotunda, as well as statues of notable Americans from every state in the union. I wish I had taken notes on all of the rooms we toured, but there were quite a few and it was interesting to stand in the location of so many historic events. Although the capitol rotunda was under construction during our visit and much of the beauty of the building was covered in scaffolding, we were still impressed with the artwork and history of the space. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and answered all of our questions. Children can come up with some really interesting questions, too!

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Our tour ended with passes to the House Gallery. This is the viewing area that looks down on the House floor. The day’s session had not yet begun when we arrived in the gallery but it was still pretty exciting to sit within the confines of these walls and imagine all of the State of the Union addresses that have been delivered here. Cameras were not allowed here though!

From the Capitol Building we walked to the nearest Metro station. We hadn’t purchased passes in advance so we bought them from a kiosk inside the station. It didn’t take long for our train to arrive and a few minutes later we emerged on the National Mall just a short walk from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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Admission is free, which is great. But the Museum more than makes up for it in its restaurant. We ate lunch in this cafeteria style cafe. Our bill for the five us to have some very basic food – hamburger, hot dog, chicken fingers – totaled $86! If you go, learn from our experience and grab lunch somewhere else. By this point in the day, the crowds had really picked up, too. The museum was crowded, which is understandable given that we visited during spring break when a large number of school groups apparently visit.

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Hope Diamond displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Because of the crowds, we weren’t able to enjoy the exhibits as much as I think we would have at a non-peak time for visitors. This became a theme throughout our trip and actually led us to change plans on this afternoon. Instead of continuing on to the Air and Space Museum, where the lines to the entrance spilled onto the steps outside, we decided to go back to Arlington and see the cemetery. We took the Metro, which has a stop directly adjacent to the Cemetery.

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Arlington National Cemetery is not a small place, as you might imagine. After entering the cemetery welcome center, you can get a map and walk through at your own pace or you can pay $6 per person for a trolley or tram tour. With our three children in tow, we opted for the trolley. It stops at various points in the cemetery and you can hop off one trolley and get back on a later trolley to continue your tour or return to the exit. We toured in late afternoon and were short on time before closing so we decided to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and we were able to witness the changing of the guard, which takes place at the top of every hour. This was very special to witness in person, but again we were in a large crowd of onlookers so it was not the experience you might have at other times of the year.

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We were not able to stop to see the Eternal Flame at John F. Kennedy’s grave or any of the number of other points of interest within the Cemetery, but if we visit again we’d be sure to allow more time here. It is a truly beautiful place to remember men and women who served our country.

Since visiting Washington, D.C., I definitely believe it is a place that all Americans should visit at least once.

(Read on for Day 3 and Day 4 of our Washington, D.C. road trip, or take a look back at Day 1.)

Have you visited Washington, D.C.? What are your favorite sites?

Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens

Bellingrath tree lights and fountain

This weekend, on a whim, we decided to visit Bellingrath Gardens, located just outside Mobile, Alabama, for Magic Christmas in Lights. The grand holiday light display features three million lights throughout a 65-acre property. Visitors walk along a path that winds through the estate, transformed by lights of every color in a variety of scenes.

It’s truly impressive. My only regret is not having brought a real camera along, so photos included in this post are from my phone.

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Bellingrath Gardens and Home is an amazing place to visit during daylight hours any time of year. The picturesque estate along the Fowl River is famous for its beautiful, azalea-rich grounds. Countless other varieties of flowers and plants bloom in abundance, too. I visited about 10 years ago and have recommended it ever since to anyone traveling to the Mobile area.

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This weekend was my first time to visit during Magic Christmas in Lights. I did a little bit of research and learned the holiday lights display started 20 years ago, inspired by a similar event at Georgia’s Callaway Gardens. It’s grown through the years, and last year USA Today named Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens as one of the top 10 light displays in America.

Bellingrath swans

What I didn’t know when we decided to put the kids in the car to be tourists for the night is that this (the weekend before Christmas) typically represents the busiest nights of the season for Magic Christmas in Lights. We had a very long wait to get into the parking lot as cars lined the two-lane road leading into the property, and then another wait in line for tickets. The traffic added about 45 minutes to our trip.

Lesson learned: Buy your tickets in advance online, plan to get their early, and if possible visit on a weeknight – or any night other than the busiest of the year!  One bonus – the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck and a costumed polar bear were on hand for photo opps just outside the Gardens on the night we visited.

Coca Cola Christmas

Walking through the lights with my husband and daughters, taking pictures, and enjoying one of the few cool nights we’ve had during this unseasonably hot fall made up for the long wait. Christmas music and hot chocolate for sale added to the experience. This place is sure to put even the biggest Grinch around in the Christmas spirit!

Magic Christmas in Lights is open nightly from 5-9 p.m. CST through January 2, 2016, with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Tickets are $15 for adults, $7 for children ages 5-12, and free for children 4 and under.

9 Ways to Give Experiences (Not Things) This Christmas

For a young child, there’s nothing like waking up on Christmas morning to discover your most coveted toy under the Christmas tree. I have fond memories of the Christmases when I received a bike, a Cabbage Patch Kid and so many other treasured items from Santa through the years.

So with that as a seemingly contradictory preface, I have to say I’m coming around to the idea of gifting experiences rather than things. Make no mistake, I’ll still put gifts under the tree for my children. Always. But as a mom who has observed enough Christmases and the fate of so many “I’ve-gotta-have-it-Mom” toys, I have to question the lasting value of some of these gifts.

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An abandoned My Little Pony toy. You do not want to step on this!

Media and our consumeristic society often make it seem that our kids need every branded product that is offered in their particular area/character/movie/cartoon/whatever of interest. These toys du jour hold their attention for a short time, sure, but within a few weeks the kids move on and may never pick up these items again. It seems like a shame and a waste, not to mention the additional clutter it adds to our home. If it were just my husband and I buying for our children at the holidays, this may not be an issue, but there are grandparents and aunts and uncles and extended family members, too. All are appreciated and well-meaning in their gifting, of course, and there are many quality toys out there, but the sum total can be overwhelming.

Last Christmas, my husband and I decided our big gift to our daughters would be a trip to Disney World. We weren’t putting them in the car that day to go see the mouse (like I’ve known some families to do), so I knew this gift wouldn’t provide immediate gratification like a big toy might, but I still wanted to create some excitement as this represented such a big part of their Christmas. I wrapped up a handmade Countdown to Disney chalkboard sign that I purchased on Etsy and a character autograph book that the girls could take with them to the parks. Written in chalk on the sign was the number of days until our trip – about 21 or so as we visited on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. The girls had fun updating the sign each day and looked forward to the trip. It was a great vacation! For my youngest daughter, it was her first time at Disney World. We have many good memories and photos from the trip that we’ll cherish for years to come.

(If you’re planning a visit to Disney World during the holidays, check out these festive WDW events and attractions to celebrate the season, as shared by the blog Kids on a Plane.)

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The nightly Electric Light Parade is one of our family’s favorite things to see at Walt Disney World.

1. Family travel – whether it’s for a vacation, theme park visit, or even a mission trip – is a wonderful way to share an experience with your children, but there are other less expensive options, too. You can make an educational day trip out of visiting a museum or aquarium. Many, like the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., offer free admission.

2. During a visit to Orlando this summer, my mom and I treated my daughters to lunch at the American Girl store at The Florida Mall. Like American Girl stores in other cities, the Orlando store includes a restaurant.

AG cafe

My oldest two girls have American Girl dolls that they brought along with us, and my youngest daughter was offered one to play with when we arrived for our lunch reservation. Each doll had her own seat at the table, along with a doll sized cup and saucer.

Dining with AG doll

I expected to be underwhelmed by the menu and food because it is American Girl and a t-shirt for a doll costs $10, for heaven’s sake. The selection and food were not bad though, and we received excellent service. The American Girl dining experience was fun. You could certainly host your own tea party at home for less, but we all enjoyed this special treat. American Girl has stores in Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and other major U.S. cities, too.

AG ice cream

3. The Orlando mall we visited is also home to the newest Crayola Experience. Opened in July, this family attraction boasts over 70,000 square feet of colorful and creative activity space. There are 25 attractions inside including making your own coloring page, personalizing your own crayon wrapper and much more. The Crayola Experience was still a few weeks away from opening when we visited The Florida Mall, so we were not able to check it out. I hope we can do this on a future visit. According to the website, admission is $17.99 per person if purchased online, or an Annual Pass for unlimited visits within a year is $34.99. Purchased at the door, admission rates are slightly higher.

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We were able to pay a visit to the adjacent Crayola Store, which was open. You can find every possible Crayola crayon and Crayola products you never knew existed here. Many of the prices were pretty steep, we thought. Some of the same items are sold at WalMart or Target for less, but it’s certainly the most complete offering of Crayola items I’ve ever seen.

crayons in every color

4. Camping is another good option for making memories. Who doesn’t love campfires and s’mores? You may need to purchase a few camping supplies of course if you don’t already own them, but these can be a good investment. Plus, this gives you something to wrap up and put under the Christmas tree. I’m definitely more comfortable with the glamping style of camping than any rugged wilderness excursion. A bathroom and electrical outlets nearby are non-negotiable for me. After one sleepless night on the cold, hard ground at my daughters’ Girl Scout camp out last fall, I learned that an air mattress inside the tent will be essential the next time I camp, too. (Go ahead and roll your eyes, hardcore campers. I can’t see you.)

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Other experiential gifts you might consider giving this holiday season:

5. Movie tickets – The Peanuts Movie is adorable, by the way. My kids loved it and it has a nice message.

6. Restaurant gift cards – Take your pick of local favorites or chains, most eateries offer gift cards these days. I don’t know a busy family who wouldn’t love to receive a night off from cooking dinner!

7. Classes – My kids would like to take art, cooking and sewing lessons. We have experience with one local art instructor and my daughter loved her classes for kids. Research providers in your area to find the right class for you or your child!

8. Personal stylist – So this is not for kids, but moms and other special ladies need a treat, too. You may already know I am a fan of StitchFix, the personal styling service that hand picks clothing and accessories and ships them to your door. Did you know that Stitch Fix offers gift cards? These are a great gift idea and can provide a fun treat for the lady who is looking for something different this Christmas. Of course, a spa day is a nice pampering gift, too!

9. Personal shopping – I don’t think this is offered in Northwest Florida yet, but in many larger cities grocery delivery services are becoming more common. What new mom wouldn’t love having someone do the shopping for you and bring the bread, milk and whatever else you need to your door?! Where was this when I had twin babies at home?! This could definitely be a special treat for some folks on Santa’s list.

However you decide to give to the special people in your life this year, remember that it is the thought that counts. Shared experiences and time together can be the most meaningful expressions of love you can give, and these don’t have to cost a fortune. In 20 years, your kids will remember and appreciate your outings to see Christmas lights together as a family more than the 14th toy they circled in the Black Friday circular.

Happy gifting!

 

The fine print: Some of my ideas are admittedly retail in nature, but I do not receive any compensation or consideration from American Girl or Crayola, or Walt Disney World or Peanuts for that matter. I just think they offer unique experiences that many families may not have considered as holiday gift options. I do include a link to Stitch Fix that could allow me to earn a small referral credit toward future purchases if someone uses it to order a Fix, but the company does not pay me for my reviews. 

 

Tanked in Perdido

My 11-year-old nephew is perhaps the world’s biggest fan of the reality TV show “Tanked,” which airs on Animal Planet. The show features installations of unusual and larger-than-life aquariums at various locations across the country. The Las Vegas-based aquarium builders who host the show installed one such aquarium in a New York City Applebees’s, which made the otherwise unremarkable chain restaurant my nephew’s favorite attraction in the Big Apple when he visited last year. The Statue of Liberty was, well, just meh.

The next time he comes to visit us on the Gulf Coast, I know without a doubt he’ll be eager to see the not one, but two aquariums in our area that have been installed and featured on Tanked. The first is at a Pensacola music store, Blues Angel Music. The second, a 403-gallon pirate ship aquarium at the Perdido Key Visitor Information Center, is the focus of tonight’s episode scheduled to air at 9 p.m. CDT. Tune in to see what it’s all about!

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Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre

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The Panhandle Butterfly House isn’t a big place. Drivers can easily cruise down Hwy. 98 through the heart of Navarre and not see the small, white house just west of the Navarre Beach bridge. What the butterfly house may lack in size shouldn’t discount its value as an environmental center and educational attraction.

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My kids and I have visited on more than one occasion. Each time we’ve admired the beautiful flowers and plants and, of course, the butterflies. Each time my girls have learned about the butterfly lifecycle and observed specimens at each stage of the lifecycle. Volunteers serving as docents have talked with us about the gardens and butterflies.

DSC_1023There is a small gift shop area where you can purchase butterfly-themed souvenirs or make a donation to the Panhandle Butterfly House. When you are finished with your visit to the Butterfly House, you can walk out back and take look at the Santa Rosa Sound and the birds and turtles that have made their homes nearby. The Navarre Kids Park is also adjacent to the Panhandle Butterfly House property, which is a great place for younger kids to burn some energy.

This weekend happens to be one of the biggest of the year at the Panhandle Butterfly House. It’s the annual Monarch Madness festival, which celebrates the Monarch butterfly and its migration through Northwest Florida. It’s one of a few dozen activities going on this month in Santa Rosa County, Florida, as part of the Beaches to Woodlands Tour.DSC_1036

If you can’t make it out this weekend, put them on your list to visit next spring or summer, when they’ll reopen for 2015. Operating strictly on donations, admission is free but contributions are encouraged.

Gator Bait in Destin

the-swampThis crimson-blooded Alabama native has seen enough Gators after a football weekend trip to The Swamp, in Gainesville, Fla. The raucousness of the University of Florida crowd after a triple overtime win over the University of Kentucky Wildcats looked much like the scene at another reptilian retreat I visited a few weeks ago.

The scene: Destin’s Fudpucker’s restaurant at alligator feeding time.

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Just like the diners at this popular eatery, real, live alligators come hungry. Trained staff and regular restaurant-goers alike have a chance to feed these gators, which reside in a manmade swamp just outside the front door at Fudpucker’s.

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I ate at this restaurant years ago, but I don’t think they had alligators on the premises back then. (Fudpucker’s opened in 1982.) Just as I remembered, guests can (and do) leave their autographs on the walls, tables and just about any other writeable surface inside this colorful establishment.

Fudpucker’s hadn’t been on my short list of places to go in Destin for quite a while, but it’s funny how having children leads you to all sorts of places you might not otherwise go. Surprisingly, some of them are not so bad. Fudpucker’s, in fact, may be brilliant because what I remember as an area to wait for a table is now a semi-educational attraction, thanks to the alligators.

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For $3, you can purchase a bag of alligator food. Your four pellets of food are presented to you with a fishing pole-like contraption that you use to lower the bait down to the surface of the water below. Then, watch the gators swarm and CHOMP!

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The pellet snacks are an appetizer to the raw chicken pieces a staff member feeds them during a narrated demonstration. “The alligators here are young gators,” he explains. “Once they reach five or six feet in length, they are moved to other habitats as they’d become too aggressive for this environment.”

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A rare albino alligator named Pearl also resides at Fudpucker’s. She is older and has her own tank that is shielded from the sun to protect her skin.

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My children loved seeing Pearl, feeding the other alligators and asking questions about them. It was certainly a unique experience, and it would be an easy way to pass the time with young children if you in fact were waiting for a table.

On this visit, we didn’t have to wait. We were having a late lunch on Labor Day, when most of the summer vacationers had packed up and gone home. Service was good and the food was better than I expected at a big, popular tourist stop.

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Our entrees were around $10-12 each. The fish sandwich I ordered was seasoned well. My mom enjoyed a fresh salad with chicken, fruit and nuts. The kids’ menu included the usual fare and portions were good.

If you don’t go to Fudpucker’s for the food, go for the gators (even if, like me, you don’t usually “go for” Gators).

 

Fudpucker’s has locations in Destin and Ft. Walton Beach. Somewhere on the restaraunt’s walls is written “Roll Tide Roll!”

Pensacola: The Art of the Brick

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“Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you’re part of the team.” Just when I’d gotten those words from the Lego Movie jingle out of my head, another toy brick-based creative work comes along.

The Art of the Brick, showcasing Lego sculptures by Nathan Sawaya, is on exhibit at the Pensacola Museum of Art in Downtown Pensacola.

Lego fans young and old can appreciate Sawaya’s impressive creations. He has built multiple human forms, a dog, a pencil, just to name a few – all from the beloved toy bricks. Many of the sculptures are monochromatic. Many depict emotions and various life experiences of the artist.

My daughters, my niece and I visited the museum recently to see the Art of the Brick. Two of the girls went almost immediately to the end of the exhibit, where tables are set up with assorted Lego bricks so that you can build your own works of art. The other took more time looking at each sculpture with me.  (Like almost any event or attraction, if you attend with children, be prepared for kids’ varying attention spans.)

While the girls played with the Legos at the end of the exhibit, I watched a video about the artist that is shown in the same room.

The entire exhibit at the Pensacola Museum of Art is contained within two galleries. You can easily see Sawaya’s work and give the kids a chance to play with the Legos in just an hour or so.

Admission is $12 for adults and $8 for children. The exhibit runs through August 8 at the Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 South Jefferson St.

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Destin: Kids Love The Track

the-track-destin-flThere is no shortage of things to do in Destin, Florida, but if it were up to my kids, the amusement park known as The Track would make the short list of favorites. Bumper boats, go-karts, miniature golf — what’s not to love if you’re a kid?

The activities available at The Track are largely geared toward school-age children, with the exception of an area known as Kids Kountry. Three and four-year-olds can enjoy the small rides in this area, including a carousel, ferris wheel and the classic train.

The older set, if they meet height requirements, can enjoy riding solo in the bumper cars, go-karts and bumper boats. If they are not yet tall enough, an adult should be prepared to ride with them. Such was our luck on a recent visit when the attendant found my daughter to be one inch too short for the bumper boats. So I rode along with her, trying to maneuver our boat around the large pool while dodging squirts of water from the other boats. Yes, you will get wet on the bumper boats! Be prepared. For a reason I still don’t understand, I quickly became the target of a ten-ish-year-old boy who was trigger happy each time his boat came near ours. He didn’t just spray me with water, he squirted me right in the face over and over and over again (Parents, tell your kids not to aim relentlessly at the adults who are just riding along to the delight of their children. Tell them to have a field day with other kids who are game, but show some mercy to the grown-ups. It’s just good manners).

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Each ride, as well as the miniature golf, requires points for admission and the points are purchased inside the arcade building. On our recent visit, we took advantage of an offer that The Track’s website says is available now through Labor Day: Receive double the points when you purchase between 9 a.m. and noon. These points are valid through 4 p.m. One employee told me this is the best deal, but a sign at the cash register also advertised discounts for locals, military and seniors so it’s worth inquiring about those offers at other times of day if you qualify.

Don’t forget to save some money for the arcade — you know, where your children will burn through their tokens in a matter of minutes, collect tickets and redeem them for all sorts of candy and worthless junk they don’t need. It makes them happy so count your losses, play skee ball, and have your wine chilled and ready for when you get home.

There are cold soft drinks and Icees available for sale in the arcade, which are heavenly after you’ve spent some time in the sun. It’s a good idea to bring sunscreen if you visit The Track during the day, too. go-karts-the-track-destin-fl

In all, our family of five spent about $30 for rides and arcade time during the 2-for-1 points hours. You can do as much or as little as you like when you visit so costs will vary.

Although I have not been there, The Track also has a location in Gulf Shores, Alabama, according to their website. Wherever you visit, have fun and check this off your list of kid-friendly vacation stops.