Vacation Reads for the Whole Family

InterContinental Hotels Group invited my family to the Holiday Inn Resort at Pensacola Beach for a complimentary breakfast with Clifford the Big Red Dog and pool passes. I was not asked to write this article and opinions are my own.

One of the most important decisions I make when going to the beach is what book to toss in my beach bag. I love a good, juicy beach read.

In fact, we’re all avid readers at my house. My youngest daughter learned to read this year, and the rest of us frequently have our nose in a book. As a working mom, it can be challenging to find time to read, but I do enjoy it when I can (often that’s on vacation), and I love that my children like reading. My husband and I read aloud to them throughout their preschool years, which can be so beneficial for a child’s learning and development.

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When I heard about Holiday Inn and Scholastic teaming up to encourage kids to read while they’re on vacation, I was immediately interested because it’s the intersection of two things we enjoy: books and family travel. Through the Summer of Smiles program, Scholastic book characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog and Geronimo Stilton (He’s an adventurous mouse journalist, I learned) are greeting guests at select Holiday Inn hotels during breakfast events.

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In addition to photo opportunities, there are book character-themed coloring and craft activities for the kids. At the event we attended, children were offered a free book. Afterwards a small lending library was set up in the hotel lobby so that young guests can borrow books to read, or parents traveling on business can borrow a book to read a virtual bedtime story to their children back home. It’s a neat concept and my daughters enjoyed the experience.

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I’m all for anything that encourages reading and gets kids and parents to unplug from their electronic devices, especially on vacation. At the Holiday Inn Resort at Pensacola Beach, the breakfast with Clifford and friends was one of many perks offered for kids.

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We were able to explore the pool area, which includes a lazy river. I hadn’t floated along a lazy river in years and this was a first for my girls. We had so much fun doing this together, and I lost count of how many times we went around.

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I enjoyed lounging by the pool, too, while the girls met and swam with a mermaid, who makes daily appearances at the pool. Pirates also visited the pool on the day we were there, and a “dive-in” movie was scheduled for the evening. And what kid doesn’t like a snow cone bar?

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We left the hotel with snapshots from the meet and greet with Clifford, and I took several photos around the pool. I only regret not being in any of the photos myself. (We have to make a point to get out from behind the camera, moms!) Regardless, it was a memorable day spending time with my daughters. Happy travels and happy reading to all this summer!

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What are you and your family reading this summer? Leave us a comment.

Summer Snaps the Old Fashioned Way

This summer my 9-year-old daughters went to an overnight church camp for a week. It was the first time they’d been away from home (or another family member’s care) for more than one night. I know many of the counselors and parents who were chaperones, so I wasn’t worried about their safety, but I did miss them and wondered what they were doing at various times throughout the week.

It’s rare these days that we don’t have instant access and insight into what’s happening anywhere in the world at any given moment, especially when it involves our friends and family who use social media. But, while I was glad to get a few texts with photos from parents/friends who were attending the camp, I knew I would not be getting updates directly from my daughters. (We don’t do iPhones for 9-year-olds in our house, and the devices they do have don’t have a good camera function.) So I decided to arm them with disposable cameras – also called single-use cameras – that I picked up at Walmart. They were excited to document their time at camp, but you should have seen the confused look on their faces when I explained that they would not be able to see the images they’d shot until much later. Clearly this camera was a dinosaur to them, and maybe we’ll look into the new, modern Polaroid-style cameras or the tiny Go-Pros for them at some point in the future (Dear Santa), but I thought they’d have fun with this and I wouldn’t be out a ton of money if they lost them, which was very possible. I even picked up a waterproof version for the beach because I knew they’d have fun with that, too, and photos taken in the sand and water just look cool.

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Of course, when I first came up with idea to get the girls disposable cameras, I wasn’t even sure they were still available or where I’d be able to get the film developed. The last time I saw one of these cameras was at a wedding reception several years ago where the bride and groom placed them on the reception tables for their guests to use to document the festivities. Believe it or not, kids, there was a time wedding guests didn’t have cameras at the ready (Photo booths with props were not a thing, either). I may even have one of these disposable cameras from my college days stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere, but that film has long since expired! Probably for the best.

Surprisingly, I found a few places that still process disposable cameras, too. It turns out I could drive about 20 miles to the nearest Walgreens store that processes film, or I could pay $50-60 for processing three cameras through Target.com, neither of which appealed to me. Then I remembered a site called MPix.com that a professional photographer recommended to me once. It turns out MPix will process 35mm film and single-use cameras. They even send you envelopes with pre-printed mailing labels for you to send your cameras or film to them. They develop the images and put them online for you to view within 24 hours. You pay for the processing in order to “unlock” your albums on their site (In my case, this totaled about $12 for all 3 cameras), and they mail negatives to you (as if I’ll ever use those, but that’s okay). The best part of their service is you can view the photos online and select individual images for printing, rather than paying for prints of the entire camera roll.

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With kids behind the camera, I expected we’d have quite a few misfires and I really don’t need seven different images of the camp cabin and bunk beds. I paid around $13 for the 39 prints I chose to order. I’ll have to scan them manually if I want to use them online, but to me that’s better than paying $30 for a disk of images from all 3 cameras. The photos will arrive in 10 days (I’m cheap so I opted for the $4 shipping option). Barring any problem with the prints, this was a pretty easy process and my kids got to take their own summer snapshots the old-fashioned way.

Of course, as I type they are checking out the daily Snapchat filters on my phone. But single-use cameras are still an option for certain circumstances – something to think about for your budding shutterbugs.

(MPix did not compensate me in any way for this blog post. I just wanted to pass along the info. on the off chance you decide to use a disposable camera in 2016 and wonder how in the heck you’ll get access to your photos.) Happy World Photography Day!

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?

A Visit to Oak Hollow Farm

Oak Hollow Farm horsesHorseback riding, a campfire, and an all around beautiful setting are what I’ll remember of my visit to Oak Hollow Farm in Fairhope, Alabama, last month. That, and what had to have been the coldest night of the year at that point in 2016! Despite freezing temperatures, I had a great time chaperoning my daughters’ Brownie troop and two other Girl Scout troops on a fun overnight adventure.

We arrived in the early afternoon hours on a Saturday, dropped our bags in the bunk rooms we’d reserved, and readied ourselves for horseback riding. While we waited for the hay ride that takes visitors to the horse barn, the girls discovered the largest oak I’ve ever seen. One low hanging branch was particularly accessible to the girls and they wasted no time climbing up on the giant tree. Wooden swings hung from other branches and these were popular with the girls throughout our stay.

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The short hayride across the property to the horse barn was enjoyable and fun for the kids. The staff then helped our group by supplying helmets for the kids and matching each person up with a horse. Oak Hollow is a family owned and operated business and the staff at the horse barn definitely reflected that in the pride they took in the horses and the grounds. Our large group of about 40 people was divided into two, one going on the first outing and the other going out on the horses after the first group returned. Most of us had no experience with horses. The staff were very helpful in ensuring we knew what to do, and they led us on the ride and remained with us the entire time. I didn’t pay attention to the time, but it seemed like each ride was about 30 minutes.

Horseback Riding Oak Hollow Farm

The horses were extremely gentle. I was never fearful of my horse running off from the group or going too fast.  Occasionally some of the horses stopped to eat grass or leaves on the trees, but it was easy to redirect them to get back on task with a simple tug on the reins. These horses are so are well trained. One staffer even mentioned that their horses are ridden in the area’s Mardi Gras parades.

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When we returned to the barn, some of the girls who’d brought carrots for the horses were able to feed them. Then the hayride returned us back to our cabin area.

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After a quick snack, the younger girls began gathering up twigs and small pieces of wood for the campfire. A fire pit is available just a short distance from the cabins and bath house. As the sun set, the older girls and a couple of the leaders helped to start the fire, where we roasted hot dogs and s’mores for dinner.

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After dinner and clean up, we all returned to our cabins to retreat from the cold. The cabins were comfortable, with one queen size bed, and one bunk bed with a full size bed on the bottom and a twin bed on top. There is a bathroom (toilet only) and a small kitchen area equipped with a sink, mini refrigerator and microwave. There is one space heater in each cabin, which I was thankful to sleep near, but we all relied on our many layers of clothes and blankets to stay warm that night. The kids played cards and some board games before lights out. We actually slept pretty well. The next morning we made a simple breakfast in our cabins and walked around the grounds before packing up to return home.

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Although we didn’t participate, Oak Hollow Farm also offers fishing and skeet shooting. They also have facilities for private events like weddings or corporate gatherings. According to their website, a CMT show, Sweet Home Alabama, filmed there, and notable guests have included members of the Duck Dynasty family and country music star Blake Shelton.

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For guests who stay on the property like we did, it is definitely more glamping than camping, but that was perfect for our group. I’d go back, especially for the horseback riding, which you can do even if you don’t choose to stay overnight. The horseback riding costs $35 per person.

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It was a treat to spend a night on this gorgeous property with my daughters and friends. It’s amazing what even a short time away from electronics and the busyness of our daily lives can do for your spirits! Plus, did I mention s’mores?!

The Easiest Christmas Cookies Ever

Snowflake sugar cookieAre you feeling the crunch of a long, holiday to-do list like I am? This is the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also one of the busiest. Last weekend, our family crammed in shopping and other errands, a Christmas parade, church, buying/picking out/decorating a Christmas tree, baking cookies for and attending a Mother-Daughter Cookie Swap, not to mention watching the SEC Championship Football Game. All of these things were enjoyable and important to us, but they made for a very full schedule.

When it came time to bake cookies for the Cookie Swap we were attending, I opted for two low-stress recipes. If you’re planning on baking cookies for the holidays, you might want to try them, too.

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First, we made traditional Christmas sugar cookies. It’s become an annual tradition for our family and the girls love to decorate them. Confession: Against every ounce of foodie that I have in my being, I bought pre-made dough this year. The Pillsbury sugar cookie dough that comes in a tube. Sigh.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I must say it actually worked out pretty well. The longer the dough was out of the refrigerator, the easier it was to roll out onto parchment paper, so keep that in mind if you are trying this at home. We used a snow flake cookie cutter I bought a while back for my Frozen-obsessed four-year-old and a heart-shaped cookie cutter, because all of my traditional Christmas cookie cutters were packed away with all the decorations we hadn’t yet brought out of storage. We made a few round cookies, too. Once we baked the cookies according to the package directions, we let them cool. When it was safe to ice them, we used homemade icing (recipe here), plus a few tubes of store-bough accent icing and assorted sprinkles to give them a finished festive look. I love the flavor that almond extract gives to the icing, and the cookies were quite tasty.

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The other cookie recipe we tried, 2-Ingredient Pumpkin Cookies, was Straight Outta Pinterest (can I get that on a T-shirt? There should be one if there isn’t). I try so many Pinterest recipes, and most of them have worked out for me. This one was almost too simple to mess up. It involved a spice cake mix (again, store bought. I don’t even know who I am anymore.) and a single can of pumpkin. I mixed these in the bowl of my stand mixer. Once these ingredients combined, I scooped out spoonfuls onto the cookie pan we were using. I did this with about half of the cookie batter. To the remaining batter, I stirred in semi-sweet chocolate chips before placing spoonfuls on the cookie pan. So we made two variations of this recipe and both baked quickly.

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Meanwhile, I mixed room-temperature butter with a packet that came in the cake mix box to make pumpkin spice icing.  We added dollops of the icing to the top of the cookies without chocolate chips. If you’re looking for a dense, crunchy cookie, these are not the cookies for you, but otherwise they are a good, foolproof option. I liked the ones with chocolate chips the best. And who doesn’t love pumpkin spice?

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So there you have it – two recipes that worked for us during a very busy weekend. The cookies were well received at the Cookie Swap and the few we had left over at home passed the ultimate test – they disappeared quickly.

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At the end of the cookie baking extravaganza, our Elf on the Shelf, Snowball, guarded the oven closely. I think she’d had enough!

What are you baking this Christmas? Do you have any holiday baking traditions? Leave a comment by clicking the link just below the headline of this post.

Also, while typing this blog post, I learned about Food Network’s Bake It Forward campaign. Share a photo of whatever you are baking this season in social media using #BakeItForward and nominate a friend. For each share, Food Network will donate $1 to No Kid Hungry.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

 

Packing Shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child

operation-christmas-childFor several years now, our family has made it a tradition to pack shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child—the world’s largest Christmas project of its kind. The annual Samaritan’s Purse project is a favorite of many families, churches and groups who spread joy to millions of children around the world by filling shoeboxes with a “Wow” item—like a doll or soccer ball—other fun toys, school supplies, hygiene items and notes of encouragement.

“Through the simple act of filling a shoebox, someone can make a tangible difference in the life of a child halfway around the world. Anyone can participate and bring joy to a child facing difficult circumstances,” said Randy Riddle, director of Operation Christmas Child in the United States.

We’ve found Operation Christmas Child to be a simple yet concrete way to involve our children in giving and sharing God’s love with others who are in need around the world. We picked up three empty shoeboxes from our church, which participates in the program each year. We fill these together as a family.

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Our two oldest daughters also attended a Shoebox Packing Party at church, where they helped to fill additional shoeboxes that will be given on behalf of the church. Our children’s ministry leaders and volunteers made the Packing Party a really fun and festive event. They divided the children into groups and the groups took turns visiting stations scattered throughout the church where they completed a fun activity and added different types of items to their shoeboxes. They also prayed for all the children who will receive gifts as part of Operation Christmas Child this year.

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When we set out to pack our own shoeboxes at home, our daughters decided they would designate their boxes for girls – one in the 2-4 age group and the other two in the 5-9 age group. We first shopped for some basic hygiene items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs and soap.  We added head bands and ponytail holders, then looked for school supplies and toys. We found crayons, pencils, notepads as well as small toys like puzzles and jump ropes at our local dollar store. All of the items in the cart below were purchased for around $26, or less than $10 per shoebox.

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Operation Christmas Child has a Pinterest board filled with ideas for items to pack in your shoebox, and I also found this blog post insightful for packing a shoebox.

We haven’t added a “Wow” item yet and our girls want to write notes to the children who will receive their shoeboxes. So we’re still adding to the boxes, but here is a look at what we’ve packed so far.

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Box 1 contents

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Box 2 contents

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Box 3 contents

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Our mostly assembled shoeboxes

During National Collection Week, Nov. 16 – 23, anyone can drop off a gift-filled shoebox to send to a child overseas. Residents around the country hope to contribute 8.6 million gift-filled shoeboxes to the 2015 global goal of reaching 11 million children in need. Collection locations can be found using the Zip Code locator at samaritanspurse.org/occ.

Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief and evangelism organization headed by Franklin Graham. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered gift-filled shoeboxes to more than 124 million children in more than 150 countries and territories. For many of these children, a gift-filled shoebox is the first gift they have ever received.

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100 millionth shoebox delivery in Dominican Republic. (Photo courtesy of OCC/Samaritan’s Purse)

Anyone can participate in Operation Christmas Child. You can even pack a personalized Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift on the Samaritan’s Purse website. Go to samaritanspurse.org/occ to select toys and gift items, write a note of encouragement and “pack” them in a shoebox. These gifts of hope will go to children in some of the hardest-to-reach countries.

Using special tracking technology, participants can follow their box to discover where in the world their gift is delivered by using the donation form found at samaritanspurse.org/occ.

Happy shoebox packing everyone!

Do you pack shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child? What items do you pack in your shoebox? Leave a comment to tell us!

Heart of Glass

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Mary Hong Studio Gallery

There’s something wildly therapeutic about turning shards of glass into a very personal piece of art. Although I wasn’t mending a broken heart of glass like Blondie (I’m happily married, but Heart of Glass is a better blog post title), I did experience the enjoyment mosaic glass art can bring during a recent visit to the The Shard Shop in Grayton Beach.

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My sister-in-law kindly treated two of my daughters to a class at The Shard Shop as a birthday gift. We took the girls, along with her daughter (my niece/their cousin), to the Shops of Grayton, where you’ll find The Shard Shop next door to Mary Hong Studio Gallery.

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Mary Hong Studio Gallery

Mary Hong is a local artist who has been doing shard art, as she calls it, since 1999. Her gallery sells her beautiful creations and also provides inspiration for first-time artists who are going to make their own works of art at The Shard Shop.

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Upon arrival, our girls quickly chose their canvases and decided what the subject of their art would be. Each chose an assortment of colorful, multi-textured glass shards to place atop a chalk sketch they’d drawn on the canvas. We helped with cutting some of the larger glass pieces for the girls (safety first!). Craft glue was used to secure some of the pieces while others were placed loosely, all to be permanently set by an epoxy resin coating that The Shard Shop staff pours over your “finished” piece. It was fun to watch the girls create a crab, pineapple and peacock, and we were impressed with how well they turned out the next day when we went to pick up the resin-coated finished products.

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While helping the girls with their pieces was fun, my sister-in-law and I wanted to return to The Shard Shop sans children and make our own shard art. Later during our vacation week, we paid our second visit and got to work on making a tree (hers, which I sadly failed to photograph) and a trio of butterflies (mine). Unlike traditional mosaic art, the shard art style is more layered or dimensional. After placing larger pieces of glass from old bottles and dishes on the canvas (or wood plank, in my case), we filled in the design with smaller shards and even some glittery bling (note: not a technical term). The Shard Shop does provide safety goggles and gloves for you to use when you are cutting glass and handling the sharper pieces. There is a safety waiver you have to sign before taking a class – of course there is, there is always a waiver! The instructor we worked with showed us how to cut and sand the edges for a smoother finish so that no one will inadvertently stab themselves while admiring our finished pieces.

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While our work might not hold a candle to Mary Hong’s professional pieces, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in The Shard Shop and we each have a handmade souvenir from our 30-A vacation to display in our homes. I would recommend The Shard Shop classes and workshops to anyone who is old enough to safely handle glass (7 is the minimum age for children’s classes). The classes we took were $35 for children and $85 for adults.

This would be a fun destination for a girls’ weekend or girls’ day out. One woman who was in the shop at the same time we visited said she had used shard art as therapy after experiencing some traumatic physical health challenges. Whatever your reason for wanting to do glass art, your creation is sure to be a unique thing of upcycled beauty.

If you’re hungry for lunch before your art class, just walk across the parking lot at Shops of Grayton to Farm Stand, a good spot for farm fresh, organic food. I recently visited Farm Stand and wrote about it in the article, From Farm to Table in Northwest Florida, published by Visit Florida.

It’s Taste of the (Pensacola) Beach Time Again

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Pensacola Beach’s annual Taste of the Beach event is Friday-Saturday, September 18-19, 2015.

Friday is a ticketed, VIP event with celebrity Chef John Besh. You may know him from his highly acclaimed New Orleans restaurants: August, Besh’s Steak House and others; or you may have seen him on one of several cooking shows on TV.

Saturday is the day to go and take the whole family. Check out the schedule of events here. Chef Besh is sure to bring an impressive showcase of culinary skills to the live stage presentation. There are surfing lessons and all sorts of activities for the kids. You can sample the best food and drinks Pensacola Beach has to offer at affordable prices, hear from Chef John Besh and even get a chance to meet him during the meet and greet. A fun 80s band, the Molly Ringwalds, closes out the evening with live music.

I wrote about my experience at last year’s Taste of the Beach. It was a lot of fun and I hope I get to make it out to the beach this weekend for round 2! Yum!

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