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.

mpixmailers

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.

orderphotosfromfilm

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

morning_DC

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.

panda_eating_bamboo

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!)

panda_closeup

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.

elephant_national_zoo

elephant_community_center

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.

national_cathedral

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.

NIT_game_GWU

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.

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.

my-little-pony-toy

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.)

electric light parade

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.

crayola experience

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.)

camping tents

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. 

 

Spooktacular Science in Navarre Beach

octobusWe had a fabulous evening at the annual Spooktacular Science by the Sea at the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station last night. Putting an educational twist on traditional Halloween activities, the Spooktacular event includes a sea creature costume contest for kids and a variety of stations set up to teach children about marine science.

Organized by local teachers and high school students who volunteer their time and talent, it’s an opportunity for kids to learn about native sea life and participate in hands-on science experiments. A haunted beach walk tops off the night with a stroll along the edge of the Santa Rosa Sound, where you’re sure to find a few surprises. Spooktacular Science by the Sea continues tonight from 5-9 p.m. CDT. Admission is $5 per person. Children ages 2 and under get in free.

If you’re going to be there after dark, it doesn’t hurt to bring a flash light along to make it easier to find your car in the parking lot when you leave. The Marine Park area surrounding the Science Station is not well lit.

It’s spooky good fun!

Navarre-Beach-Marine-Science-Station

Beach Baking

Confession: I have a slight obsession with pinning recipes on Pinterest. I usually try most of them, believe it or not. When you are feeding a family of five you have to keep things interesting. Most of the recipes I try are dinner recipes, but yesterday after working on several work projects and battling the car pool line at my daughters’  school, which incidentally seems to lose all manner of civility and sense when it’s raining, it was time to bake.

This is not a mood that strikes me often (maybe there is a full moon?), but the kids sure seemed to appreciate it. We went right to Pinterest and found a recipe I’d pinned for Flourless Chewy Cinnamon Sugar Peanut Butter Cookies (originally shared on the blog Foodie Crush). We had all of the ingredients on hand and it sounded delicious, so it was an easy choice. The girls helped me add the ingredients to the bowl of the stand mixer.

mixing-bowl

After a quick blend, the dough went into the refrigerator for an hour. Keeping the kids busy and focused on doing homework during this hour was the hardest thing about this recipe. After an hour, we rolled the dough into balls, coated them with a cinnamon and sugar mix and popped them into the oven for the 8-9 minutes indicated in the recipe. We let them cool for a few minutes afterward, then wah-la, delicious snack!

peanut-butter-cookies

These cookies were good and a hit with all the girls, but they are definitely sweet. It is a sugar-intensive recipe, so that was to be expected. The original pinner noted that the recipe is vegetarian and gluten free, so it may appeal to those with special diets.

This was my second attempt at flourless cookies. The first, some sort of oatmeal and mashed banana concoction, was a disaster. I’m sure there are better variations I’d know if I baked this way often, but I don’t. In fact, baking yesterday’s yummy flour-less peanut butter cookies reminded me of a vegan birthday cake our family ordered for my brother-in-law’s birthday last summer.

We purchased the cake from La Loba’s Bakery in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, where we were spending the week for an extended family vacation. I don’t think I would have ordered a vegan cake had we not had a vegan in the family, but it was better than I expected. For vegans or anyone seeking out organic food in the South Walton County area, I’m sure this place is a boon. 

Do you like to bake? Would you bake on vacation?

Rainy Days (and Mondays) Don’t Have to Get You Down at the Beach

Newsflash: It does rain at the beach (occasionally).

You won’t read that in any promotional tourism guide or on your resort’s website, but let’s be real. It happens. And when you’ve researched and planned the perfect vacation months in advance, packed up the family and all your kid gear, driven for hours or navigated airports, arriving to a forecast of gray skies is a bit of a downer.

If you are a regular beach vacationer, it is bound to happen at some point, but bad weather is no reason to cancel your trip to the Gulf Coast (unless of course the weather threat is severe.) If there is a hurricane, Jim Cantore will be here to tell you all about it as you tune in from the safety and comfort of a living room far, far away. Thankfully, tropical storms don’t happen every day and when they do threaten our Coast, there is typically a few days’ lead time for visitors and residents to prepare and evacuate if necessary. The most important thing is to stay alert and keep an eye on the forecast, especially during hurricane season (June 1-Nov. 30, 2014).

There. Now that my super tangential PSA for storm preparedness is over, the real reason for this post is to share a story of how my family entertained ourself on a recent rainy day that kept us all indoors. It’s one you can easily recreate with your own family if you find yourself holed up in a hotel room or condo during a downpour.

Quite simply, get crafty!

I am perhaps the least crafty person on the planet, but I make the occasional effort for the sake of my children. With this as our inspiration, we set out to make our own fabric covered letters. We used:

  • old wooden letters I picked up years ago (These are available at any craft store or Walmart.)
  • fabric scraps and embellishments that my late grandmother gave me
  • beads from one of those kids’ jewelry making kits (The few that my toddler hadn’t discarded into the crevices of our carpet.)
  • all-purpose craft glue
  • scissors

We already had all of these items around the house, so it was easy to pull them out and get started.

I helped with some of the fabric cutting to ensure that it would wrap around all the angles of the letters, but after that it was mostly an exercise in gluing and decorating. So I sat back and supervised as the girls made their own custom creations. The (almost) end results:

letter-craft photo-12

 

While I still haven’t mastered sewing, I’d like to think my grandmother would be happy that her great granddaughters got some enjoyment out of the fabric she gave me. If you don’t have fabric scraps around your house, you can get them cheaply at most any fabric store. The key for vacationers is just to plan ahead to bring a few items like these along on your trip so that you have them when the mood (or the lightening) strikes.

You’ll be glad you did because, when it rains at the beach, a deck of cards will only get you so far, especially with young children. And any local can tell you that nothing generates crowds at the movie theatre and outlet malls faster than a rain storm. So earn your smart parent points by bringing along a simple craft or two. Find one you like on Pinterest, like I did, and have fun with it.

With just a little planning and simple crafts, surviving the first world problem of rainfall in paradise is easy. It may be just what you need to keep your family and your sanity in tact until the sunshine returns.

Shopping Tax-Free on the Gulf Coast

tax-free-weekend-2014

If you are vacationing on the Gulf Coast this weekend (or you live here like me), you have the rare opportunity to shop tax-free in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana.

On Friday, August 1, each of these states begins what many refer to as tax-free weekend or a sales tax holiday, a designated time when consumers can purchase certain items for personal use without being charged state sales tax. The most common of course is school supplies, as students prepare to go back to school over the next several weeks in most areas (like it or not, kids).

Vacationers, if you going to be out shopping for sunscreen, don’t forget to toss a box of crayons in your cart, too. You can take them back home with you. Just don’t let them melt in the car! (Many schools post students’ supply lists on their website, so be sure to check yours before you shop.)

For more significant savings, you may want to shop for personal electronics (rules vary by state as to what items qualify, as well as the maximum dollar amount to which the savings can be applied.) This may be a good time to buy the Mac Book you’ve been eyeing or software for your college student. Before you shop, just check the tax-free weekend details for the state where you plan to buy:

Alabama

Florida

Louisiana

Texas will hold its sales tax holiday August 8-10. Mississippi’s was last weekend (sorry we missed it!).

Most clothing and shoes qualify for the sales tax savings, as well. I expect shoppers will flood the malls and outlets (and we have some good outlets on the Coast) for summer sales and (gasp!) fall clothes. I’m not sure why those are even sold in this part of the country until at least October, but they are there if you feel the need to stock your closet.

My children won’t stop growing, despite my pleas, so I’ll be shopping for bigger sizes for them this year. Although it won’t be tax-free, I plan to shop one of my favorite consignment sales in September. It’s called Mom2Mom. Twice a year, this massive resale event comes to the Pensacola Fairgrounds. Managed by two moms and many, many volunteers, you can purchase gently used and new children’s clothing, baby items, toys at greatly reduced prices. According to the Mom2Mom Facebook page, the September sale will also feature women’s clothing, so that’s another bonus! The sale is open to the public September 18-20. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I could benefit financially as a consignor at this event. Even if I wasn’t a consignor at Mom2Mom, I would highly recommend this sale to parents.)

Happy shopping and saving!

6 Things to Look for When You Rent a Beach House

renting-a-beach-house

Before I lived in Florida, going on vacation to the beach meant packing up the kids, suitcases and beach gear, hopping in the car to drive several hours until (finally!) we arrived at our coastal destination of choice. The sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and its white sandy beaches are never more inviting than after you’ve been glued to your seat, staring at the highway in front of you, and forced to listen to countless renditions of “Let it Go” from the wanna-be Elsa in the backseat. The last thing you want to happen upon arrival is to discover the beach house you’ve rented — your home away from home for the week — is not what you expected.

Chances are, if you’re renting a beach house, you’re vacationing with others. Most beach houses for rent are designed to accommodate extended families or groups of friends who want to enjoy their stay together. Often the best houses are booked as much as six months to a year in advance so it pays to plan ahead. When you begin your search for a beach house, here are six things to look for:

1. Sleeping accommodations – This is probably a no-brainer but unless you plan to bring air mattresses or sleeping bags for the youngsters, you should start by narrowing your search to those homes that provide a place for everyone to lay their head.

2. Shared spaces – Consider how you plan to use the space in your rental home. My family loves to cook so we look for a well stocked kitchen with seating for everyone to dine in the same room. If you prefer to only eat at restaurants during your vacation, this may not matter to you. Do you watch movies with the whole gang? Look for living areas large enough to accommodate this. If your week at the beach begins to seem like too much family togetherness (and we’ve all been there), having two separate living areas can be a plus.

3. Photos – It’s hard to imagine renting a beach house sight unseen (at least in photos), but look closely at rental listing photos. You can get a sense of the home’s decor, and a home that looks like a museum may not be right for a family with active children. We all know boys playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles don’t mix well with Picasso.

Photos sometimes give you clues as to the floor plan of the beach house. For example, if the only door to the pool or balcony is through a bedroom designed for children, this raises a red flag, both for the safety risks it poses and so that nap time won’t be interrupted when Uncle Chris is ready to dive in for an afternoon swim. If Grandma has a bad knee, you’ll want to be sure her room is not at the top of three flights of stairs. Floor plan is not always apparent in photos so see tip #6 below if you have concerns.

4. Amenities – Beach communities and resort neighborhoods are becoming increasingly competitive in the amenities they offer to rental guests. First, I look for convenient beach access. After all the beach is the main attraction and you don’t want to hike forever and a day to step foot in the sand. If beach access is not in your potential rental home’s immediate vicinity, is transportation available (e.g., shuttles, golf carts) to make getting to the beach easier? Pools are also an important consideration. You may pay a premium for a private pool or opt for using a community pool. Tennis courts, gyms, and concierge services are other examples of amenities you may be offered when you’re renting a beach house. Some properties have on site restaurants and spas. Decide what is most important to you and those you are traveling with, as well as what fits within your budget, and plan accordingly.

5. Reviews – Read the reviews or comments if they are included with a rental listing. You can often uncover some information that may not otherwise be apparent, such as whether or not the owner/management company is responsive if problems do occur.

6. Ask questions – Most of all, after you’ve done your research online, don’t be afraid to contact the owner/rental company to ask any questions that haven’t been answered, especially if you have any unusual requirements for your trip. Most are eager to help answer your questions and they may shed light on features of the home you hadn’t considered.

Of course all of these tips will only be useful if you’ve first narrowed down the location for your vacation. My family and friends have vacationed all over the Florida Panhandle (Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, Destin, many points along County Road 30-A in South Walton County, Panama City Beach) and Southern Alabama (Gulf Shores, Orange Beach). Each community has its own strengths and unique offerings.

Vacation home rentals can be arranged directly through resort communities, independent property management companies or individual owners. My family has used Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) to search for properties online and book our stay.

Good luck with your search for a beach house and enjoy your vacation!