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.


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. 


We got slimed!

I remember distinctly the day our local cable company expanded its 13-channel line up to a whopping 30+ channels. It had to have been 1987 or 1988. My sixth-grade self could not have been more excited when that clunky cable box arrived, so I could push a few buttons and finally watch the likes of Nickelodeon and MTV. I’d gotten a glimpse of these networks at the homes of friends and family across town, where modern media had taken root some months earlier. The show I could not wait to watch was, “You Can’t Do That on Television,” a Nickelodeon staple in the 80s. You may remember it as Alanis Morissette’s claim to fame before she became a jagged little pill.

The show originated in Canada and offered a series of comedy sketches for kids by kids. Its legacy today is the green slime that was dumped on at least one cast member’s head in every episode. Whoever said the words, “I don’t know,” was the lucky recipient of the green, gooey mess.

The slime still shows up on Nickelodeon from time to time. I know this because — three children and (almost) three decades later — Nickelodeon has once again become relevant in my life. Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig, and Bella and the Bulldogs may as well be on a constant loop at our house (and those are just the shows I’m willing to admit my children watch!). Note to self: Reevaluate our progress on limiting screen time.

Recently, when faced with booking a hotel near Disney World for a couple of nights, I learned there is in fact a Nickelodeon hotel, where – you guessed it – the slime is still flowing! Complete with character experiences a la Disney and water slides, the Nickelodeon Suites Resort is just a few minutes’ drive from Magic Kingdom and Epcot. It offers shuttles to most, if not all, of the Orlando theme parks, too. It all sounded great on the hotel website, so we made our reservations.

This trip was a surprise for our girls, and when they learned about the hotel they were excited. Unfortunately I only later started reading reviews of the hotel, many of which would have scared me away from the place if I had I read them before booking. There were positive reviews, too, though so we decided to stick with our plans to stay there and hoped for the best.

For the most part, we were happy with our two-night stay at the Nick hotel. Although the carpet and decor were dated, the two-bedroom suite was clean and provided ample space for our stay. At check-in, we received a daily schedule of events and activities, including a daily mass sliming at one of the hotel’s two pools. We made the pool our first stop after we arrived. The older kids loved the water slides, and my preschooler enjoyed splashing around in the large shallow end of the pool. Then came the sliming. People began to gather underneath the giant bucket-o-slime as upbeat music played and an announcer worked to get the crowd excited. A countdown began and the rest is history.


I was videoing the sliming, so can’t speak from personal experience but my daughters said it was fun. They were a little disappointed that the slime was not, well, slimier. It looked to be water with some green food coloring, and it washed right off in the pool. If you want to experience the real deal green slime, you apparently have to pay extra during a special sliming activity in another part of the resort. Or, you can take part in the resort’s daily Double Dare competition. Yes, this is the same Double Dare you watched as a kid, too — another Nickelodeon show that featured frequent slimings. We happened to catch the live stage show the night we arrived. Two families competed, answering trivia questions and daring each other to take a physical challenge.


If a trip to Orlando and the Nick hotel was’t enough, I sure hope this kid appreciated his dad donning a giant hot dog bun and having mustard dumped on his head during the Double Dare game!


The live Double Dare show was actually pretty good. Admission to the show was included in a daily resort fee that also allowed us to meet a couple of Nickelodeon characters who had scheduled appearances during our stay. For those willing to pay extra, an arcade, laser tag and character dining experiences are offered on the property, as well. Because we were spending a day at Magic Kingdom during our stay, we chose not to do the activities requiring an additional charge at the Nick hotel. Our four-year-old was happy calling Dora (a recorded message) from the phone in our room, after all.

For a two-night family trip, the Nick hotel was fine. Considering it is in Disney’s backyard, where everything is magical, the hotel could use some updating (Do you even know who Blues Clues or Rugrats are? My kids don’t, yet these characters are featured prominently on the hotel building while current favorites like Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig are nowhere to be seen. Maybe the dated characters are still popular internationally? Not sure.)  The accommodations were not the most comfortable or luxurious option by adult standards, but they were adequate and comparable to other similarly priced hotels we’ve visited off the Disney property. The bottom line: The Nickelodeon hotel provided a fun setting for our stay and the kids loved it. Isn’t that what most trips to Disney World are about anyway?