This is one of my favorite pieces. I wrote it years ago, before everybody and his brother had web sites - which is obvious as you read through the piece. It is too long to publish anywhere except here, but I simply refuse to cut any words. It's about a vacation, and I've published it here before. But I don't care. Here goes:
TRIED AND TRUE TIPS FOR TRAVELING WITH A TODDLER
Although I never knew it, my family was, well, fiscally challenged. We had a roof, food, an embarrassing car, clothing, a television, a portable dishwasher, a window air conditioner, and the finest cabinet stereo Western Auto sold. We never, though, had a family vacation.
As I watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” every Sunday evening on the Philco TV, the one that swiveled, I ached when I saw the whirling teacups on the Disneyland commercials. I wanted to go to Disneyland. I wanted to see Walt Disney as he ambled among his guests. I wanted to walk up Main Street and run into Mickey Mouse or Snow White. But it was not to be.
My family never stepped foot inside Disneyland’s magical gates.
Tip #1: Do NOT impose your childhood dreams on your child!
When our daughter was born, I told my husband that just as important as it was for me to have a box of Kleenex in the bathroom - another luxury missed in childhood - it was also essential that we take a family vacation each year, thereby making sure that Emily lacked none of life’s little extras.
Tip #2: Make your vacation the size of your child or children.
When Emily was 3, I found what I thought would be the perfect family vacation - a trip to Sea World. Kate, our babysitter, had been to San Antonio to Sea World, and had brought back Shamu lore and fantastic Sea World souvenirs.
“Shamu,” I heard Emily say for weeks. “Shamu.”
So I planned. I wrote to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau for information. I checked air fare and hotel rates. I made reservations.
We were taking Emily to, not Disneyland, but Disneyland-like Sea World in San Antonio.
We would arrive on Friday, May 1, and leave 6 days later. I thought we could relax for a couple of days by the pool at the hotel, then go to Sea World on Monday and Tuesday when crowds would be thin. We could then shop on Wednesday, and head home on Thursday. Life was good.
Tip #3: Make a list of everything you will need for your child as you travel - and add things to do for the time you are at your vacation spot!
Traveling with a 3-year-old was an eye-opening experience. We took anything that might possibly appeal to Emily for the duration of the flight: her blanket, pillow, stuffed Barney, crayons, coloring book, books, and pencils – but no kitchen sink. We also took the requisite toddler equipment: car seat, stroller, first aid kit, and bag of snacks. Max and I crammed our clothing into one suitcase so that we’d have one fewer bag to cart around.
Southwest Airlines’ “families with young children board first” rule is truly a lifesaver. We managed to haul most everything on board - except for one suitcase and the stroller - and we found seats at the bulkhead, giving us extra room to spread out.
We shared the area with a beautiful, aristocratic-looking young Hispanic woman. Emily had never seen anyone quite so exotic, and so she spent most of the flight ignoring the crayons, books, pencils, and even Barney, in favor of staring at the woman who looked different from everyone else in her little life.
First I tried to distract Emily, but she would have none of it. Then I tried ordering her not to stare, but that went the way of most maternal orders. Finally, I accepted the embarrassment, and explained to the thankfully gracious young woman that our daughter had never seen anyone so exotically glamorous.
We spent the rest of the flight talking about San Antonio, which was her home town, and all its delights - including the Riverwalk, the zoo, Sea World, the Alamo, and the Mexican square. I figured we couldn’t get it all done in just 5 days.
Tip #4: Call or e-visit each destination you will be visiting during your vacation - hotel, theme park, other specific attraction - and let them know you will be coming. Ask about typical weather for the time you’ll be there, room availability, special provisions for toddlers, including any organized activities that may be at the hotel or available to guests at the hotel, special promotions, any nearby attractions, and public transportation availability (if you do not plan to rent a car). Make a list. Be specific and thorough.
After we landed, and on the way to the hotel, I saw a billboard about Sea World - Opening, it said, for the weekend season on May 1. My heart started pounding. Weekend? Wasn’t Sea World like Disneyland? Open every day of the year? May 1 was that very day - meaning we had to go to Sea World on Saturday and Sunday or not at all. I decided to check at the hotel for more information, including how to get there. The billboard gave me the idea that Sea World was in the hinterlands, and we were not getting a car. It wasn’t in the budget.
We arrived at the hotel nervous and anxious about our plans. True to its billing, the hotel was classic and gorgeous and big. We checked in and were shown our room, which had, unfortunately, no real view at all. Max and I thought that curious since the hotel and its surroundings were simply beautiful.
We immediately started checking out the premises. The hotel had all the necessities: a café, a bar, a gift shop, and a direct connection to the Riverwalk. It also had a beautiful Spanish tile pool, but no one was using it, perhaps because the temperature in San Antonio at midday on May 1 was about 58 degrees.
Emily didn’t care, though, and started begging to get in the water. I cheerfully handed that duty to Max, and I checked out the gift shop for a sweatshirt, and then the bar to calm my quickly frazzling nerves.
While Max and Emily turned blue in the pool, I headed to the front desk to learn everything I needed to know about Sea World. I found that it indeed was opening that day for the season: weekends only through May, just like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. It was miles from the hotel, but the city bus actually ran a regular route there.
Buoyed by what I saw as a streak of luck, I went to the pool to give Max and Emily the news. Blue-lipped and teeth chattering, they were less enthusiastic than I.
We decided to walk to the Mexican square for an authentic Mexican dinner. Max ordered cabrito (young goat) and Emily ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese, however, wasn’t on the menu, and we tried to make do with a cheese quesadilla. Emily wasn’t happy. I asked for another margarita.
After we arrived back at the hotel, Max and I realized that, because Emily was sleeping on a love seat in our room, if she went to sleep at 8, so did we. I made a mental note: Call every suites-only hotel chain for a list of all their hotels in the country.
Fortunately, because of our hard travel day, and maybe because of that second margarita, I was exhausted, and sleep came quickly.
About 2 a.m., though, we were rudely awakened by the noise of squealing tires that seemed to be coming from behind our bed. That noise was followed by more, then more of the same. Max decided to check the source, since neither of us relished the thought of a car’s driving through the wall into our bed. When he returned, white-faced, he let me know about our room’s lack of a view. Our room, along with a block of other rooms, was nestled snugly next to the parking garage. The parking attendants, trying efficiently to shuffle cars for space, were driving pretty quickly around the garage, which caused the noise. Would the surprises never end?
Tip #5: If you are visiting a special attraction, or will be spending a lot of time far from your hotel room, pack a special bag specifically for that day trip before you leave home. Be sure to include at least one change of clothing. Then you will need only pull out that bag for the day rather than go through all your “stuff,” picking and choosing what you might need.
Next morning, we woke, still tired, and got ready for Sea World. Because preparing a toddler for anything takes forever, we barely made the bus that took us to Sea World, arriving at the time the gates opened. I wanted to miss the crowds.
Well, there weren’t any crowds, because at 10 a.m. on May 2 in San Antonio, it was about 65 degrees and cloudy. On a bright note, though, it was The Year of the Family at Sea World, and admission was discounted.
We arrived in time for Shamu’s first show, which, in retrospect, was a big mistake. People who attend Shamu’s show have a choice of sitting in a “splash” zone. That means that Shamu jumps and twists and slaps his (her?) tail on the water in a way that absolutely drenches these poor souls. That’s probably fine in July when it’s sunny and 101 degrees, but it was definitely not appealing in May at 10 a.m. when it was cloudy and 65 degrees. To Emily, however, getting splashed by Shamu was a necessity regardless of weather, and she loudly let us, and everyone around us, know.
Once more, I turned water duty over to Max; I sat safely ensconced in a dry seat, while Emily got her thrills from Shamu’s splash, and Max got his thrills presumably from watching our happy child.
After the show, we dried Emily off (we had brought no extra clothing - who knew?) and I asked her, “Emily, what do you want to do now?”
“Go home,” she said.
Max and I looked at each other. “Don’t you want to go see the dolphins?”
“No,” she replied. “I want to go home.”
I was raised to believe that food solved all problems. So I suggested lunch while we reconnoitered. Eventually, Emily acquiesced to the dolphins and even some of the other displays, and when we left for the day, we agreed that a good time had been had by all.
Tip #6: Always have a Plan B. And a Plan C. And D.
My head was spinning, though, because it was Saturday. We weren’t leaving until Thursday, and another day at Sea World was out of the question. What, oh what, were we going to do in San Antonio with a toddler who never heard of John Wayne, David Bowie, Santa Ana, or the Alamo, and who wanted to go home?
The next day, we explored the Riverwalk, Max and I on foot, and Emily on Max’s shoulders. Before it started to rain, we found a restaurant that would make a grilled cheese sandwich. And as we walked, we stumbled upon a mall with a movie theatre, and miraculously, it was showing not one, but two G-rated movies. To this day, I kiss the feet of the producers of “Beethoven” and “Fern Gully.” We saw “Beethoven” on Sunday and “Fern Gully” on Monday. And we ate daily at the real restaurant - the one that fixed grilled cheese though it wasn’t on the menu.
On Tuesday, as we loitered about the hotel lobby because it was raining yet again, I announced to Max, “We’re going home tomorrow. Let’s call the airlines and change the reservations.”
“Are you nuts? That will cost money,” he protested.
“Actually,” I came back, “we’ll save about $20. Yes, the airline will charge us to change our reservations. But we’ll save a day’s hotel and a day of airport parking. We’ll end up ahead.”
He wasn’t convinced.
“Okay,” I spat out. “What do YOU propose we do for another 48 hours? It’s still raining.”
He headed off in the other direction.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To pack and call Southwest.”
We arrived home the next day, tired, $20 or so to the good, quite a bit wiser, and none the worse for the wear.
Tip #7: “If at first you don’t succeed...” or “Practice makes perfect”.
Regardless of how stressful that first family vacation sounds, we actually had a good time, and learned a great deal about what not to do when traveling with our adorable, high-maintenance child.
Since then, we have braved the beaches of Sanibel Island, the San Diego zoo, Williamsburg,Virginia, even New York City with a train ride to Cooperstown thrown in. And each vacation was better than the one before it, because we knew more about what to do and what NOT to do.
And we did go to Disneyland. Mr. Disney was long gone, but the whirling teacups were still there. So were Main Street, Mickey Mouse and Snow White. I had the time of my life, and Emily, then 5, was the perfect age for that park. She held up like a trouper for two short days (rather than one long one!), and was so awed by her surroundings that she never asked us to buy her anything. Oh, except the Jasmine outfit, which was out of her budget. I still remember her standing there in the store, saying, loudly, of course.....
But that’s another story. And another set of Tips.