March 23, 2017

My Favorite Disney Off-Day Ideas

If you’re spending more than one day at a park at Walt Disney World, you’re going to need an off-day.

For me, a Disney off-day needs to be not-at-all related to Disney, so I wasn’t interested in the nearby putt-putt offerings, the Disney water parks, or Disney Springs. When I need a Disney break, I need to completely get out of the Magic Zone.

Read on for my favorite Disney World off-day ideas.

These are easy day trips from Orlando, some require more driving than others. You’ll need a car to get to them (and bring money for tolls).

Disney World Off-Day Ideas

Disney Off-Day Beaches

Get an early start to your day and drive to the coast from Orlando to hit a beach. On the Tampa Bay side, we visited Fort Desoto, Treasure Island, and Clearwater Beach. My favorite, by far, was Fort Desoto. The waves were gentle, the sand was powder sugar soft. It was less touristy with no hotels on the waterfront, but that also meant less dining options. Shell hunting was a lot of fun here. We rented two chairs and an umbrella for $16. Well worth it.

Distance: 100 miles

 

Treasure Island and Clearwater Beach are in more populated areas, which is good and bad depending on whether or not you like touristy beach areas. Clearwater Beach is a great choice, and it’s home to a restaurant we really liked, Frenchy’s.

Distance: 90 miles

 

Treasure Island had bigger waves, which is a plus for some, but the sand consisted of crushed shells and it hurt to walk on.

Distance: 95 miles

 

On the east coast of Florida, you can visit Cocoa Beach. This was a family favorite. The waves were big, but not too big, for small children, making boogie boarding a fun activity.

Distance: About 65 miles

 

Disney Off-Day Adenture

Head to North Orlando for two very memorable activities with the kids.

Kids as young as 4 can do the ZOOmAir Treetrop Adventure Park low-to-the-ground zip line course at Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. Adults can do a more challenging one. Plan on at least an hour.

While you’re there, you might as well visit the zoo! There is a fun splash garden there, so pack a swimsuit. For more details, read my posts about the Central Florida Zoo and ZoomAir Adventure Park ziplining.

Distance: 40 miles

 

A word of advice before you set out on an adventure in Florida: Bring a swimsuit. Marisa from Adventures of Tampa Mama told me that useful tip before our first Florida visit. She wasn’t kidding. It seems you can’t go to any attraction in the state without encountering a splash garden.

 

Wekiva Island is a exotic gem in the middle of a city. We canoed with the kids, stopping at Wekiva Springs State Park, which has a water hole where a lot of people were swimming.

We were short on time, and so we skipped the swim and hiked a little. Keep in mind, this is Florida and you’ll spot native wildlife there. Keep a respectable distance from animals and you’ll be fine.

I recommend packing snacks and water. It gets hot and if you’re not used to paddling, you’ll get tired. You also have the option of kayaking or trying standup paddleboards. For more details, read my post about about Wekiva Island.

Distance: 35 miles

 

There are so many airboat opportunities within about an hour or so from Walt Disney World. We visited Black Hammock Adventure, where we got to ride an airboat at dusk.

It was also a place where the kids got to hold a baby alligator and, rather morbidly if you think about it, taste fried alligator. (It was delicious)

Distance: 35 miles

 

Disney Off-Day Animals & More

Some of our favorite places to visit in central Florida had mostly indoor activities. Head to MOSI, the Museum of Science & Industry, for hands-on learning for all ages. There’s even an outdoor ropes course. Read about our visit to MOSI here.

Distance: 65 miles

 

Florida Aquarium in Tampa is popular with kids for good reason. The sting ray touch tank was memorable. Bring a bring swimsuit for the kids because the splash garden is amazing there. Read my post about the aquarium for more details.

Distance: 70 miles

 

In Clearwater, young Winter the dolphin fans will want to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It’s a different kind of aquarium than the Florida Aquarium – think: marine hospital.

Distance: 90 miles

 

Get even more ideas by reading My Adventure In Central Florida and Two Days in Tampa Bay With Kids.

 

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February 1, 2017

5 Star Wars Experiences At Disney World

I braved Disney World during the holidays in 2016, and survived to tell you all about it. What I didn’t mention in that post was that I was traveling with two young Star Wars fans, so our first day in Orlando, we went to Hollywood Studios to take in all Star Wars Disney experiences we could handle excitement.

Here are the five Star Wars Disney experiences that were the biggest hits with my young kids.

Jedi Training

My 5-year-old daughter got to take on Darth Vader at Hollywood Studios during Jedi Training.

A rare freebie at Disney World, your kids have the chance to take the stage and battle the likes of Darth Vader. Training is held several times each day. However, this is extremely popular. You must arrive to the park before it opens and then zip over to the Indiana Jones area to get in line to sign up. Bonus: Since we missed prime ride time, a cast member kindly gave us some Fast Pass+ tickets good for up to five people for one ride.

Jedi Training involves a march to the stage, where costumed cast members teach them some basic moves with light sabers. Then, the kids take turns battling Darth Vader or another baddie. There’s a bit of theatrics to watch, and it’s all pretty entertaining. Disney has photographers there to capture the entire experience.

My son was really into learning the moves of a Jedi.

This is kinda intense for some youngsters, so know your kid’s comfort level. They are on stage without you and Darth is an imposing figure. If your kid is uncomfortable spending a lot of time away from you, this might not be a pleasant experience. Also, take into account your kid’s natural energy level. I signed mine up for training right in the middle of their usual nap time. We were on the verge of a meltdown the entire experience.

 

Character Interactions

Meeting Chewbacca was a highlight of character meet and greets.

Head to Star Wars Launch Bay to meet Chewbacca, Kylo Ren and a Jawa.

Tip: Plan ahead and have something to trade with a Jawa.

Heads up, though, Kylo Ren is an intense character. My usually afraid-of-nothing daughter was totally scared of him. It didn’t help that he zeroed in on her and said he’d been waiting for her. Chewie, on the other hand, was fun and huggable.

You will likely see Storm Troopers throughout the park. Occasionally they interact with you. They interrogated my teen niece.

Side notes about the Launch Bay: When you arrive, you have the option of going straight to the characters or watching a short documentary first. Skip it if you’re with small children. There are displays of movie memorabilia at the Launch Bay, and fans are going to want to take the time to check it all out. There are also some video games to play there.

My friend Cat and her boys looking at light sabers at Star Wars Launch Bay.

 

 

Star Wars: The Adventure Continues

There is a lot to look at if you wait in line for the Star Wars: The Adventure Continues Ride. That line is going to be long, though, without a Fast Pass+ time.

One of the kids’ favorite rides of all the parks was Star Wars: The Adventure Continues. You’ll want to get Fast Pass+ times because this will be a long wait otherwise.

The “ride” is actually a 3-D simulation of flying or being chased through space. There are dozens of variations so each ride will be different. There is a height restriction as the simulation can be intense for itty bitty ones.

 

Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away

The ending of Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away is memorable.

This short, live theatrical show is held several times a day. It involves some favorite characters re-enacting scenes from the franchise. Stick around for the end. They light off a couple fireworks.

There’s also a nighttime show called Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. We didn’t catch it on our trip, but no doubt it has show-stopper moments.

 

Star Wars Penny Press

All the Disney World theme parks have penny presses. My kids had sorted their coins before the trip (I was inspired by this post).

Star Wars penny presses can be found at the Star Wars Launch Bay. Penny presses, costing two quarters and the penny you press, are a lot cheaper than most souvenirs, don’t you think?

But just try getting your kid out of the stores at Hollywood Studios without a new stuffed Ewok or light saber (they can even build their own). The Force was strong with my kids and they got their bonus souvenirs.

 

What are some of your favorite Star Wars experiences at Disney?

August 1, 2016

Fun On Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

The only place you can take your kids on a steam engine train ride in Nebraska or Iowa is on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone, Iowa.

Boone is a small town between Des Moines and Clear Lake, our two main stops on our Great Iowa Road Trip. It’s about 2 1/2  hours from Omaha. We ended up with a diesel engine pulling our train, but no big deal – it didn’t dampen the experience of riding in on authentic train.

Boone & scenic valley railroad title

What to expect on the train ride

– Expect to buy a ticket for anyone in your party who can walk (babe in arms do not need a ticket). I received complimentary passes to ride the train so I can tell you about my family’s experience.

– The train depot has a museum – admission is included with your train ticket – and a gift shop. Allow some time before your ride to walk through both, especially if you’ve planned this pit stop to be a chance to stretch your legs.

Outside the train depot in Boon, Iowa.

Outside the train depot in Boon, Iowa.

– The steam engine is used on the Saturdays, so when we went during the week, we had a diesel engine. That’s no big deal for me or the kids, it’s still a train ride. If it’s a big deal to you, go on a Saturday.

– Your ride will not be air-conditioned – these are 1920s rail cars (though, dinner trains are enclosed with heating and air-conditioning). We went in June and thanks to some temperate weather, it was not a hot mess. It was, in fact, quite comfortable.

The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad 1920s era coach cars are not air-conditioned. On our trip in June, it was a comfortable ride without needing air-conditioning.

The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad 1920s era coach cars are not air-conditioned. On our trip in June, it was a comfortable ride without needing air-conditioning.

– Seating is first come, first served in the coach cars. If you ride on the dinner or dessert train, your seats are reserved. We arrived late and had to ask a couple to switch seats so that the four of us could be seated together. Arrive early and avoid the hassle.

Even on a weekday, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad cars can be crowded. It was for us on a Tuesday afternoon.

Even on a weekday, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad cars can be crowded. It was for us on a Tuesday afternoon.

– The ride is out and back, about an hour and a half ride. Each car has a volunteer who’ll share interesting facts about the train and the area you pass through. Ours shared the story about Kate Shelley on the way back to the station.

– There is a concession car, but since the kids slept through lunch, I had also brought their lunch with us. I didn’t see anyone else eating. If you get tickets to ride in the caboose, you will not have access to the concession car.

Mooch enjoyed her picnic on the train.

Mooch enjoyed her picnic on the train.

Highlights of the train ride

The highlight has to be crossing the Bass Point Creek High Bridge, which you’ll do twice since it’s an out-and-back ride. If you’re afraid of heights, this will be the ultimate low.

The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad crosses the Bass Point Creek High Bridge, which, at 156 feet tall, is the tallest single-track interurban railroad bridge in the United States.

The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad crosses the Bass Point Creek High Bridge, which, at 156 feet tall, is the tallest single-track interurban railroad bridge in the United States. It’s a doozy of a drop.

We also liked the concession car. The kids got some ice cream, and Mr. Wonderful and I enjoyed a craft beer from a Boone brewery. Cheers!

Special Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad Events

Outside the train depot in Boone, Iowa.

Outside the train depot in Boone, Iowa.

There are daily rides with the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, as well as regular dinner and dessert trains. From time to time, special themed events are planned – several I can see being very, very popular with families.

2016 special events:

Day Out With Thomas – Sept. 17, 18, and Sept. 23-25

Pumpkin Express – Oct. 8, Oct. 15, and Oct. 22

Fall Motorcar Day – Nov. 5

Santa Express Train – Nov. 25-27, Dec. 2-4, Dec. 9-11,  and Dec. 16-18

Be sure to check the dates here as they may change. You will want to purchase your tickets in advance since these are popular.

If you go

Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad


Where: 225 10th St., Boone, Iowa

When: Memorial Day Weekend through Oct. 31; departs Mondays-Fridays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m.; departs Saturdays at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Ride lasts about an hour and 45 minutes. Always check dates and times before you go.

Note: The steam locomotive is only scheduled to pull Saturday trains, Memorial Day Weekend through Oct. 31 (excluding Day Out With Thomas).

Website

* * * * *

Plan your own Great Iowa Road Trip!

Iowa Collage

Here’s an itinerary to plan your own Great Iowa Road Trip! To learn more about some of the destinations on this trip, check out these posts:

Rustic charm in suburban Iowa at Wildwood Lodge in Des Moines, Iowa

Upscale casual dining at SIPS North Shore Kitchen & Bar in Clear Lake, Iowa

A room with a view: South Shore Inn in Clear Lake, Iowa

Clear Lake Yurts: A Unique Iowa Experience

Get even more inspiration from my bucket lists for Des Moines and Clear Lake!

July 29, 2016

Clear Lake Yurts: A Unique Experience In Iowa

This summer, I stayed in a yurt. A yurt!

What’s a yurt?

A yurt is more tent than cabin. The yurts in Clear Lake, Iowa come with beds and a table.

A yurt is more tent than cabin. The yurts in Clear Lake, Iowa come with beds and a table.

A yurt is essentially a glorified tent. It bridges the gap between a tent and a cabin, actually. It has a door that locks, windows that you can open and close using flaps, and a little patio. They’re unique in that they’re round. The closest yurt to Omaha is in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Clear Lake, Iowa

Clear Lake, Iowa

McIntosh Woods State Park in Iowa has two yurts that are mere steps from the lake. The Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce invited us to stay in one for a night so I could tell you all about it.

Here's the view from the dock by our yurt. Nice, huh?

Here’s the view from the dock by our yurt. Nice, huh?

The yurts in Clear Lake have a bunk bed and futon, plus a table and chairs. Outside, each yurt had a couple picnic tables, charcoal grill and a wood fire pit.

All you "Big" fans out there now have the legit chance to tell your spouse "I get to be on top." This yurt has a bunk bed, plus a futon.

All you “Big” fans out there now have the legit chance to tell your spouse “I get to be on top.” This yurt has a bunk bed, plus a futon.

Pretty much, you get to feel like you’re camping without having to sleep on the ground or struggle with a tent.

Tips for staying in a yurt

Yurt Clear Lake title

– Bring your own bedding – and don’t forget pillows.

– Bring your usual camping supplies. If you’re making any meals during your stay, you’ll need to bring all of your cooking supplies in addition to the ingredients. Don’t forget to bring paper towels or wet naps, especially if you have kids.

– Bring towels, both for showering and if you’re visiting the lake.

– Clean up after yourself. There is a broom in the yurt, which was a good reminder to tidy up before leaving.

More about Clear Lake Yurts

A glamorous morning in our yurt

A glamorous morning in our yurt

The bathrooms are a short walk – there is a shower. You share it with whoever is staying in the other yurt. We were the only ones staying there that night, so it felt private.

Like a tent, though, there is no air conditioning, just a fan and windows for a breeze. We stayed at the end of June and with unseasonably cool nights, it was incredibly comfortable. But I’m no fool, I know what Midwestern summers can be like, so I can imagine how it’d be hot if the weather is.

What to do at McIntosh Woods

The quiet beach at McKintosh Woods State Park in Clear Lake, Iowa.

The quiet beach at McIntosh Woods State Park in Clear Lake, Iowa.

The state park is fairly small, but it does have a beach – one of three beaches easily accessible for families visiting Clear Lake.

It wasn’t our favorite one, but it’s a nice place to cool off if you’re staying in the park.

There’s also a playground.

Younger kids will enjoy the playground at McKintosh Woods State Park.

Younger kids will enjoy the playground at McIntosh Woods State Park.

Most people go to Clear Lake to boat, and there is a boat ramp to access the lake within the park. There were quite a few people fishing, as well.

It’s not a park for serious hikers.

Clear Lake is the main draw to McKintosh Woods State Park.

Clear Lake is the main draw to McIntosh Woods State Park.

What’s near the yurts

Clear Lake is a short drive from McIntosh Woods State Park, where you’ll find great restaurants, more beach access and cute local shops in the downtown area. I wrote about Clear Lake places to visit if you want some recommendations.

If you’re looking for dining with a view, I recommend PM Park – it’s not the closest restaurant, but it is the only one with a tiki bar. So it’s got that going for it.

The breakfast there is pretty good, too – try their French pancake.

If you go

Clear Lake Yurts at McIntosh Woods State Park

Where: 1200 E. Lake St., Ventura, Iowa

Cost: $35 a night/minimum 2 nights

Website

 

* * * * *

Plan your own Great Iowa Road Trip!

Iowa Collage

Here’s an itinerary to plan your own Great Iowa Road Trip! To learn more about some of the destinations on this trip, check out these posts:

Rustic charm in suburban Iowa at Wildwood Lodge in Des Moines, Iowa

Upscale casual dining at SIPS North Shore Kitchen & Bar in Clear Lake, Iowa

A room with a view: South Shore Inn in Clear Lake, Iowa

Fun on the rails with Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

Get even more inspiration from my bucket lists for Des Moines and Clear Lake!

July 9, 2016

The Great Iowa Road Trip

I spent a lot of time planning the Great Iowa Road Trip – I wanted to find the best places to eat, the most interesting things to do and the coolest places to visit outdoors. Now you can benefit from my obsessive scouring of travel blogs and CVB guidebooks and easily plan your own Iowa vacation. This trip’s main stops were in Des Moines, Boone and Clear Lake, plus a few surprise pit stops. 

Mooch holding up a block of Iowa.

Mooch holding up a block of Iowa.

Here’s what we did, where we stayed and what we ate. Special thanks goes to Travel IowaCatch Des Moines, Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, Sips North Shore and Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce for hosting us and making our experience so wonderful!

 

Day 1 – Des Moines

Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa

We left Omaha and made the short two-hour trip to Des Moines. Arriving too soon to check into the hotel, we headed to the East Village for lunch. It was zombie time.

Everyone recommended Zombie Burger when I had asked for suggestions, and when a crowd tells you to go somewhere, you go. Totally worth the trip for these burgers!

A big Dead Moines Burger from Zombie Burger in Des Moines, Iowa. Split the basket of fries with someone, even if you think you're hungry enough.

Farley had a kids cheeseburger and I devoured a big Dead Moines Burger from Zombie Burger in Des Moines, Iowa. Split the basket of fries with someone, even if you think you’re hungry enough.

I tried the Dead Moines Burger and split fries with Mr. Wonderful. The kids had cheeseburgers of their own. To enjoy the sunshine (and to spare one zombie-fearing child), we dined outside. Zombie Burger’s decor is fun, but if you have a kid who doesn’t find the undead amusing, you might steer clear.

Our visit coincided with the free Des Moines Art Festival, so we headed there after lunch. This huge festival is over a weekend in June every summer. If you can plan a trip to coincide with it, you’re in luck! Free fun for everyone.

Mooch and fellow art lovers add to the community art project at the Des Moines Arts Festival.

The Des Moines Arts Festival had some interactive opportunities for all ages, including this giant community arts project.

We browsed some booths and enjoyed the kids activities. There were a lot of hands-on art booths for them.

The favorite thing from downtown Des Moines didn’t involve art, though. Mooch loved this meandering stream. There were a lot of kids playing in the water, and adults dipping their feet in it.

Since the Des Moines Arts Festival is in June every year, it's a good thing this stream flows through it. The water was cold!

Since the Des Moines Arts Festival is in June every year, it’s a good thing this stream flows through it. The water was cold!

Dinner was at the Machine Shed, an iconic Des Moines/Urbandale restaurant with huge servings of comfort food.

Machine Shed was near our hotel for the next two nights: Wildwood Lodge. The hotel had a cabin theme throughout it, especially in the cozy lobby.

The cozy lodge-looking lobby of the Wildwood Lodge in Des Moines, Iowa.

The cozy lodge-looking lobby of the Wildwood Lodge in Des Moines, Iowa.

The kids, as always, loved the pool the most.

 

Day 2 – Des Moines

Our hotel had a free continental breakfast, so we ate there in the morning. While watching a rerun of the Golden Girls, we ate fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and toast, as well as an assortment of pastries.

Fueled up, we headed to Living History Farms, which is right next to the Machine Shed and near our hotel.

The 1850 pioneer farm at Living History Farms in Iowa. Guests are invited to touch, play and engage with the costumed staff at each farm.

The 1850 pioneer farm at Living History Farms in Iowa. Guests are invited to touch, play and engage with the costumed staff at each farm. At the pioneer farm, the kids could touch a cow, climb the loft of a farmhouse and pretend to be oxen.

We visited during the week, so we enjoyed touring the farms without crowds of people. I had a Groupon, making it a little easier on the travel budget. (Here’s where Mr. Wonderful would ask, “What travel budget?”)

The kids enjoyed the farms with animals the most, which meant the 1900 farm was the clear favorite with the horses, mules, cows and farm cat.

Being younger than 7, the hands-on activities were far more appealing to my children than Q&As with the staff dressed in period costume.

Farley working on a hide at the 1700 Ioway Indian Farm.

Farley working on a leather hide at the 1700 Iowa Indian Farm.

We needed a quick lunch since Mooch’s nap time loomed, so we found a pizza shop that served made-to-order pies quickly. Red Rossa was a satisfying spot not far from our hotel, and to boot, the kids meals came with a cup of Italian gelato.

Naps were incredibly long that day, so by the time the kids were awake, many of the city’s attractions were closed. We went to Jordan Creek Town Center for dinner at a chain restaurant (which thoughtfully had a kids playground) and then strolled along the man-made lake.

It's an easy walk around this man-made lake at Jordan Towne Center. You'll likely see ducks, geese and perhaps a crane.

It’s an easy walk around this man-made lake at Jordan Creek Town Center. You’ll likely see ducks, geese and perhaps a crane.

Day 3 – Boone & Clear Lake

It was time to cram in some more sight-seeing before we left Des Moines, so after a tasty breakfast at the Drake Diner, we headed for the state capitol building.

Iowa's impressive state capitol.

Iowa’s impressive state capitol. You can tour it for free.

You can take a free guided tour, which lasts about an hour and a half, or do a self-guided tour. We went with option B, which worked out great for our little ones.

Be sure to poke around the library at the capitol building. You can climb a flight of the spiral staircase there.

Be sure to poke around the library at the capitol building. You can climb a flight of the spiral staircase there.

The capitol grounds are nice to stroll, with several statues to look at, but it was close to lunch time and we had a train to catch, so we had to skip it.

The kids slept through lunch, so Mr. Wonderful and I ordered some pizza to go from Fong’s Pizza (the Ankeny location) before we continued our drive to Boone, Iowa.

Once in Boone, we roused the kids to catch the 1:30 train ride with the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. It’s an out-and-back ride on an old 1950s train. We sat in the open air coach section.

Seat buddies in coach (open windows) on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad.

Seat buddies in coach (open windows) on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad.

The highlight is crossing over the High Bridge. You cross it twice, so if you’re slow with the camera, you get a second chance to get a shot like this (better have a strap to hold onto your camera – that’s a big drop).

The kids on the train loved going over the high bridge.

The kids on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad train loved going over the high bridge.

I should say, that the was the highlight for the kids. I think I enjoyed the good local beer served in the concession train car.

Save your train tickets – they’re good for a tour in the museum afterward.

We left Boone and made the hour drive north to McIntosh Woods State Park near Clear Lake, Iowa. The plan: Stay in a yurt overnight. How often do you get to say that?

There are only two yurts in Iowa and you're looking at them. You can find them at McKintosh State Park.

There are only two yurts in Iowa and you’re looking at them. You can find them at McIntosh Woods State Park.

Our yurt was near the water and this was our view from the dock!

This was my first glimpse of Clear Lake, taken just steps from the yurt we were staying in. What a view!

This was my first glimpse of Clear Lake, taken just steps from the yurt we were staying in. What a view!

We lucked out and had a cooler than average June night. While the yurt has windows and a fan, I could see how stuffy it could get in there if the summer weather was hot and without wind. Still, it was nice to have beds that night instead of my slowly-leaking air mattress. And you can’t beat the peaceful location.

McIntosh Woods State Park has a small, unsupervised beach. The kids played in the water briefly, but if you had a choice of only visiting one beach in the area, don’t make it that one it.

The beach at McKintosh Woods State Park. It's a little rough on the feet.

The beach at McIntosh Woods State Park. It’s a little rough on the feet.

Dinner was at the Anchor Inn on the North Shore of Clear Lake. It had a fun patio, but was disappointing in the service department.

Day 4 – Clear Lake

We left the tranquility of the yurt and towering trees of the forest and headed into the nearby town of Clear Lake for the rest of our stay.

Playing outdoors at PM Park in Clear Lake, Iowa, while waiting for breakfast to cook.

Playing outdoors at PM Park in Clear Lake, Iowa, while waiting for breakfast to cook. The picnic tables are part of the restaurant, so while breakfast is low key, I get the feeling that by dinner time and beyond, the place is popular.

Breakfast was along the South Shore of the lake at PM Park. The kids played on the little pirate ship while Mr. Wonderful and I sipped coffee and waited for breakfast to cook. I tried their famous Everything Hashbrowns, but I have to say, the French Cakes my son ordered were the best. They’re basically french fried pancakes.

Farley smiling before he realizes I'll require him to share his french pancakes.

Farley smiling before he realizes I’m going to make him share his French Cakes.

In need of more coffee, we stopped in Cabin Coffee Co. in downtown Clear Lake for some fancy drinks. We even got the kids some hot chocolate, which the barista was kind enough to split into two cups and keep the temperature cool for them.

Cabin Coffee Co. is the lone coffee shop game in downtown Clear Lake, and it's a good one!

Cabin Coffee Co. is the lone coffee shop game in downtown Clear Lake, and it’s a good one!

It’s a fun cafe to visit – you kind have to get your picture taken on one of the saddle stools, don’t you?

We hit the Clear Lake City Beach soon after. There’s a small splash garden just off the beach, which made for a nice place to rinse off the sand after the fun was over.

The City Beach in Clear Lake is on the edge of downtown, near cute shops and restaurants. It's also near the docks, where you'll find the steamboat, Lady of the Lake.

The City Beach in Clear Lake is on the edge of downtown, near cute shops and restaurants. It’s also near the docks, where you’ll find the steamboat, Lady of the Lake.

We walked to the downtown area from the beach and had lunch at Starboard Market – another restaurant many recommended when they heard where we were going. We ordered delicious sandwiches, and if you get the boxed lunch, they come with a non-meat salad, chips and a house-made cookie.

My monstrous sandwich was filling enough, but I ordered a boxed lunch, so it came with chips, a non-vegetable salad and a cookie (that my kids ate - jerks).

My monstrous sandwich was filling enough, but I ordered a boxed lunch, so it came with chips, a non-vegetable salad and a cookie (that my kids ate – jerks).

I have to point out the great service there. Farley dropped part of his cookie on the floor and after hearing about it, one waitress brought him another. So sweet!

Breezing past nap time, we took the kids to Surf Ballroom. We had to take obligatory Buddy Holly pictures out front. 

I think the Buddy Holly look suits the kids.

I think the Buddy Holly look suits the kids.

It’s free to visit the Surf Ballroom (unless there’s a concert). The kids danced on the stage while Mr. Wonderful and I marveled at all the musical acts who’ve played in the historic hall. As I mentioned before, we skipped naps, and the result was our epic Surf Ballroom picture of Mooch.

My daughter neeeded a moment of silence to reflect on the significance of the Surf Ballroom. Just kidding, she was sulking after throwing a temper tantrum.

My daughter neeeded a moment of silence to reflect on the significance of the Surf Ballroom. Just kidding, she was sulking after throwing a temper tantrum.

The Surf Ballroom was right next to our dinner spot: SIPS North Shore Kitchen & Bar. We were treated to an elaborate dinner – the best dinner on the trip.

I recommend getting a table on the patio at Sips in Clear Lake.

I recommend getting a table on the patio at SIPS in Clear Lake.

We stayed the last two nights in Clear Lake at the South Shore Inn, which is the hotel connected to the popular night spot, The Landing. The main appeal of the hotel is its location: it’s right on the lake.

Sunset from the table right outside our room at South Shore Inn in Clear Lake.

Sunset from the lawn outside our room at South Shore Inn in Clear Lake.

Guest rooms face the lake and you either get a balcony, or in our case, a walkout patio with a view. As one of the ladies staying in a nearby room said to me one morning, as we gazed out at the calm lake, “This is God’s country.”

The sunset from the hotel’s pier was a perfect end to the day.

We let Farley stay up past bedtime to catch the sunset from the dock outside South Shore Inn (in the background).

We let Farley stay up past bedtime to catch the sunset from the dock outside South Shore Inn (in the background).

Day 5 – Clear Lake

My day started with my son and I sitting on the dock in our jammies. It wasn’t a private dock, so we didn’t linger. 

Nothing beats comfy jammies and being lakeside in the morning.

Nothing beats comfy jammies and being lakeside in the morning.

After breakfast, we picked up coffee once again from Cabin Coffee Co. (I have a coffee problem), then headed to Central Gardens of North Iowa, a free public gardens not too far from the hotel. It’s a beautiful place to explore, and if you’re lucky, a volunteer may be present to tell you more about what you’re seeing.

One volunteer gave us a tour of the children’s garden, and had the kids help her pull some radishes.

If you visit the Central Gardens of Northern Iowa on Friday mornings in the summer, you can buy a bouquet for a donation and the kids can help in the garden.

The kids learning about the garden for the senses in the kids garden. If you visit the Central Gardens of Northern Iowa on Friday mornings in the summer, you can buy a bouquet for a donation and the kids can help in the garden.

If you visit on a Friday morning in the summer, you might catch some garden activities for the kids and a plant sale (bouquets for a donation).

From there, we went back toward PM Park to get a guided tour of the lake courtesy Jake, the owner of Lake Time Boat Club. Rather than attempt to drive our own rental boat, we decided to sit back and have someone else do all the work.

Farley loved the boat ride on Clear Lake, especially when the driver kicked it into high speed.

Farley loved the boat ride on Clear Lake, especially when the driver kicked it into high speed.

If you’re looking for a little speed on a boat ride, this is a good option over the popular Lady of the Lake steamboat tours in Clear Lake.

We had lunch at the Tiki Bar next to PM Park. It seemed fitting to have a rum drink after a boat ride.

A tiki bar in the Midwest? Head to Clear Lake, Iowa.

A tiki bar in the Midwest? Head to Clear Lake, Iowa.

We went to a different beach in the late afternoon: Clear Lake State Park. It were very few people there besides us, which was surprising until we learned why. Nasty zebra mussels. If you visit the lake, don’t be like us: Wear water shoes. Both kids cut their feet on the tiny, razor sharp mussels attached to rocks.

The night wasn’t totally ruined, despite some tears. We had a quick burger and fries at The Landing – the bar & grill located next to our hotel. It was so good and the service was super friendly, especially with our kids.

We ended our night at Clear Lake’s Fourth of July celebration along Main Avenue. This impressive carnival was so much fun! It’s an annual weekend event, and we caught the opening night on June 30.

The view from the top of the carousel at Clear Lake's Fourth of July celebration.

The view from the top of the ferris wheel at Clear Lake’s Fourth of July celebration.

The kids enjoyed the rides, while Mr. Wonderful and I marveled the view of sunset behind them. Before we even left, the kids asked if we’d go back the next Fourth of July.

True to Oh My! Omaha family travels, one of us got sick that night. Fortunately, it was more from junk food and spinning carnival rides than a true illness.

 

Day 6 – Story City and Ledges State Park

Waffles for breakfast at South Shore Inn. Don't mind if I do.

Waffles for breakfast at South Shore Inn. Don’t mind if I do.

Our last morning in Clear Lake, my birthday, we had a snack on our hotel patio one last time. Had to take in the view!

We then had breakfast No. 2 at Sevens in downtown Clear Lake. It felt and was lit more like a bar, but the place was hopping with locals and the food was very good.

I got a few moments after breakfast to shop alone at the boutiques while Mr. Wonderful took the kids back to the Central Gardens of Northern Iowa. There, they helped the volunteers water plants and bought me a beautiful bouquet.

We bought one last cup of coffee from Cabin Coffee Co. (my problem may be more of an addiction) and then said goodbye to the lake.

I didn't not cry when I said goodbye, but my voice might have caught in my throat. It's hard to leave Clear Lake.

I didn’t not cry when I said goodbye, but my voice might have caught in my throat. It’s so hard to quit you, Clear Lake.

Our next stop was 70 miles south in Story City to ride the antique carousel. It’s near a park so it could double as a stop to get some energy out. We were there just for a quick spin, though. The ride was pretty cheap and memorable for the kids.

An antique calliope played music while the Story City Carousel made its rounds.

Instead of a traditional horse or other animal, the kids chose the lone spinning piece on the Story City Carousel. It didn’t spin so well anymore, so I didn’t mind. An antique calliope played music while the carousel made its rounds.

The volunteer at the carousel recommended Dinner by Dawn for a spot we could grab food to go. The food was really good and staff there was incredibly friendly, helping us plan our next pit stop: Ledges State Park.

The park is definitely off the beaten path and, at first, I regretted taking the detour because it seemed our drive down county roads was just taking us further into corn fields. Then we found it! And it was worth the stop.

The road the winds through the canyon in Ledges State Park involves a few times you'll have to drive through water.

The road that winds through the canyon in Ledges State Park involves a few times you’ll have to drive through water.

If you’re short on time, head straight for the canyon drive – a one-way route. There, you’ll have to drive over roadways that Pea’s Creek flows over. It’s kinda cool, but I’ve heard it can sometimes completely flood out the road way.

We looked for rocks in the shallow river that flowed through Ledges State Park.

We looked for rocks in the shallow creek that flows through Ledges State Park.

We took a tough hike up one trail to see the “ledges” and then on our way back to the car, we waded through the creek. It was a beautiful park and we will be back to camp and really explore the trails. Like the lake lesson learned, we’ll bring water shoes next time.

Our plan was to tire the kids out from hiking and splashing around so that they’d nap all the way home. It’s about 160 miles from Ledges State Park to Omaha. It worked for one kid, at least, and our ride home was quiet. Mostly.

* * * * *

Iowa Collage

Plan your own road trip!

To learn more about some of the destinations on this trip, visit the blog over the next few weeks. I can’t wait to tell you about these places:

Rustic charm in suburban Iowa at Wildwood Lodge in Des Moines, Iowa

SIPS North Shore in Clear Lake, Iowa

A room with a view at Southshore Inn in Clear Lake, Iowa

Adventure in a Yurt in Clear Lake, Iowa

Fun on the rails with Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

Get even more inspiration from my bucket lists for Des Moines and Clear Lake!

 

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July 5, 2016

Dining In Amana With Kids

The Amana Colonies is a group of small towns in Iowa connected by a rich heritage present today in shops, museums and restaurants. It’s one of Iowa’s largest tourist attractions, drawing in history buffs, wine lovers and antique collectors.

For families thinking of visiting with small children, it’s a great opportunity to explore a little American history in a welcoming environment. And, you can enjoy good food there.

Dining in Amana With Kids

For the purpose of this post, I’m sticking with restaurants in Amana, Iowa. We spent the most time in that town, and it’s home to the heavy hitters of family-style Amana dining: Ox Yoke Inn, The Colony Inn and the Ronneburg Restaurant. I’ll tell you about Ox Yoke and Ronneburg (I never made it to Colony Inn).

Ox Yoke Inn

Ox Yoke Inn was our family's favorite restaurant in Amana, Iowa.

Ox Yoke Inn was our family’s favorite restaurant in Amana, Iowa.

If you dine just one place, make this the one. We had dinner here on our first night and it set the enchanting tone for the weekend. Our server, Rhonda, was so incredibly welcoming, and offered a history primer in Amana and its tradition of communal living.

Stuffed after the family banquet feast at Ox Yoke Inn in Amana, Iowa. The fried chicken was the clear favorite with the kids.

Stuffed after the family banquet feast at Ox Yoke Inn in Amana, Iowa. The fried chicken was the clear favorite with the kids.

We ordered the family banquet – and feast of three entrees, two cold salads, bread and strawberry jam, vegetables and potatoes. We overate, and it was worth every strained waistband.

The kids devoured the fried chicken and green beans, and of course, the chocolate pie we split at the end.

I recommend smearing that strawberry jam on your bread – it was the best jam I’ve ever had. And the potatoes were so good, and probably had to do with the generous amount of butter used.

A peek at one of the dining rooms at Ox Yoke Inn. Meals are served family-style.

A peek at one of the dining rooms at Ox Yoke Inn. Meals are served family-style.

They serve local wine and beer, and I’d recommend trying the Millstream Brewery beer flight if you like trying new microbrews. It’s Iowa’s oldest brewery and it’s just down the street form Ox Yoke Inn.

Venture upstairs to peek at the small antique room.

Everything about our dining experience at Ox Yoke Inn was wonderful.

Ronneburg Inn

Breakfast is served daily at Ronneburg in Amana, Iowa. Don't skip the pancakes.

Breakfast is served daily at Ronneburg in Amana, Iowa. Be sure to try the pancakes.

My family had a Sunday breakfast at Ronneburg, and of course, we had to go with the family-style option. It included the delicious Amana pancakes, a pile of bacon, eggs, toast, and fresh fruit.

The thin pancakes were the clear winner of this meal. They were almost crepes save for those crisp edges.

It’s hard to live up to the experience we had our first night, and Ronneburg was a bit of a disappointment because of the service. The server was friendly, but our meal was inexplicably slow, our coffee and water glasses sat unfilled for too long. We had to pull out a lot of our tricks to keep the kids entertained while we waited.

Amana Colonies Bakery & Café

Satisfy your sweet tooth at Amana Colonies Bakery & Cafe in Amana.

Satisfy your sweet tooth at Amana Colonies Bakery & Cafe in Amana.

It’s presumptuous of us, but we assumed we’d find some amazing pastries in Amana, so we planned for one breakfast to be pastries.

Amana Colonies Bakery & Café had display cases of tempting pastries and shelves of baked goods and treats. We ordered three pastries to split – apple strudel, chocolate éclair and a cinnamon roll – and coffee for the grownups. We ordered a maple cookie, too.

The kids loved the éclair, though it was way too gooey for my liking. The flaky strudel was subtle and more to my liking. I think the cinnamon roll would’ve been better if it was warmed up, but as it was, it was OK.

I wouldn’t make a special trip just for any of the pastries, if you wanted to know. It has a pleasant outdoor seating area, but the music just didn’t fit and definitely didn’t make me want to linger.

Of course, the kids had no complaints, and I’m sure yours wouldn’t either.

Sampling Amana Goodies

My kids are natural snackers, so if there’s a chance to sample a variety of food, they’re all in.

The Amana Meat and Smokehouse had several different samples to try from jerky to cheese and crackers.

The Amana Meat and Smokehouse had several different samples to try from jerky to cheese and crackers.

We were in Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse because I wanted to buy some snacks for the road and tasty souvenirs to bring home to family.

While browsing the shelves, the friendly ladies working there started putting out samples. The kids tried three types of sliced summer sausage, a couple snack mixes and beef jerky.

It was all so good. It’s worth a stop!

Sweet Snacks In Amana

For sweets, there are several sweet shops from the Chocolate Haus to the Amana Colonies Popcorn and Ice Cream Co. Mr. Wonderful popped into the Village Store and Fudge Factory, where they offered samples. He bought a small brick, and they sliced it in fours so we can each have a hearty taste.

That was a sweet treat.

Your turn: What was your favorite thing to order or sample when you visited Amana, Iowa?

 

Read more about the trip

My Amana Colonies Bucket List

Visiting the Amana Colonies With Kids (where to eat, what to explore and where to play)

Family-Friendly Hotel (With a Water Park!) Near Amana