February 13, 2019

Guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea With Kids

Carmel-by-the-Sea (or Carmel) is a picturesque seaside coastal town in California, known for its charming architecture that looks like the setting for Hansel and Gretel. You can find countless suggestions for romantic restaurants and inns for a couple’s getaway, sure. But what about families? Are there things to do in Carmel with kids?

It turns out, there’s plenty to do in Carmel with kids, especially if yours is an outdoorsy family. Here’s what we did and how you can plan your own getaway!

Guide to planning a great vacation to Carmel-by-the-Sea with your family. Tips on where to eat in Carmel | Where to hike near Carmel | What kid-friendly attractions are in Carmel | Where to stay in Carmel with kids  #California #Carmel #familytravel

Disclosure: Our stay was hosted by Hofsas House Hotel. Some of our expenses were comped and some were not. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase from an affiliate link, I receive a referral payment.

Note: Everyone refers to Carmel-by-the-Sea as Carmel, so I’ll be using it interchangeably in this post.

Where is Carmel-by-the-Sea?

Carmel-by-the-Sea is along the coast of California found just off the famous Highway 1, making it a perfect pit stop for road trippers. If you’re flying into the area, there is an airport in nearby Monterey.

I found more affordable flight options into San Francisco and San Jose. Ultimately, we flew into San Jose and drove the scenic route south.

Car on the coast of California at a beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Here we are at Carmel Beach in the fab 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander we had for the weekend.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a walkable small city, so I recommend finding a hotel or B&B near the city center. Since we had the kids, we wanted one with a pool (that was heated). We were hosted by Hofsas House Hotel, a charming Bavarian-inspired inn.

Hotel in Carmel - Hofsas House Hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Hofsas House Hotel is a family-friendly, family-owned hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

It has suites that are ideal for families. Ours even had a private balcony. Each room has Dutch doors, which entertained my kids for a good 10 minutes once they discovered they could open just the top portion of our door.

Find hotel suggestions at the end of this post!

Carmel With Kids

Carmel is a shopper’s paradise, but I quickly found that beyond the cute toy store and candy shops, my kids had very little interest in browsing.

Carmel with kids - Candy store called Cottage of Sweets in Carmel, California
My kids peeking inside the Cottage of Sweets, a cute little candy store in Carmel-by-the-Sea. We passed by it on one of our early morning walks when the store hadn’t opened yet.

So, if you imagine your kids are similar, I have two outdoorsy recommendations for you. You’d better check out Carmel Beach. Think white, fine sand and plenty of space to run.

Carmel Beach is a dog-friendly beach, so if you have furbabies with you, they can run off the leash.

We visited in the winter, so it was way too cold to actually play in the water. But, that didn’t stop us from going at sunset a few nights while we were there. We just had to bundle up.

And I was kidding. My kids tried to get in the water many times.

Carmel in the winter - You can still visit the beach, though the water is cold
There’s my daughter, dancing in the ocean foam at Carmel Beach in the middle of winter.

My other recommendation is to go to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. For just the $10 entry fee, it was one of the highlights of our trip. It’s worth a visit.

First, we hiked the easy Cypress Grove Trail. It took us to absolutely gorgeous views.

Things to do with kids in Carmel - Hike at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
On the hike to see the Old Veteran, a cypress tree that practically hangs off a cliff at Point Lobos.

We found Old Veteran, the tree hanging on a cliff.We also spied seals in the distance.

After the hike, we visited with park volunteers, who helpfully had suggestions on where else in the park we should go.

Tide pools at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel, California USA
My kids loved the tide pools at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel.

The tide pools at Point Lobos were amazing, if a little nerve-wracking as a parent. You can get right up to the edge of the surf. The kids were an absolute heaven – climbing, jumping and exploring the nooks and crannies.

More things to do with kids in Carmel (and nearby)

If you’re a history-loving family, or perhaps just devout Catholic, you may want to plan a stop to tour the Carmel Mission Basilica and the museums connected to it.

It’ll take you about an hour, or less, and it’s one of the state’s most important historical sites.

Carmel history - Visit Carmel Mission Basilica in Carmel-by-the-Sea California
The courtyard at Carmel Mission Basilica is beautifully designed. Not pictured, just off to the right, is a fountain.

Carmel Mission Basilica has beautiful architecture from the 18th century and is a peaceful place to visit. It was founded by Saint Junipero Serra, and is the location of where he’s buried.

But to be honest, the kids weren’t very interested in it (not even my history-loving son). I would’ve skipped it and saved the admission fee if I had known better.

Monterey and Pacific Grove are two nearby towns you’ll want to check out if you are staying longer than a night or two. The biggie to see is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Things to do with kids near Carmel - Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
The view from the second floor of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The kids definitely enjoyed the experience, especially the touch tanks and sea otter feedings. There are quite a few hands-on opportunities as well as a play area (with a separate space for toddlers).

Things kids love at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California - Touch tanks
There were all sorts of things in the touch tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

If you’re on a budget, this is one of the bigger expenses you’ll encounter on the trip. For the four of us, it would’ve been $160 if I hadn’t been given complimentary passes.

Plan on spending a good part of a day there. I was told to expect to be there for about four hours, which is a good rule of thumb. We left for lunch and then returned for another hour or so.

The aquarium is near Cannery Row, a super touristy street filled with souvenir shops and pricey restaurants. However, it’s worth noting that those pricey restaurants have outstanding views.

Cannery Row has a few activities for families, beyond looking for wildlife in the ocean. There’s putt putt and a mirror maze, for one thing.

Tourist sites near Carmel - Old Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, California
Even on a dreary and drizzling winter day, there were plenty of tourists strolling along Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

Not too far away is Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Again, it’s touristy, but I liked it. The kids loved the candy stores, naturally. The wharf is where most whale watching tours depart.

The wharf is where we stopped to sample some of that free clam chowder everyone tells you about (my kids hated it). We also had lunch there. I talk about the restaurant, Abalonetti Bar and Grill, in the next section.

We also found a guy with birds on the wharf. My daughter has an obsession with birds, so she spent quite a bit of time holding each one of them.

Birds at Old Fisherman's Wharf, a popular tourist spot in Monterey, California
Making friends with the birds at Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, Calif.

There’s a bike trail all along the coast in Monterey that would be a great route for families. It was rainy and cold during our visit, so we didn’t get to experience it.

We had a brief patch of sunshine one day, so while we were in Monterey, we went to Dennis The Menace Playground. While it was funded by the cartoonist behind the character, there isn’t much that hints at Dennis the Menace besides some sculptures.

Regardless, it’s a great playground.

Outdoor places for kids to play near Carmel - The Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey is worth the drive
The Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey had a ton of play structures, including a small climbing wall, which you can’t see in this picture, unfortunately.

The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History is a nice museum to visit when the weather isn’t cooperating.

Be sure to do the scavenger hunts – they’re a great way to explore all the exhibits, and the kids who complete one get a surprise at the end. My youngest did all three, she enjoyed it so much.

Museums near Carmel - Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
My daughter was determined to finish every scavenger hunt at the Pacific Coast Museum of Natural History. She completed three. You only need to complete one to collect a small prize.

The museum has a small outdoor space with native plants to attract pollinators and migrating butterflies. Plus, there’s a large whale statue to climb in front.

A lot of people told me about 17-Mile Drive. It’s the scenic route that takes you past Pebble Beach, by the lone Cypress and scenic overlooks. On a fairly rainy day, we paid our entrance fee and drove the route. We stopped at a few stops, including Spanish Bay Beach.

The kids loved the beach. I was freezing cold. Maybe in better weather, I’d appreciate the drive more.

Carmel restaurants with kids

I was pleasantly surprised how many restaurants had kid’s menus in Carmel. When I was researching the trip, I didn’t find many, so I was skeptical that it would actually be a good family-friendly destination.

I go into more details on the restaurants in this Carmel restaurants post.

One thing I’ve got to get out of the way, as a Midwesterner: Whatever your budget is for dining, double it in Carmel.

Breakfast was my favorite meal in Carmel. From Scratch (of “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” fame), was great, with a friendly staff and kid’s menu. There was a slight wait the morning we went.

Instagrammable Carmel - The Tuck Box was a great restaurant for breakfast and welcoming to family (though no kid's menu).
Appearing to be a structure straight out of Hansel and Gretel, Tuck Box is actually a restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Tuck Box was the most charming of all places we went to. While it didn’t have a kid’s menu, it did have pancakes, which was fine for my kids.

We went early on Sunday morning, so there was no wait. Be sure to bring cash, as they do not accept credit cards.

We didn’t get any breakfast at this next stop, but the coffee was great, so I’m recommending it. Carmel Belle is tucked away in a shopping center, and strikes me as a local version of Panera, but better.

Restaurants with a view near Carmel - Lalla Lounge in Monterey, California
Be sure to get a table along the window at Lalla Lounge located in Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif.

Other restaurants to consider:

  • Baja Grill: The décor is a lot of fun here. It’s all race cars, motorcycles and related movie memorabilia here. The food was forgettable, but at least the staff was friendly to the kids.
  • Lalla Lounge: This restaurant on Cannery Row in Monterey had the best view of the trip. The kid’s menu had a nice variety, and I enjoyed my salad. 
  • Abalonetti Bar and Grill: This Old Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant came recommended to us by the guy pouring the wine at a wine tasting room. (BTW, I heard it pronounced like “Apple and Eddie”) We all had fish and chips (or shrimp and chips) for lunch. It was fine. Don’t forget: As you walk the wharf, you can sample several chowders for free. It’s almost a meal itself.
  • Fifth Avenue Deli: We stopped here to get some picnic food one day. Unfortunately, the weather was definitely not picnic weather. 
  • La Bicicleta: This Carmel bistro came highly recommended to us. It’s super charming, and what I’d picture as an ideal date spot. There’s no kid’s menu, but there are pizzas on the menu, so you’re not totally out of luck if you bring kids with you. Still, this one I wouldn’t necessarily say is the best choice. 
  • Lugano’s Swiss Bistro: Fondue makes for a fun night out with the kids, don’t you think? This place is decked out like a Swiss chalet, and the menu is features German food in addition to the fondue. Ask for a kid’s menu, if you’re not going to want to pay adult prices for the kids. I had the schnitzel – it was superb.
  • Sur Restaurant: Not to put down Sur, because the burger was great, but this was our second choice after our first choice had an hour and a half wait and the rest of Carmel was out of power. It’s in the same shopping center as From Scratch and Lugano’s. There is a kid’s menu there, at least. 

California wine with kids?

If you’re curious about wineries and wine tasting rooms (because there are several in town, and the wineries are nearby), I’m sorry to say we didn’t go to many. I had two Carmel wineries in mind that I’d read were welcoming to families. I included them on my Carmel Bucket List.

Carrie, the owner at Hofsas House, said most wine tasting rooms are kid-friendly as they’re not technically bars. We stopped at one called Dawn’s Dream in Carmel.

Dawn’s Dream has couches in a corner with a stack of coloring books, so we felt fine letting the kids entertain themselves why we tried the Chardonnay and Pinor Noir.

Plan the best trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea with your family! Carmel restaurants, things to do in Carmel with kids, and kid-friendly places to visit near Carmel. #California #Carmel #familytravel #USA

Plan your Carmel trip!

Want to plan a Carmel-by-the-Sea getaway? Start with this Carmel Bucket List, and then read through these posts for more ideas:

Hofsas House Hotel: A Family-Friendly Hotel in Carmel

Dining with kids in Carmel

Taking kids on the 17-Mile Drive 

Rainy day activities in Carmel

Things To Do At Point Lobos State Park With Kids

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December 6, 2018

Chicago Holiday Weekend With Kids

I’ve been wanting to take the kids to Chicago for years, and finally, the opportunity arose to take them on one of the first big holiday weekends of the year: Thanksgiving Weekend. So, I knew it was going to take some planning (it all started with this Chicago Holiday Bucket List). Here’s all that we did during three days in Chicago:

Things do do in Chicago at Christmas | Chicago holidays | Holiday decorations in Chicago | Things to do with kids in Chicago #Chicago #Christmas #familytravel

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, if you click the link and/or make a purchase, I may receive a small payment for referring you. 

Trees & caroling in Chicago

There were three places we had planned on seeing Christmas trees. For a meal under a giant Christmas tree, you’ve got to head to Macy’s Walnut Room. Many people go just to take a picture. We went on a Friday night and expected a terribly long wait (it was Black Friday), but got in pretty quickly.

The kids posing with a fairy princess at the Walnut Room inside Macy’s department store in downtown Chicago.

Fairy princesses strolled the room during the meal, granting wishes and handing out wishing stones. It was an unexpected experience that my daughter particularly loved. The service, by the way, was fantastic.

Tip: You cannot make a reservation for The Walnut Room during the holidays. We did not have much of a wait, but plan accordingly. They will not seat your party unless everyone is there.

And what should you try at the Walnut Room? Get the famous chicken pot pie. 

To see trees with an around the world theme, head to the Museum of Science & Industry. Their Christmas Around The World and Holiday of Lights display is full of impressive details. I liked looking at festive trees, but my kids were not interested (due to the fact that the rest of the museum was so stinking amazing). On the weekends, there are performances I wish we could’ve seen.

Things to do with kids in Chicago on a holiday weekend - Visit the Museum of Science & Industry to see the holiday displays
The four-story Grand Tree is located inside the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.

There’s also a gorgeous, giant tree that’s the centerpiece of it all. On the hour and half-hour is a “snowfall.” We hung around to see it once. It’s not too exciting, at least not for a 7-year-old.

Tip: If you have a membership to Omaha Children’s Museum, you get reciprocal free admission to the Museum of Science & Industry. This is a HUGE savings.

The extra exhibitions and experiences are a considerable add-on. We did the coal mining experience and it was OK (not totally sure it was “$40 OK,” though).

The extra I do think was worth it was the $5 toy building assembly line. The tops the kids made work great. The machine did have a few moments of not working, so it wasn’t a smooth process, but still, I’d recommend it.

On Friday nights during the holiday season, you might catch live holiday music being performed in front of the iconic “Bean” sculpture at Millennium Park.

For the ultimate Christmas tree experience, head to Millennium Park. There’s ice skating with the giant Christmas tree lit up in the background. We visited on a Friday night and they had live Christmas music by “Cloud Gate,” AKA, The Bean. Everyone in the crowd sang along. These concerts happen every Friday from 6 to 7 p.m. during the holiday season.

Christmas trees on Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago.

Chicago is a great city to see holiday lights. We happened upon gorgeous displays on walks from our hotel, Loews Chicago. Two great trees can be found on Wabash Avenue by the river, right by the Ghirardelli store.

Holidays at Chicago museums

Museums were definitely on our itinerary, and the ones we visited had their own Christmas decorations to enjoy. I already mentioned Museum of Science & Industry, and that was, by far, the most decorated place of the three we went to.

The Field Museum has decorations up during the holiday season.

The Field Museum had holiday lights set up in the main lobby and on stairwells, plus some wreaths hung up. It was minimal but done really well.

Tip: If you have a membership to Omaha Children’s Museum,you get reciprocal free admission to the Field Museum. This is a HUGE savings.

The extra exhibitions at The Field Museum are a considerable add-on. Admittedly, the one we chose was not worth it.

The Art Institute of Chicago, the iconic lions out front have wreaths placed around them. If you head to the Thorne Miniatures Room, a couple of the rooms had some Christmas-y décor added to them 

The lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago are each adorned with a large wreath during the holiday season. When we did the JourneyMaker activity at the museum, my daughter chose the lions as one of our stops.

Tip: If you take little ones to Art Institute of Chicago, you’ve got to stop first at the Ryan Learning Center in the Contemporary Building. There, in addition to some great art activities, you’ll find the JourneyMaker center, where kids can create a mini tour of the museum based on a theme they choose and the artwork they choose to see within that theme.

The kids loved it, and it made an extremely large museum manageable for a child. We had four stops on the tour – both kids chose creatures theme – and it took us to quite a few galleries, including my favorite, the Impressionists area. In about an hour, we had found the art, did the little activities associated with each stop and made it back to the learning center to collect their prize (a postcard of their choice).

The JourneyMaker at Art Institute of Chicago let’s kids create their own themed tour of the museum that includes activities for each stop and a prize to collect at the end.

Chicago restaurants decorated for Christmas

Most Chicago restaurants we visited had some sort of decoration, but one stood out for the decor and another stood out for the food.

The Walnut Room is a restaurant in Chicago that is truly decked out for Christmas.

I already mentioned the Walnut Room at Macy’s. The giant Christmas tree is a show-stopper, for sure, but the food is very good too. And, it’s kid-friendly with a menu for the little ones.

Another downtown restaurant we enjoyed was the family-owned Tortoise Supper Club.

Disclosure: We were guests of the restaurant on our visit.

Exterior of Tortoise Supper Club decorated for Christmas
For a special night out, we dined at the Tortoise Supper Club in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy Tortoise Supper Club

While there was some classy holiday decor, the memorable thing for us was the food during our visit. It’s not as kid-friendly, in the sense that there is no kid’s menu or kid portions, but the staff warmly welcomed my kids and the other families in the restaurant.

I’ll write more about it soon, but if you do find yourself there, my tip to you is to get the dessert (key lime pie or tortoise pie).

Ice skating in downtown Chicago

Time did not allow for us to fit in a trip to an outdoor iceskating rink in Chicago, though there are two that were within walking distance of our hotel, Loews Chicago. The one at Millennium Park is traditional oval shaped with a very charming Christmas tree in the background.

The walk from Millennium Park to Maggie Daley Park in Chicago was easy thanks to this cool bridge.

The other is at Maggie Daley Park, which is just a bridge walk from Millennium Park. It’s an ice skating ribbon, which looks a little more fun than just going in loops.

We skipped the ice skating, though, and went straight to the amazing playground at Maggie Daley Park. I think we made the right call on a particularly mild winter day.

Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago has a massive playground as well as an outdoor ice skating ribbon in the winter.

Christmas while you shop in Chicago

The Christkindlmarket was on my wish list to visit for years. Modeled after German Christmas markets, it’s an outdoor market with vendors selling gifts, food, and drinks.

All smiles before the immensity of the crowd at Christkindlmarket really sunk in.

It’s very charming, in theory, but the crowds are overwhelming.  I was warned by many to go early, and man, did I try to get there first thing one morning. We ended up arriving  about 30 minutes after it opened, and it was packed. One particular aisle was crammed, and we shuffled our way barely seeing the booths. My kids still enjoyed it, and found souvenirs for themselves and a gift for one aunt.

An ornament found at the Christkindlmarket in downtown Chicago.

I did, at least, have some tasty pastries and gluhwein, so it wasn’t a total wash.

Christmas is everywhere in stores, and Chicago retailers do it up well. Downtown, you’ll want to check out Macy’s window displays of exquisite scenes.

Shoppers on Black Friday in downtown Chicago.

A train ride away, or in our case, a car ride, is the Fashion Outlets of Chicago in Rosemont, Ill. We were guests of the mall and got to try out a pretty high tech Santa experience called Santa HQ, presented by HGTV. The cost is comparable to photos with Santa at other malls, but this is an immersive experience that goes beyond the typical wait-in-line-for-a-photo Santa experience.

The entrance to Santa HQ at the Fashion Outlets of Chicago. It’s an immersive experience that ends with kids meeting Santa Claus.

The kids were able to go through the Elf Academy, and make digital elf versions of themselves, step on a Naughty Or Nice detector, and use an iPad to see virtual elves around Santa HQ. Pretty nifty stuff.

My daughter trying out some of the techy fun at Santa HQ at the Fashion Outlets of Chicago.

It ends with photos with Santa, and sharing wish lists with him, plus the kids receive goodie bags.

Where to stay for all the Chicago Christmas fun

I partnered with Loews Hotels for this trip and found the downtown Chicago location to be absolutely ideal for my family’s trip. Many of our destinations, like Millennium Park, are within walking distance.

Our hotel for most of the Chicago trip, Loews Chicago, was located in downtown Chicago.

In the winter, Loews Chicago offers the Snowed Inn package for families, which includes cookies & hot cocoa, a rented movie, and valet parking. Nice right? They also set up a cute tent and campfire set for the kids to play with.

We could see Navy Pier from our window on the 14th floor of Loews Chicago.

Can’t beat the view, either! That’s Navy Pier in the distance, with the big ferris wheel lighting up the background.

The lobby at Loews Chicago was charmingly decorated for Christmas.

If you think Santa HQ is another destination for you, there’s a Loews Hotel location (O’Hare) that’s super close. If the weather hadn’t been crummy, we could’ve walked to it.

The lobby at Loews O’Hare was large and set up for gathering. There were neat artistic touches throughout the hotel.

Check back in a few weeks for reviews about our stay at each hotel – Loews Chicago Downtown and Loews O’Hare! I’ll tell you about the rooms and the family-friendly amenities at each.

If you want to consider a hotel in a different neighborhood, check out this roundup of the best Chicago neighborhoods and why you’d want a hotel in each.

Plan a Chicago Getaway

Want to visit Chicago with your family? Here are a few additional posts to help plan things. Start with my Chicago Holidays Bucket List – there’s quite a bit on the post that isn’t just for Christmas time in the city, too!

Staying In Downtown Chicago With Kids At Loews

Dining With Kids In Chicago

Tips For Visiting 3 Big Chicago Museums With Kids

Staying Near Fashion Outlets Of Chicago – Loews O’Hare

Try some of these tours if you want to see more of Chicago when you’re visiting during the holidays:

Get some more ideas by following my Pinterest board for Chicago!

https://www.pinterest.com/ohmyomaha/chicago-with-kids

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Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing what’s new in Omaha, giveaways, family travel ideas, and more! Subscribe here.

Family-friendly things to do in Chicago at Christmas - Where to find displays in downtown Chicago, kid-friendly restaurants, and more #holidays #familytravel #Chicago #OhMyChicagoHoliday
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.

Taking a day off from Disney World? Here's a list of things to do when you're not at the Magic Kingdom, including nearby beaches, adventures like ziplines & museums. #Orlando #Florida #familytravel

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 - Tips for visiting beaches near Disney World like Cocoa Beach #Florida #Beach

Beach Trips From Disney World

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 Adventure - Tips for things to do when you're not visiting Disney World. Try a zipline, airboat ride or canoeing! #Orlando #Florida #familytravel

Adventure Trips From Disney World

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 - Tips on things to do when you're taking a day off from Disney World. Nearby attractions include MOSI and Clearwater Marine Aquarium (home to Winter!) #Florida #familytravel

Disney Off-Day To See Animals

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

Updated May 3, 2018

I braved Disney World during the holidays, 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 the Star Wars Disney experiences we could fit into one day.

5 awesome Star Wars experiences at Hollywood Studios #Disney #Florida #StarWars #FamilyTravel

Here are the five Star Wars Disney experiences that were the biggest hits with my young kids. I can’t wait to add Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge when it opens at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2019. Here’s a sneak peak of what’s planned for Galaxy’s Edge (published April 2018).

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.

Boys holding light sabers during Jedi Training at Hollywood Studios
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

Girl meeting to Chewie at Hollywood Studios
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.

Family looking at light sabers on display at Hollywood Studios
My friend Cat and her boys looking at light sabers at Star Wars Launch Bay.

Star Wars: The Adventure Continues

Things you see while waiting to ride Star Wars: The Adventure Continues Ride at Hollywood Studios
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

Fireworks at the finale of "Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away" at Hollywood Studios
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?

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August 1, 2016

Fun On Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

Updated: Feb. 24, 2019

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. My kids have a fixation on Thomas the Tank Engine, so I ask: How could I not take my kids on it when we were in the area?

Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad - What to expect if you take train ride on this central Iowa railroad #Iowa #train #familytravel

Disclosure: I received complimentary tickets in order to write this review. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

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.

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).

– 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.

Exterior of the train depot in Boone, Iowa.
Outside the train depot in Boone, 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 train depot in Iowa
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.

Interior of a railcar of the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad
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.

Eating lunch on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad 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.

Looking out of the train while going over the Bass Point Creek High Bridge in Iowa
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

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.

2019 special events:

Sunset Barbecue Dinner Train – March 9, 16, 23 and 30, and April 6, 13, 20 and 27

Boy Scout Jamboree – May 4

Electric Day – June 1

Day Out With Thomas – Sept. 14, 15, and Sept. 20-22

Pumpkin Express – Oct. 5, Oct. 12, and Oct. 19

Fall Motorcar Day – Nov. 2

Santa Express Train – Nov. 29 and 30, and Dec. 1, 6-8, 13-15 and 20-22

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: The classic excursion runs daily Memorial Day Weekend through Oct. 31 each year. It departs Sundays-Fridays at 1:30 p.m.; departs Saturdays at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Ride lasts about an hour and 45 minutes. Special events and dinner trains may have different start times and run on different dates outside the Memorial Day Weekend to Oct. 31 time frame. Always check dates and times before you go.

Cost: Classic Coach Class tickets are $22 for adults and $9 for children; Climate Controlled Coach is $27 for adults and $15 for children; Valley View is $32 for adults and $17 for children; and Caboose is $26 for adults and $14 for children. Special event train rides and dinner trains will likely have a different ticket price.

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

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

Clear Lake Yurts: A Unique Iowa Experience

Since this trip, we’ve explored more Iowa cities you may be interested in checking out, including Orange City (with a great Tulip Festival), the Quad Cities, and even more of Des Moines.

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

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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

Yurts are one step above camping and one step below a cabin. Here's what it was like to stay in one near a lake in Iowa. #outdoors #camping #familytravel #familyvacation

* * * * *

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

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!

Get travel inspiration in your inbox

Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox twice a month. Subscribe to the FREE e-newsletter here.