Friday 30 December 2011

End of 2011 - Really? You Guys Are Reading This?

So this is it? The end of our 2011 together. I have to admit that the year hasn't been what I thought it was going to be. Nothing in my goals for 2011 would have led me to believe that this year was going to shake out the way it did. I remember resolving to get a better paying job (Let's see, I worked for two months, spent the next nine months unemployed, then went back to my old job, although at a slightly better pay rate, so check.), spend more time with my kids (35 days in Disneyland x 45 minute average wait time for Space Mountain = plenty of time spent with kids, check), and to win the lottery (Considering the way I'm bending things to count my other goals as achieved, I guess I could count the $20 winning ticket I'm carrying with me right now, so check again!). You'll notice nowhere on that list was "Write a blog".

Yet here we are. My 178th post of the year, which when you consider I didn't start writing until July can either be considered remarkably consistent, or incredibly vain to assume that I have something entertaining enough to write down every day. I'll admit that some of the topics I chose to write about were a little strange, but you should really just consider that a glimpse into my everyday life (You should hear the stuff my wife has to listen to me blather on about. That woman's a saint!). Some of the things I wrote about however, you guys seemed to really like. While I appreciate each and every visit you paid to my little website over the last six months, I want to take a minute to look at what you read the most, although I'm not sure I really want to explore the reasons why. These are the most read posts of 2011:

Tim McGraw/Faith Hill Private Concert in Las Vegas 
Considering both Lori and I are big Tim McGraw and Faith Hill fans, you'd figure I would have known about the fan clubs, but I had no clue. This was the first time that people were beating down the door to my site to get information, a rather rare commodity around here. Truth be told, they were coming to see new pictures of their heroes, leading a post that had nothing to do with me or my family to be one of my most popular ever. There's probably a lesson to be learned there...Something along the lines of "I should have my own fan club" would be my guess.

The Star Mega Do Trilogy
I've noticed that when I do stupid things, my number of readers goes up. In this case, WAY up. Of course, throwing your passport out (or so I thought) in the middle of a trans-border flight does rank pretty high on the list of dumb things to do. I'm grateful that I got to continue the trip, and the small amount of fame I achieved as "That idiot who threw his passport out". I'm grateful to the Canada customs agent who let me back in to Canada with a "Well you sound Canadian". Most of all, I'm grateful for the large number of people who came by to laugh at my misfortune. Schadenfreude is great for readership numbers.

Taylor Swift / Dating Advice for my Son
I really have no idea how this post ended up turning into what it did, other than to say that I've been known to stray away from the subject at hand from time to time. I think it was just that song after song about the unreachable romantic ideals in Taylor's lyrics led me to feel I should warn my son about what he was headed into. I received a ton of feedback from this post, mostly from parents of girls who wanted to know why I didn't write a post for my daughters. Maybe when they're old enough to date I will (I'm thinking when they turn 25), but for now my dating column advice days are over. As for the boy, what did he take out of the post? He learned that he's supposed to look for somebody better than Taylor Swift, then teach her to get to level 65 of Call of Duty: Zombies. Close enough.

The Fairmont / Living Social Mistake
I guess if people like coming by to read about the mistakes that I make, it stands to reason that they'll show up in just as large a numbers to read about somebody else's mistakes. Of course, any mistake that ends up with Lori and I in a penthouse suite (where we obviously belong) in San Francisco had to be a pretty big one, and I still feel a little bit sorry for whoever had the blame for this error laid on them. Apparently you all feel the same, as if I were to follow through with everybody who said "Call me next time there's a deal like this" I'd need several new land lines or one heck of a good conference calling plan.

Five Places We Probably Shouldn't Have Taken Our Kids
While this was a legitimate list of five, all the attention focused around one choice. Yes, we took our kids to the Lady Gaga concert in Anaheim. Was it our best move? Let's just say that Focus on the Family is yet to inquire as to our availability to write parenting books for them. Still, there doesn't seem to have been any permanent damage to our children (although I'm sure we all wish we could un-see the guys in chaps and saran wrap) and they recently voted it their best concert of the year. I see Ozzy Osbourne is hitting the road next year...I'm sensing a new list!

The Plaza Hotel Trilogy
I mentioned before that doing something stupid sends your readership numbers up. Well so does doing something embarrassing. From Check-in, to tipping the bellhop, to getting busted for trying to get our own ice, this was one misstep after another, and an inordinately large number of you decided that you wanted to laugh along with us ( were laughing with us right?). In the interest of keeping our readers entertained, we're now looking for places to go where we'll fit in even less. Of course we've already done the camping thing, so I guess we'll have to go in the other direction. Anybody know how to get on the invitation list for tea at Buckingham Palace?

So that's where you guys have been spending your time on More Kids Than Suitcases. Let me take a minute to thank you for each visit you've made, and particularly those of you who leave comments, either here, or on our Facebook page. I really enjoy getting a chance to talk about travel adventures with people, and if you're writing on the web somewhere and I'm not already commenting on your stuff, let me know so I can check your site out. After all, I like laughing at other people's mistakes and embarrassments too!

Happy New Year,
   From the More Kids Than Suitcases Family.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Best of 2011 - Best Vacation

Complete agreement is a rare thing in our house. It doesn't matter how great something is, there's always one person who holds a different opinion. For example: Four of us love roller coasters - one of us doesn't. Four of us love burgers - one of us has decided to be a vegetarian. Four of us love TV - one of us only just found out (almost 3 years later) that the TV in their room is hooked up to cable. We form a majority well, but we'd be terrible if a unanimous vote was required.

That, of course, is what makes the results of these little votes interesting. They certainly haven't all gone the way I would have thought. They haven't even all gone the way that I wanted them to, and that concerns me a little. When Lori and I were newlyweds, a wise neighbor of ours took us aside one day and gave us the sage advice "Never let the children outnumber you". Considering her and her husband had three children, I probably should have considered her the voice of experience and not just idly tossed her recommendation aside. Now I start to see what her warning was about. In an open democracy, Lori and I would be outvoted in almost every matter. Our kids may fight and argue a lot, but I've seen them band together when necessary to fight a greater evil, and in their minds, that evil is usually me. Fortunately none of them are legal age to vote yet, so outside of these year end polls, our family is still a dictatorship. You may call me Kim Jong Steve from now on.

Today's Category - Best Vacation

 And the nominees are:

Disney Cruise Line - The form of transportation we never wanted to take, to the country we never wanted to visit. Sounds like a perfect recipe for a vacation right? Realistically we thought it would be fun, but it far exceeded our expectations. The food, the entertainment, and the kids clubs were all amazing. The concept of the portable cabin phones, not so much. I spent a large chunk of my time answering the phone to explain to her friends that Neve wasn't here right now.

Disneyland - The equivalent of "going to the summer cabin" for us, although I don't know if the Hyatt Orange County would enjoy being called a cabin, it's that comfortable vacation where I don't really have to worry about where my kids are. I can let my older two roam freely inside the park, and I know I don't have to worry about them getting lost. That's more than I can say for my wife, who constantly gets lost, and always seems to find herself in the stores with large bags of merchandise. It's one of those strange mysteries that science may never be able to explain (but Visa might).

Orlando - It took a while, but we finally made the journey to the East coast to check out Walt's second park. The Magic Kingdom was fun, but what we all were blown away by was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. More specifically, we were all floored by just how good the Butterbeer was. I'll grant you that it was stinking hot, and the Butterbeer was ice cold, but this was a good enough drink to make all my kids consider transferring to Hogwarts, no matter how tough the math teacher is.

Phoenix - You wouldn't think that Phoenix in August would get a lot of consideration for Best Vacation, but I love the desert in the summer. Sure it's hot, but it's hard to take more than three or four steps without stepping into some sort of air conditioning, and man are things cheap! The Fairmont Scottsdale already won for Best Hotel of our year, and if we'd had such a category, the smoothies they sell at the pool would have been neck and neck with Butterbeer for Best Drink of the year. The drive-in mid-summer might not have been our best idea though. Not sure how much gas we burned off trying to keep the temperature in our rental van in double digits.

Seattle - We made a couple of runs to Seattle this year, once to see a touring version of Mary Poppins, and once to see the premiere of Disney's Aladdin. Normally, these kind of weekend jaunts wouldn't have the firepower to compete with Disneyland or Orlando when it comes to Best Vacation, but after many trips through Seattle my girls have discovered one thing - there's a ton of good shopping. Combine that with Urbane at Olive 8 serving the best breakfasts I've ever had, and the Cheesecake Cafe continuously adding new flavors to make sure that we never get to claim that we've tried them all, and there really is something for everybody here. Unless you don't like coffee.

And the winner is.......

The Disney Cruise Line!!!

Notify Ripley's, because for the first time in pretty much forever, it was a unanimous vote! Really though, it wasn't even close. Whenever I took the previous votes I'd get a lot of "Let me think about that one", or "What did everybody else vote for?" This was just a matter of everybody saying "the cruise" before I could even list the nominees for them. I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking that the cruise must just have been so good that there was no hesitation in anybody's mind. I prefer to think of it as my dictatorship style of heading the family filtering down and making voting irrelevant. I wonder if I can get my kids to call me "Illustrious Leader"?

Congratulations to our Best Vacation of 2011 -
                       The Disney Cruise Line!!!

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Best of 2011 - Biggest Disappointment

They can't all be perfect. When we decide to take a trip, I usually do a fair bit of research online before we get going. It's partly to give me a better idea of what we're getting into, and partly to get me out of doing chores around the house. "I'd love to honey, but I've really got to get those last things booked in San Diego or we'll be stuck in the hotel room with the kids" always works like a charm, or at least it did up until I wrote that last sentence.

Sometimes though, no matter how many chores I avoid much research I do, I get it wrong. It's not always my fault. If we're among the first people to try something, all I can read ahead of time is the promotional hype, and we all know how accurate that usually is. Once in a while I'm just so excited to see something that even a few negative reviews aren't enough to warn me off. Most of the time though, I blame it on the crazy people who write about places in their blogs. Those people are shifty. I wouldn't trust them.

Today's Category - Biggest Disappointment

The nominees are:

Green Lantern Ride - Six Flags Magic Mountain introduced three new roller coasters this year, but the one that grabbed most of the headlines and all of my attention, was Green Lantern: First Flight. It's a dazzling looking ride that I hoped would satisfy my craving for adrenaline while possibly generating a bonus side effect of scaring the heck out of my children. Instead it turned out to be a slow moving ride that bored my kids while inflicting an inordinate amount of pain on anybody of the male persuasion. There's plenty of great rides at Magic Mountain, but my desire to ride Green Lantern again is about the same as my need to try out Yosemite Sam's Flight School. Possibly a little less.

Santa Monica Pier - It sounds really cool. An amusement park on the end of a pier seems like it should be a fantastic combination of two of our favorite things, roller coasters and the ocean. Unfortunately, while the ocean lived up to it's part of the bargain, the amusement park on the pier is a total dud. There is a roller coaster, but my driveway has a steeper slant than any of it's hills. The Ferris Wheel was fun, but it set us back $25 to do a couple of rotations. After that, the only thing that interested my kids were the ice cream vendors and the homeless lady trying to sleep on one of the tables outside the restaurant. Despite what you see on TV, you probably won't find the Jonas Brothers performing a concert on the beach, nor are the people from Beverly Hills 90120 representative of the kind of crowd the pier draws these days. The rest of our visit to Santa Monica however, was a lot of fun.

Hollywood Walk of Fame - When you have really low expectations for something, and it still doesn't meet them, that's a bad sign. Everything I read before going to the Hollywood Walk of Fame said that it was a rundown, scuzzy area of town, crammed with people trying to make a few bucks off the tourists. Hard to believe that's an understatement isn't it? It's also almost impossible to fathom that this is where they hold the Oscars every year, as it looks so glamorous on TV. Every time I watch it from now on though, I'm going to envision the stars walking the red carpet and the tour wholesalers yelling at them "You! You wanna go see Jack Nicholson house? Only $30!"

Hyatt Grand Cypress - First, half of my family had no idea why this hotel was on the list. It actually got one vote in our Best Hotel of 2011 poll. It's certainly not a terrible hotel, and it probably wasn't even the worst hotel we stayed at in Florida. What it was though, was a hotel I had very high hopes for. It markets itself as a high end hotel, but while the property is very nice, the service levels in the hotel were questionable at best. I've written about some of my problems with the hotel before, so for now let's just say I regret the decision to not stay at one of the Disney hotels, even if the 3am music choices wouldn't have been as good.

Test Track - Disney's website describes Test Track as "a high-speed vehicle-simulation ride in which big kids, teens and adults test their mettle in one of Disney's longest and fastest rides." Sounds exciting doesn't it? Combine that great write-up with the fact that lines for the ride were routinely clocking in at around 100 minutes, and I assumed that we'd found a serious thrill ride. What we found was something that might entertain the Amish, assuming they'd never hooked up anything faster than a mule to one of their carts. I think our drive to the park was more exciting than this so-called "major attraction". The only saving grace is that we did manage to use fastpasses for the ride, so our wait was short. If we'd had to wait an hour and a half for this ride, I'd have been ticked.

And the (sort of) winner is......

Green Lantern: First Flight!!!

Perhaps the victim of built up expectations as the ride had only been open a month when we got to ride, so no general consensus had been formed in the online community, and the few who had gotten the chance to ride early were apparently easily entertained. Winning the most disappointing award against such tough competition as Test Track is hard to do, however while the wait for Test Track (with fastpass) was only 10 minutes, we waited over an hour for Green Lantern. That's an hour that would have been better spent doing pretty much anything.

The voting results:

Steve - Green Lantern
Lori - Test Track
Talon - Green Lantern
Neve - Santa Monica Pier
Leeds - Hyatt Grand Cypress

Congratulations to our Biggest Disappointment of 2011 -
     Green Lantern: First Flight

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Best of 2011 - Best Concert

We live in what concert promoters would call a "smaller market". Sure there's over 100,000 people living in the immediate vicinity, but even if every one of us promised to buy a ticket, we can't draw the bigger name bands because our biggest arena only seats around 6,000. U2 doesn't show up at a lot of 6,000 seat venues, so when we want to see the top acts of the day, we have to travel.

This means that when I ask my kids to choose their favorite show of the year, they tend to grade the concerts based on the entire experience. Does Lady Gaga get bonus marks because we spent the entire morning of the show at Disneyland? Did Katy Perry rank a little higher because we had an amazing hotel that night? Or did Taylor Swift suffer in the rankings because we drove four hours to get there, then turned around and drove four hours back immediately after? These are questions I can't answer for you, but it's information to keep in mind while I review our favorite musical adventures of the year.

Today's Category - Best Concert

 The nominees are:

Katy Perry - There's a line you can walk between being a little edgy, and being family friendly. Katy Perry knows exactly where that line is, and as a result this was a great concert to bring our kids to. Tons of songs that my kids could sing along with, plenty of great choreographed dance numbers that only playfully ventured into PG-13 territory, and some really good seats behind a row of people who decided about half way through that they'd rather be someplace else, made this show a pretty strong contender. It didn't hurt that we got to spend the night at the Fairmont Pacific Rim after the show either.

KISS - Not a real contender for this award, as only the boy and I went to see them, but KISS is a tradition in our family. It was one of the first shows I ever saw when they shared the bill with Aerosmith many moons ago, it was the first concert that I took Lori to see, and it was the first band that we ever saw in Madison Square Garden. Not a whole lot of surprise in the show - they sing lots of mediocre hit songs and blow up as much stuff as possible. Then they slap their faces on any merchandise they can find, and rake in the money. I get the joke, but I'm still a fan.

Lady Gaga - Remember that line we were talking about in the Katy Perry write up? Lady Gaga's never heard of it. More importantly, her audience is intent on seeing how far past the line they can go. The concert itself was fascinating. An amazing stage and a highly polished set of musicians and dancers showed why Ms. Gaga had one of the highest grossing tours of the year. The gentlemen wearing the ass-less chaps and saran wrap, showed why this outing made our list of 5 places we probably shouldn't have taken our kids.

Selena Gomez - Only in a (really spaced out) alphabetical list should Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga be next to each other. While Mother Monster is living out on the edge of civility, Selena is every bit the Disney princess that she's marketed as. She's on this list because she's my youngest daughter's favorite singer, and while her live show isn't terrible, it can be a bit bland. It's probably because she's had to keep her music on the back burner while filming Wizards of Waverly Place, but if she focuses on her music once Wizards ends next month, she has the tools to lead some very successful tours, and at least I won't have to worry about her audience showing up wrapped in saran wrap.

Taylor Swift - A few years ago, I probably would have said the same thing about Taylor Swift that I just said about Selena Gomez. She seemed very tentative and unsure of herself, a little uncomfortable at being the person at center stage. Not any more. Taylor absolutely owned Vancouver during her two nights there, bringing a show that was equally as polished as Lady Gaga's, yet every bit as family friendly as Katy Perry. Although I'm not a huge fan of audiences comprised mainly of teenage girls now that I'm older (I didn't feel the same in my Duran Duran days), I found myself up and dancing along with the crowd through the entire show. The multitude of songs about teenage romance inspired me to write a post of dating advice for my son, but I think for the majority of the audience, it just inspired them to scream. Really, really loud.

And the winner is........

Lady Gaga!!!

Kind of. Actually, on our first ballot, we had a five way tie, so we had to go to second choices. Here's how it went:

             1st Choice          2nd Choice
Steve - Lady Gaga           Taylor Swift
Lori -   Taylor Swift          Katy Perry
Talon - KISS                    Lady Gaga
Neve - Katy Perry            Lady Gaga
Leeds - Selena Gomez      Lady Gaga

First of all, I didn't see the boy's vote for KISS coming, although considering the rest of the nominees are solo female performers, I probably should have. Secondly, why are all my children voting for Lady Gaga as their second choice? I loved the show (obviously), but each of my kids had plenty of questions about some of the happenings on stage ("Why is the piano on fire?" "Why are the boys wearing only underwear?" "Why in the world would you think it was a good idea to bring us here?"). I would have expected Taylor Swift to win easily once the voting went to a second ballot, but I guess it's more fun to vote for the place you probably shouldn't have been. That's fine, but by that logic, do we take our next family vacation to Thailand, or the red light district in Amsterdam?

Congratulations to our favorite concert of 2011 -
                Lady Gaga!!!

Monday 26 December 2011

Best of 2011 - Best Ride

Each year brings a few changes into our life. Some are unwelcome...the passing of friends and the evaporation of jobs are never things you enter a year looking forward to. There are some changes however, that are very welcome. This year brought better health for my mother, excellent academic performances from my children, and, perhaps most importantly (at least for the purpose of moving this post along), the development of my oldest daughter's love for the more extreme rides in theme parks.

There's now four of us who like to go bigger, higher, faster, making the move from places like Disneyland to Six Flags a natural progression. Sure Six Flags lacks the imagination that Disney has, and it's character interaction seems to be slightly disjointed (Why was Tweety Bird chasing Aquaman through Magic Mountain anyways?), but when it comes to stockpiling rides that will recycle lunches, Six Flags is the place to be. The reward for this craziness? Two of the top five places on our list of best rides in 2011:

Today's Category - Best Ride

The nominees are:

Aerosmith Rock N' Roller Coaster - It could be the similarities to Space Mountain that appeal to me. It could be the music. Most likely though, it's the fact that I've always fancied myself a bit of a rock star, and a ride based around getting me to the arena in time to perform would seem to be a perfect fit. If only it had a section where I could actually sing for some fans, then the experience would be complete. For me anyways. Not so sure about the people who would have to listen.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - Let it be known that I am not a Harry Potter junkie. Almost everything that was happening in the line for the ride was completely lost on me, a point made far too clear by everybody else obsessing over even the smallest details. It all evens out once you get on the ride though, as knowing the rules to quidditch does you no good when you're strapped in to a pre-programmed ride which, by the way, was totally amazing!

The Little Mermaid - OK, it's not the E-ticket adventure that the other rides are, but what it turned out to be, was far better than I anticipated. The last couple of dark rides that Disney built were OK, but nothing too exciting. The Little Mermaid isn't a stomach dropper, but there's so many details and things to see that you're probably going to notice something different every time you ride it, which is the sign of a good ride. Of course, another sign of a good ride is a loop. Just saying Disney, if you're ever doing a renovation on this ride, how awesome would it be with a loop in it?

Superman: Escape from Krypton - I'm pretty sure Superman was designed by a teenage driver - Nowhere to go, but let's get there at absolute top speed! I wasn't really expecting too much from Superman as I've ridden rides like this before (the old Montezuma's Revenge comes to mind, but that ride had a loop, and we know what I think about loops) and come away unimpressed. Superman just has an awesome combination of speed and smooth though, and though it only lasts about 15 seconds, it's a pretty thrilling quarter minute. It's also insanely loud. Just like the aforementioned teenage driver, you always know when it's moving because you can hear it from pretty much anywhere in the park.

X2 - The only ride I've ever come off and said "What the heck just happened?", this ride is completely nuts. If Superman was designed by a teenage driver, then X2 was designed by a mad scientist with a bit of a sadistic streak in him. I'm still trying to piece together what exactly occurs during this ride, despite having ridden it a few times now, but I know that it consists of lots of drops and spins, and some maniac who fires flamethrowers at you after you plummet to within a few feet of the ground. It's an incredible ride, and the only drawback is that everybody knows it's good. The lines for this thing are huge.

And the winner is..........

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey!!

This was easily our most splintered vote so far, as everybody seems to have their favorite considerations in a ride. One vote for speed, one for chaos, one for a nice smooth ride that doesn't leave the ground, and one for technological advancements. That means that, for once, I got to cast the deciding vote. Now don't read too much into my siding with my wife here...Harry Potter really was the ride I found the most impressive this year (of course if it scores me brownie points, I'm OK with that too) but I could have easily been persuaded to cast my vote for one of the others. There was just something special about being chased around Hogwarts by Dementors and dragons that nudged the Wizarding World above the others. That and the fact that nobody tried to flambe me. Seriously...what's wrong with those X2 people?

The breakdown of the voting:

Steve - Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Lori - Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Talon - X2
Neve - Superman: Escape From Krypton
Leeds - The Little Mermaid

Congratulations to our favorite ride for 2011 -
   Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey!!!

Sunday 25 December 2011

5 Christmas Day Questions

Merry Christmas! I hope you're all enjoying your day with family, friends, and those assorted colorful characters that you're obligated to spend one day a year with. We've just gotten back from a road trip to visit the in-laws, and now we're getting ready to have our first Christmas at home in five years. Lori says she's enjoying being home, but I hate it. It doesn't seem right having a Christmas tree, presents, and snow outside. What kind of Christmas is that?

Still, in a few hours it will all be over. The presents will be open, the kids will most likely be back asleep, and to be honest, I'll be quite shocked if Lori hasn't started taking down the Christmas tree. There's still been no decision made on an afternoon movie (Alvin & the Chipmunks is out as we went to see that yesterday), and fortunately my kids are past the point where I have to spend all day Christmas Day assembling things for them, so I guess it's just a matter of taking it easy and relaxing until dinner or the Bears/Packers game - whichever starts first.

When I have all that down time however, I think. It doesn't happen often (at least I've been told many times that I don't think much) but it does seem to happen on Sundays, or sometimes late Saturdays. Either way, when it does happen, I make sure to write everything down. That way, on Sunday mornings, you folks can wake up and try to decipher the strange questions that are running through my mind. Lucky you:

How do you deal with unexpected Christmas cards?
There should be some kind of criteria for knowing whether or not you're supposed to send somebody a Christmas card. I don't care what criteria we use. A certain number of years known, a minimum number of meals eaten together, or even a certain distance living away from each other would all get the job done. I'd just like to know, because at least once a year I get a card from somebody I wasn't expecting one from, and while I'm usually thrilled to hear how they're doing, I feel bad that we didn't send them one. This usually ends up with me dashing off a quick card and dropping it in the mail, but let's face it...when the card arrives more than a week after Christmas, you know that they forgot about you. The rules are needed.

Do you respond to unexpected Christmas cards, or do you just ignore it?

Do you prefer a hot or cold Christmas?
I've been chatting with some of my online friends on Twitter (I'm @vangrizz if you'd like to come join in) and I've been laughing at some of them for all their wishing for a white Christmas. I don't get it. The majority of Christmases in my life have been white, and I can't think of anything good about it. I know some old guy wrote a song about a White Christmas a while back, but I'd really rather get up and hit the beach (or Disneyland) instead of shoveling the driveway again. Avoiding the snow would be a definite Christmas priority for me.

Are you a white Christmas fan? Or are you a sane person?

Wait...I'm actually going to have to do this now aren't I?
I wrote about the prizes I was trying for in the Passports with Purpose fundraiser a while back. Well yesterday was the draw, and sure enough I won one of the prizes I donated to. This summer, our family is going to head out east and use our family pass for the Monkey Trunks high rope and zipline park. A huge thank you to Mary of Travel with Teens and Tweens for hosting the prize, but it's now dawning on me that I'm actually going to have to participate in this outing. My wife has been asking to go ziplining for quite a while, and it's been very easy to be supportive when there were no real prospects of us doing it any time in the near future. Now that it seems like we'll have the chance to hang from high wires this summer, I'm finding it a little tougher to fake the bravado. Whose bright idea was it to try for this prize anyways? I should have stuck with the pickpocket proof pants!

Have you been ziplining? Is it scary?

Do you wash your car on road trips?
Where I live, it snows a lot in winter. Where I travel to most, it rains a lot. I'm sure you can imagine that somewhere in the middle of the journey between the two places, it's a real mess. In fact, every time I take a road trip from Kelowna to Vancouver, the van ends up looking like somebody tried to get it ready for  Woodstock. Still, even with the van covered in roof to tire mud, I'm hesitant to wash the van because I'm going to turn around the next day and drive all the way back, thus putting another coat of mud right back on. It seems like a waste of time (and money if I do it the lazy way) to clean the van, but I bet that even the most desperate of hitchhikers would pass on a ride if it meant they had to touch the door handle of the van.

Does it make sense to wash your car if you know it's going to get dirty the next day? 

What was in the Kate Spade bag?
Ok, I know you've been waiting since I posted a picture a few weeks ago, so here you go. Me opening the Kate Spade bag:

Now that's a perfect gift for me! If Kate Spade sold those, I'd be much more likely to shop there.

Did you get any well disguised gifts this year?

Friday 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas From More Kids Than Suitcases

We're off discovering what it is people who are home for the holidays do (hint: it seems to involve a lot of eating!), so we'd like to take this chance to thank every one of you who have spent even a moment reading about our adventures this year. We hope that wherever you are, you're having a great Christmas and enjoying some time with family and friends.

This was us at Disneyland last year, long before the thoughts of writing this blog ever entered my head. If I look happy there, you should see the smile I have now after meeting so many great people in the blogging world this year. To the (very large) number of you who have helped me find my way over the last six months, an extra big Thank You! I appreciate your tolerating all my rookie questions, no matter how many times I asked them.

Even more impressive than our blogging friends though, are the number of people we meet who really are interested in what we do. We quite often get asked about something that was written on here by people who we had no idea would be reading along, and most of them can even pass the spontaneous quiz I administer to make sure they're up to date with their reading. We really do appreciate the feedback, even if the most often posed question is "What were you thinking?"

I wish I could hand deliver a copy of this along with our personal thanks to each of you (especially those of you living somewhere warm) but this impersonal format will have to do this year. Thanks for following More Kids Than Suitcases, and we look forward to hearing about your own adventures in travel over the next year.

Merry Christmas from More Kids Than Suitcases
             - Steve, Lori, Talon, Neve, and Leeds

Thursday 22 December 2011

Best of 2011 - Best New City

You know what the problem is with wanting to see more of the world? It means you have to go places you haven't been before. Apparently flying to Las Vegas and Disneyland time after time doesn't allow you to claim the title of International Explorer, although if I joined Foursquare I could probably get myself elected mayor of those places. Despite my lack of political experience, I've always thought I'd make a good mayor. I'm an expert at cutting ribbons and banging gavels. What else do they do?

Political aspirations aside, we did manage to broaden our horizons a tiny bit this year. Although the new cities we visited probably weren't likely to inspire culture shock, it's always good for my kids to see that every place has it's own unique customs and traditions ("This place is so weird! Why does everybody in Santa Monica drive BMW's Dad?"). Moving on...

Today's Category - Best New City

The nominees are:

Cabo San Lucas - Yes we took our children out of their sheltered bubble of Canada/US travels and began their international experiences. Of course, before you get images of us bartering our way through a Spanish marketplace, we were on a Disney guided port excursion and our most authentic interaction with the locals was trying to order a Blizzard at Dairy Queen. Side Note: Why is it that after a full semester of Spanish 11, I have no idea what the Spanish word for ice cream is, yet the phrase for ordering two beers (Dos cervezas por favor!) is still perfectly ingrained in my memory? Priorities at the time I suppose.

Orlando - Really, it was our first visit to the land of highway toll booths. We had a lot of fun, but I have a bit of an issue with Florida. For a place that advertises itself as the Sunshine State, it sure rains a lot. I mean everyday, pretty much right at two in the afternoon. I appreciate punctuality as much as the next person, but does anybody else find it strange that it rained exactly from 2pm - 3pm every day, the exact hours that the Dr. Phil show airs in Florida? I mean, if it was Oprah, I'd suspect some sort of deal had been made, but Dr. Phil?

Puerto Vallarta - Our kids first international port of call! We came into port overnight, so in the morning we went down to disembark the ship and experience the true Mexico. We cleared customs, stepped outside the cruise compound, and the first thing we saw was WalMart. Close enough, let's go shopping. It will forever be remembered however, as the place where our daughter first discovered her passion for Mexican Cheetos. Apparently they just taste better!

Santa Monica - We went to see the pier, which was a real disappointment, but the beach, the houses, and the shopping were all well above what we expected. My favorite part was the parking garage though. It was huge, so they had these computers where you could type your license plate in and it would show you a picture of where you parked and how to get there. I'll always remember Santa Monica as the best place to park ever! Of course my daughter remembers it differently. I was explaining to her which city was Santa Monica and she came back with "Oh, is that where we had the Dippin' Dots? I like that place!"

Seattle - Yes, I'm bending the rules here a little. Lori and I have been to Seattle lots, and our kids have been to Sea-Tac countless times, but this year was the first time we actually stayed downtown and explored the city itself. What made us do it? I got tired of driving through Seattle on the I-5 and my son constantly saying "I don't see any Starbucks." Do you believe me now Tal?

And the winner is.........

Cabo San Lucas!!

Despite the fact that I'm pretty sure we got ripped off at Dairy Queen, our experience in Cabo was excellent. The fact that we could walk off the boat and already be in the middle of town was a huge plus, and after the chaos of the Puerto Vallarta market, I found the vendors in Cabo to be much more relaxed and easy to deal with (The guy who kept trying to sell us a whip with suggestive undertones was particularly amusing.). I've never really wanted to see Mexico as I'm not a fan of lying on the beach, drinking, or humidity, but the couple of days we got to spend in Cabo might just be enough to change my mind.

Here's the voting results (Look...I remembered to put them after the winner this time...)

Steve - Cabo San Lucas
Lori - Cabo San Lucas
Talon - Seattle
Neve - Cabo San Lucas
Leeds - Orlando

Congratulations to our favorite new city for 2011 - 
Cabo San Lucas!!! 

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Best of 2011 - Best Hotel

I've always been one to follow the crowd. Easily swayed by peer pressure, always taking the road most traveled, and at least three or four years behind anyone who could even remotely be considered a trendsetter. Sure it's tough walking a path that's been worn down so well it's practically paved, but let me remind you that without followers, there would be no leaders, and who wants to live in a world with no leaders?

Thus, in an effort to make sure I adhere to the most tried and true traditions of the world, More Kids Than Suitcases will be launching our year end review posts starting today. Yes, we're going to look back at the best and worst of our year in travel. Not because we have to...not because you asked us to...but because it's what everybody else does.

Today's category - Best Hotel

The nominees are:

Hyatt Regency Orange County - Does volume count? If it does, we don't need to go any further, as we spent around 20 nights here this year. It's our home away from home, and it's kind of like coming back to visit Mom and Dad. There's always a great breakfast buffet, they're constantly checking to see if we need anything, and we get in trouble if we stay out late without calling. Add in the fact that Kenneth is the greatest shuttle driver in the history of shuttle drivers, and I get a happy feeling every time we're headed back here.

Fairmont Pacific Rim - We don't usually stay at hotels that have been open less than a year, it kind of goes against our whole "follower" lifestyle. We found ourselves here in July though, checking in to the hotel at the same time as the majority of the players in the Canadian Open golf tournament. There's nothing more depressing than being in a lobby full of golfers, and realizing that you're the most out of shape person in the room. Time to start hanging out wherever the dart players stay I guess.

Fairmont Scottsdale -  Yeah we went to Phoenix in August. Still want me to plan your vacation for you? At least we ended up in a beautiful resort with tons of pools to play in and plenty of wild jack rabbits to keep my daughters entertained. We got to stay in a fantastic casita that looked out over the TPC golf course. Great...more freakin' golfers. I gotta hit the gym.

Hyatt Grand Cypress - A four star hotel with two star service and a fee tacked on for just about everything, so I guess it depends on what you're focusing on. I didn't like this hotel at all, but my kids did, and through some strange quirk in the voting rules, I only get one vote! There should really be some kind of executive veto or something, although we all know that if there was one, Lori would get it.

Fairmont Whistler - I called it "dated and in need of updating". My wife called it "charming and quaint". Obviously I'm wrong (16 years married, and I'm planning on making it to 17) so the Fairmont Whistler makes the list. Their service was great (except for "forgetting" to upgrade our room) and the location would be perfect if I knew the first thing about skiing. They should really do something about all that rain though. Maybe a dome or something.

After a top secret ballot which consisted of people mumbling an answer to me so I'd leave them alone and let them sleep some more, here are the results:

Steve - Hyatt Orange County
Lori - Fairmont Scottsdale
Talon - Hyatt Grand Cypress
Neve - Fairmont Scottsdale
Leeds - Fairmont Scottsdale

And the winner is.....(not too dramatic when I've already posted the votes is it?)......

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess!

Lets call this one a victory for the girls, although in all fairness I could have easily voted for the Fairmont Scottsdale. I'm just too easily swayed by the free (for diamonds) breakfast at Hyatt OC. The Fairmont Scottsdale is a great property, but I suspect that the powerful combination of  free roaming bunnies and pre-teen girls may have been too much for the other hotels to overcome. Throw in the fact that my wife's favorite shopping destination (Ross) has three locations in the immediate vicinity, and I see us revisiting this property whenever we have the chance.

Congratulations to our favorite hotel for 2011 -      The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Should You Visit Disneyland at Christmas?

Disneyland at Christmas is truly magical, even to someone like me who has a fairly solid line of Scrooge-ness in him when it comes to the holidays. Hour upon hour of Christmas festivities at home usually only serves to drive my mood darker, but even the briefest of exposures to the Happiest Place on Earth will leave my levels of exuberance on par with all the Tiggers of the world. If you gave me two choices of where I'd want to spend Christmas, I'd choose Disneyland or Bethlehem, but of these two places, only one isn't the subject of a massive turf war (the line for Peter Pan excluded).

However, now that I've told you how great Christmas at Disneyland is, let me tell you a few other things that it is. It's crowded, it's expensive, and if you're not familiar with it, it's downright intimidating. I've seen plenty of families having the time of their lives doing a Disney Christmas, but I've also seen plenty of people who looked like they couldn't wait to be anyplace else. It's definitely a tale of two tribes, so how do you know if Disneyland at Christmas is a good idea for your family? Here's five questions to ask yourself, based on our experience of spending the last five Christmases at Disneyland:

#1 - Can you handle crowds?
Let's be clear...we're not talking about normal crowds here. Think Tokyo subway, then expand it to cover about 80 acres. Fortunately Disneyland hasn't adopted the Japanese system of using subway packers to jam everybody into the park yet, but if the crowds keep growing, they might have to consider it (Goofy would be perfect for the job). While non-claustrophobic adults probably won't have too much of a problem, young kids can find it pretty scary to be at knee level with that many people. Our first Christmas in the park, our girls insisted on being carried on shoulders everywhere so they didn't feel like they were going to be trampled. Of course they've insisted on being carried every year since then as well, but the first year we actually obliged them.

#2 - Have you been before?
This isn't meant to be a deal breaker question as both my first time and my kids first visit to Disneyland were at Christmas. Understand going in though, that you're going to see a whole lot less of Disneyland than you usually would as you navigate your way through the crowds. It might be that your kids only remember the magic of getting to visit Mickey at his house, or they might remember the fact that they had to wait an hour and a half to do it. Or they might be like my kids who, after we spent a small fortune on admission and rooms at the Grand Californian, only remember how good the Mickey Mouse ice cream bars were.

#3 - Can you get up early?
At the risk of losing all parents of teenagers, this might be the most important question. If your idea for Christmas break is to catch up on all the sleep you've been missing, Disneyland probably isn't your best destination choice. The key hours for Christmas visits to Disneyland are 8am - 11am. You can get on more rides in these three hours than you will in the next 8 hours of the day. It's also your best chance to grab fastpasses for later, as the popular rides can quite often run out of fastpasses for the day by noon. In addition, getting up early will pretty much guarantee that you get in to the park. They don't advertise it obviously, but Disneyland does sell out, quite often in fact, over the Christmas season. If you've been in the park in the morning, they will almost always let you back in, but once the park is at capacity the dreaded sign goes up and everyone else is turned away.

Photo via Mice Chat
#4 - Do you outnumber your kids?
Zone defense doesn't work when the park is this crowded, you've got to play man-to-man. Ideally, you need a spare as well, to hold places for parades and fireworks. If your vision is you and your extended family walking seven abreast down Main Street towards the castle, then come back in late January. Disney at Christmas is more of a search and reconnaissance type of situation, with one person sent ahead to secure fastpasses and hold spots in line, while the rest of the troops make a slow advance on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. With proper planning, an extra person can make a touring plan work quite well. Until someone has to go to the bathroom. After that, you're starting from scratch again.

#5 - How long are you visiting for?
Are you going to be in the Disneyland area for just one day? Three days? A week or more? In off season you can cover the Disneyland parks in a couple of days, but it takes a lot longer at Christmas. There are over 50 rides and attractions in Disneyland, and even with all our experience the best we could really hope to do in a full day at the park would be to ride about 15 of them (maybe more if we just kept riding It's a Small World over and over again). That doesn't include stopping for parades, fireworks, or Fantasmic. If you're spending a week in the area, you'll be fine as you can come and go as you please to avoid the largest crowds. If you're trying to make a one day stop at Disneyland on your way through town, prepare to be frustrated.

All of this isn't to discourage you from going to Disneyland during the holidays. You'll notice that we went back five years in a row, and the reason is it's one of the few places that I feel real Christmas spirit. An 8am walk down Main Street on Christmas morning is one of the most magical moments you'll ever experience. I just want you to be aware that the 2pm walk back up Main Street right after the parade finishes, isn't quite as inspiring.

8:30am?? We're running late!