Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Running into a Hurricane on Your Vacation

As I sit watching the minute to minute reporting of Hurricane Irma, my mind goes back to our visit to Florida last October just as Hurricane Matthew was approaching.  Since we were driving, I made certain to check the news before leaving the safety of our cabin in the Tennessee hills and heading south. Since we would be staying in Orlando it looked as though we would miss the worst of it. We also received a confirmation that “The Chew” taping would still be taking place at EPCOT (we had tickets) so we packed up and hit the road.

Watching the news in our cabin before hitting the road
You know that saying, “What a difference a day makes,” well we didn’t have to wait a day. Sometime in the afternoon, we received an email from “The Chew” saying that it was too dangerous for them to stay so our taping (two days from now) had been canceled. By the time we checked into our hotel it was completely full of tourists like us plus folks who had been evacuated from the coast (this was a good sign since they usually evacuate folks to a place that will be relatively safe from the storm.) There was a note at the front desk explaining the process they would be following during the storm (this included shutting down the elevator by order of the fire department,) this was getting real. At about this time, our youngest daughter called to say her flight had been canceled so she wouldn’t be able to join us for her few days off. Better than trying to fly in ahead of the storm and hitting bad weather though.

Notice at the front desk
Having lived in Florida as a child and experiencing tropical storms and hurricanes (nothing to the extent of what we are seeing this year,) I knew we would need to stock up on supplies for the next few days. Heading off to the local Walmart Supercenter we were greeted with the sight of empty shelves. They were already sold out of bottled water, bread, canned salmon, tuna, pasta, and beans (anything you can open and eat if the power goes out.) Fortunately, I knew the area where we were staying and remembered there was a Big Lots down the road. Heading straight there, we had success. People hadn’t hit their shelves yet (although there were a number who had the same idea as us and it was getting busier) so we were able to find everything we needed. Our next stop was at the drive-thru ATM to get some cash. This is always a good idea in case the bank systems go down.

Heading back to our hotel, we stopped to top off the gas tank and found several stations were out of fuel or only had supreme. I must say this is one of my pet peeves in these types of situations. Really, people, there is no need to hoard, just purchase what you think you will need for the next 72 hours and to get out of the area if you must evacuate. (Sorry for the rant but I hate to think of some folks going without while others are sitting on a pile of bottled water that could last them a month.)

Our 72-hour canned goods
Now where was I, oh yes, we got our supplies and headed back to our room in plenty of time to load our fridge freezer (our suite had a full kitchen) with bottled water and charge all our devices. This was a perfect time to teach our grandson about the importance of being prepared for a storm. He helped us make two batches of Rice Krispie treats and some Toll House cookies (he wanted enough to share with other kids in the hotel) and turn the fridge up to its coldest setting. Later, he helped to fill the bathtub (helpful to have if the water stops and you NEED to flush,) the kettle, coffee maker, and all our water bottles (better safe than sorry.)

Our little chef
After making sure that our car was parked in as safe a spot as possible (NOT under a palm tree) and bringing our auto booster box upstairs to charge (my daughter remembered it has USB slots we could use to charge our phones if the power went out, super important for staying on top of conditions and connecting with family at home) we settled in for the next few days. Although we did have free passes for EPCOT the next day, we decided to stay in and not add to the traffic on the roads or be in the park when cast members were preparing to shut them down (for only the fourth time in park history.) I’m sure they would have liked to get home and prepare themselves for the storm.

Our battery booster/charger - very handy with an emergency light as well 
By the time we went down for breakfast the next morning, the lobby had become a bit of a hub for visitors and evacuees alike. I talked to one couple who had come in from the coast with their two (very large) dogs. This was certainly not their first evacuation (nor likely their last.) They had blue Rubbermade totes neatly organized with everything they would need (seriously the nicest 72-hour-kits I have ever seen.) They were clearly tired from the drive and worried about their home but still in good spirits. The breakfast room was humming as people chatted and watched the weather news on TV.

Because we travel by car and homeschool, we always have books, games, toys, and battery powered DVD players. We also tend to stay at hotels with kitchens (or at least a microwave and mini fridge) so feeding kids is much easier to manage. To keep EJ occupied, we did some research and learned about the causes of a hurricane and talked about some of the ones I had been through when I was around his age. Keeping him actively involved helped keep things calm and even though the winds were heavy by bedtime, he had his hot cocoa and cookie and fell right to sleep.

As things turned out, we were lucky, Matthew didn’t directly hit Orlando but I am still happy that we were ready for it. The worst we experienced was the rain blowing straight sideways in through our room’s air conditioner (that was interesting and a bit scary) and the litter of leaves and seeds from trees that were covering our car (I’m still finding bits of them now!) Things could have been much worse.

Glad I didn't park under this tree
So, getting back to my watching the news. This summer has been a rough one for so many people. I’ve had cousins evacuated due to wildfires in British Columbia, another with her furniture up on blocks to save it from flooding in Houston, and friends in Florida and Mexico who are being threatened by earthquakes and hurricanes. Then there are the fires in Montana, California, Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest (I may have missed some, basically there is smoke in the air covering western Canada and the U.S.) I’ve heard from folks who had 30 minutes to evacuate (and others who only had 5!) This is clearly not much time to gather your thoughts, never mind your important belongings, so there has been a lot of discussion on having go-bags (bug-out bags, personal 72-hour kits) ready to grab if you must leave in a hurry. It's also a good idea to have supplies to hold you in case you lose power and are stuck in your home for days (those of us in north have to deal with snow storms.)

You never know when a storm will knock the power out and strand you
Although we have our totes for travel we didn’t have individual bags so we made this a family activity. We used inexpensive backpacks for each person and packed them with things like bottled water, fruit leathers, nuts, juice, granola bars (anything that keeps and is easy to handle) plus baby wipes, a small first aid kit (band aids, ointment) tissues, a rain poncho, a set of light clothes, glo-sticks, and water bottle. We added allergy pills, pain killers, flashlight, battery (or wind-up) radio, extra batteries and cash/coins to the adult bags. Each person also added things they thought they would like to have with them like a small book, a deck of cards, or a small travel game. Of course, we also made sure to put together a 72-hour kit for our home using this list I found on the Alberta Emergency Management Agency's website. Most areas have them so you should be able to find a local list fairly easily.


It might seem like a lot to have enough food and water to last your family (and pets) for three days but you never know when you might need it. We also keep copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, custody documents) in our main bag in case we would have to leave in a hurry. Having a list of numbers for your doctor's office and your insurance agent can be helpful as well. I hope we don’t have to use them but I feel better knowing they are handy if we do. 

Monday, 21 August 2017

Ten Ways to Stretch Your Family's Vacation Dollars (Disney or otherwise)

EJ with Oswald at DCA (Love having photopass on my AP)
When I arrived to pick up our eldest daughter after work the other day she was busily chatting with a group of her coworkers, hands waving, she was obviously describing something or giving directions. As it turns out, she was doing a little of each. Her coworkers were both planning Disneyland vacations and were asking her advice on the "best things to do on your child's first visit that won't break the bank."

She was laughing as she got into the car, it seems one of the girls had suggested she should write a book of advice if only to be shared around the office, so everyone could benefit from her tips and tricks. Having made her first visit to Walt Disney World at eight-months-old and Disneyland when she was three, this girl has grown up with Disney and doesn't really think about others not knowing the things she does about their parks. Her two younger sisters are the same.

And her travel advice isn't restricted to Disney vacations. Because we usually drive to the parks, there are a lot of things to see and do along the way. I can remember her excitement when I would bring home a stack of auto club books (a great source of free maps & guidebooks for members.) Even at 10-years-old she would take her highlighter and a stack of post-its and start marking out our route and noting spots to visit along the way, always careful to note the AAA discounts and any free admissions. We've always encouraged our girls to be involved in our travel plans and do the same with our grandson now. Driving days go a lot more smoothly when they help set the schedule.

So, back to her coworker's suggestion that VJ pen a book; for now, we'll stick to sharing her top ten suggestions on my blog.

1. Plan early, research, and don't be afraid to change things around if you find a better deal.

I can't tell you how many times we have made travel plans to visit a certain place, booked hotels, and drafted itineraries just to have one of our girls see an offer on TV or the internet or read about a special event in a magazine. Staying flexible has allowed us to find some great deals and visit spots we hadn't thought of, making memories that will last us a lifetime.

2. Visit like a local

We make sure to tune our car radio to a local station plus pick up the local newspapers to find area specials. Often these special deals or coupons can be used by anyone, (even locals-only ones sometimes) and you can save a bundle or at least get more for your travel dollar.

For example, Denny's restaurants are currently offering buy-one-adult-get-one-kids-admission free discount coupons for the Aquarium of the Pacific.

We love getting travel guides in the mail
3. Sign up for newsletters, promotions, local tourism guides to help with planning

We set up a separate email for these. That way your regular inbox doesn't get overloaded plus you have all of the offers in one place. Many of the travel brochures will offer 2 for 1 admission coupons, particularly during off or shoulder season.

4. Take advantage of membership discounts

This can be AAA or AARP discounts, D23 Gold member discounts, or even memberships/annual passes from your local zoo, museum, or science center. We use our local science center annual passes to get reciprocal admission to science centers all around the U.S. and Canada.

5. Join loyalty programs

I know, everyone says to do this but it is so true. Being able to travel "on points" is a huge budget helper. There are ways to increase your benefits from these programs as well. We always watch for contests and bonuses to earn extra points. Plus we watch for the best redemption offers. For instance, Marriott Rewards gives you the fifth night free on redemption stays so we try to book in five-night blocks and rarely use points for a single night stay during our road trips. They also have points saver nights at some of the properties during certain dates that are good to watch for.

Cookies and milk for the littles is a nice touch at some hotels
6. Pick up glow-in-the-dark toys at the dollar store

This one might sound funny but we've saved a ton over the years by shopping at the dollar store near our hotel for little trinkets that the kids would normally ask for at the parks. A bag filled with glow-in-the-dark bracelets, necklaces, and "magic wands" will cost you under $20 (about the same as one purchased from the carts that populate the streets as you wait for a night-time parade!) You can usually pick up some inexpensive souvenir pencils etc. while you are there as well. These are fun surprises for your littles that can be kept in your bag and doled out through your visit.

7. Pack a lunch (or at least snacks)

Purchasing meals at theme parks and other tourist spots can add up. I read somewhere that the average adult spends $35-$50 a day on beverages alone! This is a huge amount when you multiply it by two adults and then add in the littles. We make sure to pack pb&j sandwiches that can be handed out while waiting in a ride queue (it fills tummies and keeps them occupied.) Nuts, cheese & crackers, and fresh fruit work well for snacks too. One of our favorite freebies at Disney Parks is the ice water they serve at quick serve restaurants. We carry flavor packets for the littles (or anyone else who isn't a fan of plain water) and have icy lemonade or fruit punch in our water bottles all day.

Having fun at Mickey's backyard barbecue
On most trips, we book long-term stay properties that have a kitchen so we can make our own meals. This helps with the food sensitivities of some of our family members and saves money too. (It may sound odd but I like to pack a crockpot, it's so nice to get back at the end of the day to a delicious supper all ready for you, we love the pot roast kits from Sam's Club for this, seasoning, roast, and vegetables all ready to pop in the slow cooker in the morning before you head out.) Many hotel chains offer free breakfast these days and a few have evening receptions as well. Several of the Residence Inns we've stayed at have meals on Monday and Tuesday evenings. Well worth checking out.

Even though we do like to be careful with our food dollars, we do enjoy character meals and other dining at Disney Parks. We do try to stick to breakfast or lunch options where possible since the portions tend to be more manageable and they cost less for the same experience. Breakfast with Minnie at the Plaza Inn in Disneyland is one of our favorites with a variety of choices sure to keep everyone in the family happy.

8. Consider annual passes

Although the initial outlay of cash is more than you would spend on a 3- or 4-day pass, an annual pass can save you dollars in the long run. If you plan to visit twice in a 12-month period, an AP may be the way to go. Last year I used mine twice at Disneyland and twice at Walt Disney World (Premier Passport) for a total of about 60 days. Add into this the parking, photopass, and food and merchandise discounts and it was a great value. We look at all of our options including specials, auto club discounts, and APs when we plan each visit (and if you already have an AP the next trip is so much easier to pay for!)

Working on his junior ranger badge in the French Quarter
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park
We also purchase National Parks annual passes in both the U.S. and Canada (2017 was free here to celebrate our 150th birthday.) These allow us entry into national parks and historic sites in both countries for 12 months. We make sure to take advantage of any free programs they have as well. The Junior Rangers program at many of the U.S. parks is terrific. The booklets teach your littles all about the history and geography of the park and local region. They receive a small badge upon completion.We even work them into our homeschooling activities.

9. "Free" Souvenirs

Our grandson loves collecting little "free" souvenirs during our visits to Disney parks. Not only is he bringing home little treats from his trip, he also creates memories through his interaction with cast members. One of his favorites is collecting transportation cards at Walt Disney World. You can usually get these cards from any cast member working on buses, ferries, or monorails. Simply approach them and ask if they have any of the cards. Politeness counts, be sure not to interrupt while they are busy with passengers and they will normally spend some time checking to see if they have a card that you don't already have. There are also different scavenger hunt type activities in the parks plus a ranger type program at Animal Kingdom.

Wow, a rare trading card!
10. Costco, Groupon, City Go Cards, CityPass

There are a number of ways you can double-up on discounts. For instance, Costco often sells City Go Cards, CityPasses, and theme park admission tickets at a discount. Groupon does this as well. Depending on the length of your stay at one location and your interests, these passes can be a terrific value. We have used them in Atlanta and San Francisco and both saved money and visited attractions we hadn't considered. There are also passes for regions such as Southern California that include some theme park admissions along with smaller attractions. It's well worth doing a little online research as part of your planning.

So there you have it, a few of the ways we manage our travel dollars. No secret formula, we just try to do our homework and be open to different options that allow us to visit more places without breaking the bank.








Friday, 28 July 2017

No Greater Love - Canada's Largest Christian Music Festival



I think by now most people in the Calgary area have heard the news that country music legend Reba McEntire will be headlining the No Greater Love Musicfest this year. This is exciting news for Christian and country music fans alike.


This year's family friendly festival will run from August 12 - 14 at Stoney Nakoda Nation, 40 minutes west of Calgary. Tickets are available for purchase online at nogreaterlove.ca (There will be NO ticket sales or parking available at the gate so be sure to buy yours ahead of time.)
No Greater Love is quickly becoming a jewel in our Southern Alberta Festival scene with a terrific lineup that includes; For King and Country, Rapture Rukus, We Are Messengers, Okama, Jamie Grace, and many more over the weekend event.
Recently, I had the opportunity to connect with No Greater Love's Executive Producer, Karri Ward, about the event, from its humble beginnings to what folks can expect for the weekend. Her passion for the project is clear and can't help but spread itself through the entire event.
My family is looking forward to it. Hope to see many of you there!



Q. After a successful first year, the No Greater Love Musicfest is coming back for what looks to be an even stronger second edition, attracting some big name entertainers including country music legend Reba McEntire. What is it, do you think, that has made this such a strong event at a time when Alberta's economy isn't at its best?
A. No Greater Love has always been about Unity and a sense of community. A place where people come and their spirits are lifted, not just because of the music but because of the atmosphere that is created at the festival. When times are tough most people look for spiritual inspiration or a safe landing place where they feel hope. We think No Greater Love gives this simply because of what the festival is. A place to Share the Love.


Q. A festival of this magnitude takes months and years of planning. Where did the original idea come from to hold No Greater Love in this idyllic place? What has been the main driving force behind it?
A. NGL came from a vision I had in 2002. Life and years brought not only great lessons it allowed God to move and bring the right people around the table to ensure this vision would come to fruition. LOL there were many times I called this the Noah project. It's massive and it’s in some ways trail blazing stepping outside the box of how traditional Christian music events have been done. No Greater Love became the mission for myself and another woman entrepreneur my co-producer Tammy Love. As a team we are not only servants we bring an accumulative bank of skill sets that at some point God said, OK I have blessed the both of you with great learning now you are coming to work for me.

The vision and the place where NGL is held became synonymous in the mission. There was this space that had been created within our faith communities at large that seemed to be focusing on divisions instead of celebrating commonalities. What a great world it would be if we could all come together to celebrate what each of us know as our spiritual relationship with God without politics, or challenges of the walls that come when we as human souls decide that our denominational way to worship is the best way. As an example, if you go to an Evangelical church you will see people worshipping one way. If you go to a Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran, United etc etc, you will see people worshipping in other ways. We have differences in our choice of worship however we are all fundamentally worshipping the same God based on Christian principles. As Christians, we are better together than separated. We create better spaces on earth when we join together in our beliefs of loving God, loving one another and being our brother’s keeper.

No Greater Love is about creating that space once a year where we all come together and connect realizing our commonalities through music the universal healer. This includes First Nations. We have generations of a paradigm of First Nations people and their culture that when you really begin to learn is not totally correct in terms of the negativity. With them offering to bring No Greater Love onto their land this was a huge blessing that we believe had divine intervention to enlarge the blueprint of reconciliation of differences and healing. This land is sacred in of itself when one experiences it. It’s a masterpiece of creation and simply breathtaking.

Q. Your event is very family focused from the music to the Kid's Kingdom as well as the First Nations, Urban, and Global Villages. Has this been something the organizers planned from the beginning? How important is it to your group to bring the message of His love to our young people through these activities?

Yes this was always the goal. We wanted to create an all-inclusive space, build a village as such from a bare field with many fun and interesting elements so that people could come and have a full balanced experience. NGL is not just a music festival it’s a well-rounded spiritual experience. As humans, we love what we live.

At NGL families and young people can move freely around the grounds to take in various activities. Parents have an opportunity to enjoy the music, their kids to have fun things to do. It becomes a place of enjoyment simply through the experience. In the global village people can interact with individuals who are going out into the world at large and doing some pretty incredible things enabling a great opportunity to see what’s being accomplished through kindness and a motivation to make the world a better place. It’s an opportunity through interaction for what I like to refer to as “seeds of greatness” being planted as people experience these things. Perhaps a young person will be encouraged to do great things for the world and others by a simple interaction that happens at NGL. That seed will be planted and grow to great things.


Q. A musicfest needs a lot of hands to be a success and No Greater Love is no different I'm sure. You must have a terrific crew of volunteers already but what message would you have for folks who want to get involved? Is there still time to help this year?

A. What a great question! No Greater Love is community and that means a lot of hands coming together.  The first year we ran the entire festival with 50 volunteers, hired production crew and Tammy and I. LOL it was an experience and I don’t think I slept for days. It was living the saying. “There but for the Grace of God go I”.  This year we are topping 190 volunteers and there is always room for more. No Greater Love is a big event. We are Canada's Largest Faith Festival, the largest in the entire country, right here in our back yard. We want to show Canada and our international visitors that our amazing team of volunteers know how to do it up right. The volunteer portal will close in a week however if there are people who want a life experience like no other we invite them to go to our website nogreaterlove.ca. Hit the get involved tab and volunteer. Lots of info and an application is there to be filled out and submitted.

Q. My ticket says No Greater Love will go on rain or shine. Considering Southern Alberta weather, what tips or advice do you have for families who will be attending for the first time? What type of facilities can they expect to find?

A. We always tell people to come prepared. Hats, sunscreen, bug spray, and one of those great rain ponchos from the dollar store. Good footwear as we are in a field and although landscaped, gophers still reside! Folding lawn chairs are great, kids small shade igloos are fine too. Umbrellas are not allowed due to Insurance as they are classified as a possible weapon….who knew??

There will be a bag security check upon entry. We ask people to be patient. It’s for everyone’s safety. There is no food allowed onto the field. This is both a security and Insurance safety requirement. In perspective, no picnic lunches. Small zip lock bags of snacks are OK. On the field, there will be porta potties, hand washing stations, a food truck village with a tented eating area, an artist’s alley of artisans selling festival goodies, bank machines, water stations to refill water bottles, one very large stage with screens for easy viewing. A global village, kids Kingdom, a teen skate board park, a unity teepee where people will be able to paint their mark on the teepee, a first Nations Cultural tent to learn about the Stoney Nakoda, and a few more surprises. A great reminder that all sales are online only. NO gate sales and all vehicles not camping must have a parking pass.

Q. I've heard that ticket sales are going well so I'm wondering if there are still camping spots left for the weekend. What about weekend and single day passes? Parking?

A. Ticket sales are going very well.  We have limited camping left and I suspect this is because of the landscape and wanting the full festival experience complete with community firepits. This year we also have movie in the park coming in for our campers on Friday night as well as a small stage for an open mic fun three hours prior to the movie. I do highly suggest people if they are wanting to camp grab those passes now, especially after we have announced Reba McEntire as our Saturday night headliner.

We also have some exciting news we announced on Friday. We have been getting a lot of emails about ticket prices from those people that truly want to attend but just can’t afford it. We do not want anyone to miss out so we went to work and through the generosity of a sponsor weekend passes in these last weeks will go for the same price as season one 99.00 for a week end pass! We are pretty excited to share that news. And because we know some people have been awesome in supporting NGL on season two and three ticket prices we will be sending them a treat to say thank you and ensure they feel included in the bonus. As well evening passes are available for $60.00 as we know not all people can come for a full day or weekend. Kids 12 and under free.

Q. Finally, is there anything else you would like to share with my readers about No Greater Love?

No Greater Love is one of those events you need to experience and then you will want to continue to experience it year after year because it simply engages the soul. The music is something for everyone, bluegrass, country, hip hop, pop, rap, rock. I think people will be surprised that the sound is familiar in those genres, however the lyrics are simply faith filled, positive and uplifting. We challenge all faithful to come out and experience the festival once and then they will know this once a year creation of space bringing faith communities together is well worth the time and the ticket for two days of soothing one’s soul.  

Thursday, 27 July 2017

A Fun Morning at the Calgary Stampede Parade




The chill morning air was welcome as we left our place in the country after the early July heat of the week. Not far down the road, we ran into our first traffic, a half dozen of our neighbor's calves had decided "the grass was greener on the other side" and escaped from their mothers, who were now bawling for their offending offspring's return.  A quick stop and we were back on the road, heading to Calgary for the annual kick-off of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the Calgary Stampede Parade.

I must thank the Parade Committee for inviting me to join them in their social media area. It made for an amazing morning. Arriving early, I snagged myself a spot under a shady tree in defense of the 30C + temperatures that were forecast for the day. (About 85-90F for my American friends.) There’s one thing you can be sure of, the Stampede takes care of their volunteers and I wasn’t disappointed this morning. Fresh muffins from an early morning Timmy’s run plus, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, juice and of course water. And the volunteer hosts were terrific, making sure I had everything I needed, including knowing where I could charge my devices should they run out of juice. A world class organization indeed.


I had a shady front row seat for the parade
Many folks arrive the night before the parade to stake out prime spots on the sidewalks; marking out their spots for the morning. These were the true early birds but once 7:30 am rolled around (that’s when the streets are closed) there were plenty more families lined up to fill the cross streets and grab an up-front view of the parade. Sitting on lawn chairs, blankets and bleachers, these folks were in for a treat. If you’ve never seen a parade of this magnitude up close and personal you are missing something (and should add a trip to Calgary for Stampede to your bucket list if it isn’t there already!)

Blankets, chairs, and strollers for the best seats in the house
There is something so intoxicatingly fun about the entire experience you have to do it at least once in your lifetime. Of course, many of us who are native Calgarians may have experienced it a few more times than that (25+) but we continue to come back. Braving bleary eyes, cranky children and the real possibility that there isn’t enough coffee in the world to keep us all awake before our first site of the Prelude Parade (remember to bring coins for the charity collection) where singers and dancers, from various groups around the city, entertained us, like a warm-up act before the main event.

Prelude Parade entertainment
The 2017 edition of the parade featured each all of the Treaty 7 Chiefs as Parade Marshalls. Such an appropriate choice considering we are celebrating the 150th birthday of our nation. (FYI the original Treaty 7 document is on display at Fort Calgary this summer, a great opportunity to see this important document from Canada’s history.)

One thing that holds our Calgary Stampede Parade out from other large parades is the number of horses that participate each year. I have to admit they have been a big favorite of mine since 1963, the first year my parents took me to the parade. I was almost two and, according to my mother, decided I wanted to be a cowboy and “ride the broncos.” This year’s edition boasted hundreds of the majestic beasts, including a 22-horse-hitch. I've seen a 20-mule-team before but this was amazing!. And of course, the Budweiser Clydesdales are always a hit with the crowds. Yes, our western heritage is on full display at this time of the year.
Wells Fargo Stagecoach all ready for Canada 150
There were some amazing entries this year to help celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial including the entry from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology that won the President’s Trophy. (The Tyrrell is an amazing place and definitely worth the drive from Calgary, especially if your kids are into dinosaurs.) This was only one of the many fantastic entries in this year’s parade that included annual favorites like the one celebrating Canada’s birthday from Calgary’s Ahmadiyya Muslim group. They put a ton of work into their entry every year but I think this year was one of their best!

President's Trophy Winner from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology
Along with the floats, horses, hitches, and stagecoaches, I can’t forget to mention the Shriners with their mini planes and cars or the music that keeps the entire parade on time, the marching bands. These groups put in an amazing number of hours of practice to get ready for our show (not to mention the hours of fundraising and caring for uniforms – yes, I was a band mom and speak from experience.)


One of many marching bands that keep us entertained during the parade
The 2017 edition of the Calgary Stampede Parade is in the books and I'm sure it won't be long until the work begins to make next year's event even bigger and better. If you have never been to the parade or haven't been for a while, I highly recommend you mark July 6, 201, on your calendar!

2017 Guide to Visiting the Disneyland Resort with Young Kids (and still having a great time!) - Review

*This post contains affiliate links but the views and opinions are my own.

The first thing you'll notice about the 2017 Guide to Visiting the Disneyland Resort with Young Kids is how well it’s laid out. Perfect for the first time Disneyland visitor but also handy as a reference and checklist for those of us who may be visiting with littles for the first time after a long break (ok, yes, grandparents like me!)

Having just returned from a visit to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure (DCA) I can assure you that Megan and Kris have done a terrific job of covering all the important stuff as well as including tips and tricks that will help make your family’s first (or tenth) visit run as smooth as silk. (Well, maybe not that smooth but at least the meltdowns may be kept to a minimum-adults included!)

Sharing knowledge they have gained over almost ten years of visiting the parks, Megan and Kris break their advice up into manageable pieces; before your visit, during your visit, and also for leaving the park at the end of your day. On top of this, they have included an appendix filled with even more good stuff. I found the info on individual rides very helpful - did you know there is no rider control of the spinning on Francis’s Ladybug Boogie – good to know before the family member who DOES NOT do well with spinning climbs aboard! Knowing which rides have height restrictions and offer Rider Switch can help in planning your day so the big kids (parents included) have a chance to get on their favorite attractions and don’t feel the entire visit has been ruled over by the littles.

Sections on what to bring, feeding kids (including a list of popular foods and the quick service spots where you can find them,) the best bathrooms for families, how to get in (and out) of parking areas with minimal frustration and many more, will answer pretty much any question you may have about your young family’s upcoming visit.

Megan made sure to include helpful tips for those of us traveling with the tiniest of family members (our new grandson is just 12-weeks-old as I write this.) She covers the park’s Baby Care Centers, although she didn't use them much herself, (we used them a lot when our girls were young) and provides tips on baby wearing and nursing during your visit. You will also find advice on choosing the best stroller, diaper bag and baby carrier for your trip; including a tip on how to identify your stroller among a cast of thousands in the stroller parking area!

Throughout this guide, there are references to Kris and Megan’s “Go Mouse Scouts” podcasts that provide additional information for that section. This adds to the friendly feeling of this offering; more a conversation with a friend than the typical travel guide. I don’t know about you but I much prefer to take my advice from folks I can relate to and who, very obviously, know the parks inside and out.

Available in Kindle Mobi and Apple iBooks, the 2017 Guide to Visiting the Disneyland Resort with Young Kids is a definite favorite in our family. I give it a big thumbs up for anyone planning their next Disney vacation with kids.

Friday, 9 June 2017

You're from Calgary? Your Stampede is Starting Soon Right?

On our recent visit to the Los Angeles area, our family was often asked where we were from. Hearing our answer of Calgary, many responded with a question about our world famous Calgary Stampede. Some were curious, some had been, and some are planning to visit us this year in conjunction with Canada's 150th birthday!
After answering a number of questions about our Stampede (one of the cast members at Disneyland said she felt as though she had insider information) I decided to put together a little list of helpful hints for folks who will be or are thinking about visiting the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
1. You only have a few days to get one but for the first time this year, the Stampede Superpass is available. It includes unlimited admission to the grounds for all 10 days for only $39. You can snag this deal here until June 12.
2. You can purchase Stampede Bucks at Calgary area Costcos until July 7. $39.99 will get you $50 worth of bucks that can be used for regular-priced admission, retail, rides & games, food & beverages, and reserved seats for the rodeo or chuckwagon races and grandstand show.
3. Safeway and Sobeys are selling Ride and Play cards again this year. For $37.85 you can get 60 tickets or a Ride-All-Day wristband good on all North American Midway Entertainment rides, games, and the WestJet Skyride.
4. You can pick up two admissions and two cokes to share with a friend for $27 at area Mac's convenience stores.
5. Coke has another deal for you. On specially marked 12-can-packs you can get a white voucher that gives you 2 admissions for only $5, Monday-Thursday July 10-13, 2017 between 5 p.m. - 7 p.m. only.
There are lots of ways to keep your budget under control during Stampede. You can even find deals on the grounds. A visit to Weadickville is one of our favourites. Great eats for bargain prices. The kids will love this recreation of a 1912 Calgary street where they can  enjoy a hot dog or ice cream cone under the shade of trees as they run around in this grassy area.
Wonder around to the agricultural area and you can snag some milk and cookies for the little ones without breaking the bank. You can feel good about helping the Calgary Foodbank (the proceeds go to them) while your kids enjoy their treat.
There are lots of good deals to be found in Calgary during Stampede. (I haven't even mentioned the free pancake breakfasts yet!) The Stampede Caravan Committee is celebrating 85 years of flipping flapjacks this year. They can find a list of their breakfasts at caravan.calgarystampede.com
You can also find a complete listing of breakfasts for 2017 at stampedebreakfasts.ca This list includes local business and community events as well.
Our family is counting the days to the Stampede. Hope you can join us!

Friday, 2 June 2017

Visiting the Ghosts of Nevada's Past

It’s amazing the sites you can see when you trade the security lines at your local airport for the white lines of the open road. Sure, it can be fun to fly into Vegas for the weekend or pop into Reno for the latest Sunday through Thursday special but these quick trips tend to be focused on the bright lights, entertainment, and casinos. When you take a road trip you open a whole new set of experiences.

Breathtaking landscapes and vistas, terrific weather and an abundance of lodging help make Nevada a fantastic state for road trips. This is especially true for history buffs like me and I had the perfect travel companions; our eldest daughter and 9-year-old grandson. Of course, there is some danger in a road trip with these two…they both share my love of antique hunting (yes, they encourage me and yes, they did help me load a 1930’s metal tulip chair into the mini-van during the trip!)

Glad we had an extra 'seat' for my antique chair!

After reading a recent article on Ghost Towns in Nevada Magazine, we decided to add Virginia City to our summer road trip. It would fit perfectly into our itinerary after a visit to Sutter’s Mill in northern California.

We entered Nevada at the southern tip of Lake Tahoe on Highway 50. The drive was amazing, winding our way around the lake and through picturesque spots like Zephyr Cove, where you can embark on a cruise on Lake Tahoe to Emerald Bay. We picked a quiet spot and enjoyed a picnic on the banks of the lake before hitting the road again.

Arriving late in the day at Carson City, we missed taking a tour of the stately capitol building. Something for our bucket list on the next visit. I remember reading about how Nevada was “fast-tracked” into statehood during the Civil War because it would come in as a pro-union state by President Abraham Lincoln. Saying Nevada is “Battle Born” is certainly accurate!

We continued our journey to Reno/Sparks on Interstate 580, along Washoe Lake. I must say Mark Twain was not exaggerating when he said,

“A Washoe wind is by no means a trifling matter. It blows flimsy houses down, lifts shingle roofs occasionally, rolls up tin ones like sheet music, now and then blows a stage-coach over and spills the passengers; and tradition says the reason there are so many bald people there is, that the wind blows the hair off their heads while they are looking skyward after their hats.”

I guess he should know since he spent more than two years in the area as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. I’ve read that he sometimes walked the 15 miles between Virginia City and the state capital where he reported on the legislature. Apparently, he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to keep his full head of rather unruly hair. A visit to the place Mr. Twain (Samuel Clemens) began his writing career was at the top of my list for our visit.

Mark Twain Museum in the old Territorial Enterprise Building

The Nevada Department of Transportation has an excellent wind warning system in the Washoe Valley, complete with flashing signs, that warn of severe winds. If you are traveling in a high-profile vehicle, it’s best to check weather conditions as high winds do trigger height restrictions for the highway.

Arriving at our hotel in Reno/Sparks for the night, our grandson (EJ) loaded up with brochures from the hotel lobby. He chattered away about all he hoped to see as we got ready for bed, although he wasn’t too sure he would like to see the ghosts featured in one of the flyers. He was quite happy to find there would be a tram tour to ride and quickly settled down to sleep.

We got on our way early the next morning, eager for the day’s adventure. The drive from Sparks to Virginia City includes the Geiger Grade Highway that replaced the original toll road in 1936. There’s a marker near Geiger Summit where you can see a couple of famous spots along the old road; Dead Man’s Point and Robber’s Roost. It’s easy to imagine Conestoga Wagons and mule-teams winding their way through the canyon loaded with cargo and passengers, constantly worrying about being held up by highwaymen – not to mention mud slides, snow and wind storms. Quite different from today’s air conditioned comfort!

Entering Virginia City is like stepping back into history. Aside from the T-shirts hanging in front of souvenir shops, the main street looks much as it has been since its rebuilding in 1875, following the great fire that destroyed much of the town. There are even an old miner and his burrow that will take his picture with you for a “contribution”. With a little imagination, you can almost hear the ghosts of minors and saloon girls as they call to each other in the street.

One of the many shops along Main Street

We visited on a weekend during the summer but were still able to find parking right next to the tram stop. The $10.00 daily fee was well worth it for the centrally located spot. We purchase our tour tickets then wondered up and down the street, visiting both the Mark Twain Museum (in the basement of the old Territorial Enterprise newspaper building) and the Silver Queen Hotel (the original location of the paper), with EJ watching for the tram’s return all the while. (There was no chance he was going to miss it!)

After picking up a few souvenirs and some post cards to send home from the gift shop upstairs from the museum (yes, we do still mail paper postcards), we headed back to the tram station with minutes to spare before our tour. EJ was excited to get the back seat (his favorite) so he could “see everything!” as we drove through town. Our guide/driver was fantastic, sharing stories about each of the sites he pointed out to us. I would highly recommend taking the tour, especially if this is your first visit since it provides a good overview the town and its history. We also found the free Virginia City app helpful. It lists museums, attractions, tours, restaurants, and lodging plus a Historic Comstock audio tour that covers many of the most popular tourist sites. You can even buy Adventure passes for many of the town’s attractions on the app.

View from the tram

We had just enough time after our tour to head over to the Delta Saloon (home of the infamous suicide faro table and a beautiful collection of Victorian oil lamps) for a late lunch before heading off to do a little exploring on our own. We shared the loaded onion rings (beer battered and topped with nacho cheese, pulled pork, barbecue sauce and green onions - delicious) and a giant ├ęclair (light, flaky, full of cream and covered in chocolate) while EJ enjoyed his standard chicken fingers kids’ meal. He thought it was neat when a group of ghost hunters (complete with cameras and recorders) sat down at the next table. (I don’t know if they found anything but we ran into them on their bus later as we toured the cemetery.)

Delta Saloon

Our first stop after lunch was St. Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take a tour as there was a wedding going on but my daughter assures me it is amazing (she and her sister did the tour on a previous visit.) We drove from there to the Fourth Ward School Museum, where we learned more about Comstock history and schoolrooms of the day (you can see the marks where tiny shoes have worn the floors over many years), and then finished the day with a visit to the cemetery. By then we were ready to head back to our hotel and a cool dip in the pool.

Vintage car waiting for the wedding party in front of
St Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church

Virginia City Nevada is a place we will return to. We didn’t run into any ghosts (except the ones in our imaginations) but there was plenty to do and to see and enough to keep the young man in our group busy and happy for the day.

Fourth Ward School Museum


Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Rocky Mountains and Cattle Ranches

When days become longer and temperatures rise it’s tough to keep kids inside and motivated (let’s face it, we find it tough to be motivated when the sun is shining and the birds are singing) so at this time of year I like to take our lessons outside. Since EJ is studying Alberta this year, we decided to take our first springtime road trip to Cochrane, a short half-hour drive from Calgary. This is a popular choice for folks in our city since the town boasts some of the best ice cream you have ever tasted (we'll get to that later.)

But there is more to Cochrane than ice cream alone. It is also home to the Historic Cochrane Ranche, the original site of Alberta’s first major cattle operation. Established in 1881 when Senator Matthew Cochrane leased 100,000 acres of land from the Canadian government (for a penny an acre according to our social studies text) and drove thousands of head of cattle north from Montana. This helped establish the federal grazing-land policy that, in turn, built the western cattle industry into what we have today.
What a great opportunity to learn about an event right where it happened. Much better than in a dry textbook alone. The ranche is a nice spot for a picnic lunch and to spend some time in nature, all with a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains. Life doesn’t get much better than this!

Running with the wind at Cochrane Ranche
Part of the original ranch lease has also been protected as Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park to preserve its important history. This was land where First Nations peoples established tipi camps and corralled bison. Later, Glenbow became a water stop, and then station, on the CPR mainline. Sandstone from the Porcupine Hills quarry located here was used in the Alberta Legislature Building. The quarry was replaced by a brick plant in later years before closing during World War I.

Part of the Trans Canada Trail network, Glenbow Ranch offers family friendly weekend programs throughout the year. Ranging from pond exploration to archeological adventures to Star Nights there is sure to be something for everyone in the family.

Our sunny day, in southern Alberta fashion, turned to wind and cold just as we were reading about the winter of 2006 -2007 when there were no chinooks (no, we didn’t need a demonstration of the cold.) EJ said he just couldn’t imagine having a winter with no warm breaks from chinook winds blowing in from the west. As he says, our winters here are cold then warm then cold again but there is always hope for another warm day to give us a break before spring finally arrives. After chasing our notebooks in the dry grass for the third time (it's tough to sketch when your pages keep flying away!) we decided to pack up and head for somewhere a little cozier.

Tea...and tea pots, books, mugs, cups, teaspoons...
We drove into town and stopped at a sweet little shop called Tea and Other Things (other things include used books as well as books by local authors.) EJ headed straight for the huge selection of teas, displayed in jars along two walls of the shop. He was hunting for his favorite Earl Grey and was not disappointed. The shop owner, Kelly, stocks several varieties and was happy to discuss the differences before the boy chose three blends to take home for sharing with his mom. He also found a couple of books on the stuffed shelves to take home (after sampling their pages in one of the comfy chairs set up for just this purpose.) 

We continued to chat as our purchases were wrapped and I discovered Kelly is originally from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (I have family there) and that her family ran Joyner’s Department Store on Main Street. A small world indeed as I remember her parent’s store, complete with the cash carrier that ran on a little track around the ceiling. My girls were fascinated by it on our last visit to the Tunnels of Moose Jaw but, sadly, Joyner’s was destroyed in a fire in 2004.

MacKay's Ice Cream
After warming up a bit, EJ decided he really could enjoy a dish of his favorite Tiger ice cream at MacKay’s (conveniently located right around the corner from the tea shop) after all. Even this early in the year on a chilly and blustery day, MacKay’s had a steady stream of customers. And no wonder, MacKay’s continues to use their grandmother’s delicious recipe (it starts with 100% Canadian high butterfat cream.) The same one that James and Christina MacKay used when they began making ice cream in the back of their general store in 1948. I couldn’t resist an orange-pineapple cone myself!

I couldn't resist!
Back on the road again, EJ and I ended our day with a drive past Fort Calgary and the Stampede Grounds. Two spots of importance to the history of our area but visits will have to wait for another day. For now, we will have to be satisfied with finishing our school day at the kitchen table while enjoying a steaming cup of Yorktown Earl Grey.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Amazing Wildlife, Spectacular Viewscapes and an NHL Hockey Legend

There are not many things in the world that small boys like as much as camping, discovering new places and (for northern kids at least) hockey so I was excited to learn that Grasslands National Park and the Village of Val Marie will be hosting the Grasslander Classic from July 28 - 30, 2017 to help celebrate Canada's 150th birthday. Located in the Cypress Hills of southern Saskatchewan, Grasslands is one of the most pristine of Canada's national parks. My mom was born in Val Marie so a visit to the village and camping at Grasslands NP has been on my bucket list for a few years now and this event looks like the perfect time to make the trip!

An information panel marks a stop along the scenic driving tour.
Photo of an Ecotour road stop from the Parks Canada website
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Carrie Clausen from Parks Canada and asked her what she would say to folks who ask why they should visit Val Marie and the Grasslands area. Her response:

Amazing wildlife—spectacular viewscapes—glorious sunsets—brilliant night skies—rare species—western hospitality.

She went on to say,  "Grasslands National Park celebrates the prairie: bison raising dust in a wallow, swift fox pups playing in a coulee, a creek finding its way along an ancient glacial valley, you discovering a solitary ring of stones on a windy ridge... and much more.

"The park welcomes you to an open wilderness – a diverse, resilient and evolving prairie ecosystem. You will marvel at unexpected encounters with animals and plants uniquely suited to this uncompromising land and often-harsh climate. Astonishing geological formations and rich fossils take you to ancient times. Reminders of human use and influence on the land, from  survival to adaptation and stewardship, are yours to discover. Together with neighbours and nearby communities, the park contributes to the protection, restoration, knowledge and presentation of this natural and cultural landscape, and looks toward restoring ecological processes and species representative of the mixed-grass prairie.

I don't know about you but this place sounds amazing. I can just imagine the look on EJ's face as we watched bison "playing in the dirt!" 

You can catch a glimpse of the bison along with views of the park's amazing vista's on Much's Far and Wide - Episode 15 as Idle Theory Now and Where's My Office Now as they explore Grasslands NP.


Carrie plans and coordinates all programs and events at the park and is excited about their upcoming Canada 150 event. She explains this weekend is specifically geared towards families so if you are a family that is worried about the remote location of Grasslands this would be the event to attend! 

"We have many activities planned for families for the whole weekend starting on Friday with the walking tour, and supper at the recreation centre featuring NHL hockey legend Bryan Trottier and his many trophies he has earned during his career. There will be plenty of kids activities and games this evening as well." 

The Village of Val Marie, local businesses, outfitters and Grasslands NP work closely together to encourage tourism to the area so part of the Grasslander Classic will have activities in both areas. Saturday the Village of Val Marie is hosting a pancake breakfast, parade and outdoor market square. Then visitors can head off to the Frenchman Valley Campground (in the park) to participate in ball hockey, kayaking, wagon rides, bison facility tours, kids pavilion, and outdoor concerts. There will be a concession stand on site at the park so no need to worry about meals! Hockey fans can cap off the weekend Sunday by getting their picture and autograph from Bryan Trottier (hometown boy and six-time Stanley Cup winner) at the farewell reception. 

I asked Carrie about camping and accommodation for the Grasslander Classic and found out that the  Frenchman Valley Campground in the park is already fully booked for this weekend, but the park has plenty of overflow sites so they are providing a camping space for everyone that shows up for the event! Overflow camping is by self-registration when visitors arrive and reservations for these sites are not needed ahead of time. Places in town are also filling up quickly so if anyone is thinking of booking a place in Val Marie they will want to book as soon as possible.

To make your camping reservation for the summer visit www.reservation.parkscanada.gc.ca or call  1-877-737-3783 . 

You can purchase advance tickets for the Grasslander Classic event online at visitcypresshills.ca. For questions regarding the event please call the Visitor Centre at 1-877-345-2257.