Saturday, 11 November 2017

Discovering The Science Behind Pixar

We’ve had a crazy busy year with our youngest daughter’s wedding in January, the arrival of our second grandson in April and, finally, our girls moving into their new home. There is one thing about being busy, time seems to pass by quickly (well, except for the eight months it took for the house to be built - that seemed like an eternity!)

With everything going on it was suddenly the middle of October and we hadn’t done half the activities we had planned for the summer. At the top of our list was a visit to the Science Behind Pixar at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton, Alberta. Seriously, Pixar + Science, who wouldn’t want to see what this was all about.

As luck would have it, hubby had a couple of days off (sounds odd I know but he works for the railway - 24/7 operation - no scheduled days off - it’s an interesting profession) and was able to make the three-hour drive with us.

EJ couldn’t wait to get there and see what it was all about. The ads had promised some of his favorite characters so he was pretty pumped. Arriving at the center we were greeted by giant banners featuring Woody & Buzz from Toy Story and Sully & Mike from Monster's Inc. This was going to be a fun afternoon.

No doubt about the current exhibition
After getting our tickets for the exhibit (at a discount, one of the benefits of membership) we headed down the hall, following some interesting large blue footprints, and arrived at a theatre where we learned the steps it takes to create a Pixar animated film (and reminded of the rules for the exhibit by Roz...who else!?)

Who wouldn't want these two for classmates
Entering the main exhibit, you are greeted by Mike and Sully in the Rigging area. Here you learn that in order to make a character move you have to...well...move their skeleton...and deform their skin (deform their skin, sounds awful but the workstation is a lot of fun.)

Somewhere after rigging I managed to lose the two fellows I was with as EJ led his papa through the big room of displays and activities. I heard several aw cool's and awesome's as they moved from station to station learning about the math and science involved in this amazing animation.

How can she move her arms like that?
There were stations where you could create stop action video.

Budding filmmaker at work
Another where you could play with color and texture to change the appearance of surfaces.

Lots of fun changing surfaces in Ramone's garage
And a very hands-on table where you could build model robots from a variety of pieces.

So many choices how can you choose
These are only a few of the activity areas in this entertaining (and educational) exhibit. There is even a free educator guide that can be downloaded from the Telus World of Science website. It contains some fun activity sheets that we used as a homeschooling family but, I think, any parent could use depending on the interest level of their children. 

The Science Behind Pixar runs until January 7, 2018, at the Telus World of Science Edmonton so there is still plenty of time to visit. I'm not sure where it runs next but I would absolutely encourage you to chek it out if it comes to your area.

Monday, 6 November 2017

A Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Day! Celebrating Dick Van Dyke's 90th Birthday at Disneyland!

Dick Van Dyke with his wife Arlene and Mary Poppins at the Jolly Holiday Bakery and Café dedication
I've been looking through some of my old blog posts recently and came across this one from a couple of years ago that had managed to escape being published. Although it is old news, I thought I'd share.

The wonderful thing about being flexible and keeping your eyes and ears open when you travel is the fun, sometimes once in a lifetime, events you can stumble upon. Even with Disney vacations, there can be an element of the unexpected if you are willing to 'go with the flow' and make changes to your plans when something comes up. We've been able to attend Annual Passholder events including special movie screenings, got to meet the 'voice of Mickey Mouse', and enjoyed the first 'Glow with the Show' performance of Fantasmic a few years ago. Sure, we did have to adjust our plans a little but the memories we made were worth it.

This week I had the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream - to 'meet' Bert the chimney sweep in person. OK, I know Bert is an imaginary character and no, I was not quite close enough to shake Mr. Van Dyke's hand, but I did get the chance to see him right up close during the special dedication at the Jolly Holiday Bakery and Café. As one of the many fans who arrived early, I was able to nab a prime spot right near the steps where he demonstrated a few of the nimble dance moves he is so famous for. We hadn't planned to attend and, in fact, weren't aware it was happening until late last week. We had planned to drive down the coast on Sunday but didn't think twice about spending the day at Disneyland instead.

Mary Poppins has always been one of my favorite movies. I remember our elementary school used to run movies in the gym one weekend a month and every month I would vote for Mary Poppins. Of course, this was back before we had Netflix, DVD players or even VCRs so you had to actually access the film reels to watch your beloved characters come to life. I do love Julie Andrews and wanted to grow up to sing just like her, but Mary Poppins would not have been the movie it was without the performance of Dick Van Dyke. Walt Disney certainly knew what he was doing when he asked him to play the part.

A group photo of us waiting for Mr. Van Dyke from the Facebook event page
Following the dedication, there was a birthday serenade from the balcony of the Dream Suite. Sadly, I wasn't able to get any pictures of this one since the crowd had gotten huge by then. I decided to focus on getting over to the parade route in anticipation of the Birthday Cavalcade Pre-Parade event on Main Street.

Knowing that I wanted to get a good spot, my husband staked out a bench at the end of Main Street, near the statue of Walt and Mickey Mouse. It was a terrific spot and the day was sunny and warm. Disney Parks cast members visited with the children in the crowd, handing out postcards and crayons so they could write letters to Santa. There was a festive mood all along the street.

The Disneyland Band entertains the crowd prior to the afternoon parade
The huge crowd was dotted throughout with a variety of chimney sweeps and even a couple of characters from some of his other movies. A cheer went up when it was announced we would be celebrating Dick Van Dykes 90th birthday. Even with a several fans in assorted costumes (some handing out paper kites to folks in the crowd) not everyone had figured out what was going on.

Mary Poppins on her carousel horse from Mickey's Soundsational Parade led the cavalcade
Dick and Arlene Van Dyke in Walt's runabout
Dick and Arlene Van Dyke arrived on Main Street in one of Walt's runabouts, followed by a group of dancing penguins and a very energetic crew of chimney sweeps. It's wonderful to see how popular this very talented man continues to be. Of course, I shouldn't be surprised since our eight-year-old grandson loves to watch DVDs of the old Dick Van Dyke show (the one where Rob brings home a pair of ducks left over from a show is one of his favorites!)

The afternoon ended with the crowd singing Happy Birthday to the man of the hour before he boarded the train at the Main Street Station. But the day wasn't yet complete for me. I still had to head back to the Jolly Holiday for one of their special cupcakes! Quite satisfactory :)

Special cupcake celebrating Dick Van Dyke's 90th Birthday from the Jolly Holiday

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Sunday Drive, A National Park, and A New App

Big Horn Sheep enjoying a sunny morning in Radium
*This post contains affiliate links and I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through them.

I love trying out new apps and finding one that can help enhance our road trips takes it to the top of my list. I recently tried one of the Explora apps from Parks Canada on our drive home from the Okanagan Valley. Simple to use and available for free on Google Play and the App Store, this handy app is like your own personal tour guide, providing information as you follow along with one of the national park scenic drives.

I actually fell upon this app while enjoying breakfast at the Best Western in Invermere, B.C. as I was looking for not-to-miss stops on our drive through Kootenay National Park. It was super easy to install and I was able to load it on my phone at the hotel so no data needed except for your GPS location (a good thing since cell coverage in the parks can be a spotty thing.)

Leaving our hotel, EJ opened the app, chose our route (Radium to Banff NP) and a friendly voice explained the tour would begin in 9 kilometres (the tour begins 5 minutes before you enter the park and then uses your location to trigger each of the segments.) He thought that was pretty cool and tried to keep track of the distance. True to its word, as soon as we arrived in Radium and approached the park’s visitor centre, we were treated to some tips for what to see on our stop there from the Visitor Centre Supervisor, Brenda Danyluk. This was also our first chance to push the dice button on the app and do the quiz. The answer can be found in the visitor centre display. It's worth the stop.

After a short, visit we were back on the road with the app providing us directions to the park entrance. This was handy since all of the road construction made finding our turn-off a bit tricky. Heading out of town we drove by the "Home of a 1000 Faces". Home to the Radium Woodcarver, Rolf Heer, this quirky art studio, complete with life-size carvings and a herd of pet goats (they live on the roof of his house) is a popular tourist spot for families. (The affordable admission is cash only.)

Entering the park we passed through the amazing Sinclair Canyon. According to our tour guide, Ross, it is the "dramatic door to Kootenay National Park." I would have to agree but, unfortunately, I was unable to snap a picture since the parking lot that Ross directed us to was closed and full of construction vehicles.

Next spot on the tour is Radium Hot Springs. Listed on the Canadian Register of Historic Places, these pools (Canada's largest hot springs pool) have been enjoyed by families for over 50 years. The hot pool is my personal favorite but the cool (swimming) pool is nice for little ones (they rent bathing suits in case you forget yours.) The water here is amazing, without the sulphur smell you often associate with hot springs. (Note: There is a lot of construction in the area so best to check the website to ensure you are not disappointed on the day of your visit.)

Hearing the putt-putt-sputter sound of a Model T Ford, EJ was interested to hear what the road had been like “back in the day.” Imagining how tough it would have been to travel great distances in those old jalopies was a great jumping off point for his latest adventure. As luck would have it, a truck hauling a vintage Ford truck passed us during this section of the drive.

Ross advised a stop at the next turn-out for amazing views and photo opportunities and we weren’t dissapointed. The Kootenay Valley Viewpoint is spectacular and an amazing spot for EJ to practice the photography skills he is learning in the Techie Homeschool Mom's Photography Club. This roadside turnout is a popular place so I can imagine it getting pretty full in the height of summer travel season.

EJ trying out his skills

We could see the damage from wildfires on the mountainsides through Lightning Alley as we listened to a firefighter recount his experiences. Hearing from someone who had been in the fires brought it all to life. EJ was fascinated to hear how quickly the devastating flames had spread and what the fire crews had done to try to control them.

A panoramic view of an area of regrowth following devastating wildfires
Although there is no tour stop for it, there is a great roadside pullout, complete with bathrooms and picnic tables, where the kids (and big people) can get out of the vehicle and stretch their legs. There is a model of a wildlife underpass where they can pretend to be an elk wondering through to find his dinner or drive over the top as a big rig. Either way, they can burn off some steam, have a snack and be ready for the rest of the drive.

Our final stop before leaving Kootenay NP and entering the equally beautiful Banff NP was at the Continental Divide (it's the highest spot on the route and straddles the border between British Columbia and Alberta.) Here, we are asked the question, "If a bear peed here, which way would it flow?" (Ok, so maybe I prefer to wonder which oceans the rivers run into or when it rains which way does the water run but you get the idea.) EJ loves to watch for the spot where the river seems to run in opposite directions at the same time (we've crossed the Continental Divide many, many times.)

The Continental Divide
Throughout our drive, various parks staff shared stories of wildlife interactions. These stories are great reminders to respect the park and its furry inhabitants (yes, this means not stopping to take selfies with a bear!) There are also quizzes and insider tips to go along with several of the suggested stops. These are easy to access through buttons along the bottom of the screen. I really liked this set-up since EJ could manage our tour from the back seat. He loved reading the tips and instructions to us.

Overall, I thought this app was a lot of fun and educational too. It's full of stories and information on the park, its wildlife and things to do here (I didn't include all the stops at trailheads here but there are a few.) I'm looking forward to checking out some of the others available from Parks Canada in the near future.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

A Fall Visit to the Okanagan Valley

One of the several orchards in Kelowna
One of our favorite reasons for homeschooling is the ability to pick up our work and head out on the road at any opportunity. These can be for many different reasons but this week it was to travel with our eldest daughter to the Okanagan Valley for a conference she was attending there. It works out well, I do the driving and she lets EJ and I bunk in her room.

Although we live in southern Alberta, this area of British Columbia isn't one that we visit often. Not sure why that is because a) it is a beautiful area and b) it isn't a very long drive (ok, maybe 9 hours considering traffic through the parks is a bit much for some but pretty usual for us.) From Calgary, you drive through a number of National Parks, including Banff and Glacier (the Canadian one) before heading south into what many consider to be the "California of Canada" for its many orchards and wineries. Surrounded by the Columbia, Cascade, and Coastal Mountains, this fertile valley was formed 10,000 years ago when mile-thick ice layers retreated, leaving behind valuable sedimentary deposits that have been added to over time by mountain river erosion and flooding that brought nutrient-rich soils that today support the vibrant agricultural economy of the area.

For this trip, we stayed in Kelowna, a city on the banks of Okanagan Lake, the largest in the area. Although we don't normally book hotels in downtown areas, it was the location of V's meetings so we made the best of it. Sadly, while our hotel's advertising touted "various view options" for their rooms, the most common are of a vacant lot and mission hostel on one side and Highway 97A on the other. (the views from the suites and meeting rooms at the front of the hotel are quite nice, they face the park.) This did not make a great first impression, nor did the booming music from the nightclub next door that went on until the wee hours (we heard from others that you don't hear it from the highway side.) While the hotel is located across the street from the beautiful City Park and Hot Sand Beach, the homeless village that pops up each evening put a damper on any thoughts of an evening stroll. Note: this is one of the reasons I check Google Street View when booking accommodation when I am unfamiliar with an area.

The "view" from our balcony. Note the trees from City Park
and the mountains around the lake in the distance.
I do have to say the hotel did have its good points; friendly staff, good service, delicious food for the meetings, lovely spa-quality bathing products, and handy to the highway for getting out and about, but the location would not be my choice for a stay, especially with children. (For our family, traveling with children = using a luggage cart, staying on the third floor presented an issue with this as you can see from the photo below of the "ramp" leading to our room. We later found out that the second floor did not have stairs so no need for a ramp.)

The ramp for getting our luggage cart to the room.
While the location of our accommodations was a bit of a concern, the city of Kelowna itself is a lovely spot. Even in September, the weather was lovely and we were able to take advantage of apple picking season. The hilly area surrounding the town boasts an abundance of fruit trees and grape vines and several fruit stands/shops. The one we chose to visit even had a small cider tasting room where I was able to find a nice bottle of pear ice cider to bring home along with the delicious Honey Crisp and Fuji apples for Thanksgiving pies. EJ picked up a basket of crabapples for jelly...why do I feel this may turn into a science experiment?!

There were still apples on the trees but many had hit the ground
...cider anyone?
Another of Kelowna's several parks is home to the annual Kikinee Salmon Festival. EJ and I headed down to Mission Creek Park while V attended her meetings. The festival celebrates the return of Kokanee salmon, a freshwater version of the Pacific Sockeye, who live their lives in area lakes, returning at about age four to the same stream where they were hatched to spawn, completing their life cycle.

After a morning rain shower, the sunny day brought out quite a crowd and, with several activities for the littles to try, kept them around for most of the day. EJ's first stop was at the Okanagan First Nations tent where he learned about the early days of salmon fishing and the legend of N'ha-a-itk, the fierce lake monster who inhabits Lake Okanagan at Squally Point. Many folks know him by the name Ogopogo, a name he was given back in the 20's but whatever he is called, legend has it that he is about 25 meters long, green with a body like a snake. Whether he has a head of a horse, goat, or a reptile, I don't think he would be my first choice for a swimming partner!

Kid powered OgoPogo
After joining in to help create N'ha-a-itk, EJ headed off to practice some archery with the Scouts Canada group, learned about drumming, painted a picture of a spawning Kokanee (you can tell it's spawning by the colour), learned about the different stages of salmon eggs, and finally made his way to the spawning channel where he joined other kids to cheer on the silvery, red and green salmon as they worked their way up the waterfalls to their final destination. If this is something you have never seen in person it is certainly worth the visit. (I can't seem to get my video to post here today but you can see it on YouTube here.)

One of the salmon spotted during the run
Even though we had studied the life cycle of a salmon, seeing them up close and personal brings a whole new perspective to the daunting challenge they face in returning to their hatching grounds to lay their own eggs and complete their lives. BC Ministry of fisheries has a nice handout on the Kokanee that covers the basics.

Having fun learning about salmon
EJ was having a great time and the day was sunny and warm so we stayed until the end of the festival, even after some of the tents had already packed up. Mission Creek Park also boasts a fun multisensory playground that has separate areas for kids from two to twelve so we stopped there to play on our way back to our car. Never one to pass a good playground, EJ quickly made some "new friends" and burned off a ton of energy. The Octanet rope climbing structure is popular with the bigger kids and EJ was no different. He managed to climb to the top several times before we had to leave and join V for dinner.

Lots of fun on the Octanet
We decided to take it easy the next day and stuck close to our room. Following up on our visit to the salmon run, we decided to focus on our science studies. Since we had just signed up for the free version of Mystery Science we logged in to do some animal studies. This lead to weather and water units plus surfing the web for information on salmon in particular. We're looking forward to doing more of these units over the coming weeks (I'll be sure to review the program here once we do!)

The next day was beautiful and sunny and we took advantage of it. After taking a walk in City Park (a beautiful spot in the daytime) we met one of my cousins for coffee at Tim's (this recently opened location is in the old Paramount Theatre building, right downtown and a quick walk from the park and waterfront, very handy for lunch or a quick snack.) We decided to take a drive up to Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park and Myra Trestles in the afternoon but quickly realized we hadn't left ourselves enough time for a walk to the trestles of the old Kettle Valley Railway after navigating the dirt and gravel road that is liberally equipped with some of the most fascinating potholes I've seen in a while. I read (later) that the area had sustained major damage during the 2003 wildfires that destroyed 12 of the 16 trestles. The Myra Canyon Restoration Society has done an amazing amount of work in rebuilding the trestles and trails so future generations can enjoy the historic area. Definitely a spot for our next visit.

After a long drive on an interesting road, we arrived at one of the parking areas for Myra-Bellevue Park
Our afternoon visit opened up a discussion about wildfires and the damage they do but also how they are a part of the natural cycle of forests. We've had a number of smoky days in southern Alberta due to this summer's fires so it was easy to understand how far reaching their effects can be. We would see some of this devastation as we drove home through Kootenay National Park later in the week but that is for another post. It was the first time we had used one of Parks Canada's Explora apps, I highly recommend them.

Our late summer "holiday" was coming to a close, time to head for home just in time for our first winter storm warning of the year (oh yes, complete with frozen pipes and all!) Although it was only a few days, our time in the Okanagan Valley was fun and we hope to get back for another visit soon.

In the meantime, we're looking forward to our next adventure...did someone mention New Mexico? Have I mentioned how much we love roadschooling?

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 (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 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.