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What’s New In Orlando This Summer (Hint: It Involves Olaf and Harry Potter)

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

If you’re planning a trip to Orlando this summer, you’re in luck: Several way-cool attractions and resorts have opened or are debuting soon. Don’t miss:

* Frozen Summer Fun Live!
Since your kids can’t get enough of Anna, Elsa, and Olaf, Disney is launching Frozen-themed activities and character appearances at Hollywood Studios from July 5 to September 1. Highlights include Anna & Elsa’s Royal Welcome on a horse-drawn sleigh at 11 am daily, a 20-minute sing-a-long celebration in the Premiere Theatre presented several times daily, a “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” area with winter activities, an ice skating rink, and Frozen Fireworks at 9:45 pm daily. How cool does all that sound?

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley
Calling all wizards in training: This much-anticipated area of Universal Studios will hold its grand opening on July 8. Families can ride the Hogwarts Express back and forth from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Hogsmeade (inside Islands of Adventure, the sister park of Universal Studios) to this new re-creation of London. Several other fun rides and attractions are on tap too; learn more here.

The B Resort & Spa
The stylish (but not stuffy) property recently opened in the Downtown Disney area. Many rooms feature bunk beds and kitchenettes. You can borrow an iPad or hang at the pool area, which has lots of fun features for kids. Bus transportation is provided to Disney Parks.Get a Parents-exclusive deal: For $560 (a $120-discount), you can stay two nights in a room with bunk beds, receive four complimentary breakfast buffets at American Q, get four items from the B Treated Tray, and snag four ice-cream cones at The Pickup. Use promo code PARENTS; offer valid for stays between now and September 30, 2014; book by July 31.

Walt Disney World: Ease Your Trip With Magic Bands
Walt Disney World: Ease Your Trip With Magic Bands
Walt Disney World: Ease Your Trip With Magic Bands

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One of the Coolest Science Exhibits Ever

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Last year, Parents rated Philadelphia as one of the 10 best cities for families to visit. If it’s in your summer plans, be sure to check out the massive new exhibit, Your Brain, that opens at The Franklin Institute tomorrow. Almost 10 years in the making, the exhibit has dozens of interactive features. When my daughter and a few friends (ages 9 to 12) visited during a sneak peek event earlier this week, they were blown away, and you know that tweens are not easily impressed. Some highlights:

The exhibit starts out with a large screen that lets you see your own skelten. Jump, bend your leg, raise your hand, and the skelton on the screen will move too.

 

The visuals in all the displays were bold and fun, like this one that demos what a brain scan is like.

The kids spent a half-hour on two-story climbing structure, complete with lighting and sound effects, that represents brain pathways. They would have stayed in there all day if we let them.

Many of the activities in the exhibit are geared to kids ages 8 to 13. But if younger sibs are exploring too, making a face on this magnetic board will be fun for them (and so will that climbing structure!).

Another section of the exhibit focuses on illusions. I won’t give away all the surprises, but be sure to go in the bedroom. I took this pic of the kids in an area designated for photo ops.

Bonus! A traveling exhibit, Circus Science Under the Big Top, is at the Franklin Instutute through September 1. Check out the dress-up area with amazing costumes (of all sizes), a tight rope that kids who weigh 50 pounds or more can walk on, and circus games.

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5 New Children’s Books to Check Out

Friday, June 13th, 2014

A few weeks ago, I took my 11-year-old daughter, Katie, to BookExpo America in New York City, where many adult and children’s publishers have their latest titles plus sneak peeks of upcoming ones for fall and winter. Our fave finds:

Frozen Hide-And-Hug Olaf

It’s Disney’s version of Elf on the Shelf. The box contains a new Frozen story with a hide-and-seek theme, and a plush Olaf that parents are supposed to hide for kids to find (and hug). It will be available at the end of October; here’s a link for pre-order.

A World Without Princes

This is the second part of a chapter-book triology called the School for Good and Evil. It’s perfect for 8- to 12-year-olds, especially those who are fans of fantasy fiction. The kids who reviewed the first book in the series for Parents Best Books story last year loved it, and it was a close runner-up for the Best Chapter Book. (In fact, it was Katie’s top choice.) We had a chance to meet the author, Harvard-educated, Soman Chainani, who says he wrote the series because “growing up he watched a lot of Disney movies and felt that the good characters weren’t always the most interesting ones.” Both books are available now; my daughter says the second one is even better than the first.

Sisters

Over at the Scholastic booth, Katie was drawn to advance copies of this graphic novel paperback. She recognized the name of the author (Raina Telgemeier) because she had read Smile, a story that Raina wrote in 2010. Katie finished the book before we left New York City: Sisters is a breezy (yet satisfying) read about siblings who patch up their relationship. It’s coming out at the end of August; pre-order here.

JoJo’s First Word Book

Once we got past the crowds waiting to see Grumpy Cat in the Chronicle Books book, we were struck by the adorableness of this title. It features more than 200 objects and a carrying handle. You can watch a video about it here or buy it here.

Kid Presidents

We’re fans of non-fiction, and this chapter book for kids 8 to 12 is so clever, delivering quirky childhood stories from 16 presidents. (For instance, kids will learn that FDR’s mom followed him everywhere and that Harry Truman broke a collarbone while combing his hair.) It will be available in October; pre-order here.

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Travel Advice from the Kids

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

I don’t know about your kids, but my 11-year-old has very strong opinions about our family vacations. It also amazes me what has stuck with her the most from her trips over the years—for instance, she still talks about the hotel in Orlando we stayed at several years ago that gives out rubber-band bracelets for free ice cream. According to this cool infographic, 66% of kids help plan daily vacation activities and 63% of parents say their children has influenced their vacation decision. Has yours?

 

Why We Loved Our Disney Cruise
Why We Loved Our Disney Cruise
Why We Loved Our Disney Cruise

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Harry Potter Fans: All Aboard!

Friday, January 24th, 2014

If you’ve got a wizard-in-training at home, you might want to start planning a trip to Universal Orlando. Since 2010, Universal’s Islands of Adventure has been home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a magical land with rides, shops, and restaurants that transports you into J.K. Rowling’s beloved books. This summer, the company plans to open another Harry Potter-themed area, Diagon Alley, at its sister park Universal Studios. A Hogwarts Express train (the place where Harry, Ron, and Hermoine—the three main characters in the series—first met) will transport you between the two parks. My daughter, who started reading the books shortly after her eighth birthday, flipped when I told her that. (Side note: Check out her HP Birthday party from a couple of years ago.)

I listened in on a webcast yesterday, and then spoke with Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, to try to pry a few more details out of him. I wondered how long the train ride would be, and while he couldn’t give me a time, he promised that it would be “an experience.” Once you’re in Diagon Alley (the area in London where Harry and the other wizards buy their wands and other supplies for wizardry), you’ll see the Knight Bus, a purple double-decker that provides emergency transport for a stranded wizard. Although Woodbury told me that kids won’t be able to climb in and pretend to drive (that would be a fun photo opp), he did say that the bus would have interactive features. He hinted that it will involve a “shrunken head.” I had no idea what he could possibly be talking about, but my daughter thinks it might have something to do with the animated shrunken head that Harry Potter once encountered on the Knight Bus.

Diagon Alley will also feature Escape from Gringotts—a multisensory ride that’s along the lines of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World. This one will take guests through the vaults of the Goblin bank. There’s no word on other rides yet, but Woodbury mentioned that Universal will be announcing some things in the next couple of months that will especially appeal to younger Harry Potter fans.

The new area will also have its own Ollivander’s Wand Shop, a popular attraction in The Wizarding World. A few years ago, my family waited in line over two hours to get in—but we were rewarded because my daughter was among a few guests chosen to participate in a “wand experience,” similar to how the wand choose Harry in the books and movies. Woodbury told me that the location in Diagon Alley will make the experience interactive for many more guests. Tons of shops and restaurants (including ones that serve Butterbeer and strawberry-peanut butter ice cream) are also planned.

If you’re thinking about where to stay if you do make a trip this summer, keep in mind that the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a new, value-priced hotel on Universal grounds with family suites, a bowling alley, and a lazy river ride, will open in March.

 

 

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Spread The Word: A Genius Way to Encourage Reading

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when this adorable back-to-school pic of my friend Gina’s daughter, Lili, popped up. Until I read the comments, I didn’t realize that what she’s standing next to isn’t merely a cute flower decoration. It’s actually a “reading vine” of the books that the family has enjoyed recently. “When Lili finishes a book, we add a pink paper flower to the vine,” Gina told me. “My husband and I put on a leaf for our books.” The family started making the vines when Lili was in kindergarten because she was a reluctant reader. “My husband and I are big readers and we wanted Lili to be as enthusiastic about books as we are,” recalls Gina. “We told her that we’d work together to make a vine to reach the ceiling.” Now entering fifth grade, Lili devours books. Her faves include the The Last Dragon Chronicles series and the Harry Potter books while Gina is challenging herself to read all 14 books in the Wheel of Time series. I’m inspired to start a reading vine in our house this school year. How about you?

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A Crafty Kid’s Paradise (Plus An Exclusive Discount)

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Last weekend, I took my daughter, her cousin, and two friends to check out the Crayola Experience in Easton, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Philadelphia and 90 minutes or so from New York City. Formerly known as The Crayola Factory, the children’s museum-like space closed its doors last winter for a complete makeover. The once-snoozy story about how crayons are made got an animated twist, a two-story play structure was constructed, and the arts and crafts became way cooler.

Our group loved the machines that molded a crayon into a shape—like a heart or a fish—and the ones where crayons are melted and spun to create funky spin-art designs shown in the picture. (For the record, the Crayola Experience supplied the image, but our “non-professional” versions looked almost as good.)

The kids also enjoyed drawing a picture and then turning it into a puzzle, doodling on glow-in-the-dark boards mounted to the wall (I want one for my family room), and personalizing a crayon label. Call me dorky, but I couldn’t resist making Parents Magazine Pink and Goodyblog Green to take home. We ran out of time to do the Coloring Page Photobooth (where kids get an image of themselves to color) and Modeling Madness (featuring Model Magic), but they looked cool.

While my crafting foursome ranged in age from 8 to 11, I think the “sweet spot” for visiting the Crayola Experience is 5 to 9, though kids from age 2 to 12 would certainly enjoy it. After five hours, each of the girls left with a bag stuffed with their creations as well as free crayons and markers. Sound like fun? The Crayola Experience is offering Parents an exclusive discount of $4 off each admission if you buy tickets by August 23, 2013 using this link. With the discount, tickets cost $11.99 for visitors age 2 and up. Kids 1 and under are free. Maybe I’ll see you there. My daughter and her friends are already asking to visit again!

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Win CityPASS Booklets

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Instead of buying individual admission to all the family-friendly attractions in a city you’re visiting, it’s much easier and cheaper to purchase a CityPASS booklet. In Philadelphia, for instance, if you bought adult admission to the five attractions in the booklet—the Franklin Institute and Adventure Aquarium among them—you’d shell out more than $100. The Philadelphia CityPass booklet, on the other hand, costs $59 for adults (and $39 for kids 12 and under). But my favorite thing about it is actually priceless: You gain VIP admission to attractions so you don’t have to wait in a long line with the kids.

Now the great news: To celebrate my 10 Best Cities for Families to Visit story in the August issue of Parents, CityPASS is giving away a chance to win a four-pack of passes to one of our “best” cities—Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or New York City, between July 15 and August 11. Four winners will be chosen. To enter, simply leave a comment about which our 10 Best Cities you would most like to visit. For full rules, click here. Good luck!

Congratulations to our winners: JaNae Pritchett, Amy Griffin, Jen Gold, and Kara Haning!

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