Monday, May 14, 2018

Road Trip: Saugatuck, Michigan - 3 day itinerary


We enjoyed our first weekend trip to the quaint, picturesque lake town of Saugatuck, Michigan and below are our recommendations of activities & restaurants for families with young children.

The town is very easy to navigate on foot and we recommend staying near the main street (there are some Inns and many VRBO/AirBNB offerings), so you can avoid looking for a parking spot. There is also a nice little playground in town that we frequented to let the kids run freely and to kill time while waiting for the ferry or duck boats to become available.

DAY 1


We left Chicago in the morning and arrived in Saugatuck just in time for lunch!

Mermaid Bar and Grill - American Fare (Kids Menus Available)
This restaurant sits along the water front, so the kids can watch the boats float by, and the food is good too! Servers were nice, attentive, and quick (which is key with young kids).

The Sweet Shop
We then wandered across the street to the Sweet Shop to enjoy chocolate dipped Oreo for dessert. The kids were thrilled, as was mom!

Saugatuck Chain Ferry - Crosses the River from Saugatuck to Douglas
This is a unique experience for kids - as it is the only hand-crank ferry still used in the United States! It is a small ferry, manned by college students (or high schoolers? It's so hard for me to tell nowadays) who crank a lever that pulls the ferry along a chain to the other side of the water.

Key Note: The chain ferry is often not able to run if the water is choppy. Which we learned the hard way. Twice. If you are on the other side and the ferry isn't running....there aren't a lot of easy options to get back to the other side.  Recommend riding it from Saugatuck, across the river, then riding it right back. This means you won't have to hitch hike like we did.

Mt. Baldhead Hike:
The Mount Baldhead Recreation Area most notably has a nearly 300-step staircase taking you to the top of the area to view the town and surrounding water. The hike is fun - the kids had energy to spare, which is perfect, as "sand dune jumping" awaits them at the top!

We made our way to Mt. Baldhead by the Chain Ferry, but then were stranded on the other side - would recommend taking a car and saving the chain ferry for a one-off experience.

DAY 2

Saugatuck Dunes State Park
This beach feels like your own private beach, most likely due to the hike it takes to get there. It is a beach within a state park (there is an unmanned entrance which requires a fee (cash only) - check the site here for the current Recreation Passport cost).

The hike from the parking area to the beach is a gorgeous, tree-filled forest (slightly buggy, be forewarned) - but pack light, it is about 2 miles in distance.

Center for the Arts
The local Center for the Arts has a quaint, beautiful garden mixed with art.  We strolled through it, as it was on our way into downtown and enjoyed stepping into the quiet area to enjoy the scenery.

Harbor Duck Adventure
Another family favorite - This amphibious vehicle was previously used in WWII and now provides some entertainment and information to tourists to get a land and water view of the towns of Saugatuck and Douglas.  It was a fun trip (the driver was a funny guy) and we even walked away with some good nuggets.  Kids loved getting into the water!

Key Note: When I say it sells out fast, I'm not kidding.  It only seats 20 people, so make sure to get there early. They also may have a private tour happening (this happened to us). We learned a lot about flexibility on this trip :)

Shops & Playground:
Between the town tour and dinner, the kids enjoyed the little playground downtown.  It is on the west side, near the Chain Ferry and across the street from public bathrooms. Pretty genius, truly.  Many families enjoy the little shops as well - so make sure to check those out (you can watch the waffle cones being made at Kilwins)!

Saugatuck Brewing Company
Our family enjoys breweries (well, not the younger members, but you know what I mean), so this location hit the spot.  Casual with good beers and food. We had a flight of beers, which was fun and the boys enjoyed the little sports/billiards room nearby to pass time as we waited for our food.

Saugatuck Antique Pavilion
If there is a wait to get into the brewery, we heard the antique pavilion is a fun place to pass the time.  We were able to get in right away to the restaurant and never had a chance to pop over.  If you it out and let us know how it was in the comments!

DAY 3

As this was our check-out day, we packed up in the morning and headed to Oval Beach.

Oval Beach
This beach is more easily accessed than Saugatuck Dunes State Park, so it is best to arrive early to find parking and claim a place on the beach.  It is more active with people and the beach itself is nice, though a bit narrow.  Kids had a fun time!

Earl's Berry Farm
While this location is no longer open, there were several similar You-Pick farms along the road.  It was great to break up the drive home and so fun for the kids to run around picking blueberries.  They had an awesome time and a great snack for the remainder of the ride home!

Location/Transportation:
About a 2.5-3 hour drive from Chicago.

Kid's Jury: 5 stars
Had a great time relaxing and enjoying a weekend of small town shops, picturesque beaches, and unique experiences. Over and above the activities, the kids really loved the time at the beaches the most.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Activity: Dragon Lights at Soldier Field


We were excited to take a walk through the special exhibit in Chicago through May 6: Dragon Lights

It was tough to rally ourselves as the weather had been so chilly and the illuminated displays are all outside. Thankfully, the warm weather appeared and we jumped at the chance to visit the event.

We arrived just before the sun set, which gave us the opportunity to take photos where you could see both us and the lights.  And the kids (and adults) enjoyed watching the exhibit transform into bright and colorful displays as the sun disappeared. 

Noteworthy:

  • The nightly performance has four acts and the boys were entertained (as you can see by our youngest basically climbing onto the stage).
  • There was a tunnel to see the "Year of the [Animal]" - so we found our assigned animals for each of the kids (Dragon and Tiger).
  • The space was not over-crowded and there was a lot to see.
  • Recommend grabbing dinner before attending, as the food vendor is one option and the line is long.














Cost Savings:
There is a family of 4 package deal you can purchase online - under $50 for everyone!
Parking for the event (covered) is $15.

Location/Transportation:
Soldier Field
Can take the Red Line to Roosevelt; Various Buses; or Park ($15)

Kid's Jury: 5 stars
The boys really liked it, especially the performance!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Activity: Funtopia


For city-dwellers, Funtopia is definitely worth a trek to the suburbs. We have now been twice and as we left the second time, the boys were already discussing what they would be doing on our next visit (which of course includes a stop to indulge in Cookies by Design  across the street - curse you, well placed sweet shop).

The "Fun Zone" includes 40 climbing walls (some with interactive components), a ropes course, a cave system, giant slide, and free fall.  There is also a jungle gym available for the youngest family members.

Funtopia does a great job managing the number of people in each session so it never feels over-crowded. There are rarely lines, so you can really make the most of your time there. 

There are a few areas that tend to have wait times, so be sure to visit these immediately or when lines are lower (many of these names are made up; photos below):

  • Build Your Own 
  • Ledge Jumps
  • Skyscraper Walk


Age-Range:
The facility is best for kids 5-10 years old.

  • Younger kids enjoy several of the climbing structures and the cave system.
  • The older kids have an easier time on the walls and can try their skills at the ropes course.  
  • For children under 5, there is a jungle gym area so they can have fun while their older siblings are in the Fun Zone.

Noteworthy:

  • Registration can take some time - Complete the waiver online and (still) arrive at least 15 minutes early to check in and receive your harness and "training," as the queue can be long.
  • The staff is incredibly helpful in helping you latch and release the pully for each activity.
  • To try the Ropes Course, children must be at least 52" tall.
  • You may take in snacks and drinks, as there are only a few vending machines available.
  • Though there are some tables and chairs, they are a hot commodity.

Cost:
The cost includes your harness and bases the pricing on the length of stay (1, 1.5, or 2 hours) and activity options selected.

Location/Transportation:
Funtopia is in Glenview, Illinois and located in the Glen Town Center. While parking is free, allow yourself some time to find a spot.

Since we make the trip out, we like to tack on a breakfast or lunch and fit in a bit of shopping as well, given they are located near a sports store and a movie theater! And you can't escape the smell of those fresh baked cookies...

Kid's Jury: 5 stars
My kids love this place. My 5 year old could zip up the Commando Ladder and Skyscraper Walk all day (and a few more activities, but those are his favorite).  My 7 year old loves it all, even the caves.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Road Trip: Ski Lessons (Wilmot Mountain)



Ready to embrace this winter weather and challenge your kids (or yourself) with some downhill skiing?  Try out this nearby mountain...

We took a quick road trip to Wilmot Mountain for a kid's half day lesson (9:30 am - noon).

It was our 7 year old son's first time on skis and first time seeing a ski resort. The resort is cozy and easy to maneuver with (resort map) a ski school, rental area, main chalet (food, drink, lounge, small store, etc), and trails.

The ski school check-in is efficient, and they quickly had us signed in and on our way to pick up our rentals (see Rentals note below). Instructors were easily visible, good at directing us to the next steps, and patient answering my numerous questions.

Once rentals were in hand, we were running late, and the ski instructors were great about quickly joining our son with the rest of his class on the mountain (i.e. bunny hill).

The school is strict on their parent drop-off policy, keeping anxious moms (me) and dads at a distance so the kids can focus on learning the ropes. I tried to watch for a bit, and then couldn't figure out which kid was mine and sought solace at the nearby (warm) chalet.

From what I saw of the lessons, the kids receive good instruction and by the end, Chase was able to go down the full bunny hill unassisted and successfully maneuvered himself through narrow cones!

Noteworthy:
  • Rentals: If you need rentals, arrive with plenty of time.  It took us a full 30 minutes to get our boots, skis, and helmet - and we had pre-registered online. The area is TIGHT and difficult to figure out the first time. That said, staff was incredibly helpful and did their best to keep lines moving.
  • Goggles: Rentals do not come with goggles, but would highly recommend you borrow/purchase some. 
  • Viewing Lessons: It is difficult to get a good view of the kids in lessons, depending on where they are on the mountain. And the fact that every kid looks the same size and is most likely wearing the identical black and gray colors and matching rental helmets. 
  • Food: Walt's Tavern is on property, with a fire pit outside. The cafeteria has a mix of comfort foods and snacks.
  • Tubing: They have a large tubing hill (which we didn't experience), and it looks amazing.

Cost Savings:
You probably know this, but skiing isn't cheap.
  • If your family gets the ski-bug (much better than this year's flu bug), be sure to review their website for deals on season passes, bulk discounts, or Epic passes (deductions at Colorado destinations and more).  
  • Groupon may have deals for ski resorts in the area as well.

Location/Transportation:
Other Locations near downtown Chicago with ski lessons for kids:
All locations are closer to downtown, though classes look more expensive

Kid's Jury: 4 stars
So while my son gave it 3 stars, I added a star as his rating is very misleading. His only complaint was that he didn't get to do harder aspects of skiing.  Everyone has to start with the basics, so he got a little bored and I should have set expectations on the first lesson teaching basic skills; not going down a black diamond. 

Random Recommendation: For first time skiers, I recommend starting with a private lesson (if affordable) to get a sense of skill level. I wish we would have done this to make it is easier to determine his skill level for future group lessons (avoiding boredom or over-taxing on either end of the spectrum).

Friday, February 2, 2018

Activity: Magic Tree House Musical


With CPS giving students the day off, I had the opportunity to take my boys to a musical at Apollo Theater in Lincoln Park: Magic Tree House: Showtime with Shakespeare

While the boys have had a taste of performances in the past through Broadway (in Chicago) and Cirque, I was excited for this, as it is based on one of the Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne: Stage Fright on a Summer Night. 

Our family loves these books - the wild adventures of Jack and Annie, while learning about various people and places throughout history.

We weren't disappointed! 

The boys were thrilled to be in a theater and enjoyed the full Hamilton-influenced performance from beginning to end (runs about an hour). 

You better snag tickets now!  The show only runs through Feb 25, 2018!

Noteworthy:

  • Was glad to have read the book prior to seeing the musical, to understand a few elements prior: who is Shakespeare; what play was he showcasing, etc.
  • Had a kids program, where we could play a Jack and Annie version of Mad Libs.  Loved it.
  • The show was packed with families and students on field trips, ranging from 5-12 years old.
  • After the play, the actors interacted with the audience by asking questions based on the story and let the kids ask questions of the cast.  The kids loved it (and had great questions).
  • There are a few dining options near the theater, we really enjoyed the tacos and environment at Broken English Taco Pub.

Cost Savings:
There are discounts with field trips and larger groups.

Location/Transportation:

  • Apollo Theater in Lincoln Park
  • We found $3 parking right across from the theater for the full afternoon (Spot Hero).
  • El stops and bus stops are nearby as well.


Kid's Jury: 5 stars
Kids had a great time, and I love to see them enjoy theater and great stories with themes to which they can related.

"Mad Libs" while you wait?  Yes, please!


Monday, October 30, 2017

Activity: Ultimate Ninjas


As winter approaches, it is good to have some indoor activity options for your kids and play dates that do not involve your home being torn apart by stir crazy kids. 

This is where Ultimate Ninjas comes in.

The space is basically a training ground to prepare you for the TV Show American Ninja Warrior

Sure sure, the space offers great opportunities for birthday parties, classes, and camps, but who knows how long you may have to wait for an invitation to Susie's party....never fear, they also have open play times!

Noteworthy:

  • There is something for everyone - there was a wide variety age group of kids and everyone was having a blast. There are short lines for the favorite activities and all the kids we saw were incredibly respectful and patient with each other.
  • There is a strict age requirement of six years old. We learned this the hard way.  
  • Only kids are allowed in the equipment area, parents are asked to linger on the outer rim.
  • There are cubbies for coats/hats and a small vending machine with drinks and snacks.
  • The facility is clean and well-maintained.

Cost Savings: 
You can sign up for one or two hours of open play.
We purchased one hour and it was perfect - very reasonably priced (however, check the site for costs).

Location/Transportation:
The Chicago location is near California/Montrose in the Albany Park Neighborhood.

  • CTA Brown Line (Fransico Stop) is a 10 min walk.
  • Parking in the area isn't too bad (but have Spot Hero available just in case).

Kid's Jury: 5 stars
Kids had a blast and we will be using this heavily over the cold months ahead! Perfect for getting friends together! (Parents also give 5 stars!)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Activity: Chicago Transportation for Kids

With so many great ways to get around and enjoy Chicago, you shouldn't only flag a taxi!

Below is a quick run-down of our tested transit options in the city, in hopes you will try some of these yourself (in alpha order):



Chicago Transit Authority (Bus/Train CTA)
Reasons to try:
Kids love public transportation - there is so much to see!  Especially trains - Why not test out the real thing, taking the El (train) a few stops next time you are in town?  The elevated trains are great, because you can get a bird's eye view of the city below and even come eye level with some of the best murals in the loop!

Fares are low (and free for kids under 7), and the stops are close to parks, restaurants, and so much more...




Double Decker Bus Tours
Reasons to try:
The tour gives a great overview of the downtown area for tourists (and these locals!), with the option to hop on and off throughout the day(s). They will point out good tourist destinations, interesting building information, and popular museums and restaurants to try.

Even as "seasoned locals," my kids really liked this tour. They loved being on top, surrounded by the buildings and hearing about the Chicago Fire & other fun facts.

Notes:
The two most popular double decker bus tours in Chicago are the Big Bus and Chicago Trolley. The one we tried was Big Bus, so my notes are specific to that company.

  • The company offers a variety of cost options, based on the route and number of days selected. 
  • The most important factor to your experience is the tour guide. If you don't enjoy their style, get off the bus and wait for the next one. Buses come frequently - usually every 10-15 min. 
    • Shout out to our guide Lance-Romance from the Southside - he was the best!
  • If the bus is full up top, spots tend to open up at these stops: 
    • Museum Campus (Shedd), Water Tower, Navy Pier, Millennium Park, Willis Tower
    • It may be worth a few stops sitting on the lower level for first dibs on the spots when they open.
  • If planning to visit Willis Tower, the best plan is to arrive before they open to avoid long waits, thus truncating the rest of your day. 




Horse & Carriage Ride
Reasons to try:
This is a unique ride around a small radius of downtown, including John Hancock, Water Tower, and the Lake. Longer tours can be arranged, but not sure it is worth the time or cost.  My boys enjoyed it (though embarrassingly, their favorite part was the horse relieving itself), but started to get antsy near the end.

Notes:
  • There are various options for tours: 20 minutes was good for us on the city/lake tour.
  • Purchasing rides onsite are cash only. 
  • You can purchase online tickets, but will still have to wait in line and horses may not come if too hot/cold.






Rickshaw 
Reasons to try:
Such a fun, unique experience!  The boys loved it - it was a fun way to get somewhere and feel the wind in our hair!

Notes:
  • Rickshaws can be found all around the city at popular tourist destinations (there is a large number staged at Willis Tower, Navy Pier, etc...)
  • Locals can even hop on after a concert or festival - your very own designated driver!
















Boat Tours
Reasons to try:
These are one of my favorite ways to enjoy the city in the summer.  There are so many options for boat tours: River tour, Lake tour, fast, or slow - you will find something to meet your needs. Great views along the river.

Notes:
We have taken Architectural tours on both the Wendella Boat Tour and Chicago's First Lady.  Both are great experiences with amazing views of the city and great information.
  • Docents are volunteers from the Chicago Architectural Foundation with a true passion and knowledge of Chicago
  • Tours are along the river, and some take in the lake and even some with the fireworks! 
  • There are so many boat tours and they depart from Navy Pier, the Riverwalk, or near the Wrigley Building. Make sure you know where you are heading to avoid confusion!



Chicago Water Taxi
Reasons to try:
Kids love a water taxi!  And so do we! It's such a fun, relaxing way to get around the city - with stops along the river and lake. Not the fastest way to travel, but one of our favorites.

Notes:
  • Many stops are not ADA (so beware if bringing or using a stroller)
  • Another water taxi option is Shoreline

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Other / Misc:
You know kids also love regular taxis / Ubers - though it does make it strange when the kids start walking to other people's cars and fully expecting to get inside (and have had to stop them from jiggling the car door handles).

Did I miss your favorite?  If so, leave it in the comments!