Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in Photos

Over the weekend we took Finnegan and Declan to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia to see the special Dinosaurs Unearthed Exhibit, which runs through March 30, 2014.  The permanent Outside In exhibit, which is geared towards kids ages 3-8 and the Live Animal Center are currently closed for renovation so it’s not the ideal time to visit, but we needed to get out of the house as everyone was going stir crazy.  The Outside In Exhibit is scheduled to open back up in early February so the perfect window for a visit with kids would be mid-February through the end of March before the Dinosaurs Unearthed exhibit moves on.

The boys had a great time as evidenced by the photos:

Philadelphia

Philadelphia

Academy of Natural Sciences_Bear

Academy of Natural Sciences

Academy of Natural Sciences_Butterfly

Academy of Natural Sciences_Butterfly

Academy of Natural Sciences_butterfly

Academy of Natural Sciences_Dinosaura

Academy of Natural Sciences_T Rex

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Academy of Natural Sciences_T Rex

Academy of Natural Sciences_T Rex

Academy of Natural Sciences_T Rex

Academy of Natural Sciences_T Rex

Academy of Natural Sciences_T Rex

Academy of Natural Sciences_Dinosaurs Unearthed

Academy of Natural Sciences_Digging for Fossils

We may plan a return trip to the Academy of Natural Sciences once the Outside In exhibit is re-opened – especially if this cold weather continues and we’re forced to entertain the kids indoors.  Have you been to the old Outside In exhibit and Live Animal Center at the Academy of Natural Sciences?  What did you think – is it worth a return trip?

An Afternoon at the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY

A few weeks ago, while visiting Jennifer’s parents for Christmas, we decided to pay a visit to the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY. Since her parents live an hour outside Rochester it was doable, and because it was about 20 degrees outside we needed some indoor activities for the boys.

Strong Museum

Officially known as the Strong National Museum of Play, it is located in downtown Rochester.  From the New York State Thruway it was very easy to find.  Had we visited in the summer I would have been up for exploring the surrounding area as well.  Jennifer agreed and confessed that she has not spent much time in Rochester.  (It has always surprised me that Jennifer grew up near both Syracuse and Rochester, but spent very little time in either city, save for visits to the Carrier Dome to watch her beloved SU basketball team.  She chalks it up to being a small town girl.  I on the other hand much prefer cities.).

Upon arriving at the museum I was pleased to find there was ample free parking in the museum’s parking lot. I was even more pleased that admission was reasonable ($13.50 per person, children 2 and under are free).  The museum is quite large, boasting over 150,000 square feet.  There are many hands-on exhibits, which the boys loved.  We practically had to drag them out of the construction zone where they and several other children were busy erecting an elaborate structure with plastic snap-into-place pieces.

Construction Zone

Strong Museum

Other themed areas included the Bernstein Bears, Sesame Street and a story book land, filled with large play areas with Humpty Dumpty, Peter Rabbit, the Three Bears and many others.

Reading Adventure Land

Peter Rabbit Garden

My favorite part of the museum was the National Toy Hall of Fame.  Basically this is the Cooperstown for toys. Strolling through this exhibit brought back many memories of toys that I played with (or wanted to own as a kid but never did), and provided a cool retrospective on how far the toy industry has come and the evolving complexity of toys, which mirrors changes in society. All of your favorites are here: Lincoln Logs, GI Joes, View Master, Barbie dolls, Lionel Trains, Jack-in-the-Box, Slinkys, Mr. Potato Head and on and on. Recent inductees include Star Wars action figures, Hot Wheels cars and rubber duckies. I am not sure what criteria is used to determine which toys get into the Hall of Fame, but they may be similar to Major League baseball as they seem to take it quite seriously.

Mr Potato Head

Slinkys

Jennifer’s favorite exhibit was the Wegmans Super Kids Market. Imagine a miniature supermarket, where children both shop and work behind the counters and registers. Wegmans is headquartered in Rochester and has a bit of a cult following.  The exhibit is a cute replica of the regular grocery stores, complete with a sushi section, pizza station, and deli counter.  The boys liked taking turns as shoppers and store employees.

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

When shopping, each child is allowed to pick out five items from the store to put in their shopping cart.  They can then unload their items onto the working belt and check themselves out.  There is even a working register that produces a real receipt!

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Declan’s favorite exhibit was the Post Office where kids can write a postcard and drop it into the nearby mailbox. He would have happily filled up the entire mailbox with his scribbled on post cards if we let him stay there all afternoon.

Strong Museum Post Office

There was also a butterfly house, which was the highlight for Finnegan. There is an extra fee to go into the butterfly house so I stayed behind while Jennifer went in with the kids. After their 15 minute tour, they came out raving about getting to hold the butterflies and telling me all about the turtles and birds that also live in the house with the butterflies.

Strong Museum Butterfly House

Strong Museum Butterfly House

Another favorite for Finnegan was the super hero section of the museum. There are large statues of the super heroes and a great version of whac-a-mole where the kids help Batman by whacking his enemies on the head.

Strong Museum Spiderman

Strong Museum Superman

Strong Museum Whac a Mole

Our only regret was that we did not arrive earlier in the day as we ran out of time because the museum was closing. We hope to visit again and we would suggest setting aside most of the day to spend there as you will certainly have plenty to see and do during your visit.  Out of all of the children’s museums that we have visited so far, this was probably our favorite.  Even during Christmas break, it wasn’t crowded and our kids were the perfect age for most of the exhibits.

Do you have a favorite children’s museum?

National Aquarium: Baltimore, MD

Last month we traveled to Baltimore, Maryland.  Jennifer had a business trip there, which meant a free hotel room for the rest of us!  (Jennifer says she prefers to have her entourage accompany her whenever possible and we made sure not to interfere with her work).

We stayed at the Baltimore Hilton, which is located right next to the Orioles baseball stadium at Camden Yards.  When I saw the view from the fitness center, I wished we were there during baseball season as we could have watched a game quite easily from the hotel deck.  The hotel was also connected to the Baltimore Convention Center, and more importantly for us, was a short walk from the Inner Harbor.  Quite a few years ago  “Charm City” revitalized the Inner Harbor and it has become somewhat of a tourist destination.  One of the main draws is the National Aquarium.  I had heard good things about Baltimore’s Aquarium from friends who had visited it and I knew both boys would love to visit.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant, Jen was off to her business meetings and I was tasked with keeping both boys entertained all day.  We managed to kill some time swimming in the hotel pool and having lunch in the Inner Harbor before setting out to the Aquarium.  It is a cool looking building, situated right on the harbor, with an impressive submarine (the USS Torsk, a retired World War II era submarine that saw action in the Pacific theater and is now a maritime museum), docked outside.

USS Torsk BW

I must say I had a bit of sticker shock at the cost of admission to the aquarium.  Even with Declan being free, the cost for me and Finnegan was $56.  I have been to several other aquariums and none were as expensive.  After getting our tickets and making our way inside, I was advised that the aquarium has a strict no stroller policy.  I was prepared for this as a friend warned me ahead of time about this policy.  The aquarium does permit visitors to check their strollers and other items in a room that is carefully guarded.  This only became an issue after our three hour visit and both boys were tired and yearned to ride in the stroller.

Once we began exploring the aquarium we quickly began marveling at all of the cool species of aquatic life residing in the various exhibits.  The aquarium is fairly comprehensive and includes all of the animals you would expect to find and several other you might not. The aquarium is basically divided into three parts: the glass pavilion with an Australia Wild Extremes themed exhibit with saltwater crocodiles, snakes and other reptiles; Pier 3 Pavilion contained a multi-level shark and sting ray exhibit and the Pier 4 Pavilion had dolphins and jelly fish exhibits.  I thought the layout of the aquarium was a bit confusing, particularly since there is no Pier 1 or Pier 2 Pavilions (and I admit I kept searching for them and it was only after consulting the map that I realized my search was futile).

Baltimore

Baltimore

Baltimore Aquarium Croc Exhibit

To me the piece de resistance of the Baltimore Aquarium is the Dolphin Discovery exhibit.  I had never seen an exhibit like this at any other aquarium and, outside of SeaWorld, I don’t know where else you can see it.  The dolphins performed a plethora of tricks, jumps and acrobatic feats, much to the delight of the crowd.  We were able to sit very close to the water, but just outside the splash zone so we did not get wet.  Both boys enjoyed this exhibit, and I may have enjoyed it even more than they did.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

A close second was the multi-level Blacktip Reef exhibit, a re-creation of a piece of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  Teeming with sharks, sting rays and over 70 different species of fish, in a curved viewing area 20 feet wide, the exhibit allows visitors to be immersed in the aquatic habitat (without getting wet).  Each level had different animals and each level represented the different species that reside at varying depths of the ocean. The lower levels tend to be darker, which made Declan a bit frightened so some smaller children might not enjoy the lower levels.

Baltimore

Baltimore

There was also the Upland Tropical Rainforest, which is a green house type exhibit that featured several tropical birds that were hard to see.  This exhibit seemed oddly out of place for an aquarium as none of these birds actually live in water, just in the rain forest.  We did not stay long in that exhibit as it was uncomfortably humid and we only saw one bird.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

There were also two films playing, both billed as “4D” (which I don’t really understand as time is supposed to be the fourth dimension according to Albert Einstein).  We skipped the films as they required an additional ticket and because I was convinced that both boys would have fallen asleep in the darkened theater (which would have left me brooding over spending even more money on a nap).

By the end of our visit both boys were tired and wanted to ride in the stroller (damn that no stroller policy!).  So we hurried back to the room where we checked all of our belongings and headed for the door.  Since we do not have a double stroller, Finnegan was forced to walk back to the hotel (which he did with surprisingly little whining).  He then practically collapsed in the lobby of the hotel and took a quick nap while we waited for Jen.  If we had more time (and energy), we would have liked to visit the Port Discovery Children’s Museum as well.  Next time.

Have you been to the National Aquarium?  What were your thoughts?  Any tips besides bringing a baby carrier for little ones that need to nap?

Where the Wild Things Are: Sanibel Island, Florida

Reblogged from Bucket List Publications

In early September, we went on a family trip to Sanibel Island, Florida and were completely charmed by the small town feel and natural beauty of this 16-mile long island on the Gulf coast.  We were only there for a long weekend, but would love to return again for a longer trip.  There is a lot to do on this small island with many family-friendly options.

While Sanibel Island is famous for its shelling, one of the unexpected highlights of this trip for us was the wildlife.  About sixty-five percent of the island is protected natural reserve and there is an amazing shore-based ecosystem.  The largest preserve on Sanibel Island is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Preserve, which is home to a variety of creatures including alligators, pelicans, osprey and more.  But the wildlife is everywhere: we think we saw a small bobcat dash out in front of car, and at our cottage, we saw a gopher tortoise, which is a threatened species, and many tree frogs.

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The shore birds are prolific and provided endless entertainment for our boys who could not resist chasing them.

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We were also fortunate to see a large group of manatees in the marina on Captiva Island just before our cruise with Captiva Cruises.  It took a lot of restraint not to jump in the water and swim with those amazing gentle giants.

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We did a half-day cruise to Cayo Costa Beach, which is a beautiful state park beach that is only accessible by boat.  The boys loved the boat ride and the beach was gorgeous and felt deserted since we were there during the off-season.  The water was also crystal clear so it was another great place to look for shells and sand dollars.

 

Cayo Costa BeachDSC09109-684x457Another highlight for the boys was the touch tank at Tarpon Bay Explorers.  What little boy (or girl) wouldn’t be delighted at the chance to touch sea stars, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, shrimp, and shells?

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We also took the cruise offered by Tarpon Bay Explorers, but it was a little too slow with too much talking for our busy boys.  I would recommend it for adults, though, because you can learn a lot about the history and ecology of the area.  Since we were traveling with little ones, we tried to sign-up for this Sea Life Encounter trip, but they didn’t have enough customers so it was canceled, which is the small downside to traveling in the off-season.

Other memorable moments included watching the sunset at Lighthouse Beach (big hit), seeing the boys try clams for the first time (not such a big hit), and playing mini-golf at a great course in Fort Myers.

DSC09024-e1378987080477-343x513I didn’t really mention the shells, but it’s true – the beaches are loaded with them.

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Wanderlust Links

I have bookmarked so many great travel-related story and articles lately and I’m finally getting around to checking them out.  I thought I would share some of the highlights:

Outside Magazine: 15 Cabin Escapes for Summer’s End

My favorite is the Hemlock in Whistler, B.C.

Photo from The Hemloft

Photo from The Hemloft

Bucket List Ideas: After reading this list of 20 awe-inspiring places on TripAdvisor, I really need to update my Bucket List.  I am definitely adding Goreme National Park in Turkey and Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.

Goreme National Park Turkey plitvice-lakes

Sunset Magazine: Ultimate California Highway 1 Road Trip

Very high on my domestic travel wishlist is a long road trip along the coast of California.  This article from Sunset is a nice summary of the highlights along each section.

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Photo by Thomas J. Story

And most surprisingly, I learned from Beers & Beans that I should plan a trip to Ohio.  Who knew?

Golfing (Miniature Style) in Fort Myers, Florida

One of the things that we introduced Finnegan to this summer was miniature golf and he loved it immediately.  We thought he might be a little too young, but Finnegan is naturally competitive and likes any game that involves keeping score (and in true four-year old fashion, he doesn’t feel bad about cheating to win).  I think his newly acquired ‘love’ of the game is partially related to the fact that he won a free game his first time playing by getting a hole in one on the last hole.  Everyone standing around was as surprised as we were and Finnegan certainly enjoyed the attention.

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However, the courses around us all seem to be old and outdated and lack any character.  We played again in Upstate NY with my nieces over Labor Day and the course up there was pretty lackluster as well.

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Miniature golf is a popular family vacation activity so we had high hopes for the courses in the Fort Myers, Florida area and they didn’t disappoint!  On our drive from the airport to Sanibel, Finnegan noticed Castle Golf immediately and asked if we could play there.  They were closed for the night since we had a late flight, but we promised to hit the course on our way back to the airport.

SONY DSC Castle Golf

What we didn’t plan for was a summer afternoon thunderstorm that is typical in southern Florida.  While we appreciated the rainbow that bid us adieu from Sanibel, we didn’t appreciate waiting out the thunderstorm in our rental minivan and watching the minutes tick by as our flight time approached.

Sanibel Rainbow

The storm finally slowed to a drizzle and we raced up to the Castle and looked desperate enough that they let us play, notwithstanding their normal 45 minute waiting period so they can drain the water from the course.  Finnegan definitely didn’t mind fishing his ball out of the cup filled with water.

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We had to race around the course and didn’t get to properly play each hole, but the boys had so much fun.  A lot of the holes had really great designs with multiple levels.  Declan obviously doesn’t play, but they gave him a ball and putter for free and he had fun playing on the course.  Even though the weather wasn’t great, we appreciated the trade-off of having the place all to ourselves.

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Do you know of any great miniature golf courses?  One that sticks out in my mind is in Lake George, NY where we went one summer for a family vacation, but I don’t remember the name.