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Las Vegas with a Toddler? Absolutely!

We booked a family trip to Las Vegas over Halloween weekend for a meet-up of Mr. T’s college buddies.  And I immediately started to worry.  It was my first visit, and as a non-drinker and non-gambler who gets migraines from cigarette smoke and hates crowds and clubbing, I didn’t consider Las Vegas a dream destination.  Throw in an energetic 18-month-old and a 5-hour flight, and the trip had “potential disaster” written all over it.

The guidebook I checked out from the library did nothing to ease my fears.  It contained a special section entitled “Vegas with Kids,” which basically said:  ”Once upon a time, Las Vegas tried to market itself as a family destination.  That was a ridiculous failure.  People come here for sin, and kids are out of place, and you will ruin the adults’ party by even bringing children into their presence.  Everyone will hate you. Don’t do it.”

Luckily, shortly before the trip another attendee at a local Mom blogger event happened to mention that she just returned from a week in Vegas with her 2-year-old.  Score!  She shared a bunch of useful advice, and reassured me that she and her child both enjoyed their trip.  Her advice is written up here.  I would second all of it, and add the following:

1.  Understand that you won’t experience the full Vegas scene. This advice may sound silly — one would hope parents don’t include their toddler on a night of boozing and craps.  But nightlife is such a vital part of The Strip that I found it difficult to return to the hotel room for baby’s bedtime just when everyone else was gearing up for the night.  Generally I love a little quiet time to myself, even on a trip, but in Vegas it felt like I was missing out.  Of course, it didn’t help that Mr. T was one of the people heading out with his friends….  Also not a help: the 3-hour time difference.  Our girl fell asleep through dinner every night (her usual bedtime back home), then got a second wind to party all night with exhausted Mommy back at the hotel.

2.  Don’t apologize for your presence. Sure, we got a few glares from young partiers there for the “what happens in Vegas” scene.  But the staff at hotels, stores, and restaurants, without exception, went out of their way to be helpful and welcoming.  (If you were a customer service employee, would you rather deal with the yet another drunken partier or a cute, mostly happy little kid?)  And, of course, even the partiers weren’t uniformly anti-kid.  Among other things, the hedonistic Vegas image leaves out the fact that nearly 25% of Vegas gamblers are elderly — grannies love the little ones!

3.  Don’t overthink activities. Before the trip, I did hours of research into child-friendly attractions.  Turns out we didn’t visit a single one.  Toddlers are entertained by almost anything new and different — a fountain! a crowd of people! a costume! a big clock! — and Las Vegas delivers easily on the “new and different” front.  The Bellagio’s fountains and The Venetian’s canals were big hits, but so was our hotel’s pool and long empty hallways.

4.  Buffets are your friend. Mr T and I love a good buffet (honestly, I can even live with a not-so-good buffet), so their child-friendly atmosphere was just added incentive to visit daily.  Does your toddler eat only watermelon, roasted lamb, and peas?  No problem, they’ve got that!  (In fact, I’m pretty sure that was one of Vera’s actual meals.)  For us, the few downsides — long lines at peak mealtimes, casino bathrooms that lacked changing tables, and the walk through smokey casinos to reach the buffet — were more than outweighed by the value and mind-boggling variety of this Vegas culinary mainstay.

5.  Stockpile water and snacks. Ideally at a grocery store, but Strip drugstores work in a pinch.  There are takeaway options within most hotel complexes, but they are expensive and inconvenient.  We had particular trouble keeping hydrated, between the dessert setting, the awful tap water at our hotel, and the bother of toting heavy liquids from the Walgreens down the block.  Wish we had just taken the car to the grocery store on Day One and stocked up properly.

6.  Consider renting a car. We went back and forth on the car issue, and I’m glad that we decided in favor.  The hotels are huge and far apart, and just about everywhere has free valet parking.  We explored more than we would have if limited by transportation options.  Plus, we could install our carseat from home (brought as checked luggage on the plane) and not worry again till it was time to leave.

Overall, I found Las Vegas to be like a cruise, in the sense that it’s known for a certain stereotypical vacation but in fact offers so much variety that each visitor can create a customized experience.  Sinful or toddler-friendly, luxury or budget, high elegance or retro kitsch — Vegas really does have it all.  Both parents and baby enjoyed the trip, and we would absolutely do it again.

Photo Friday: “Haifa Cat”

When I lived in Haifa, Israel, in the 90s, the town was infested with feral cats. We called them “Haifa cats.” Haifa cats were the most rag-tag bunch of battle-scarred felines you could ever hope to meet. They were tough. Rumor was that the city once had a rat problem and let loose stray cats to deal with it, but the cats multiplied and suddenly the city had a cat problem. Don’t know whether the story was true, but I like the idea of a real-life version of The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.

This post is part of Delicious Baby’s Photo Friday. For more pictures from around the world, check out this week’s links at Delicious Baby.

A Guide to the White House Easter Egg Roll

So you scored tickets to the White House Easter Egg Roll. Congratulations! It’s an amazing historic event, and great fun to be able to walk around on the White House grounds. It’s also probably nothing like you imagine. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy the experience:

1. Forget your preconceptions. Based on years of news features, most people picture kids in frilly Easter clothes rolling eggs on the White House lawn while celebrities wander about and the First Family pops out to greet everyone. That does happen. But it happens at a single, carefully controlled point in the day. The rest of the day involves over 30,000 people being ushered through the event en masse. Picture an image of “people everywhere,” and then add a few hundred more. It’s still historic. It’s still an amazing event. But it is a cattle call.

2. Plan your priorities. Manage lines accordingly. There are five timed entries throughout the day — check your ticket for your entry time. The timed entries ensure that you are attending with “only” a few thousand others instead of the full crowd. The ticket also tells you when to line up, but treat this as a general guide. If you definitely want to participate in the actual egg roll or the little kids’ egg hunt, show up very early to be sure you’re toward the front of the entry line. That way, you can rush right to your chosen activity once you’re inside, hopefully heading up the line for that activity. There’s nothing worse than waiting in line to get into the Easter Egg Roll itself, only to spend your whole time waiting in more lines for your chosen activities. If you don’t care about specific activities (and there are plenty of things to see that don’t require waiting in line), show up at the actual entry time. You won’t waste time standing in the entry line before the gates open. You’ll be at the back of the entry line, but it moves quickly once the gates actually open.

3. Check the weather. Even though the Easter Egg Roll is a spring event, the weather is almost always hot and sunny. Don’t dress the way you would for an Easter brunch — dress for several hours outdoors in the elements. Think sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and clothes that will be okay if you sit down in the grass for a while.

4. You will go through Security. Once your entry time arrives, you will move through Security on your way into the event. Don’t worry. There are lots of lanes, the employees are efficient, and the lines move quickly. You will walk through a metal detector and open your bags for a visual check. There’s a list of prohibited items, but all are fairly self-evident (leave your weapons, pets, and fireworks at home) except maybe large bags and outside food and drink. And don’t worry too much about the food and drink rule if you have a baby or toddler — we were never hassled about our small cooler bag of bottles and sippy cups.

5. There will be some food and drink. In our experience, the Easter Egg Roll is a tremendously well-run event. Corporate sponsors and helpful volunteers ensure that you rarely lack for anything. When you first enter the gates, you are greeted with a cold beverage (bottled water or one of the sponsors’ bottled drinks), a snack (granola bars and the like), and a row of port-a-potties (including special ones with changing tables). The “health and fitness” themes of the past few years means more giveaways of healthy foods like fruit once you’re inside. And there are usually volunteers handing out additional bottles of water if it’s hot — if you need hydration and can’t find someone, just stop by the First Aid tent and ask.

6. There will be random celebrities. Every Easter Egg Roll includes musical performances by kid favorites, sports stars there to support the fitness efforts, and actors and actresses who read kids’ books to the crowd. Each celeb generally appears at only one of the timed entries, so you never know who you’ll get. (Mr. T and I usually have no idea who the people are, but we did geek out over seeing John Lithgow in 2011, for decidedly NON-kid-friendly, Dexter-based reasons.) The event also features costumed characters like the Easter Bunny and cartoon favorites: They’re accessible for photo ops if your kid loves them, and fairly easy to avoid if your kid is the type to run away screaming.

7. Take public transportation, and bring a stroller. Unless you are willing to spend time searching for an open garage, pay exorbitant parking fees, and still walk many blocks to the entrance, consider taking the Metro or the Circulator downtown and walking from there. And if your child ever uses a stroller, bring it. Strollers are okay with Security, and it gives your child a place to rest during a long event with lots of walking.

8. Bring your camera. Frolicking on the White House lawn makes for a very special photos! The organizers understand this and provide lots of Easter-themed and Presidential backdrops (in addition to the White House itself) for your photos. And the friendly event volunteers are always willing to grab your camera to shoot that rare picture with the entire family in one shot.

9. Stay till the end. You can leave at any time, but there is an official “end time” just as there’s an official start time. At the end time, volunteers line up at the exits to hand you packages of Peeps and souvenir wooden Easter eggs on your way out. The eggs are really quite nice, and most people would find them worth sitting around on the grass till exit time if you’re done looking around a few minutes early.

10. Have fun! Despite the crowds and other drawbacks, the White House Easter Egg Roll has been a cherished tradition for over 130 years, and it’s something very few people (in the grand scheme of things) ever get to attend. So take lots of photos, try to shrug off and logistical hassles, and have a great time!

Packing a Toddler’s Airplane Carry-on Bag

A few weeks ago, we went to Hawaii. It was an amazing trip, but there was one big hurdle before we got there: the airplane trip. Ten hours, one very short layover. With an active 3-year-old.

Frankly, I was terrified. Between chronic illness and said 3-year-old, I am rarely on top of anything, but terror spurred me to be on top of this plane ride. Military skirmishes have happened with less planning than I put into the contents of that carry-on bag. So thought I’d share the details for anyone out there facing a similar situation:

The bag:

My daughter is obsessed with the Disney Princess rolling suitcases from Heys Luggage. My husband and I have certain feelings about the “princess industrial complex” that pretty much guarantee the Disney suitcase is never going to happen, but I wanted her to feel that the eventual choice was special. I looked into Melissa and Doug’s Trunki, a ride-on suitcase that’s popular with the tot set, but many owners grumbled about design flaws like wheels that pop off and a tendency to tip over. Not what you need when you’re rushing to your gate! Any well-made kid-sized rolling suitcase was surprisingly pricey, plus Mom and Dad would end up carrying it eventually and very few have shoulder straps for grownups. In the end I did what I usually do, and headed over to eBay. Found a kid-sized duffel bag with ballet slippers on it to please our budding ballerina — $12 shipped, and we were good to go.

The contents:

Next issue — what to put in it?

  • Snacks. I grabbed any pre-wrapped special treats that we had in the cupboards (freeze-dried fruit, fruit roll-ups, lollipops) and added snack-sized ziploc bags of goldfish crackers (avoid real crackers; they turn to crumbs), almonds, dried cherries, and the like. (Brought string cheese too, but that always turns to warm mush before we get around to eating it. Someday I’ll remember that.)
  • Extra clothesOur girl rarely needs changes of clothes in normal daily life, but something about plane trips seems to guarantee leaky diapers and monumental beverage spills. Bring more extra clothes (tops and bottoms) than you think you could possibly need.
  • Amusements. Bring at least one old favorite that you know will fill some time, plus a handful of new diversions that, if nothing else, will dazzle with their newness. Try wrapping them in gift wrap or tissue paper to make the event feel extra special. Each time your child starts to grow bored and restless, you can pull out a new gift. We packed a set of small foam toys, a pop-up book (turned out to be a smidgen old for our girl, but pop-ups are a great diversion where storybooks might be hard to follow), a small book of sticker paper dolls, and Dollar Store favorites like a plastic Slinky, crayons and paper and a pre-inked stamper, sheets of stickers, and a handful of colorful Band-Aids (Band-Aids are oddly mesmerizing to toddlers).
  • Kid-sized headphones. If you’re going to watch videos on your own device or in-flight entertainment, a comfortable pair of kid-sized headphones is a must. Ours aren’t cute, but they work well. (I once fell for some travel-blogger favorites that look like tigers. They were adorable, but they broke literally the moment we took them out of the package.)
  • Comfort item(s). If your child has a favorite blankie, stuffed animal, etc., you should bring it on the plane. Anything familiar that makes your little one feel safe in strange surroundings is an obvious plus. But be sure to check, double-check, and triple-check that you have this item with you at all times. Losing your child’s beloved mid-trip is a sure recipe for misery.

Other bags / the milk crisis:

That little carry-on wasn’t everything, of course. (How does adding one kid to the trip always seem to triple your luggage contents??!?) We also carried an insulated lunch tote with her milk and sippy cups. And the grown-up luggage had Pull-ups and wipes and diaper disposal bags (as with clothes, calculate how many you think you’ll need and then double it just to be safe!), extra extra clothes, extra grown-up clothes (turned out to need them; see: monumental spills), a travel pillow that’s another comforting friend from home, and the iPad. I also added Children’s Tylenol to my container of “just in case” medications and a small hand sanitizer to my baggie of carry-on liquids.

We’ve been through security with her cooler bag over 15 times, and Dulles was the first time they gave us grief over bringing milk through Security. The TSA agent kept repeating that the milk exception was for “infants and babies only.” They dumped all our milk and re-xrayed the bag, thereby neutralizing the latest pressing threat to airline safety in America. Also leaving us without any milk and facing a 5-hour flight, and if you’ve never shopped for milk at an airport, let me assure you that it’s surprisingly difficult to find. Hot tip: Starbucks sells “kids’ milk” at the counter. Don’t be put off by the flavored milk in the case; ask the barista for regular milk in a cup. It has been a lifesaver in every airport we’ve been through, and they came through for us again at Dulles. (It turns out the stewardesses had cartons of milk available on our plane as well. But that is not always true, and you don’t want to find that out after you’re stuck on a plane with a grumpy toddler who needs milk to fall asleep!)

Speaking of the iPad:

When we first had a baby, an acquaintance described his then-newfangled iPad as “the ultimate toddler pacification device.” He was not wrong. Fellow travelers have our own iPad to thank for their peace and quiet on our past plane, boat, and train trips. We downloaded a few favorite Pocoyo and Hopla videos and have a folder full of toddler apps. We generally stick with free apps or free previews — just search Google or the App Store for toddler or preschool apps and look for the free ones. But Elmo’s ABCs and Monkey Preschool Lunchbox are two that are absolutely worth their retail price.

And the big question … how did it turn out?

Brilliantly! She slept for maybe 2 hours of the 10-hour flight, but her bag kept her well fed and well entertained for the rest of the time. We definitely ran into spills and Pull-up leaks (hence my stress on extra changes of clothes), and airline bathrooms can be loud and scary for kids who are still potty training. But I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad were complaining worse than Kiddo by the time we got to Honolulu. Kids aren’t as cramped as adults in airplane seats, and they have no experience with petty grumbles like lack of food and creeping airline fees. As long as you plan ahead to keep your toddler comfortable, entertained, reasonably well fed, and psychologically secure, plane travel can actually be a thrilling part of your child’s trip.

What’s your best advice for keeping littles ones happy on airplanes? What do you pack in your carry-on? 


I’m on a blogging hiatus until September, and then plan to switch travel content from this blog over to my personal blog, Two Wishes. Lots of travels still to write about, from poking around DC to experiences-of-a-lifetime in Hawaii. Hope to see you there in September!

And in the meantime, if you simply can’t live without my travel writing (ha), stop by and visit my posts at Chic Traveler. It’s a great site for both armchair dreaming and practical information, and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly even if I didn’t write for them.