Category - Travel

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» Daddy + Daughter Trip in the Mazda6 (Houston, TX)
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» REVIEW: 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (Houston, TX)
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REVIEW: Lumberjack Feud (Pigeon Forge, TN)
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REVIEW: Chimney Rock (NC)
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Chicago: Part 2 (Attractions)
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Chicago: Part 1 (Lodging, Transportation, Food)
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REVIEW: Bledsoe State Park (TN)
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REVIEW: Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (Charleston, SC)
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REVIEW: Nashville’s Adventure Science Center
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REVIEW: Wilderness At the Smokies Resort (Gatlinburg, TN)

» Daddy + Daughter Trip in the Mazda6 (Houston, TX)

Special thanks to Mazda USA for allowing us to test drive the 2016 Mazda6 i Grand Touring. As always, these opinions are my own.

(this post is from Calvin who visited Houston last week)

This was my first trip back to Houston in 2016, and it was Charlotte’s turn to come with me. One-on-one moments with my children are always memorable but cruising around in the Mazda6 made our trip even more special. With a short four days in Houston, we were determined to eat (of course!) and check out some of the city’s free offerings. Here are three places we visited followed by some of our favorite things about the car.

1. Children’s Museum of Houston

If you’re visiting Houston and happen to be there on a Thursday night, the Children’s Museum is a great place to be. The best part, it’s free! It’s a big-city museum, so you’ll easily last two-three hours in this place.

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2. Sam Houston Boat Tour

I’m not sure how long the Port of Houston Authority’s free tour has been going on, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. Experience an unforgettable waterborne voyage through one of the busiest ports in the world. For locals, it’s not something you’d want to do often but I think everyone should at least go once. You end up sailing for about an hour and half with lots of room to roam around and see some really fun parts of the city.

3. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts/Petite Sweets
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

A must for any visit to Houston. You can read my updated post from my last trip to Houston but in summary, these two places have only gotten better. Some notable additions since my last visit include the Double Donut Fried Chicken Sandwich (two fried chicken tenders between two glazed donuts) and the Pulled Chicken Chopped Kale Salad. Yum!


After Lee’s, everyone should take a quick trip to Petite Sweets to grab some dessert to enjoy in the shop, or take it to go. The newest addition is Suzie’s pies and cookies by the slice, without losing any of the other tasty treats (macaroons!) from the restaurant’s offerings.

2016 Mazda6 i Grand Touring

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This was my first time getting behind the wheel of a Mazda and I had a blast driving the Mazda6. The sport mode was useful in the crazy Houston streets and Charlotte was loving the ability to request the Kidzbop station on XM radio.

Things we loved:

Style – The photos say it all. The exterior and design is great and will definitely turn heads. The white leather seats in the interior and bright LED lights give a nice, clean look. Charlotte was especially enamored with the Soul Red paint.

GT Technology Package – This optional package is worth it in the long run. The features include: adaptive cruise control, forward-collision and lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam control, active grille shutters, and i-Eloop, which stores energy during braking to improve fuel economy.

Safety – I saw a sticker on the car we drove that said “2016 Top Safety Pick+” so I decided to look it up and found this article. In addition, I love the blind spot monitoring with simple light-up icons on the mirrors and a beeping sound that’s noticeable but not annoying.

Conclusion

I’ve never owned a Mazda and have always felt their cars were mediocre. After driving the Mazda6 for a week, my perceptions have changed greatly. The interior was comfortable and the entertainment dash controls were at an easy, reachable distance. I’m still hoping to try a car with Apple’s CarPlay so I’m hopeful that more cars, including this one will add this function. The next time I’m market for a vehicle, I’d definitely consider a Mazda.

» REVIEW: 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (Houston, TX)

Special thanks to Mitsubishi Cars for allowing us to test drive the 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. As always, these opinions are my own.

(this post is from Calvin who visited Houston last week)

These days, I try to plan a trip to Houston two to three times a year. It’s hard to believe but it’s now been 10 years since I’ve lived in Houston, the place where I was born and raised. Right before the trip, Erica informed me that we were asked to put the 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (GT 2.4) through the paces for a week in Houston. I was excited but I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for the vehicle. You see one of my first high school cars was a gold Mitsubishi Galant sedan, which wasn’t exactly cool at the time.

So I jumped on a plane with Liam, landed in Houston, got our luggage, and there was the Outlander Sport waiting for us. Forget all the reservations I had earlier—the look of the vehicle, Rockford Fosgate audio system, full-length moon roof, and AWC (All-wheel control) won me over quickly.

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So I’ll give you more details about the car but first order of business, food. If you ask a Houston native what there is to do in Houston,their first response will be… grab something to eat! Well with any trip, I absolutely have to get Chinese and Vietnamese comfort food in Chinatown. But I always try to visit a few places I’ve never been, remember, it’s been ten years since I’ve lived here. The good folks at F.E.E.D. TX allowed me to check out their newest restaurant, Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts, along with their established confectionery spot Petite Sweets.

1. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

All photos: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

Why did I want to go to this place? The name says it all! The modern look and atmosphere of this chicken joint is great. Unless you live in the Heights, you would never known it was a former Church’s Chicken. The chicken portions are huge at this place! In addition, I found out that Lee’s uses all-natural, antibiotic/hormone-free, vegetarian-fed chicken. The taste is amazing and I wasn’t surprised when the F.E.E.D. staff informed me that the chicken goes through a three-day prep and cooking process. You can get traditional fried chicken at lunch or pick up some tenders as early as 10 A.M. Last week was also the first week their drive-thru was operating.

We were left with a ton of leftovers and at first I was hesitant to share it with my friends. Not because I didn’t want to share but because I didn’t want their first experience to lack the “fresh out of the kitchen” quality. Well I ultimately decided to share and everyone absolutely loved it! My one request of the restaurant is to have a sweet and savory combo that includes chicken and donuts, like the name.

My Favorites:

Traditional Fried Chicken: Lee’s has tenders and sandwiches but if given the choice, I’m a traditional chicken kinda guy. The tenders were just as amazing (and big!). Make sure to get a side of creamed corn and sour cream mashed potatoes with gravy!

Sauces: Don’t mistake this for Chick-fil-a sauce. All of these are made in-house and really bring the chicken to the next level. My favorites were the spicy mayo and bacon jam.

Donuts: Ummm yes. OK if I had to choose just one, I’d have to say blueberry cake with blueberry icing.

 

All photos: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

2. Petite Sweets
2700 W. Alabama, Houston, TX 77098

I felt guilty stepping into this place without Erica because she is a macaroon fanatic. The staff and environment was just as welcoming as Lee’s. The pictures speak for themselves. The taste of these macaroons and other lovely sweets are just as good as my friend Justin’s pictures. And if you’re wondering, no, he’s not a professional photographer. For my friends and family in Houston, I learned that Petite Sweets is really known for their custom orders. I know some of you out there are already planning the next party as you’re reading this, give Petite Sweets a call!

2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (GT 2.4)

I’ve realized that over time, I’ve lost the aggression and shameless, sporadic lane changing it takes to drive in the big city. So after driving in town for a week, I thought I’d share a few thoughts that crossed my mind when driving:

  • There are so many lanes! But wait, there are so many more cars, too.
  • Remember that defensive driving class? Don’t let your guard down in the parking lot.
  • The speed limit is 70. Why is this guy going 40 and everyone around us is going 85? (this happened multiple times)

So after a full week bobbing and weaving through Houston traffic, here are my conclusions about this machine.

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Photo: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

Performance

Besides the constant braking and accelerating needed to overcome the Houston streets, The Outlander Sport’s handling and response was very good. In fact, I try not to drive like a maniac with kids in the back seat because, you know, car sickness. For the record, Liam never once said his stomach hurt. So kids, this whole time it’s been the car, not me. Lastly, the fuel efficiency (reported 25 city, 32 highway) I would say is accurate even with all the starting and stopping I had to do.

The Look

The pictures speak for themselves. This is a great looking car! I was not embarrassed at all driving this thing around town. I even got compliments from all the friends and family I was able to see. Also remember that we’re talking about the Sport here but I still do like the other models. Mitsubishi has come a long way in the looks department.

The Feel

There is a lot of leg room in the front. The compromise is that the back seats don’t have a lot of leg room. The leather seats were very comfortable and the A/C is great. According to my dad, Mitsubishi makes one of the best A/C systems for cars (I believe that most, if not all, Mercedes Benz vehicles use Mitsubishi’s system). The touch-screen dash is close so you’re not extending too far to operate the GPS system or change the audio settings.

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Conclusion

We will always have at least one van in our family but when we’re due to replace the Saturn Vue we currently have, I definitely won’t rule out the Outlander Sport. Here are some of my favorite features:

  • 168-hp, 2.4-liter MIVEC engine
  • Super-wide High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights with fog lights and LED running lights
  • 7-inch touchscreen audio display with Digital HD Radio® and rearview camera
  • FAST-key passive entry system with panic feature and One-touch Start/Stop engine switch
  • Leather seats with heated driver & front passenger seats
  • Automatic air conditioning climate control
  • Rain-sensing windshield wipers

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Also, thanks to F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group for allowing us to review your restaurants. As always, these opinions are my own.

 

REVIEW: Lumberjack Feud (Pigeon Forge, TN)

Disclaimer: The folks at Lumberjack Feud kindly allowed our family admission for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

Today is the first day of Fall Break so I thought it would be timely of us to share our experience at Lumberjack Feud. First of all, we love Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge because it’s a short 3 hour drive from the Nashville area, perfect for a true weekend getaway. There are so many attractions that you have the ability to choose to do something different every time. It has slowly become a tradition for our family to go for Elliott’s birthday in September. So in lieu of a “big gift” we decided to go again. The secret reason behind our September visits is actually the pricing. September is considered the off season, the Fall decor is out but it’s still warm and you miss the Fall crowds.  Many cabins and resorts offer lower pricing or specials during this time period.

Before the weekend, we surprised Elliott with the big news that Gatlinburg was in our future. We stayed at the Grand Getaway Cabin (2,000 square foot, 4-bedroom cabin, about one mile from Dollywood) for the very first time and loved it! The layout was fantastic for big families, four bedrooms and FOUR bathrooms. My favorite feature about the cabin was the full length table for ten. That’s actually fairly difficult to find in cabin offerings. Now on to Lumberjack Feud!

Pre-Show:

The Lumberjack Feud experience begins the moment you pull into the parking lot. The huge red barn picturing feuding lumberjacks set the tone and got my kids super excited for the event. The energy continues as the friendly staff ushers you in, taking pictures and greeting you in character. The kids were greeted upon sitting down and immediately invited to join the lumberjacks on stage for some clogging.

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Dinner:

Once the show was underway the lumberjack cooks began serving food in true lumberjack fashion. The soup is in a mug, no spoons. My young ones thought this was a very fun touch. The meal  includes a massive piece of chicken, a biscuit, potatoes, corn and an apple turnover. A huge starchy meal for our taste… but I’m sure Lumberjacks love it. The service was quick and drinks were refilled regularly. We noticed that there is also a concession stand. This is a nice option for those who buy show-only tickets.

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Main Show:

The main show was action-packed with an entertaining host, real lumberjack competitions, feuding families, smokey mountain history and audience participation. The Timer-dogs were especially endearing as they competed in water sports and retrieved items for their trainers. We loved knowing that several of the Timber-dogs were rescue dogs.

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Conclusion:

This is a great show for families with young and school-age children. My four sat, riveted, through the entire event. The meal is huge, so perhaps a plus for many people. We were pleased to see that there was a gluten free option as well.

Considerations for Individuals with Disabilities or Special Needs:

The show is LOUD. Fortunately they give adequate warning when chainsaws will be used. This gives kids who are sensitive to loud sounds the chance to use headphones or cover their ears. Our daughter, who is blind, received so much auditory input that she enjoyed the show just as much as the sighted children. We often find, with shows and events, that things are highly visual and she misses a lot of what’s going on. With Lumberjack they described everything that went on. The host was constantly talking, explaining the events and fun music tied in all the moments when the talking ceased. We definitely give this a thumbs up for visually impaired children and adults.  We also noticed that they offered great floor seating for those utilizing mobility devices.

REVIEW: Chimney Rock (NC)

  • Hickory Nut Falls
  • Chimney Rock State Park
  • Chimney Rock State Park
  • Chimney Rock State Park
  • Chimney Rock State Park
  • Hickory Nut Falls
  • Hickory Nut Falls
  • Hickory Nut Falls
  • Hickory Nut Falls
  • Hickory Nut Falls
  • Hickory Nut Falls

Disclaimer: The folks at Chimney Rock State Park kindly allowed our family admission for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

Fall is officially here, which means camping season! We already have a two-night camping trip planned with our small group and can’t wait to sleep under the stars again.

Last July, we tent camped in Chimney Rock, NC (near Ashville), which was about five and half hours from our home. Check out our experience and plan a trip there yourself, it’s one of our favorites!

Hickory Nut Falls Campground:

This was our first time camping right on the water and the kids had a blast being able to stand in different parts of the Rocky Broad River. Our family (Nana, Papa, cousins, everyone!) occupied the end on sites 78, 77, and 76. It was nice not having other people outside of our family on one end. It gave us a lots of extra space where our kids could explore without bothering others. Additionally, that end of the camp site is reserved for tent camping so you don’t need to worry about any pop up or RV campers (with 42″ televisions) rolling up next to you. The edge of the river has a few pockets of standing water but the closer you get to the middle, the deeper and faster the water rushes. Make sure to bring your own water tubes and water shoes. We didn’t equip ourselves with tubes so we ended up buying a few at a nearby store with inflated prices. The water is pretty loud which might bother you, but we found it soothing, especially at bed time. Make sure you reserve your spot early, the lots can go quickly! We reserved 3 months prior to our stay.

Chimney Rock State Park:

On Saturday, we visited the state park to hike Chimney Rock. There’s an elevator that takes you to the top of the Chimney but unfortunately, was broken during our visit.  With kids, it would’ve been nice to ride up to the top, then walk down but that was not the case for us. However, I’m glad to report that we made it without any injuries and few meltdowns. For the average adult, it takes about 25 minutes, covering 491 steps, to reach the Chimney. The Chimney itself is 315 feet at an elevation of 2,280 feet. Once we made it down, we visited a bat cave but sad to report that there were none to be seen at the time. Then we made another long, but easier hike to the 404-foot waterfall to cool down. By the end of that, we were all exhausted so we made one last stop to a kids area where one of the rangers showed off some snakes and other wildlife that the kids could touch and see up close. The state park charges per person (currently $13 for adults, $6 for children) however I do wish they would charge one flat fee per vehicle. For our family alone, the $50 admission would make the visit questionable. There was a ton more stuff to do but our young family just couldn’t handle it, especially on such a hot day.

Shopping, etc:

Right outside of the campground, there are plenty of shops that were really inexpensive. Lots of cute little mountain souvenir shops. Somehow we ended up with four harmonicas, bad idea for the drive home. We couldn’t refuse the Chimney Rock Gem Mine with kiddos, but I also scored some Salt Rock Lamps from their gift shop. There are a couple of lunch and dinner spots but we were very disciplined and stuck to eating at the campground with all the food we brought. We did treat ourselves to the Hershey’s Ice Cream Shoppe on our final night. They have a crazy amount of flavors, I think the sign claimed something like 85 flavors of Hershey’s Ice Cream.

Conclusion:

Chimney Rock is definitely a great midway camping spot between my family in Charleston, SC and our current location. The access to the water with kids is great however you definitely need to stay on guard if you have little ones like ours. Tubing is a must so make sure you plan ahead and bring some with you! Bottom line, waking up and hiking into the middle of the river with a cup of coffee is worth it every time.  We did a lot of rock sitting, skipping rocks and watching for wildlife. Can’t wait to go back.

Chicago: Part 2 (Attractions)

Oh Chicago… it seems everyone loves you! I’ve had countless conversations since our visit and everyone shares how much they enjoy their trips to the Windy City. I’m sure that has something to do with the vast amount of entertainment choices the city has to offer. We weren’t able to do it all but here are a few attractions/activities that we enjoyed on our visit:

Blue Man Group: Dare to Live in Full Color –  I was somewhat skeptical about Blue Man Group. Silly fun isn’t my favorite. I don’t enjoy comedians or gimmicky things. I also had this idea that they just played drums and splattered paint on things. Well folks, there is a reason this show has been going strong for nearly 25 years. It has strong theatrical influence, it’s interesting, it’s hilarious, it’s heart warming, it’s FUN… it’s very different from anything I’ve ever seen. Three blue men take you on a quirky little journey through music, discovery and connection. Audience participation is huge as the show takes over the entire theater… not just the stage. I’ll never forget moving it to some bizarre song about shaking my “can” while playing toss up with ginormous glowing beach balls in a black-lit, neon glowing auditorium with hundreds of other adults-turned-children. If that’s sounds ridiculous to you, you probably just need to get over it and secure some tickets to see the show. You won’t be sorry.

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Current Deals: Upon purchasing a ticket for Blue Man Group, guests can receive a free ticket to visit Chicago’s Willis Tower Skydeck (where they can step out onto one of the building’s “Ledge” glass boxes) or 360 Chicago (for unparalleled views of Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan.) College students who are studying in Chicago or home for the summer can enjoy the thrills of Blue Man Group for a discounted price. Upon presenting a valid college ID, they can get a discounted ticket for $35. Student tickets are available two hours prior to show time, based on availability.

Special Needs Accomodation: In 2015, Blue Man Group is supporting Austism Speaks. They will donate a minimum of $25,000 and are doing specific autism-friendly shows this year. Even if you can’t make one of their specific shows, individuals with autism are still encouraged to attend the show at any time. Noise cancelling headphones available. Parents of children with autism need to know if the children crave the heavy sensory input or prefer to avoid it.

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iFLY: Ever Dream of Flying?
Let’s just say I spent a lot of time being skeptical on this trip. But isn’t that why we travel? To challenge ourselves, discover new things… iFly was one of these new things. There were people of all ages packed into the Chicago iFLY building. Some watching others fly, some suiting up to prepare for their skydiving experience. We watched a short video with our group, listened to the instructor and learned some hand signals we would need during the flight. Then it was time to put on our goggles and earplugs and head into the chamber. The instructor remains in the chamber with new flyers, like us, and gives instructions and tips with hand signals.

It really was an amazing sensation, totally weightless and flying. And you can’t help but smile like a crazy person because if you don’t you’ll just drool all over yourself. Flying with a group is also a lot of fun, even as strangers we were excited to watch our new friends figure out how to fly and stay balanced in the chamber. There were also some locals who obviously visited on a consistent basis to work on new maneuvers. In the end, our trainer did a demonstration for everyone to enjoy.

The location in Chicago was a little far out for us but there’s outdoor shopping and an outlet mall nearby so anyone could maximize their trip that way. Also, there are plans for an iFLY location in Lincoln Park which would be very convenient. I’m sure this would be even more entertaining with a group of people you actually know. We are looking forward to visiting iFLY with our kids in tow next time!

Special Needs Accommodation: We are always asking questions and watching for companies that go the extra mile to accommodate children and adults with special needs or disabilities. We were happy to hear, from the iFLY representative, that they have a program for children who are autistic. Alex, with emotion in her voice, told me some amazing stories about what flying does for these awesome kids on a sensory level. She also explained how they accommodate for other guests who have additional needs. Very exciting to hear, great job iFLY!

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Brookefield Zoo –  There are two zoos in Chicago. Lincoln Park and Brookefield. Lincoln is free and Brookfield is not. However, Brookefield does offer a wider range of attractions. Dolphins, polar bears and the butterfly garden are just a few of the additional attractions at Brookefield. We made time to watch the Dolphin show at Brookefield and we felt it was really well done and educational. There was a baby dolphin being adorable and playing with his trainer… so of course we couldn’t help but love the whole experience.

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Brookefield is simply bigger and more like a theme-park experience zoo. BUT… it is very far away from everything else you might want to do in Chicago.

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So plan ahead, if you want to take your family there, and make time to spend the whole day there enjoying what the zoo has to offer. It’s also a better deal to book your tickets online. You are allowed to choose 3 extra attractions while saving about $5 per person.

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Chicago Cubs Calvin loves baseball, so of course we headed to Wrigley field (bricks and ivy!) to root for the home team. There’s not much to report here, Wrigley is just one of those parks that you must check off your list. Unfortunately we got caught in a rain delay and ended up leaving before the game is over (even worse, they had a walk-off run in the 9th inning). Calvin purchased our tickets on StubHub so here’s your money saving tip of the day: Our Kroger gives 2-4x gas points on all gift card purchases. We purchased a Stubhub giftcard from Kroger and racked up some points! Saving on gas purchases in the Summer is always a good thing with all the extra driving we do. Also, unless you’re going to a popular game, you can usually get tickets at the cheapest price about a day or day and a half before the game. Here’s your funny story from the game: I was waiting in line for a pretzel and a friendly, grandfatherly PURE Chicago kinda guy struck up a conversation. He asked where I was from… Tennessee…. with the biggest smile he exclaimed “well you’re the only 10- I- see. Here’s a drink on me, welcome to Chicago!” and offered to buy me a beer from the cart. He was completely adorable, just happy to be watching the Cubs on a Saturday night.

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Sight Seeing – We made sure to hit all the major tourist areas. Navy Pier, Magnificent Mile and of course Millennium Park (the Bean). Navy Pier is currently under construction and is always very jam-packed with people. This combination made the whole experience mildly annoying. However we still enjoyed the lake views and a Chicago style hot-dog. I would hate going there with kids, it’s a glorified version of a tourist trap with pricey junk food and souvenir stores. Sorry Navy Pier. Now… Magnificent Mile? I loved it. Great shopping, great restaurants and fun street performers all in one area. That pretty much sums it up! Millennium Park was also a favorite. A beautiful park with great art, surrounded by the gorgeous Chicago architecture… definitely a hit. And we did the fun touristy thing and took a picture in the the reflection of the giant silver bean. Hint: Watching people taking their picture in the bean is way more entertaining than actually doing it yourself.

So yes, dear Chicago, we love you. Thank you for treating us to a great weekend. If you missed part 1 (lodging, transportation, food), you can catch up here.

Disclaimer: Blue Man Group, iFLY Chicago, and Brookefield Zoo kindly provided us admission for this feature. As always, the opinions are my own.

Chicago: Part 1 (Lodging, Transportation, Food)

Our nine-year wedding anniversary rolled around last week. Calvin had casually mentioned just doing a joint thing, nice restaurant, no gifts etc. I should have known he had something in the works. And that something was a four-day adventure to Chicagoland.

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Calvin and I love a bargain, so it’s fitting that this Chicago review is full of budget friendly tips and deals. Leaving room for things like a quick trip to ZARA for some Summer essentials. Here is a run down of all the deals and all the fun.

Lodging: Hotels in Chicago, especially in Spring and early Summer, are outrageous. We utilized AirBnB to get a great deal on a studio apartment. The apartment had more room than a hotel room, a full kitchen, a record player(!) and it was close to an L station. (More on the “L” in a bit.) Our host even had fresh towels and toiletries in a basket waiting for us. We also enjoyed living like “city people” rather than staying in just another hotel. Adds to the authentic adventure feel.

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Transportation: Last November, we signed up for a Southwest Visa credit card to take advantage of the 50,000 miles sign-up offer. This can be equivalent to about 3-4 round trip flights if used correctly. For this trip, we went ahead and used points (you still have to pay the taxes) . Right now if you sign up for a Southwest credit card you can still get 50,000 points if you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account. We use our credit card like cash for our regular purchases (gas, groceries etc) and pay it off monthly. The rewards are valuable if you can discipline your spending to use it correctly. We did not rent a car in Chicago. The “L” which is a cool train transit line took us everywhere we needed to go. We took it from the airport to the apt and then all over the city. We purchased a 3 day-pass for $20 each. So for $40 each we had all the transportation we needed to navigate Chicago easily. The Google Maps app took out all the intimidation of public transportation. It gives  step-by-step instructions for the L and bus system as well as ETAs for the train stops.

      FYI: Southwest currently has (as low as) $116 one-way tickets to Chicago! Ends tomorrow 6/18/2015

Food: We really didn’t have to over-think the food situation. There are great restaurants in all the little neighborhoods that make up Chicago, you can easily find a great hot dog, pizza, or Italian beef sandwich. Definitely check Groupon ahead of time and download their app for local food deals. On the night we saw the Blue Man Group, we purchased a Groupon for Four Belly (asian street food) ahead of time since it was down the street from the theater. Our biggest money saver was a new program called Spring Rewards (Nashville folks – The link is for free $10 to Sky Blue Cafe for signing up). Through Spring Rewards, we saved about $80 on food. Many of our meals ended up being $3-$8 after tip!

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I personally love Spring Rewards because I didn’t have to hand the waiter a coupon or voucher, show my phone etc. We pre-loaded the deals into our account and the money was credited back to us from Spring Rewards. For example, we had a $15 (receive $15 back when you spend $15 or more) Spring Reward for a sushi restaurant. We went in, ordered a couple of rolls for an early dinner and spent $15.35. We tipped the waiter accordingly and we received the email moments later that a $15 refund was on the way. We used Spring Rewards to get lunches at little to no cost and also used this method to eat dinner by “restaurant hopping” having smaller meals at 2-3 restaurants. It was a fun challenge and a way to try several places.

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Our one splurge was at The Purple Pig which is located on the Magnificent Mile. It was apparently voted as one of the top 10 restaurants in America by Bon Appetit. And yes. It was amazing. Definitely put it on your splurge list for Chicago. We ordered small plate items and shared and still got out just under $40.

General: I have definitely fallen in love with Chicago. I know some may disagree, but I saw a lot of warmth in the people there. I saw people give up seats on the L for women with babies, I saw people chat and communicate with strangers who looked very different from them. I watched blind adults navigate the public transit system. So much diversity and respect for others. I think maybe I’m just in love with public transportation… but still, I saw some great stuff on there. Another thing I love about Chicago is that it’s not ragingly expensive. No $20 hamburgers! Everything seemed to cost about what we would see in Nashville. We even ate deep dish pizza at the famed Pequod’s pizza for $4.99. I would call Chicago, the no fuss city. Just come as you are, enjoy the city, enjoy some art, enjoy some food. Can’t wait to go back.

Part 2 of our Chicago review is coming later this week! We will be sharing about the activities, attractions and sites we enjoyed while in Chicago.

REVIEW: Bledsoe State Park (TN)

On Thursday I attended the last of a series of ceremonies marking the end of school. I ended up with one best smiler, one super reader and one fun friend. Say what you will about unnecessary pomp and circumstance but my kids’ teachers nailed it with their awards. We had a great year of school with tons of progress, growth and achievement. IEP meetings for Lola were smoother this year and there were less hurdles all around. We are better at advocating and anticipating her needs. The year went by so quickly compared to the year before. In fact, it went a little too quickly. Next year we will have a 2nd grader, two 1st graders and a mother’s day out preschooler. Liam is almost four, and while he loves being the baby of the family, he seems less and less my littlest everyday. I feel like I’m approaching the stage where I blink, and instead of awards for super reading my kids will be accepting diplomas.

Entering into the “big kid” stage definitely has it’s advantages. They pour milk, clean rooms and even lay out their outfits for the week. Life feels much less chaotic than the “Four, 5 years old and younger” category we lived in for awhile. Those new advantages were definitely tested this weekend when we headed out for our first of many family camping trips.

I was super excited to get the kids and head out so we checked out of school a little early and hit the road. We made reservations at Bledsoe State Park because it’s conveniently located just 30 minutes away. I’m an ambitious mommy so I told Calvin to just meet us there after work and planned to set up the site with the help of my four small ones. This actually went pretty well minus the excited youngest who wanted to run off and explore every 4 seconds. Bledsoe is a great little state park. They have excellent hiking trails, some that run along the water, and nice wooded campsites. The bathrooms are also clean and heated which was very nice on cold mornings. The Goodbye boys didn’t frequent the bathrooms often, as they were more interested in the bathroom freedoms the woods provide.

The days were spent hiking, relaxing, preparing camp meals, riding bikes and playing games. Man did the kids ride their bikes. Liam even conquered two wheels. And that’s the thing about family trips and memories. I love that we can look back and say “remember when Liam rode a 2-wheel for the first time?” And we will, because it was a big event taking place in the simplest of times. This may be the reason I’m obsessed with becoming a camping family. I grew up camping and I loved backpacking in college. Some of my clearest family memories come from campfire circles or hiking trails. And as I watch the kids grow and gain independence, the moments where my almost 8-year-old holds my hand for a moment while we walk toward the water will become increasingly rare. Camping also builds character. It creates a need to work together. Gathering wood, setting up camp, cleaning up after meals and making sure nothing is left to draw animals. We were also lucky enough to hit early tick season in Tennessee. (insert emoji that displays a completely stressed out mom face) I cannot handle ticks. Read WebMD, they are tiny killers on the loose. I picked them off the kids and dog regularly. I’m still checking necks, ears and crevices because they were THAT BAD. Another memory right??

We have a few more camping trips planned this Summer. Hopefully there will be less ticks. Hopefully. We are all genuinely looking forward to more challenging hikes, longer stays and more adventure. And for those of you who have yet to take the plunge I’ll continue to blog about camping gear and what made life a little easier in the great outdoors. And for those of you who have non-camping significant others… just buy them some cool hiking shorts, it will change their whole outlook. It worked for me!

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REVIEW: Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (Charleston, SC)

Disclaimer: The folks at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry very kindly provided our family admission for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

Keeping with tradition, the Goodbye kids and I hit the road over Spring Break and trekked down to Charleston, SC. How we love the Lowcountry! We had the opportunity to check out a new adventure on this trip, The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. The Museum has 9 very hands-on exhibits: The Art Room, Medieval Castle, Garden, Water Room, Pirate Room, The Market, Raceways, Infant/Toddler play space, and an outdoor area and Fire truck.

My kids, who range from 3- 7 1/2 years old, chose the Water Room, Raceways and the Medieval Castle room as their favorite activities. Raceways (ramps and golfballs!) and the Water Room are both very sensory experiences with water to touch, sounds to make and active play. And we loved seeing the poster for Water Missions International featured in the Water Room.

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The Pirate Room and Medieval Castle allowed the kids to really get into imaginary play. I thought we would never leave the castle!

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The Market gave the kids a chance to live out their desire to scan, bag and shop at the grocery store. ALL BY THEMSELVES. They were delighted to discover that the scanner actually worked, along with the cash register and payment system.

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The Outdoor area and Art room were interactive and fun as well.
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The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry was a great experience overall. The kids were able to explore Lowcountry history and culture while participating in lots of sensory and imaginative experiences. If you are in the Charleston area, or visiting with kiddos this should definitely make your list of things to do. We can’t wait to visit and play again!

Parents of children with special needs, disabilities or sensory issues:
The best areas for Lola were the raceways, water room and the market. The Art Room workers brought her mounds of play dough and cookie cutters which was great. She enjoyed de-stressing a little and just taking a break from all of the movement. The museum is very accommodating, even providing a sensory friendly time twice each month.

Lola had some trouble with the medieval room. Lots of steps and low ceilings, places where ducking or crawling are necessary but I think with a little more lighting or color to identify the steps (I have already e-mailed this suggestion to the kind staff at the museum), she and others could navigate a little better. The Children’s Museum is open before hours from 10:00am -12:00pm the second and fourth Sundays of every month for children with special needs and their families to visit the Museum for FREE. Children are able to explore and play in the Museum without the crowds and over-stimulation. How about that! If you’re interested, registration is required, click here for more information.

 

REVIEW: Nashville’s Adventure Science Center

During the snowpocalypse charade that happened this month we found ourselves with days upon days off school. Once the roads were clear and school remained closed the goodbye kids and I really started to lose our minds.

To avoid total meltdown we loaded up in the van and headed to Nashville’s Adventure Science Center. I haven’t taken the kids in years and I was excited to see many new attractions and experiences. Our daughter Lola is legally blind and isn’t always able to fully participate in museum or center settings. We did not find that to be the case with the Adventure Science center. There were many instances were information was projected in large print and the hands-on activities were plentiful.

The large play structure that takes up the entire middle (and three floors!) of the Science center allowed the kids to explore music, sound, texture and even crawl and climb their way through the human body. My children were literally crawling through the chambers of the heart, talk about Kinaesthetic learning! This was huge for Lola, instead of struggling to look at a diagram or picture of a spine she was able to climb down one.

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The kids also enjoyed the woodworking area. They were free to choose their own materials and build whatever their minds could think up. They loved the the opportunity to use real tools and feel creative independence. Best part? You get to take your creations home!

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There is so much to do and see at the Science center, I’m barely scratching the surface here! After woodworking we enjoyed the planet/space area with LARGE scale planets and solar systems as well as a chance to experience walking on the moon. Then we headed upstairs and went through the digestive system. Just be prepared for the real-life sounds that accompany that experience. My kids found them to be excellent and hilarious.

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The Adventure Science center has a great membership plan. It was $100 for our family for an entire year. This was both affordable and cost-effective for us. The membership cost was actually less than the cost of 2 visits for our entire family. We have already made a second visit and discovered even more things to love about the Science Center. An additional membership perk was the access to free or discounted admission to 300+ science and technology centers around the country. For more information on the Adventure Science center click here.

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REVIEW: Wilderness At the Smokies Resort (Gatlinburg, TN)

It seems so appropriate, on this very snowy day, to share what we did on the last Nashville snow day. We Nashvillians aren’t really snow people. So after enduring days of school cancellations and snow and ice accumulation the kids and I jumped at the chance to get out of town once the roads were cleared. We live about 3 1/2 hours from Gatlinburg/Sevierville so it has definitely become our weekend getaway choice whenever the opportunity presents itself. There is so much to do and see as a family. We have our favorite spots like the Donut Friar, located in The Village Shops, and after this trip we have a new favorite place to stay, Wilderness at the Smokies.

Wilderness at the Smokies is a water park resort. They have both an indoor and outdoor water park area. The indoor water park area features 3 raft style water slides, a wave pool, regular pool, toddler water play area, washout mountain kids water play area (our favorite!), surf rider and a huge indoor/outdoor hot tub. The kids and I enjoyed swimming in and out of the hot tub area while the snow fell on our heads.

We left daddy at home during this spur-of-the-moment “cure our winter blues” trip and while it felt a little crazy managing the four with water around we still had a wonderful time. Because our kids ages range from 3-7 we spent most of our time at the Washout Mountain attraction. It has two kid friendly slides, waterworks, climbing structures and exploding geysers. I was able to position myself at the front while my kids ran wild. It was very safe for all of them. Wilderness does furnish life jackets so we took advantage of those as well.

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Special Needs Accomodation: When booking our room, the staff placed us in the same building as the indoor water park. This allowed us to stay in the building and have a shorter commute to the water park. This was huge! Lola had a great time on on the Surf Rider attraction. Because Lola could not see the boundary lines or navigate if she were to fall off the board they positioned a staff member on each side of her. I was so pleased to see them happily accommodate her and empower her to do the same activities as her sighted siblings.


We stayed in a studio suite and really enjoyed the rustic styling of the room. The ceilings are super high and there is a small kitchen area located in each studio suite. This made the room really functional for us as a family. The resort also has dining options and an arcade area. We did leave the resort one morning for our donut run and a trip to the outlets, which are super close, but it’s definitely a place you can just park the car and stay awhile.

The best thing about traveling alone with four kids to an indoor water park in the winter? They are so tired by bedtime from all the splashing and swimming that everyone sleeps solidly through the night. I didn’t hear a peep and got a great nights sleep! Bliss.

We can’t wait to head back to Wilderness at the Smokies and tackle the big slides and outdoor water park with daddy. It’s such an affordable getaway, as the water park tickets are included in the nightly room rate. If you are ready to cure your winter blues check out their spring break specials, because at this rate it’s still going to be snowing when Spring break rolls around in a couple of weeks.

 

All Content © Erica Ho, Goodbye Normal