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What Happens When A Small-Town Family Visits The "World's Largest"... Whatever!

Experience the World’s Second Largest Reef, By Submarine

The world’s largest reef, the Great Barrier Reef, borders Australia – a continent that tempts me from the top of my bucket list. The second largest? That would be the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, a 620-mile long, 11,000-acre protected coral reef system. Conveniently, it runs along the eastern coast of Mexico, specifically the island of Cozumel. Our big trip this summer just so happened to be to Cozumel, so we set our sights on seeing the reef.

Cozumel has become one of the world’s most popular scuba diving and snorkeling destinations, thanks to the highly-publicized praise from Jacques Cousteau in the 60’s. We’re not scuba divers, but in Cozumel, that’s not a deal breaker. You can see the reef just as well–without having to breathe through a tube–in the Atlantis Submarine.

The Atlantis Submarine in Cozumel

Our adventure began in the gift shop, where we assembled and were given initial instructions. Then we boarded a tender to take us on a ten-minute ride along Cozumel’s west coast to the site where the 65-foot long Atlantis was docked. We were the second stop, joining a group of people who were taking a day excursion off of the cruise ship in port. On board the boat, we heard from our captain in both English and Spanish, along with the requisite marine-themed jokes and music.

Atlantis Submarine

At the dive site, you climb out of the boat and down into the submarine. Inside, the vessel seats 48 people plus three crew members, and it’s completely climate controlled. There was little room to move around, and I could see that people with claustrophobia issues might not love it.

Submarine

Once the hatch was sealed, we began our descent. It was exciting, as the beginning of any new experience is, and the kids were pointing to everything with glee, even seaweed. Within 20 minutes, the pilot had slowly descended 110 feet, which we tracked on the digital counter.

Atlantis Submarine

The crew will explain, in both English and Spanish, what you’re seeing during the 45-minute excursion. There are also illustrated cards hanging near each window with pictures identifying the most common fish that live in these waters.

We watched through the circular windows, and it felt like we were gliding through an immense fish tank. We saw colorful fish like Red Snapper, Queen Angle Fish, and Yellowfin Grouper, eels, and many different types of corals. Depending on the season, you may see sharks and stingrays.

submarine cozumel

We even saw huge hermit crabs, prompting a moment of silence for The Girl’s two pet hermit crabs which she brought home from school last month. After only two weeks in our home, “Luke” and “Darth” passed on to a hermit crab galaxy far, far away.

The visibility under water is amazingly clear, although tinted with blue. It was darker when there were clouds in the sky, but this was a mostly sunny day, and the light penetrated the clear water all the way to the bottom. It was much darker as we approached El Pared, or “The Wall,” a drop off where the depths reach 2,000 feet.

Coral reef

We turned around at this point, and soon passed the shipwreck Felipe. We saw streams of bubbles, realizing that these were coming from the oxygen tanks of a group of scuba divers exploring the ship’s interior. I felt a twinge of envy for their freedom of movement around the ship, and almost wished I was scuba diving instead.

But it was an exciting first for us to ride in a real submarine, a vessel which we were told cost $7 million. The Girl has fixated on this figure. Her mantra to be a millionaire someday has been replaced – now she wants to be rich enough to buy herself a submarine.

As we climbed out of the sub and back onto the boat, we were greeted by a crewmember cheekily welcoming us to Cuba. Sure, he says this to every guest, every day, but I still chuckled.

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Atlantis Submarines
Carretera a Chankanaab Km 4, Zona Hotelera Sur
Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77600

 

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Taking the Kids to Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, Florida

Big Cat Rescue

Big Cat Rescue

The Girl is a BIG fan of animals, thanks to a steady diet of “The Wild Kratts” on PBS. A trip to Tampa allowed us to visit Big Cat Rescue, the largest accredited sanctuary in the country, and possibly the world, dedicated entirely to abused and abandoned big cats.

Big Cat Rescue is home to some 100 lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and other wild cats, who live in enclosed habitats on 67 acres in the Citrus Park area of north Tampa. These majestic creatures were, for the most part, former pets or victims of the “pet trade,” who were mistreated or abandoned. Some had been used for performing acts and were no longer wanted. The mission here is to end the abuse and abandonment of captive exotic animals and promote preservation of the species in the wild.

After learning all this, I explained to the kids that this was not a zoo, and these animals were not there for our entertainment, but because this was the safest place for them to live now that they were no longer accustomed to living in the wild. It was important for them to know that, although I tried to keep the message lighthearted for my six-year old.

You get to learn the cats’ individual stories along the way, both from the tour guide and from the posted signs which provide their name, the date they came to the Rescue, and where they were found. In many cases, this is an eye-opener. Divinity the Bobcat, for example, was rescued from a fur farm.

Bobcat

Divinity the Bobcat

In all, there are 14 species of cats, including tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, bobcats, lynx, servals, ocelots, caracals, jungle cats, leopard cats and a Geoffroy cat.

Tiger

Keisha the Tiger

We don’t keep a checklist of all the animal species we’ve ever seen in real life, but if we did, we would certainly have checked a few off the list that day! Ever heard of a serval? I hadn’t, but we saw one of the mere 167 in captivity anywhere in the world!

Leopard

Simba the Leopard

Big Cat Rescue Tours

You can only visit Big Cat Rescue on a guided tour, and you have to stay with your group at all times. Although our guide did give us ample time to admire the cats and take pictures, she was very insistent that we keep up with the group when she moved on. Not all tours are open to children. For children under 10, your only option is the one-hour “Kids Tour” at 9:00AM on Saturdays and Sundays. Older kids have the option of joining you on the “Keeper Tour,” the “Feeding Tour,” and the “Wild Eyes at Night” tour. Keep in mind that the dirt paths are not easy to push strollers through. We went the day after it rained, and there were a lot of mud puddles to navigate.

I found the admission fees (ranging from $36.00-$125.00 per person) a little pricey, but understood that this is a nonprofit, and the costs cover the care and feeding of these beautiful animals. At the end of your tour, you can sponsor a cat in the gift shop. This is a great way to extend your child’s experience and do even more good.

Big Cat Rescue

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Big Cat Rescue
12802 Easy Street, Tampa, FL 33625
(813) 920-4130

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How to Experience Colonial Williamsburg With Kids

Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse

Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse

The world’s largest living history museum, Colonial Williamsburg, has lured us to Virginia twice before. We now know two things with certainty. A) There’s not a lot of shade on a hot day. B) Despite that, there is a lot of entertaining and educational fun to be had by all ages.

If you’re planning a trip this summer, there are a few highlights I would strongly recommend to maximize your experience, especially if you’re only there for one day. It’s best to have a plan of attack at a place this big — Colonial Williamsburg includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed original buildings, museums, lodging, and restaurants, retail stores and gardens.

Start your day at the Visitor Center. The map includes a weekly program guide, with kid-friendly programs highlighted. If you haven’t done so before your trip, make reservations for on-site meals, and purchase additional passes for special programs or tours not included in the general pass. You can even rent costumes for everyone in your family to wear so you can blend in with the colonists.

Walking through the streets is partly about watching, and also about participating. You can stop by the blacksmith shop or the bindery to observe these artisans in their trades, march along with the Fife and Drum crew, or stop into the Courthouse to hear a case before the judge. Make sure you hit the Kids Corner at the Gateway, where they taught our kids games like Whirligig.

Colonial Williamsburg kids

A lot tougher than it looks!

When it’s time for some air conditioning, take the tour of the Governor’s Palace, or visit the Folk Art Museum. At the Governor’s Palace, your tour guide–in character and period dress–will lead you through a moment in time in the life of Lord Dunmore and his staff. The Folk Art Museum has antique toys on display, gives special children’s tours, and offers craft sessions. Our kids loved the audio tour!

Folk Art Museum

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

Play RevQuest, especially if you and your kids are tech fiends! This is a text-message based alternative reality game, where texts help players navigate through Revolutionary City in search of secret meeting spots and hidden messages to locate an ally critical to saving the American Revolution. The game is free with your admission.

RevQuest

RevQuest. Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

Make sure you’re “downtown” in the late afternoon for the Revolutionary City programs, which are like 18th century flash mobs. You’re a bystander on the street while costumed re-enactors play a series of emotionally-charged scenes, such as two enslaved Virginians considering leaving their familiar lives for potential freedom in the North.

Have an early dinner in a tavern; just make sure you’ve made reservations, especially in the high summer season. There are four to choose from, and all offer kids’ menus with items like “Chicken, Fife ‘n’ Drumstix,” and “Thomas Jefferson’s Macaroni and Cheese.” This is an experience worth the expense, because your servers will be dressed in colonial clothing, and strolling musicians will visit your table, with instruments like the hurdy gurdy! Each tavern now provides a distinctive experience, whether it’s the 18th century alehouse atmosphere at Chownings, the chophouse feel of Kings Arms Tavern, or the entertainment hub at Shields Tavern.

Colonial Williamsburg tavern

Shields Tavern has air conditioning!

If you still have steam after the attractions close at 5:00PM, try one of the evening programs. Some are best suited for adults (like the witch trials and ghost tours), but others are fine for all ages. We joined an 18th century dance lesson lead by costumed gentry. First, we learned to curtsy and bow. The Boy took part in a country dance called the First of April, and I danced a cotillion with a guy in a wig.

NOTE: There’s a summer 2014 family promotion that might interest you if you’re planning to go this year; the Kids Stay, Play & Eat FREE offer. Kids ages 12 and under, accompanied by a paying adult, stay free for a minimum of three nights at the Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel & Suites or the Williamsburg Lodge.

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Colonial Williamsburg
Williamsburg, Virginia
855-756-9516

stockade

Requisite stockade shot

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BIG Finds at Ripley’s Believe it or Not: Ocean City, MD

Robert Wadlow

World’s tallest man!

You can find a lot of superlative stuff inside the 32 Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums around the world; each location has more than 300 exhibits and artifacts. We’ve never been inside one of these “odditoriums” before, but we finally took the plunge last week while in Ocean City, Maryland. We discovered that this beachy destination is very seasonal, so there wasn’t a lot to do yet in mid-April. The 2.25-mile Boardwalk was hopping, however, and Ripley’s is in a prime location at the southern end.

Robert Ripley, a cartoonist and adventurer, traveled to 201 countries over the course of his life, and collected a vast, eclectic collection of oddities. Many of these (originals and reproductions) are on display here, alongside newer pieces collected in recent decades.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the only place you’ll ever see an authentic concrete section of the Berlin Wall displayed near a model oil rig constructed of match sticks, and a mural of Rihanna depicted in Lite Bright pegs. A whole lot of weird. We liked it!

As you walk through different rooms, you’ll find the exhibits fit into themes, like animals, space, and human extremes. Of course, we had to take a photo with a statue of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man. Wadlow (1918-1940) reached a height of 8’, 11”, and weighed 440 lbs. His arm span was 9½ feet! Only 17 people have been recorded in medical history to reach the height of eight feet.

In another room, a replica of the world’s largest Great White Shark ever caught with a rod and reel was hanging from the ceiling, near an iron cage you could step into. It’s 16’, 8” long, 3,427 lbs, and was caught off the shores of Montauk, New York in 1986 by Donnie Braddick.

Great White Shark

Okay, so it isn’t the world’s largest ball of twine, but this 600-lb.ball of string is fun! More than four feet in diameter, it was constructed over a period of 40 years by Chester and Gladys Alton of Winter Park, Florida. Now there’s a couple that knows how to spend time together.

Giant ball of string

Finally, as we left, we found this giant tire just outside the exit. You’ll notice that both our children are smiling at the SAME TIME…believe it, or not.

Good Year Tire

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Ripley’s Believe it or Not
401 S. Atlantic Avenue, Ocean City, MD 21842
410-289-5600

 

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World’s Largest Salt Water Lagoon; Cayman Islands

Even though there’s still some snow on the ground, it’s officially spring, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to turn off the heat soon. This photo has been my screensaver for the past few months, and it has gotten me through.

stingrays

Swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands

What you’re looking at is a warm and happy family posing with a stingray off the coast of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. All that gorgeous blue is the perfect antidote to all the icy white I see from my window.

We were on the north side of the island, in the North Sound, one of the world’s largest and shallowest salt water lagoons. The Sound is also home to Stingray City, an offshore reef where friendly sting rays congregate. They’ve been accustomed to humans stopping by all day long in cruisers like these.

Stingray City

All those dark spots underwater are stingrays!

Several companies offer daily boat tours; Captain Marvin’s is the oldest. Marvin is a real person, and he started bringing tourists to this spot back in 1951. We were picked up at our hotel, and brought to the dock to meet the rest of our group of 20. We took a three-hour tour with three stops: Stingray City to interact with the rays; and two great snorkeling spots called the Coral Gardens and Barrier Reef.

It’s surreal to be walking around in this waist-deep patch in the crystal clear sea among scores of stingrays. The first time one of these creatures slides across your legs, you may let out a little squeal. Or you may scream like a possessed little girl.

There was a photographer on board, with an assistant who poses you with the stingray, even letting you “kiss” it. I can’t believe my teenaged son actually did this:

stingray

I will kiss him and love him and squeeze him and call him George.

The tour company provided us with pieces of squid to feed them. You’re supposed to hold it flat in the palm of your hand, while holding your hand still under water as they glide over it and slurp it up. In theory. The Girl was braver than her mother and at least tried, but ended up dropping it as the ray approached.

Both our kids were even braver when the opportunity came to snorkel. What was the source of their fortitude? Was it the sunshine? The salt air? Or just crazy curiosity to see what was under those turquoise waves? They were different kids that day, and I was so proud.

snorkeling

SnorkelGurl

During the two snorkeling stops, we used the masks, snorkels, and flippers supplied by the company. This was their first time snorkeling, and they loved it once they got the hang of it. Above and beyond several types of brightly colored fish, like Blue Tang and yellow-striped Sergeant Major Damselfish, there was coral in all shades of blue and purple.

Cayman Islands

Snorkeling in the Caymans

We’ll be going to another warm, tropical Caribbean destination this summer. Can’t wait to tell you about it! In the meantime, I’ll warm my hands by the monitor.

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Captain Marvin’s cruises to Stingray City
866-978-6364; 345-945-6975

starfish

Catch and release starfish encounter

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World’s Largest Termite, and other BIG Things in Providence, Rhode Island

This long, cold, snowy winter we’re enjoying barely tolerating here in the Hudson Valley hasn’t been kind to our travel plans, beginning way back in November, when a storm prevented us from driving to Gatlinburg, TN for Thanksgiving. Another storm was forecast for President’s Day weekend earlier this month, when we were scheduled to drive to Providence, RI. The Girl insisted we go anyway, whining, “Weather has ruined all our trips!”

Okay, so we were committed to getting there. And then The Boy sprained his ankle, and was outfitted with a boot. My eye began to twitch.

But hey, flexibility is what family travel is all about, so we rolled with it. We were snowed in at the Hampton Inn for an entire afternoon. We couldn’t do much walking. But the important thing was WE GOT OUT of town, winter be damned.

And discovered some great BIG attractions in Rhode Island’s capital city.

Because we love roadside attractions, our first photo op stop was “Nibbles Woodaway,” also known as the Big Blue Bug. At two tons, he’s the world’s largest termite, and has sat on top of an extermination business building since 1980. He’s nine feet tall and 58 feet long, and is occasionally dressed in smart seasonal accessories.

Termite

The Girl’s favorite stop was to see the six-foot tall Mr. Potato Head in front of the Hasbro company headquarters building in Pawtucket, 10 minutes away. Don’t let The Boy’s unimpressed expression fool you…inside, he was THRILLED too. The story behind this guy is that he is one of the few remaining of an original batch of 47 statues decorated by various artists, and displayed around the state as part of a tourism promotion in 2000.

Mr. Potato Head

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The BIG Stuff at Hershey’s

Chocolate WorldYou didn’t think I’d let the whole month of January go by without posting something BIG? Well, up until a few hours ago, I did. Work (you know, all the other writing I do) has been crazy-in-a-good-way this month.

But I can’t ignore the fact that the winter doldrums have set in, and so I want to offer a suggestion to anyone looking for a fun day trip or weekend getaway: Hershey, PA. True, the Hersheypark amusement park is still closed for the season, but there are other year-round attractions in town. My favorite of which is Chocolate World, home to the world’s largest selection of Herhsey’s products.

First, there are the attractions, like the Great American Chocolate Tour, a free ride with a free sample at the end. I can honestly say that I still have memories of this ride from a trip I took there as a five-year old. Hey, it’s the enduring power of chocolate. Of course, it’s been updated, and stars three singing mechanical dairy cows. That “Hershey’s Milk Chocolate” jingle will stick in your brain for days.

For a fee, you can also catch “Hershey’s Great Chocolate Factory Mystery,” a fun action adventure movie in the 4D theater, or the “Hershey’s Create Your Own Candy Bar” area, where you get to customize your own chocolate bar. (Hope you look better than me in a hair net.)

But it’s the retail area where you find the BIG stuff, like the world’s largest Hershey’s Bar, York Peppermint Patty, Twizzlers, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. In the new XOXO section devoted to Hershey’s Kisses, the entire back wall was covered with bins featuring different flavors— we lost count at 15—like Cookies N’ Creme, Mint Truffle, and Candy Cane.

chocolate bar

That’s five pounds of chocolate goodness right there…

Twizzlers

Mean Mommy made her put it back on the display.

Don’t even get me started about the Bake Shoppe.

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Hershey’s Chocolate World
251 Park Blvd, Hershey, PA 17033
717.534.4900

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A World Record Christmas Light Display

Christmas lightsWe don’t have to travel far to see a BIG Christmas lights display. Right here in the Hudson Valley, the Gay family of Union Vale, NY puts on an incredible show every year in their front lawn. It’s not just any lawn, and it’s not just any light display.

The ERDAJT light display (the name includes the initials of the family’s three kids) began on a much smaller scale in 1995, and has grown to now include 392,887 lights. They are strung up on trees, fences, poles, and suspended in air. Big lights, small lights, blinkers, solids, strobes, colored and white. Any kind of light you could ever imagine. The newest elements include: three “Leaping Light” trees towering 50 feet high, each with 15 channels and 7,000 lights.

Last year, the family earned a Guinness World Record for the most lights on a residential property. Most are LED’s, so the estimated electric cost is only about $350. They use some 2,000 extension cords, or about eight miles worth.

And what’s more, they pulse and blink in different areas to the beat of music, which is piped through a radio channel, so you can listen in your car! The soundtrack they created includes 181 songs, a mix of holiday classics and rock.

Holiday light display

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Elf on the Road

Is anyone else bracing for the onslaught of “Elf on the Shelf” photos in their Facebook feeds? I’m all for holiday cheer, but I only have the energy to manufacture one fictional figment per season, and this one belongs to Santa. Still, this year I wanted to put a family travel spin on the Elf buzz. You know we’re always up for a little quirkiness around here, like our Halloween trick photos last year.

So, over the last few months, we’ve taken our still-unnamed Elf off the shelf, and on the road. He’s been to several states, and seen a lot. He tends toward mischief, though.

Elf on the shelf

For a little guy, he’s got a big appetite. At the giant fork in the road in Red Hook, NY. This is Matt’s elf from his childhood. Vintage!

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World’s Largest Gingerbread Exhibit

So, the plan was to get up early Sunday for a 9:00am wheels-up for the New York Hall of Science in Queens, to see the GingerBread Lane exhibit. Except it was dark and rainy, and we just switched over to flannel sheets. Flannel sheets are quicksand on Sunday mornings. My feet didn’t touch slippers until 8:30, so our plans were slightly postponed.

Still, the drive was worth it. GingerBread Lane, a 1.5 ton, 300-square-foot village made entirely of edible gingerbread, royal icing and candy, is a contender for the Guinness World Record for the largest gingerbread exhibit. The final decree has not been made, but we had to go see it. It’s pretty amazing to look at, and smells deeeeelicious.

Overview

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