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

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

We also drove around the Brown University campus, and got a closer look at the three-ton statue of “Indomitable,” an 11-foot-tall bronze Kodiak bear, sculpted by Nick Bibby. The Boy is starting high school next year, so we take every opportunity to expose him to college settings. He was impressed with the buildings, but no so much the hills.

Brown Bear

Rhode Island may be one of the country’s smallest states, but its impressive Neoclassical state capitol building is topped by the fourth largest self-supported marble dome in the world. On the tippy top is a gold-covered bronze statue of the “Independent Man” representing the spirit of Roger Williams in founding the state. He’s been struck by lightning many, many times since he was installed in 1899!

Rhode Island State Capitol

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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

The family graciously allows anyone who wants to enjoy the show to drive their circular driveway around the heavily wooded lawn, which includes a pond in the center. Even better, they accept donations, which are given to charitable organizations.

Guinness World Records

This is a video snippet that Matt the Multi-tasker took from his driver’s side window while driving through. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Still, I can only imagine what the neighbors must think! Clark Griswold had nothing on this house.

Holiday lights

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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!

 

Elf on the shelf

Trying to stow away on the USS Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

Elf on the shelf

Dreaming of being more than just an elf at the New York Hall of Science in Queens.

 

We checked in with other family travel bloggers to see if they bring their elves along on their trips, and lo and behold, they do! A wise mom and fellow travel blogger, Ann Belle of Travel Turtle, says, “What better way to get kids to behave on road trips than threatening them with Santa’s helper?”

If your Elf has been on the road with you, we would love to see the photos! Post them on our Facebook page, or add them to the #ElfontheRoad streams in Twitter and Instagram. You can also check out the gallery of images from us and the other bloggers on Pinterest.

ALSO, if you’ve posted a photo of your #ElfontheRoad on your own blog, feel free to include the link to your post below so we can all check out where these restless elves have roamed!

 

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World’s Largest Gingerbread Exhibit … maybe

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

The village is comprised of 152 gingerbread houses, 65 trees, four gingerbread cable cars, five gingerbread train cars, an underground candy subway station, candy trees and sugar signage. Each piece is incredibly detailed. In addition to houses, there was a bakery, fire house, distillery, and even a pierogi shop.

Gingerbread houses

Each element in GingerBread Lane is designed, baked, built and decorated by Chef Jon Lovitch. He’s been creating these villages for 20 years, but this is the largest to-date. The process begins in March when he designs it. In April and May he makes the bridges, trees, snowmen, and signage. When this year’s village was complete, he had used about 1,900 lbs. of icing, 400 lbs. of candy, and 500 lbs. of gingerbread dough.

This video shows off my mad skillz at the pan shot:

Go see it through January 12. It’s on the lower level of the Hall of Science, and included with the museum’s admission fee.  There are also two exhibit-related events taking place:

Gingerbread House Workshop – December 7 and 28
Make your own gingerbread house to take home.

GingerBread Lane House Giveway – January 12
The gingerbread houses will be given away, while supplies last.

It won’t take you long to see GingerBread Lane, so you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the Hall of Science’s three floors of earth and life science exhibits.

If the scent of gingerbread makes you hungry for lunch, try Tortilleria Nixtamal, a joint about a half-mile away. We discovered it’s been featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, one of The Boy’s favorite TV shows, so we tried it out. It’s a funky little place with a lot of yellow and red, and folk art décor. The flour tortillas are freshly homemade, and the fillings – like the chorizo – are so creative and tasty.

Hey YOU! Go BIG!

GingerBread Lane at New York Hall of Science
47-01 111th St, Corona, NY 11368, (718) 699-0005

New York Hall of Science

She’s licking her lips because it smells so good. And because we asked her to smile instead.

 

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BIG Finds in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

World Trade Center Baltimore

In front of the world’s tallest pentagonal building

Over Columbus Day weekend, we attended the Digital Family Summit in Baltimore. This annual kid-friendly conference is geared toward tweens and teens who are digital content creators, meaning they’re writing blogs or producing videos for the web. I thought it would be a great experience for The Boy, who took workshops in video game design and WordPress. I would recommend it if your kids are out there navigating their way through the world wide web.

Our hotel was an easy ten-minute walk to the Inner Harbor district, one of the top tourist destinations in “Charm City,” so we took advantage of our down time to do a little exploring for BIG stuff. We were also able to meet up with one of Matt’s high school friends, Kim, who lives nearby with her five kids.

It was one of those five kids who actually tipped us off to our first find. Upon learning what we blog about, 12-year old Danny said, “You know, the tallest pentagonal building in the world is here in the Inner Harbor.”

What?!? My crackerjack advance research techniques had obviously failed me, because that was news.

World Trade Center, Baltimore

The 405-foot tall building is actually the World Trade Center, and was designed by the firm founded by renowned architect I.M. Pei. You can take the elevators to the “Top of the World” observation level on the 27th floor for 360° views of the city. Now that I’ve actually done my homework, I’ve found out that it’s technically the world’s tallest “regular” pentagonal building, meaning that all sides are the same length. There is a taller irregular pentagonal building in Houston; the JPMorgan Chase building, which is 1,002-feet tall.

World Trade Center

Baltimore’s World Trade Center, as seen from the National Aquarium

It’Sugar, Baltimore

After lunch, we had a hankering for dessert, and I spied a gelato bar in the It’Sugar candy store. Well, we were all immediately distracted from the gelato by the numerous colorful displays of candy in all shapes, sizes, and brands.

It was then we started seeing a lot of “world’s largest” versions of popular favorites, like the World’s Largest Rice Krispie Treat (a 32 oz sheet), the world’s largest box of Nerds, Laffy Taffy, Sweetart, Pop Rocks box, and of course, the “world’s largest gummy bear” and the “world’s largest gummy worm.”

Worlds Largest Gummy Bear

His orthodontist’s worst nightmare

Come to find out, It’Sugar bills itself as the source for the world’s largest candy…and if you can’t get to one of their 70+ locations, you can order it online.

 

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Giant Pumpkin Carving Weekend at The New York Botanical Garden, New York City

Today was a glorious, picture-perfect fall day in New York. The ideal day, in fact, to go see artists with saws and knives hack away at the flesh inside 2,000-lb. pumpkins. It’s the Giant Pumpkin Carving Weekend at the New York Botanical Garden, part of The Haunted Pumpkin Garden event going on all month.

NOTE: I’m posting this tonight in case you want to make last-minute plans to check out this event on Sunday. Totally worth re-scheduling your day of leaf-raking.

giant pumpkin

At 1,813 lbs., this carved pumpkin at the entrance was one of the smaller ones we saw!

This was our first visit to the Botanical Garden, and I don’t know what took us so long to get here. It’s a tucked-away treasure in the Bronx, a National Historic Landmark, with 250 acres of rolling hills, waterfalls and ponds, forest, rock outcroppings, and the Bronx River, along with several historic buildings. Within one of these, the Mertz Library has the world’s largest horticultural and botanical library!

Mertz Library

Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden

There are 50 themed gardens containing more than one million plants. The kids were really enjoying the walk – until they weren’t – and then they really enjoyed riding the tram around the perimeter of the park.

The Haunted Pumpkin Garden takes place in the Children’s Adventure Garden, and along the trail you’ll find 500 pumpkin sculptures of scarecrows, spiders, snakes, and more.

Childrens Garden

We spent over an hour just exploring the children’s garden, which also contains an indoor discovery center, a puppet theater, a few guided craft activities, as well as wooded walking trails, a maze, and a rocky area perfect for climbing.

Toward the back of the children’s garden is the picnic area, where the giant pumpkin carvers have set up shop with their giant pumpkins. We delighted in discovering a BIG trifecta:

The world’s largest pumpkin, at 2,032 lbs. Did you that during peak growing season, pumpkins can grow up to 50 lbs. a day?!

world's largest pumpkin

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The Big Duck, Flanders, NY

Big DuckEvery once in a while, I get a hankering to go see a quirky roadside attraction; and it doesn’t even need to be the world’s largest. Two weeks ago, we took a day trip to visit the Big Duck in Flanders, NY. Technically, the real reason was to visit family on Long Island. My aunt lured us with an offer of homemade lasagna, so it promised to be a banner day.

My aunt’s cooking is worth the 100-mile trip. Heck, I would drive 500 miles for her stuffed artichokes. Copious amounts of breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil…what were we talking about? Right…the big duck.

In the 1920’s and 30’s, there were about 150 duck farms in Riverhead, NY, on the eastern end of Long Island. The farms were known for their succulent Peking ducks, and even though the number of farms has decreased dramatically as land values have increased, you can still find Long Island duckling on menus in fine restaurants.

In 1931, Riverhead duck farmer Martin Maurer had a vision to create a shop — in the shape of a duck — to sell Peking ducks and duck eggs. He hired Broadway set designers, the Collins Brothers, to create it. The result was the Big Duck, measuring 30 feet from beak to tail, and 20 feet from the base to the top of its head. Its original eyes were a pair of Model T taillights which glowed at night.

The Big Duck was a trend-setter, as one of the first examples of roadside architecture representing and promoting a product or service. This is now commonly known as “duck architecture;” and “ducks” refer to these sculpturally-designed forms.

The Big Duck

The Big Duck sits in a Long Island park near the Hamptons

The Big Duck, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was originally located in Riverhead, but was moved three times in preservation efforts, which reminds me of the admirable actions taken on behalf of Lucy the Elephant in Margate, NJ. The Big Duck – which I really think needs a name, kind of like “Lucy” – now sits on Big Duck Ranch overlooking Reeves Bay in Flanders, NY. It’s a public park operated by Suffolk County, so its future is secure.

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My Take on LEGOLAND Florida

LEGO storeEditor’s Note: The Boy, now 13, hates when I put conditions on some of the fun writing assignments I have. But the quid pro quo for getting to visit LEGOLAND Florida again was that he had to write another post. Here’s his take:

This summer, I was lucky enough to go to LEGOLAND Florida for a second time. The first time was on the Grand Opening day, and Mom and I had to lie to my sister and tell her we were going to Czechoslovakia. This time we had tried not to mention the whole “Czechoslovakia” thing as The Girl was with us.

LEGOLAND has improved in some very large ways, as well as some smaller ways. One of the main ways it has improved is offering the VIP Experience. Being a VIP allows you to have an assistant and some free meals, as well the chance to meet a master builder. This master builder was one of three master builders on staff of LEGOLAND, and he was the builder I met last time I was there.

LEGO master builder

As a VIP, you get the Hero Access pass to go to the front of the lines, so you get to essentially cut the lines. And you get a cabana at the water park (which could be a life saver, as it was with us).  If you are going to go to the water park, this is the way to do it right.

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