Crossing the Mississippi, Westbound

Growing up I didn’t think much of crossing the Mississippi River. Living in Minneapolis that river was not much of a continental boundary line. For example, I crossed the Mississippi every school day in high school.

Today we crossed the Mississippi River for the last time on our trip. I noted the passing to everyone as Tiny drove over the I-35W bridge and we all said goodbye to the mighty river at St Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.** Although we’ve been heading East for a while now, crossing the Mississippi is definitely a boundary line for us. We are now clearly driving into the West again. Portland is about 2000 miles and 3 weeks away.

The last month has been mostly about visiting family and friends in the Midwest. One final “thank you” to everyone that hosted us over the last month – you know who you are. You made us feel at home, whether it was for an evening visiting or a week of sharing your house. It was a good time – documented in part with a number of pictures below.

We’re now back in Tiny and feeling very relaxed to be on the road. For all that we love our family and friends, it feels good to be moving again. The landscape changed some as we rolled out of the wooded areas of central Minnesota to the farm and prairie of southern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. And we’ll see the wildly different landscape (moonscape?) of the South Dakota Badlands tomorrow.

We have just a few more big landmarks (and many small ones – like the Corn Palace today) – Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and more TBD – and then we’ll be home. As long as we continue to find good campground electrical hookups we will be fine, even with the hotter temps coming our way. Betsy gets cranky in the heat, so AC is a requirement for happy camping. But we’re done with the East – goodbye Mississippi River!

** As we learned at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, St Anthony Falls is the reason Minneapolis was founded here in the 1800’s. A waterfall meant power for the lumber and flour mills which thrived well into the mid-1900’s. We visited the Mill City Museum on this trip and found it surprisingly lively, enjoyable, and informative (for all 4 of us). It helped that Betsy and I got in free using our Visa card’s Museums on Us weekend.

The Fire by Bennett

(See entry here for what this is)

We went camping at Timothy Lake Campground near Mount Hood in Oregon in 2013.  It was our family (Mom, Dad, Carter, and me) and the Mace family (Eric, Frannie, Nina, and Nate)  (Laura had to go home early).  Carter thought of making a big fire on the last day of camping.

We made the structure for the fire during the day.  It was about a foot and a half tall and in the shape of a teepee.  Dad was chopping wood and me and the other kids stacking wood in the middle of the fire ring.  We put a mini cereal box filled with moss and paper in the middle for an extra treat.  We knew the moss and paper would burn really well and make the fire really big for a few seconds. It was hard work that was going to pay off.

We are just about to light the big fire.  We are all excited.  We light it.  The fire goes out.  We light it in a few places and wait.  It slowly started and then got really big.  At its peak the fire was about two feet tall.  When the mini cereal box caught fire, it turned the fire green because of the chemicals.

The fire was great for s’mores.  It had hot fire to soften the marshmallow, some hot parts to get the marshmallow brown, and some warm parts to get it puffy.  After we ate our s’mores, we sang camp songs around the fire.  My favorite song was Little Spaceship.

I loved the gigantic s’mores fire because it made delicious s’mores and because we were with some really nice friends.


The Porch by Carter

(See entry here for what this is)

I see trees some small, some tall.  They’re all green, bright green. The trees are the same color as the grass.

On the porch where I am sitting, there is a tub full of water, inside the tub full of water there is some Coke, and beer.  There was a party here before we arrived.  There are three chairs and two outdoor couches.  I feel the fabric of the couch on my legs.  I don’t feel every individual stitch though.  It feels sort of scratchy, but not scratchy enough to be irritating.  There’s also a round table on the porch with five dining room chairs.  On the table there’s an oil lamp, a basket of bread, and a pepper grinder.  We ate at this table last night and it made me feel relaxed.  Behind me there are some small, purple flowers in a planter box.  I can’t smell the flowers because my nose is clogged.  It seems like my nose is always clogged.

Across the lawn Bennett and Aunt Elsie are talking to each other about who knows what.  On one tree I see five birdhouses are hanging.  Two birdhouses are pink, one is yellow, and another one is blue. The last one’s white, but they are all empty.

At the bottom of the yard, there is a line of evergreen trees and then a lot of cars.  The cars are there because of the swimming pool that’s just out of my sight.  Occasionally some kids with pool toys and swimming suits walk by in the far away parking lot.

I hear lots of kids from the pool.  There’s shouting and yelling.  It sort of makes me feel like I want to be with them.  I also feel very hot because the temperature is at 80 degrees.  I think they’re playing a baseball game down there because I hear a bat hitting something and I hear “get it, get it” and “I got it” and “throw it to me.”  I feel tired because last night I was up until 10:00 and I got up at 7:00.  I got up at 7:00 because I wanted to read on my Kindle.

It really is a great and comfortable place to be out here on Aunt Elsie’s and Uncle Al’s back porch in Washington, Pennsylvania.

Writing Homework by the Boys…

The next two entries are the “final” from our reading of the book “Writer’s Notebook” by Ralph Fletcher.  In the book he describes all the different ways that you might use a writer’s notebook.  The chapters vary from creating lists, recording snatches of conversation, remembering memories, creating mental pictures, stories you can’t forget, etc.    The boys were tasked with trying each of the ways at least once in their own writer’s notebook.  Some were easy like creating lists of movies they wanted to see or jokes they wanted to remember.  Some were difficult such as writing about something deeply personal (I let them keep that one private if they wanted.)

The final exam was that they had to pick one of their notebook entries to publish – going through editing, teacher review, etc.  Carter chose to publish a new mental picture where you take one moment in time and try to capture it in your writing to use at some other time.  He has actually published one of these before on the blog.  Bennett picked a memory entry.  I said that memories had to be over a year old because I wanted the memory to be old enough to mellow in his brain.  A year is a long time in the span of only 8 years of life – a few of which you have no memories from!

The Ptaks Go To New York City

Since we have been doing so little homeschooling lately, I decided to get back in the groove and assign grades to all the attractions we visited in New York City. Info on the RV park we stayed at is at the end of this 9 page post.

New York Pass
David and I did something most uncharacteristic for us; we bought a pass for free admission into over 80 NYC attractions for 7 days. We did SO many things that we wouldn’t have ever considered without this pass. If you know me, you know that if I pay for something like this, I WILL get my money’s worth! We rented bikes in Central Park, went on walking tours, went on a sailing ship, even went to Madame Toussads’ Wax Museum. Why not? It was free at that point! I really feel like it was a great experience for us and a great way to “do” New York City with the kids.
David: I’m not sure it would be as great choice if you only had 3 or 5 days (unless you are up for packing in lots of events every day), but with 7 days I highly recommend it. Even just doing 2 or 3 things a day makes it a good deal.

Walking Tour of Brooklyn Bridge and the DUMBO neighborhood
Walking tours were some of the best parts of this NY Pass. Inside Out Tours got high reviews by everyone we talked to and this one more than delivered. We got lots of information while walking over the bridge and had an enjoyable stroll through the “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass” area. My two pieces of advice if you are going to get a New York Pass is 1. Plan out your days ahead of time and 2. Take all the walking tours that are highly rated on Trip Advisor. They really are great.
David: One cute side note – our boys have a strong affinity to tour guides. They tend to stick right by them and enjoy talking to them while walking from place to place. I suspect they are not even aware Mom and Dad are on the same tour most of the time. We’re essentially irrelevant during tours.

Top of the Rock Observation Deck – 30 Rockefeller Plaza – Rated TOP CHOICE by Bennett
We did this on our first day as an orientation to the city. It was great to see the kids’ jaws drop at the view. It seems like it had been a while since we had gotten a good jaw dropping. There is a free app to download ahead of time that allows you to point toward buildings and the app will identify the more note worthy. Great views, great building.
Bennett: Go there on a clear day if you can. Here’s a tip: The telescope will show you where different buildings are without paying. Just use the numbers on the sign to figure out the direction.

Empire State Building at Night – Rated TOP CHOICE by Carter and David
It’s iconic. You have to do it. We choose to do Top of The Rock the first day as an orientation and save Empire State Building for a night later in the week. If I only had the time or money to do one of these, I might chose Top of The Rock because you can see more skyline from it. By the way, New York Pass provides a free audio tour. It’s a little dry although Carter and Bennett liked the Halloween lights section and some of the building sections.
Carter: The view is amazing on a clear night. You see lots of lights and the skyline. There are so many lights in New York.

Broadway show: Newsies and Mathilda Rated TOP CHOICE by Carter
We used the TKTS booth 3 times. We got ½ price tickets on Newsies for all of us, Mathilda for just David and Carter, and Avenue Q just for David. There is nothing like Times Square and Broadway. The theater quality level is unbelievable. The prices are high though, too. We looked at Lion King – $200+ per ticket??? Wowsa. Both of the kid-attended plays had positive messages, which was an added bonus to the singing and dancing.
Carter: The dancing and singing is amazing and they are really trained to do this. They were both better than anything I’ve seen in Portland. I liked in Mathilda how they interacted with the audience.

Central Park by bike – SBR Store – Rated TOP CHOICE by Bennett and David
What a fun treat! We rented bikes for 4 hours, walked them up to south end the park, and then rode around in the bike lanes all the way to the far north end of the park and back again. At first, this was quite hairy riding in the bike lanes right next to cars, but after about 6 blocks in the cars thinned (or were blocked off) and it was really fun. What I didn’t count on was that it was a bit hard to stop to look at the statues and such while on the road, but we did see The Carousel (I made the kids ride it), The Obelisk (Cleopatra’s Needle) – which is very, very important in one of Carter’s favorite book series and he was a little disappointed to find it scaffolded for cleaning and repair – and the Imagine tribute to John Lennon. The boys also looked at Belvedere Castle, which was prominent in the Smurfs movie. We enjoyed seeing New Yorkers use the park for running, biking, playing baseball, t-ball, softball, and a running club.
Bennett: It was a bonus after being in the city for a few days to see all the green and trees. Make sure to do it during the day and try to figure out when cars are allowed and not allowed and go then! Seeing the carousel was pretty fun, riding it was sort of lame.
David: I second Bennett’s comments. Only after being in NYC a few days can you truly appreciate Central Park and the space and peace it provides.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
There are so many iconic paintings here that everywhere you look you see something you know. We did the Family Audio tour and I can’t recommend the audio tours enough! (Plus they are free with admission.) After a little work with the device navigation, we figured out how the adults could listen to a detailed description of the same work while the kids listened to a kid friendly version (although their versions were also quite interesting). I can’t stress enough how great it was to focus in on only a few paintings and not try to study each of their thousand displayed works. MoMA’s suggested itineraries on the web or via the audio tours were really great. (My one complaint about the audio tours was that it was a little difficult to navigate around the galleries and figure out where we were supposed to go next – minor complaint.) Also a shout out to our elementary school’s Art Lit program – we got to talk about Miro and others and the kids knew quite a bit!

Rockefeller Center Tour – 30 Rockefeller Plaza
This tour was such a surprising success! Maybe we got lucky with an exceptional tour guide, but we spent 90 minutes on the “Art and Architecture of Rockefeller Center” and thoroughly enjoyed it. You’d have thought our kids would have run screaming, but they probably enjoyed about 80 minutes of it. We learned so much about Art Deco and the various pieces of public art around the center. The guide talked about various controversies of the time, pointed out cool little features, and was an outstanding teacher.

The BEAST – a boat in the Circle line River Cruises line
This is another example of something we would have NEVER done without the pass. A 30-minute speedboat ride out to Lady Liberty and back at a roller coaster speed of 45 mph. Look, this was a BLAST, but it really didn’t have much to do with New York City. Giving it a grade makes me question any rubrics I have. As long as you see the Statue of Liberty on some boat, this trip isn’t necessary, but the kids loved it. It was still massive fun though, so it gets an:

Grand Central Station
The New York Pass gives you an audio tour of this impressive building. We messed up the closing time, so didn’t get to do the audio tour, but we still had a great time looking around. The food court downstairs is a great place for a meal. It isn’t food chains, but actual unique eating establishments. Then we went up to the second floor balcony, after a good look at the ceiling we had a great time at people watching. I challenged the boys to find someone running, someone running in high heels, a kid (very difficult to find at rush hour), a tourist, a fancily dressed up person, and the game occupied us very nicely while David took fun pictures of this incredibly photogenic building.

People watching at a restaurant counter looking at the street
Don’t waste your dining time! Be sure to get a seat at the counter overlooking the street and watch the people go by. Challenge your kids to find interesting people.

Subway (MTA / Metropolitan Transit Authority)
We used the subway and our feet exclusively and the kids only got to experience 2 taxi rides. Don’t fear it. It’s easy. It’s way cheaper than taxi’s and it’s safe.
David: We got the 7-day all-you-can ride passes, which made subway decisions easy. Even if it was only a 15 min walk, if we were tired and the subway was easy, no problem. Otherwise it’s ~$2.25/ride per person. According to the one subway ticket person we talked to our kids both “looked” under 44” so they could just duck under the turnstile and that was fine. Since both boys are well over 48” and we’re naturally rule-followers, we did not take a chance on this.

Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, NJ
We wanted a day away from the city and this fit the educational bill for us. Edison’s home and research center was a geek’s paradise and it was a little tough to drag David out of there. We learned about ‘muckers.’ They were the folks that worked for Edison and helped him create all of his inventions. He basically created the concept of a Research and Development lab. Junior Ranger Badges were earned via a lot of ‘mucking’ (doing each other’s work.)

9/11 Memorial and Museum
This was a tricky one. The Memorial is free, but due to construction is currently behind horrible security checks and lines. This felt all wrong to me. This should be a place you can walk up to. We talked to a guard who informed us that it will only be like this for another few weeks – so that is good. Going through lines and airport security felt very, very wrong to get to a memorial that celebrates our resilience and freedom. There are also lots of people selling “memorial books” at every corner. It’s very overwhelming that people are making money on tourists visiting this memorial. Lastly the New York Pass provides free admission to a different 9/11 museum right near the memorial – I didn’t understand that this wasn’t the “official” National Museum (which to add to the confusion is moving in the next few weeks). The ‘Tribute Center’ we went to was created by the 9/11 Families Association. I haven’t done my research yet to figure out what the differences are. So, do your research.
David: The Tribute Center was a good introduction for the kids as a reminder of what an awful event 9/11 was. Considering neither was born when it happened, and it’s not exactly an event you spend time talking to 8 and 10 year-olds about until you have to,
the boys just didn’t have much context for the WTC and 9/11. I’m really glad we spent the time at this touching exhibit before going to the memorial.

Shearwater Classic Schooner – Manhattan by Sail
Another example of something we wouldn’t have even thought of without the pass, however, a sunny day and whoosh we are off for a 2-hour sail out to Lady Liberty and back on a beautiful wooden sailboat from the 1920’s. I think the best part of this was seeing how much boat traffic there is and the ballet choreography it takes to avoid everyone. An enjoyable day on the water and another chance to see Lady Liberty up close.
David: The sound of the wind and waves is so much different under sail power – so much more relaxing, even in the middle of all that is NYC (and Jersey). Also, since this was our 4th boat by the Statue of Liberty the boys were fairly ho-hum about seeing her up close again. The garbage barge going by at the same time as the Statue, however, was really quite interesting to them. I’m sure the other tourists were appalled.

Serendipity 3 (a restaurant near Bloomies)
First, there is no Serendipity 1 and 2 – it is named for 3 people who started it. Second, go hungry. Their portion sizes for desserts are out of this world (as are their prices for them). If we went again, I’d go for food, which seemed NYC reasonably priced and then share one or two desserts. They are famous for their Frozen Hot Chocolate. Minimum per person table charge of $8.50 (you can’t just go order one 9.50 Frozen Hot Chocolate and have the table share) and we had to wait 30 minutes for a table – so plan accordingly. Dylan’s is right down the street.
David: This might be heresy, but I believe you can skip the Frozen Hot Chocolate. Too syrupy sweet. The ice cream desserts were terrific, however. And huge. One ice cream dessert can cover 2 adults and 2 children easy.

Radio City Music Hall Stage Door Tour
We toured this massive auditorium with 6000 seats and learned a bit about the history of this iconic location. Some of the interesting facts we learned, the lifting, revolving stage was an engineering breakthrough when it was created and it has never broken. It has carried elephants and other live circus acts. We spoke with a Rockette (paid picture opportunity) and learned about their rigorous auditions and rehearsal schedule. It was an interesting tour.

American Museum of Natural History
It’s a landmark, however, the actual contents aren’t a huge WOW. The place is overwhelming and the limited tour we downloaded on the iPhone didn’t work that well. We liked the minerals, we liked the Big Bang Exhibit, and I liked the life size whale. It was pretty crowded with school groups and people. We will now have to watch Night at the Museum so that the kids have that perspective on the place.
David: This is an icon of New York and is a must-visit attraction, but don’t expect more than a good natural history museum. Lots and lots of exhibits, so pick and choose well and ignore the rest. The dinosaur exhibit (actually, the invertebrates exhibit, to be more precise) is truly outstanding, but long and if you’re not that into dinosaurs it will be overwhelming.

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
First, the wow factor – this museum is ON an aircraft carrier right in NYC. That’s COOL! The planes they have are sitting on top of the carrier! The view is impressive. They also have one of the four surviving space shuttles. Our boys have seen 3 of those shuttles on this trip. (Udvar-Hazy in DC and Cape Canaveral, they haven’t seen the one in LA.) They vote that this one was the least impressive exhibit of the 3. This shuttle was basically a prototype used for studying gliding abilities – it never went into true orbit. The unusual parts of this museum were getting to see the ship’s quarters and some of the carrier’s history – it saw action in WWII, Korean, Viet Nam, recovered NASA space capsules, etc.). My kids are a bit too jaded on Air and Space Museums though (hello – Smithsonian AND Cape Canaveral) so those parts weren’t that impressive, but the Sea part gets a solid

FAO Schwarz
The grandfather of toy stores is a consumer’s paradise. The kids enjoyed wandering around, but they aren’t great consumers of toys so this might have been a bit wasted on them. I did find it fascinating that they had a whole section on minerals. You could buy various gemstones, minerals, and even a piece of NY bedrock (sort of like buying moose poop earrings in Alaska, me thinks.) I like efforts to make geology cool! I think visiting ONE of the two huge toy stores would be enough – either Toys R Us on Times Square or FAO Schwarz on 5th. I’d probably vote FAO because of its history, iconic status in films, and huge $1000 stuffed animals, but dirty little secret – they are both owned by the same company.

Times Square – by day and then night
We arranged for the kids to “enter” NY by coming out of the subway into Times Square. It was during the day, but it was still pretty impressive. Carter really wanted to see it by night also, so we came back to made sure he got his fill of that also. Free and impressive!
David: I’d up this to an A-. This is another jaw dropping, must see place in NYC. Plus TKTS is there, too, so you’ll be there anyway.

NY Water Taxi
We used this to get back from Brooklyn after our walk over the bridge. They stopped off shore of the Statue of Liberty for a nice picture moment. Plus they had a friendly tour guide on board giving out good info. Efficient, easy and free for the New York Pass.
David: Nothing special. I’d give it a C for most people. It did the job for us, since we needed to get from the Brooklyn Pier (where our walking tour ended) to Midtown Manhattan, but I doubt it would be convenient for most people.

Madison Square Gardens Tour
Look through the newly redesigned building, locker rooms, see where the super rich watch games from, and sit in seats. See what’s being set up that day (a possibility to see a sound check for a concert, but it’s a random chance…). If you are a Knicks or Rangers fan, probably important. For the rest of us, it’s a concert/sports arena. It’s a big one with lots of history, but that’s still all it is. An OK arena tour.

Madame Tussauds New York
This is a PERFECT example of something we would never have done without the New York Passes. If you know David or me, you know that the idea that we would pay admission for something like this is knee slappingly funny. So it was a treat to see what other people see. The kids really weren’t that impressed because they didn’t know who most of the stars or celebrities were, but they still enjoyed the concept and the idea of the place. I enjoyed oohing at the pretty people.

Dylan’s Candy Store (near Bloomies)
This is an overwhelming tribute to sugar in all its forms, a museum of candy. Considering the incredible number of sweet treats the kids had been getting in NY – and our trip to Serendipity 3 just minutes away – we were not in a generous mood for the kids. End result, the kids refused to buy anything with their own money so we walked out with no candy, but they did give us a sample of Jelly Bellys. The kids seemed to enjoy drooling over stuff, but were just not willing to part with their cash. It’s probably a must see once, but I doubt we’d go back. Trivia – the store was started by Ralph Lauren’s daughter.

Statue of Liberty Island
So, I’m going to be a heretic and state, I don’t think you actually HAVE to visit the actual island that the statue is on. It is a MUST to get out on the water and get up close to Lady Liberty, but I’m not sure there is a huge value-add on getting onto the island. It’s cool, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. Keep in mind that we didn’t have either Pedestal level or Crown Level tickets. We had the easy-to-get “get off the boat and walk around” tickets (and free with our New York Pass). Pedestal tickets get you up a few stories off the ground and Crown tickets – yep, get you to the top. The Crown tickets are sold out months in advance and I think THAT would be worth a visit. Pedestal didn’t look worth it to us. They sell out a few days in advance, but you can sometimes pick them up early in the morning. The kids did Junior Ranger badges, but I’m not sure how much extra knowledge will stay with them from that.
David: I’d call this a B+ myself. I enjoyed being so close to the statue – far closer than you get by a boat ride. The National Park Service runs the island and they just do historical touring right. The free audio tour was educational (a given) and entertaining (a little slow for some, I’d bet, but if you take the time to listen it’s well done).

Discovery Center Times Square – the Art of The Brick (Legos)
This is the place that usually has the Bodyworks exhibit that has actual human remains displayed in amazing ways. Carter was going to have NOTHING to do with that (he was trying to block out the massive posters with his hands as blinders), but they also had an exhibit by an artist who works exclusively in Legos. It was an impressive exhibit. Who knew you could make so much art with a plastic toy? We covered this place in about an hour. It wasn’t New York specific, so it gets lowered to a C. If we had seen it in Portland, I might give it a B.

Ellis Island
Turns out Ellis Island was hit pretty hard by Sandy– it knocked out their HVAC systems, so most of their artifacts and cool stuff has been taken out off the island for protection. It’s an impressive structure, but until it is restored, I’m not sure it is worth a special trip. Kids did another Jr. Ranger Badge here, but much of the impact is lost without the additional artifacts and displays.
No Final Grade due to circumstances beyond their control – check National Park Service website for updates.
Mid-term Grade C
David: Knowing our not-so-distant relatives likely walked through this building was moving to me. I imagine they have a very well-done museum and experience if you’re willing to give the island a few hours of your time. I would love to see this again after they fix the HVAC.

Toy’s R Us at Times Square
It’s so big it has a Ferris wheel inside the building. Fit our NYC theme of ‘go big or go home.’ Good for a wander or save yourself up for FAO Schwarz. We did this one first so FAO’s impact was a little muted. Nice easy bathrooms in Times Square!

New York Public Library (and Bryant Park)
We did a walk by of those larger-than-life lions Patience and Fortitude that guard the entrance. We didn’t really sit and enjoy the library due to unrelated time constraints, however. Bryant Park (beside the library) looked fabulous with a reading area (OUTSIDE!) with free newspapers and books, ping pong and lots of other activities geared towards locals. If we hadn’t been in a hurry this looks like a fabulous place to spend some New York down time. I also want to capture the memory of the older man playing excellent ping pong with a younger guy. The elder (age 70?) was moving around with 40 year old legs – I had the feeling if he hadn’t been playing ping pong his movements would have been much more deliberate. I think there was some muscle memory kicking in and it was fun to watch.
No Grade – We weren’t there long enough – It had the potential for an A

Liberty Harbor RV Park and PATH Train
An RV park 20 minutes from the middle of NYC by PATH train? How can you beat that? While 80 bucks a night is by far the most we will pay on this trip and the ‘RV Park’ is no more than a gravel parking lot with electricity and water hook-ups, it is still hard to beat. You just have to go in with that expectation – it’s a parking lot for RVs. David and I stayed at this same park 11 years ago and we were AMAZED by the changes in Jersey City. It has spiffed itself way up. There were nice, shiny apartment buildings, huge police presence (we felt very safe), cute restaurants. We both remember the walk from the RV Park to the PATH train station to be a little adrenaline inducing. Now your fear is tripping over a dog being walked! The PATH train (basically a subway train from NJ to Manhattan, but the same transit system as the NYC subways) is easy, clean, and has handy TV monitors to tell you when your next train is coming. You can get to the World Trade Center or all the way up to 33rd St using the PATH train.
David: We again bought the 7-day pass for the PATH train (a separate card from the NY subway unfortunately) and it also worked out well. We may not have saved money over just paying each time, since there was a one-time charge to get the card, and we only used it on 6 days, but the peace of mind of knowing we didn’t have to keep track of whether our cards had enough cash on them or not was worth it to me.

Lastly David and Carter made a fast, solo trip to both the Guggenheim and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bennett and I headed back to the RV for some quiet time. Carter gives them both B+’s and I will try to get him to write about them later.

Based on a handy website I found that compares prices and passes, we saved $990 on attractions!
Pass cost: $670.00 (2 adult, 2 child)
Saving: $990.02
Again, that’s sort of moot because we just wouldn’t have done much of this stuff without the pass. The pass gave us the opportunity to do things we would never have considered. We had fun and I feel like we truly took a bite out of the Big Apple.

Photo Highlights (Florida to New York)

Catching up with some photos for your viewing pleasure. I’ve heard some rumblings that more photos would be appreciated. Enjoy! (Click on any of them to see a larger view.)

On the same catwalk that Neil Armstrong walked across to get to Apollo 11, at Kennedy Space Center.
On the same catwalk that Neil Armstrong walked across to get to Apollo 11, at Kennedy Space Center.
Watching a rocket launch in Florida.
Watching a rocket launch in Florida.
Disney World after a long day.
Disney World after a long day.
One of many, many cannons we've seen.  This one's in Charleston, SC.
One of many, many cannons we’ve seen. This one’s in Charleston, SC.
Visiting Betsy's friend Anne in North Carolina - and her 3 wonderful boys.
Visiting Betsy’s friend Anne in North Carolina – and her 3 wonderful boys.
Kitty Hawk, NC - one of many National Park Junior Ranger badges earned by the boys on this trip.  They were challenged to a paper airplane contest by the ranger here.
Kitty Hawk, NC – one of many National Park Junior Ranger badges earned by the boys on this trip. They were challenged to a paper airplane contest by the ranger here.
Tiny's first ride on a boat.  A free ferry across the James River in Virginia.
Tiny’s first ride on a boat. A free ferry across the James River in Virginia.
Between educational visits to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, we found some time to visit Busch Gardens. We survived the 240-foot drop of Mach Tower.
Between educational visits to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, we found some time to visit Busch Gardens. We survived the 240-foot drop of Mach Tower.
Lincoln photo-bombed us.
Lincoln photo-bombed us.
Ernie and Bert.  Carter and Bennett.  I see the resemblance.  (At the Smithsonian Museum of American History.)
Ernie and Bert. Carter and Bennett. I see the resemblance. (At the Smithsonian Museum of American History.)
One of many big buildings that dwarfed us in D.C.  We got in last-minute to see the Declaration of Independence and Constitution here at the Archives.
One of many big buildings that dwarfed us in D.C. We got in last-minute to see the Declaration of Independence and Constitution here at the Archives.
Paddle-boating on the Tidal Basin.
Paddle-boating on the Tidal Basin.
One of many flowering trees - including the cherry trees - we were lucky enough to see while in Washington.
One of many flowering trees – including the cherry trees – we were lucky enough to see while in Washington.
One of 3 (yes, 3) Space Shuttles we've seen on our travels (this was in D.C.).  The only one we haven't seen is the one in L.A.
One of 3 (yes, 3) Space Shuttles we’ve seen on our travels (this was in D.C.). The only one we haven’t seen is the one in L.A.
Baltimore Science Museum.  Looking scientific and doing a chemistry experiment with wheatgerm DNA.
Baltimore Science Museum. Looking scientific and doing a chemistry experiment with wheatgerm DNA.
Visiting with Abe at Gettysburg.
Visiting with Abe at Gettysburg.
Carter and Bennett's first Broadway show!  4 thumbs up!!
Carter and Bennett’s first Broadway show! 4 thumbs up!!
Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) observation deck in New York, with Central Park in the background.  I think we finally got the kids' jaws to drop again.  It's been a while now.
Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) observation deck in New York, with Central Park in the background. I think we finally got the kids’ jaws to drop again. It’s been a while now.
Biking in Central Park today!
Biking in Central Park today!
Too cute to resist.  There are lots of flowers and trees blooming in New York right now.  This is in Central Park near Belvedere Castle.
Too cute to resist. There are lots of flowers and trees blooming in New York right now. This is in Central Park near Belvedere Castle.
Completion of our bike trip through Central Park.  Started at the south end (59th St), rode all the way to the north edge (110th St) and back again!  Quite a ride on a beautiful day!
Completion of our bike trip through Central Park. Started at the south end (59th St), rode all the way to the north edge (110th St) and back again! Quite a ride on a beautiful day!

Homeschooling (and proof we are still alive)

See - they are learning stuff!
See – they are learning stuff!

We have degenerated into the basics for homeschooling.  I started the journey with these grand ideas that we would do a few hours a day, four days a week.  We would cover everything in an organized fashion.  David would take math and science and I would take the rest.   That was the fantasy.  Here is the reality –

Math: Singapore Math.  David will get the kids through the year on math.  We are lucky that they are already ahead in math and they love it.  Carter who is in 4th grade will finish through 4B and Bennett in 2nd will finish 3B.  One thing I always tell parents is that it is a huge advantage in our elementary educational system to have math facts down cold.  It is so much easier to learn new math in elementary school when you aren’t spending any brain power with math facts.  Learning the concept of reducing fractions or long division is much easier if you aren’t worried about what 3 x 5 is or that 16 has a couple of factors including 2 and 4.   It lets you listen to the concepts.  It is one thing I have no problem with drill and kill on.  Kids that have their math facts down cold do better in elementary school.  We use an app called Math Drills.  I’d give us an A on teaching math.  As David says, he doesn’t make it fun at all, but they are learning appropriate material at an acceptable rate.  (Just in case my views aren’t obvious, I don’t think having your math facts memorized really well makes you a better mathematician, it’s a parlor trick that makes elementary school math easier…)
Science: Just science museums.  I’m actually not that upset about that.  They didn’t get much science in school anyway.  I give us a C because that is average and I don’t think they are learning LESS science than if they were in school.
Writing: Unschooling.  Neither of my kids enjoyed writing.  One dreaded it, the other does whatever the minimum is.  Neither has ever volunteered to write a story for fun.  Neither has ever been praised for their outstanding writing abilities.  My wisest friend in education advised me to ‘unschool’ for writing instruction.  Let them read massive amounts of reasonably written books and use Ralph Fletcher “A Writer’s Notebook” as a read aloud and require / encourage them to keep a writer’s notebook of their own.  This book basically talks about the process of writers use to write.  Here’s the fantasy of what it will look like:  They will just pick up their Writer’s Notebook at odd times and start scribbling in it all their impressions of this great trip or their thoughts on the soaring eagle.  Yeah, that hasn’t happened yet.  They are required to spend 30 minutes a day on writing.  They can write, edit, conference with me, stare into their notebooks, whatever they want.   What this has accomplished is that they don’t appear to dread writing anymore.  They can write various things without hesitation.  (the Writer’s Notebook has different chapters for different types of writing and they have had to try each type.)   I give us a B- on writing.
Writing (minor): the kids HAVE to write in their journal everyday. No exceptions.  Journal is different than Writer’s Notebook.   Journal is the facts, Writer’s Notebook is impressions, stories, snatches of conversation they thought were interesting…   Writing in the journal is no longer a whine fest, they just do it and relatively quietly.  I’m not sure this has improved their writing style or ability, but they whip these out in 10 minutes and they are reasonable summaries of our days.
Grammar: Spectrum 3rd and 5th grade workbooks.  The school they were going to gave us some workbook type grammar books that they hadn’t finished.  We do a little bit every 2 weeks.  Since 3rd and 5th grades follow the exact same concepts just at slightly different levels, I just combine them and teach them together.  I give us a C on this – mostly because I’m not very passionate about it.
Spelling: Words Their Way.  They get a weekly list, but geared around a spelling concept, not random words.  One thing about this is that the test at the end of the week is on the concept, not the words they learned.   I test them individually so that they are on their own level. I give us a B+ on spelling.
Social Studies: The trip.  We recently started a Scholastic Easy Simulation on the Civil War – just to go up to 10,000 feet again and make sure they see the forest instead of all the trees (Gettysburg, Ft. Sumter).  It’s not a bad academic program, and it will be fun and educational, so what the heck.  I still think we get an A+ on this because, hello, they are seeing amazing stuff.   They have experienced the steady winds at Kitty Hawk, they have seen the walls of the Alamo, and been on the type of boats from D-Day.
Reading:  They read a lot.  Carter averages 90 minutes a day, Bennett 30-45 minutes. I occasionally make them read a relevant book, but mostly they chose books themselves with suggestions from me.  The most awesome required reading has been “Two Miserable Presidents” about The Civil War.   They both read exclusively on their Kindles.  We get 6 books each from our home library at a time and then another 10 available to the family from the Portland library.    This would be an entirely different trip if we didn’t have Kindles and e-books from the public libraries.   Carter’s reading list has been improved because, for the most part, the books available from the library are pretty good.  He also knows he only gets 6 books at a time so that keeps him away from those books he can read in 20 minutes because he will run out too quickly.  Whenever we go into a public library, both boys consume Garfield, Pokémon, and any other comic books they can find.   I would give us an A on reading, but mostly they are consuming and don’t analyze, dissect, or reflect on any reading, so I can only give us a B.
We also have recently started a book called The Reader’s Handbook which is going to make them more analytic readers.  I’ll let you know how that goes.
That’s it.  We took 2 weeks off for Disney as Spring Break.  We took off the entire time in DC off.  Any day we are in a National Park and / or doing a Jr. Ranger Book, I count that as a full day.  They still have to do journals and read on all those days, but nothing else.   We will continue on with our schedule through August 1st.  We tend to homeschool a couple of days a week and often on Saturday and Sunday when ’normal’ people are out seeing sights.
Will we have permanently damaged our kids by taking this semester off?  Nah, probably not.  We haven’t been an A+ on homeschooling, but hopefully this will be good enough.
We are headed to Gettysburg today and maybe a Utz Potato Chip Factory Tour.


The Must Do’s of Disney World by Bennett

Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom is the most popular and ‘ride-iest’ of all the parks.

Imagine flying through space at millions of miles per second.  That’s Space Mountain, a fast thrill ride that is dark and jerky.  It is one of my favorite thrill rides in Magic Kingdom.  The first time on this ride may be scary, but the second time you will be ready.  It is in my favorites because of its sudden ups, downs, and turns.

My favorite ride in Magic Kingdom is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which I will be referring to as Big Thunder.  Big Thunder was my favorite thrill ride in Magic Kingdom.  Big Thunder is an open air ride that is very rickety and its like Space Mountain with lots of ups, downs, and turns.

My favorite show in Magic Kingdom is Wishes.  It was a great fireworks show that is even better than the one at Disneyland.


Epcot isn’t really for kids because it’s mostly displays.  Here are the fun parts:

  1. Mission Space: Use this newest type of rocket ship to fly yourself to the Mars.  This extreme simulator really made me want to throw up.   (It also made dad want to.)
  2. Test Track: Make your own car and test its abilities on the Simtrack.  You can check out how well you did at the finish.  Carter got in the top 5 for the fastest of the day.
  3. Chinese Acrobats: Watch these acrobats flip, balance barrels on their feet, and make human pyramids.  Try to get their a few minutes early so that you can get a good spot.  We got their late and got bad spots.

Disney Hollywood Studios

DHS is made for the movie lovers.  There is a Star Wars Ride, Jedi Training Academy, and The Great Movie Ride.

I’m on the ride, Tower of Terror, and I have my eyes closed and my ears plugged.  Then I’m lifted off my seat and I hear people screaming (even with my ears plugged).

“Woohoo,” I think while I’m on Rock Coaster, the best roller coaster in DHS.  You start super fast and the photos come immediately after you start.  Then you go on lots of turns.  It’s like Big Thunder, but you go upside down and it’s much, much faster.

Lights, Motor, Action is an extreme stunt show that you should really go to.  It is a high action show with everything I wanted to see, firing of guns, cars jumping on trucks, and real fire.  Watch a car jump backwards at this extreme stunt show.

Disney Animal Kingdom

DAK has a lot of rides, but not many thrill rides.  Here is one fun thrill ride: Expedition Everest.  Watch out for the Yeti on this ride or you’ll be sorry.  I had a close call with him.

Here’s a must do: Kilimanjaro Safaris. Watch animals roam these safari.  You can see giraffes, elephants, and cheetahs in this safari.  I was able to see a cheetah run.

If it’s a hot day, you’ll want to go on Kali River Rapids.  One warning: You may get soaked.  That’s what I did.  Once I got off the ride I was soaked from head to toe.

Bennett's Drawing


Those are the must dos of Disney World.  You should try to do everything (except the little kid rides – unless you are a little kid), but make sure you do the ones I wrote about.   Feel free to ask any questions.


Note from mom: Bennett usually reads these to me after he has written them out by hand and then he makes all the edits on the computer.  I can’t help but add commas, etc when I type.  It’s automatic.  Sometimes when he edits he takes them out or makes other changes (making any mistakes entirely his fault 🙂 ).  I just don’t want anyone to think he has grammar down this well.


Carter’s Take on Disney

This blog is not about what we did at Disney World. It is some facts and secrets about Disney World.

Disney World – Magic Kingdom


Did you know that only 2 countries flags are permanently on display in the parks: the American and Swiss flag.  The Swiss flag is hanging over the Swiss Family Tree House. I think that’s a great honor. Be careful around a large golden camel next to the Magic Carpets of Aladdin ride, it spits. I think with that one Disney has gone too far.

On Tom Sawyer Island, it is rumored that the creaks and groans of the mill wheel actually play “Down by the Old Millstream.” They don’t, but it would be pretty funny if they did. Bennett and I ran around on the island for a long time on the day we went just with mom.  We really liked the fort there since they had shot guns that made shotgun sounds.  There was a rickety bridge made out of barrels that was fund to run across.

Here are some fun facts about the Magic Kingdom

Did you know that Big Thunder Mountain is 197 feet high – the tallest any building or object can be in Disney is 200 feet?  Now that’s high.  Space Mountain is 183 feet. In it’s a small world there are 289 miniature figures all singing the same song and you have to listen to it for 5 minutes. The 289 miniature figures have 2296 specific garment pieces.  When we were waiting in the line, the ride got stuck.  We thought the people coming off the ride after it got started looked a little shaken – can you imagine getting stuck with all the some miniature figures doing the song over and over and over again?


Did you know that Test Track has nearly one mile of track and goes nearly 65 miles per hour. It’s the longest and fastest ride at Disney World. Maybe that’s why we rode it 3 times!

In Mission Space, take a look at Mars It has color shifting paint that costs $800 per gallon. I think that that is exactly what Disney does.  They buy expensive stuff and get more money then they spent.

Stop for a moment in front of Mexico pyramid.  It looks tall, but it is only 36 feet.

Stop at the outpost between China and Germany and lift the lids on the old fashion Coca Cola coolers. I didn’t know about this when we went or otherwise I would have done it.  If someone knows, please let me know.

There was a problem when they made ‘Soaring’ because flying above national parks is not allowed.  It took months to get permission to fly over and film it but it was worth the time, well at least I think so. Those rock climbers at Yosemite had to stay suspended there for 6 hours.  I don’t think I could take it.

Did you know that the Eiffel tower in the France country section was made using Gustavo Eiffel’s actual blueprints? I thought that one was cool.

Animal Kingdom

In Africa next to the Tusker House listen closely and you will here a landlady banging on a door shouting.  That one was funny.

For Kilimanjaro Safaris come early in the day the animals are most active then.  I planned our itinerary for Animal Kingdom and we did this.  It really worked, we saw lots of animals and the line was really short.  We even had to stop the tour bus because some giraffes were standing in the road.

On Expedition Everest, look down at the track when the yeti is tearing up the track.   If you look down you will actually see the track flip over.  It’s really cool we saw that one. The ride is awesome. Just to show you how awesome, I went 8 times. All right that wasn’t to show you but its still. AWESOME!

Here are some facts for the Animal Kingdom. There are 1,500 animals in the Animal Kingdom these 1,500 animals require 4 tons of food each day. Now that’s a lot of food!

On the Tree of Life there are 103,000 different leaves each placed to sway in the wind.

Hollywood Studios

In Muppet Vision 3-D as you go in LOOK UP at the clock, specifically the minute hand. No, he is not going to fall. He is tightly secured on it. It’s doing its job and I laughed.

To get the feel of the Twilight Zone for Tower of Terror, Disney imagineers watched all 156 episodes more then once.  The elevator cars on the Tower of Terror ride is pulled down faster then the speed of gravity.  You know that because you are pulled up agaist the strap.  Mom screamed.

I got all this information from Walt Disney World Notecast. It’s a great app and there is much more information.  Also there is a hidden mickey guide.  There are 200 fun facts and 250 secrets. I really enjoyed this app. (its 1.99 but it’s worth your money.)

Being in the parks is just so tiring (well at least for mom) but it’s tiring for me too when we are there from 9:00AM until 10:00 and don’t get back to bed until 11:00pm. It’s a ton of fun though so it makes it all worth it. It’s also big so you have to be a fast walker, but you can rest your feet in the lines, so that’s not so bad.  The lines are usually big so Fast Pass work well, but also you have to stop for a moment and just rest.  You should try to go.  It’s fun.

Waiting for Fireworks


We just finished up our 14 days in Orlando.  This is the longest we have spent anywhere on this trip.  It was nice to be in one spot, but our reason for being here was exhausting.  We did 6 days in the theme parks, 2 lazy days of visiting relatives in St. Pete, some poolside days, and a few days just sleeping and trying to recover from the theme parks.  The theme parks are too tiring.  Nothing was shorter than a 9-hour day and we had some 14-hour days!  I certainly racked up the steps on my Fitbit.

First, the RV Stuff, we stayed in a private RV park that was near Disney, had cheap weekly rates, and a nice pool.  It was just a sea of RVs, but the location and the pool saved it from being boring.  Plus it had the fun name of Magic Lake and it was in the same town as my mommy grew up, Clermont, Florida.

Everyone tries to give advice for Disney visits.  Here’s mine – if you can afford it, spread out the days, buy an app that give you a suggested itinerary, bring your own snacks, and then completely block out how much you paid to try to enjoy yourself.   (By the way, the app that we liked was called  It suggests a list of rides and parades based on the age of your kids – you can add and delete from the suggested list – it then continuously optimizes the order based on times and where you are.   Having an app ends the thought process of ‘where should we go next’ and you can just blindly follow the app if you so desire.)  After the first day, we made the kids come up with itineraries.  Carter took this very seriously and read additional articles and some library books on the parks.

Summary, we had one day in each of the Disney World Parks, one day in Universal (for Hogwarts), and one final day in the Magic Kingdom for just the boys and me while David caught a spring training baseball game of the Minnesota Twins.  The kids had a great time, the Disney Corporation awed David and me and we don’t want to see another theme park for a long, long while.  It also cost more than a months rent at a nice house for a family in most cities in the country.

To make the blog post more interesting, I thought our foray into Disney pin trading gave me insight into my boys and was somewhat informative.  First, a pin trading explanation is in order.  Here’s a Wikipedia article, but basically, you buy a starter set of pins ($7.95 and up each) then you can walk up to any Cast Member (that’s what you call ANY Disney employee) that has a pins on and trade one of your pins for one of theirs.  They have to accept the trade as long as yours isn’t a fake / knock-off pin.  The pins that the Cast Members have on are PROVIDED BY DISNEY.  When they get their uniform on, they are given 9-20 pins on a lanyard and they have to come back with the same number.   Here is what a trade looks like, you walk up to the shop attendant who has a lanyard with pins, and you stare at her chest to decide if you like any of hers better than yours, if so, you trade.  If not, you move on.

Some think that this is a fun way to talk to employees or other park visitors.  It is a whole sub culture, with conventions and forums, and massive amounts of eBay listings.   It didn’t really sound like my thing because, you know, you have to talk to people.

However, we had dinner with my lovely cousin, Katie and her husband David who works for Disney.  David has been a Disney photographer for over 30 years and has amazing Disney stories to tell.  You’ve seen his work if you have ever seen a commercial or print ad for Disney!  He and his team will photograph an attraction or even a whole resort months before it is finished construction.   The marketing department has to make it look ready to go so you want to be there opening day.

Katie gave each of the boys two exclusive pins for their last day at Disney so that they could experience the art of the pin trade.   The pins she gave us were super cute of Mickey and Goofy saying “CHEESE” for a photographer.

If you know my boys, you can make a prediction of how our trading day went.   Bennett got really into it and traded quite a few times.  He struck up conversations with employees and other guests. Carter really, really liked the exclusive pin he started with and could not find anything he liked better.  I finally forced the issue around 7:00 at night and told him the next look had to include an exchange because Aunt Katie didn’t want us to keep these pins and she had promised the boys that she would send them a duplicate if they really wanted.  (Carter really wants that.)

Here, in pictures is the day:

The original pin (we had 4 total of these).

We had four of these to start!

Bennett: Got a cute starburst Donald Duck one.  I actually liked this one and was sad to see it go.


Bennett: Got a puzzled Mickey.


Carter: Got a nice one of Donald and Mickey hugging.


Bennett: Puzzled Mickey gets exchanged for Goofy and Mickey hugging.


Bennett: Cute starburst Donald gets traded for Chip n Dale.  Bennett really likes Chip and Dale and I’m not sure why, but he likes them.


Carter: Forced getting of an ostrich.  (Katie really wanted us to trade our pins, so yes, I’m a mean mom and forced a trade.)



Carter: Happiness!  Ostrich traded for a Pluto.  We love Pluto.  Bennett had wanted this trade, but Carter got his ostrich pin off faster so he won.


Carter: Last minute trade of Donald and Mickey hugging for a patriotic Donald.


Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?  Yeah, those exchanges are a SMALL percentage of the looks and conversations held around these pins.  It took the entire 14 hour day for Carter to get a system down of politely asking to see pins and then saying “no thank you, I don’t want to trade” instead of the brusque dismissal he started with.  Dude, you’ve been staring at the girl’s chest for a whole minute while she stopped her job and stayed absolutely still  – say something before you walk away!  He finally got the routine down.  Now that I look at it, they actually did the same amount of trades.  It just seems that every time I looked around, Bennett was 10 feet away talking to another Cast Member.

Anyway, I’m glad we did it for the experience, but I’m glad we didn’t do it until our last day and our second day in Magic Kingdom.  I want to thank Katie for giving my kids the experience.  We got into it and enjoyed the process, especially once I got used to the feeling that if I couldn’t find Bennett immediately, look for the nearest Cast Member as Bennett was likely chatting her up.

IF you like talking to people and want to add a twist to your Disney vacation, I’d recommend picking up a few at an outlet store or second hand store and going for the whole trading thing.   If you are cheap like me and don’t like talking to people, ignore the trend and spend all of your time concentrating on the experience that is Disney and wring as much fun as you can out of your 14 hour days.  Disney runs an incredible and admirable business and NOBODY does theme parks as well as they do.  They just do it right from the big idea to the smallest detail.

The boys are going to write up posts on the actual parks.