Friends of Ella

The most amazing part of going to State College today to bear witness to THON was not seeing thousands of people dancing and singing in unison. Nor the sight of a score or so of the Trimbles’ friends and family decked out in bright green and pink, sporting all manner of celebratory accessories as they eagerly anticipated any opportunity to cheer on Ella and her adoptive fundraisers, the women’s club basketball team.

It’s been only eighteen months since we spent a few minutes with Ella during one of her many stays at Penn State Hershey, but the best part of today was that those dreary moments seemed so far away. Whether she was on stage for the fashion show, giving me a hug in the stands or sitting next to Julia quietly coloring in the crowded restaurant during dinner, Ella seemed filled with happiness.

And that, more than the millions of dollars raised for cancer research, is the true magic of THON.

I know Delton and Julia were hoping to spend more time with their friends, but they still had some fun (squirt guns and roaming Star Wars characters come to mind). Plus, Aleisha and I got to introduce them to two of our favorite State College establishments: Berkey Creamery (we shared the pumpkin pie and espresso fudge pie flavors) and Growing Tree Toys.

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Williamsburg Holiday

Although our holiday vacation time seems shorter this year, we had a wonderful Christmas followed by a few days in Williamsburg with Dale and Brenda. This year, Dale had an extra room, and we were able to invite the Smiths, a family that attends our church. We drove down Monday (kids thoroughly enjoying the Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers DVD I got on Netflix) and everyone gathered in our three-bedroom suite that evening for a dinner of shepherd’s pie, salad and pizza. Delton, Julia, Ellie and Grayson roped us all in to playing hide and seek, which was surprisingly fun and challenging in a seemingly small space.

Tuesday, we decided to take advantage of our membership at the Virginia Living Museum. When we arrived at 11:15 a.m., a small sign on the door noted that they had postponed their normal 10 a.m. opening to 11 a.m. due to the inclement weather conditions. We hearty Pennsylvanians chuckled to ourselves, as this was the umpteenth indication that these Tidewater Virginians were woefully under-prepared to deal with 8 inches of snow. Parking lots and sidewalks everywhere were covered with slush that was continually compacted into slick ice by feet and tires alike. Busch Gardens shut down their Christmastown attraction Tuesday evening to deal with snow removal (48 hours after the last snow had fallen) and the Smiths noted that K-mart announced an early closing on Monday night.

The VLM was great, but I was disappointed to see the dinosaurs were gone. The planetarium show was actually a really lame cartoon with an incomprehensible plot (or perhaps it just seemed that way because I fell asleep). The kids were barely interested, although Julia exclaimed, “It’s beautiful!” during several of the scenes (she was right about that). I did not expect the boardwalk to be open, and indeed, a crew was busily clearing the snow. The Smiths treated us to lunch in the café.

Upon discovering that our friend Amy was celebrating her 40th birthday, we picked up a cake and balloon to take over to the Smiths’ room Tuesday evening. Julia and I constructed a card and envelope from the art kit she received for Christmas. When we went over after dinner, their son Grayson was sick, so Ed, Aleisha and I took the rest of the kids to the property’s game room. Against our better judgment, we allowed Delton and Julia to partake of a few too many shooter-style games (including a Star Trek Voyager Borg-killing one) before heading back for Amy’s impromptu celebration.

On Wednesday, we said goodbye to the Smiths and then split up ourselves. Dale escorted the women on a shopping trip to replace a duplicate Christmas present for Julia. After careful deliberation, she ended up with three smaller gifts—Rapunzel and Snow White figures and a Moon Dough set. I took Delton to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not attraction. He was mighty impressed with the large array of “artifacts” and only mildly frightened. My favorite part was the disorienting, spinning tunnel that made us dizzy by simply walking through it. Upon reaching the end, Delton insisted we go back through to take pictures of every single exhibit case.

That evening we went to Christmastown and, save for the Sesame Street show, had a different experience than last year. After a relatively short wait for the skyride, we then walked to Ireland, where Julia wasn’t quite tall enough to go on Europe in the Air. She wanted me to wait with her, and we enjoyed a few minutes to ourselves watching an Irish trio on an outdoor platform while resting beneath a heating station. As soon as Delton exited the ride with the others, he was so excited to ride it again that I couldn’t say no. We later ate some supper in Grogan’s Pub (which only serves alchohol…Aleisha and Dale had to bring the food over from the nearby Grogan’s Grill), which was much cozier than Germany’s gargantuan Das Festhaus.

We cajoled the kids into sitting through another show, this one title Rejoice and located just across from the pub. The show featured sparkly velvet-clad monks chanting traditional Christmas hymns one minute and belting out contemporary secular tunes (complete with electric guitar solo) the next. I nearly busted a gut, but Delton and Julia were impressed enough to sit (mostly, but not completely) still for 20 minutes.

Now after their bedtime, we managed to make our way to New France, which featured a polar animal exhibit that included penguins and a snowy owl. When this was done, even Delton recognized that we did not have nearly enough steam to soldier on to the North Pole, Germany and Italy. We gladly boarded the next train for the main gate and made it to the van just before frostbite set in.

This morning we were able to spend an hour or so visiting Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, where we met up with an old preschool friend of Delton’s whose Mom also happened to be Julia’s toddler room teacher. We then said goodbye to them and our family (I would be remiss in mentioning that Dane and Tamara had joined us mid-trip, and it was fun getting to hang out with them for a bit more than usual). That is until our battery died at Target (I stupidly turned the car off while the kids continued to watch a DVD as we waited for Aleisha). After a recharge from Dale and Brenda’s van, we were finally on our way home.

Labor Day List

There isn’t much to distinguish one Labor Day weekend at the cabin from any other, but here are some things that stand out from our most recent trip:

  1. Meeting our friends’ baby girl, Cassidy, who did not scare us away from the thought of another child.
  2. Yard sale finds: Lite Brite for Aleisha, Viewmaster for Julia, some random plastic weapons for Delton and Ducktales books for me.
  3. Four laptops, none of them mine!
  4. Julia’s runny nose, Aleisha’s sinus infection and Dale’s bronchitis.
  5. I must have eaten a dozen Oreo cookies and still can’t decide if I like Double Stuf or Golden better.
  6. Kittens at the bookstore!
  7. Cool new spaghetti-like, waterfall-shaped fireworks.
  8. Casey and I playing monster with the kids.
  9. Julia fell in the pond!
  10. I spotted a buck!

Summer Winds Down

On my way to work this morning, I drove through what looked like piles of dry, fallen leaves—as if to underscore the point that summer is winding down.

We just got back from a few days in Atlantic City. Dale and Brenda kindly got us and the Becks rooms at the Wyndham Skyline Tower (and drove us there in their awesome Grand Caravan…and treated us to dinner!). This was one of those trips that will turn out to be more memorable for what went wrong: clouds, rain, 20-mph wind, the dumpster on the beach, the overly-tanned bitty wearing a g-string, the broken elevator, the cabin fever, a lack of long-sleeves.

None of that, however, compares to the sound of Delton screeching as the surf chased him, Julia laughing while chasing the boys in our room, Aleisha relishing the spa tub and king-size bed, or the five-year old in me thrilled by the sight of the Thunderbirds practicing for Wednesday’s air show. I even managed to drag everybody to see Lucy the Elephant on our way to Ocean City, where Congo Falls indoor miniature golf course gave all of us some respite from the rain (and PBS Kids).

That said, I think I can do without a return trip to Atlantic City. Delton keeps asking when we are going back to New Jersey. I’ll take that to mean “beach” and “boardwalk,” and the answer is not too soon.

Knoebel’s Camping

So, what made this year’s camping trip to Knoebel’s different from the last two?

  • No storms! We did have a bit of rain during our second night, but it was a minor inconvenience compared to our prior experiences (i.e. lights flickering at the park, holding on to our canopy so it doesn’t blow away, etc.). Humidity ran high Sunday and Monday, but Tuesday and Wednesday were picture perfect.
  • New additions! To our gang, not the park (still no Flying Turns!). The Romanskis joined us for the first night of camping, and Chris brought Jonna and Sela up on Monday…all experiencing Knoebel’s for the first time. I look forward to hearing their reviews, because I get the feeling that a sense of nostalgia is clouding my judgment when I tell people how awesome this place is.
  • Missing Aleisha! No, she wasn’t lost, but she was attending a baby shower while I was checking in and setting up camp. Fortunately, her dad was there to pinch hit.
  • Side trip! An extra day gave us plenty of time to drive over to the Pioneer Coal Tunnel in Ashland, where we rode the train and toured the mine. A bit pricier than I remember (especially without our Kids Stuff coupon…sorry Becks and Trimbles), but the kids loved it. I was flabbergasted by all the windmills dotting the mountains; made for a great juxtaposition with the strip mines.
  • Meals in jars! Laura (and maybe Pete?) outdid herself in putting together all the fixings for pasta and burritos cooked in Mason jars.
  • Campfire conversation! Although the kids were wide awake much of the first evening, we were able to get them to sleep early enough on Monday and Tuesday to allow for some adult fellowship around the campfire. Not having rain to douse the flames was helpful too.

All-in-all, this was a great vacation, but we had our fill of birch beer and Haunted House rides and cold, seatless toilets for another year. My predictions for next year: Delton will want to spend more time (and money) in the arcade, Julia will ride that Rocket Slide all by herself and Aleisha and I will finally get to ride one of the coasters. I suppose it’s a little early to make a call on the weather.

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Traffic. Crowds. Heat. Three drawbacks we always face during our annual trip to Williamsburg, but this year we managed to beat two of them.

Since we were just there after Christmas, we debated not going to Williamsburg this Memorial Day weekend. But, it’s hard to buck tradition, and we consider ourselves lucky to have family (and friends!) who are willing to provide room and board and babysitting for a few days away from home.

Driving down I-95 through DC and dealing with the Virginia Beach traffic the Friday night before Memorial Day always sucks the life out of our vacation before it even starts. So, this year, we decided to take the slow route: I-97 south from Baltimore to US 301 (remember My Name is Earl?) over the Potomac, then US 17 and some back roads through the Tidewater to Williamsburg. We faced a teeny bit of bumper-to-bumper idling and a whole slew of traffic lights, but the trip didn’t take much longer at about 5 1/2 hours; in fact, we beat everyone else by about 20 minutes!

As for the crowds, we decided a few weeks in advance that we would avoid the biggest draws in town: Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens. Both are fine destinations, but neither caters to the preschool set in a way that justifies the cost of a ticket year after year. Add in the stifling humidity typical of late-spring Virginia and a couple of thousand strangers, and you can see why we chose an alternate itinerary.

The kids did not let us sleep in on Saturday, but with no reason to rush out the door, we enjoyed lounging around our air-conditioned suite. Around 11-ish we drove into Williamsburg, parked the car and walked into the eastern end of the reconstructed colonial zone. Without spending a dime, we took in the Bruton Parish graveyard, explored the gardens, visited a shop and, after meeting up with the rest of our crew, watched the fife and drum parade. We then had lunch at the Cheese Shop in Merchant Square.

Next, we picked up Steph and Dru and hopped on the free ferry to Surry County. Once there, we drove to Chippokes Plantation State Park for a fossil walk along the James River. The weather was warm but breezy. The kids were tired but eager to find some shark’s teeth, which, unfortunately, was the only item we would legally be allowed to collect (Seriously, Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation? You do know that your coastline is littered with millions of shells, right?). Dru found a shark’s tooth and Delton was convinced (several times) that he found some bones. All in all, a fun trip. Next time, maybe we can get the kids in some kayaks!

That evening, Dale and Brenda watched the kids while Leish and I went to a dance program at the colonial Capitol. Afterward, we picked up some beer (a mix-and-match six pack—can’t get that in PA) and played some Apples to Apples with our cousins.

As the others headed to Busch Gardens on Sunday, we dragged Jim, Steph and Dru to the Virginia Living Museum, a natural history museum we’d first been to a couple of years ago. Again, it was a big hit with the kids, and we purchased a family membership that will get us in free at the Lancaster Science Factory, Whitaker Center, North Museum and Franklin Institute back home. Julia was a little bit scared of the animatronic dinosaurs, but really enjoyed looking for the animals on the boardwalk outside.

We ended the day by decompressing at the resort pool, which had thankfully re-opened five minutes after we arrived (after being closed 30 minutes because of some distant lightning). Delton met a couple of older boys and began playing with them in the water. He was so proud to walk out up to his neck, and we kept encouraging him to let us take him out more. Julia was a bit more timid, but loved hanging out in the kiddie pool.

Did I mention the heat? It actually seemed slightly less hot (but no less humid) this time around. Unfortunately, the hottest day of our trip was Monday, which under normal conditions would have been OK…but not when the air conditioning on your car has called it quits. We ran the thing full blast all the way home to no avail (and only to discover later from our mechanic that we could have caused some major damage). Even with the less stressful route home, front windows down and make-shift shades for the kids, a certain someone found the heat unbearable and our days with the Freestyle were numbered. But I’ll let Leish tell that story.

Disney Day 5: Park hopping

More on our trip: Day 0Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4

We “slept in” today, which simply means we did not rush out the door. Plan: park at EPCOT and monorail to Magic Kingdom. I know, I know…worked so well yesterday. But, this time, we also expect to end the day catching EPCOT’s night-time spectacular, Illuminations. By the time we got there, the MK parking lot was quite crowded, which meant we would have to take one (hopefully) final trip on the blasted ferry.

First stop, train to Toon Town! Tim Brixius insider tip®: If you take a folded-up stroller on the train, be sure to use the handicap loading area. I got scolded by a Disney train conductor for opening a gate to get past the turnstiles. Delton and Julia loved exploring Mickey’s and Minnie’s houses and Donald’s leaky boat (the water features of which were mercifully turned off in the still seasonably cold temps).

Back on the train and off to Frontierland to decide if we really want to chance getting wet on Splash Mountain. We had been psyching Delton up for this one, as he typically avoids flume rides. Turns out we needn’t have bothered—it was closed for renovations. In fact, later on, Frontierland’s other headliner, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, broke down as Leish and Delton waited in line. Tough day in the old West.

So, on to the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, which is awesome, but seemed much cooler in my youth. It was so crowded we couldn’t linger too long in any one spot and could only move in one direction. Pirates of the Caribbean was great too. Aleisha and I are probably among the few who haven’t seen any of the movies, so I couldn’t really explain who Johnny Depp or Octopus-face were.

By this point, we are starving, and stumble into the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe for some grub. I grabbed what I thought was a nice shaded table, but another diner warned me that the birds roosting in the tree above had been making quite a mess below. We wound up inside. Tim Brixius insider tip®: with sauteed mushrooms and onions, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, peppers, cheese sauce, dressing and croutons, you can almost make a meal out of the condiments in this place. Be sure to ask for an extra plate to pile it all on.

Since Julia is too small for the Big Thunder Mountain, I decide to take her on the magic carpet ride, which she finds totally thrilling. We then slip back into Frontiertown just in time to catch the afternoon parade, which Julia watched from my shoulders. After getting a call from Leish saying that Delton is about to drag her to the Haunted Mansion for a fourth(!) time, I decide to take Julia to Tom Sawyer’s Island. I’ve got to say, this was one of my favorite places in the park. No lines and plenty of interesting sites—from caves to bridges to an entire fort—for kids to explore. Julia especially liked playing with the rifles in the look-out towers of the fort. That’s what we get for hanging out at the hunting camp every summer! I look forward to taking Delton here next time.

We finally meet up with the rest of the gang at the Jungle Cruise. Dale said that the pilot of one’s boat can make or break this fun little trip into colonialism. Our guy was pretty deadpan and was able to keep the jokes coming while we waited in a traffic jam at the end. Sadly, this is our last ride in the Kingdom. We grab a few souvenirs and then hop aboard the monorail to EPCOT.

We arrive at EPCOT around sundown, just enough time to take in Living With the Land and Journey Into Imagination. The Land ride is probably the most unchanged from the first time I rode it. Imagination is OK, but a bit scatterbrained.

On to Norway for a spin on the Maelstrom, another throwback ride that Delton loved for its trolls. With less than an hour to go before Illuminations, we then settle on some hearty German sausage for dinner. (Tim Brixius insider tip®: do not promise your kids pizza at EPCOT, when there is no pizza to be had. WTF, Italy?) While dining al fresco on the platz beneath the statue of St. George seems like a great place to wind up our vacation, we were at this point freezing our asses off. Aleisha and Delton retreat to one of the shops, while Julia and I huddle for warmth on a bench overlooking the lagoon. Before long, she is fast asleep and remains so until we get through the fireworks and make it back to the car. Aleisha is jealous because it has been a long time since either of us had the privilege of our baby falling asleep while we hold her. Illuminations was great, but a bit loud for Delton’s tastes. Dale and Brenda had gone ahead to the car, which is warmed up and waiting.

Photos from today