Don’t Leave Home Without ‘Em

Kids Playing in the Pool

Since our kids don’t know how to swim yet, inflatable pool rings turned out to be a godsend on our trip to the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain outside Tucson, Arizona. Easy to pack and only $1.50 each, they gave the kids confidence to paddle all around and me comfort knowing they had some help.

Blissed out girl in the pool
Webster’s called, they want to use this picture next to the definition of “bliss”
Relaxed Pool Boy
Happy and relaxed kids… priceless

Best buck fifty ever spent.

The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain

235 Foot Waterslide into the pool

Nobody will be surprised to hear that The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain is a beautiful, luxurious destination because well, it’s a Ritz-Carlton. What is surprising, however, is that on top of living up to its posh reputation, this particular Ritz-Carlton is incredibly kid-friendly. From the spacious casitas to the welcoming restaurants, a water slide, wading pools, and fun kid programs, families will be delighted at the options.

First, the room:  We stayed in a one-bedroom casita with over 1,100 feet to spread out in. Besides the comfortable queen beds and soothing neutral decor, one of the best features was something they never advertise, a huge walk-in closet where our suitcases, shoes, and everything else could be stowed. It was wonderful to not trip over sandals and kids’ backpacks every time we crossed the room.

Ritz-Carlton walk-in closet
If only I had the foresight to take a picture before we made ourselves comfortable…

A small patio with a table and two chairs surveyed the desert landscape and provided a lovely place to relax and appreciate the view, the warmth of Arizona, and the quiet of this location approximately 45 minutes outside of Tucson.

View From Our Casita, A Saguaro Covered, Rocky Mountain
The view from our Casita

There were 5 dining options and we enjoyed three of them. My favorite meal was at the centrally-located Ignite where we sat fireside, listened to soothing mystical flute echo around us (there is a live performance every evening at sunset) and watched the (almost) full moon rise.

Flute player
A flute player performs nightly at sunset
Using Telescope to Look at the Moon
Using the telescope to watch the flutist
Sara using telescope to look at the flute player
Getting a closer look at the moon

Although it felt a little strange to order sushi in the desert, that’s what I was craving and their inventive rolls with a slight Southwestern kick were extremely good. The kids’ menu was the same at every restaurant offering all the usual kid-friendly suspects (mac and cheese, pizza, grilled cheese, etc.) but with an upscale flair (no bright orange sauce on the macaroni, for example). The kids were happy with these options and I was grateful for once that my kids don’t read yet — as far as they were concerned, fruit and vegetables were the only options for side dishes and those were generous portions. But don’t feel bad that they missed out on French fries; they still got dessert (sundaes most nights and cookies with whipped cream once) which was also included in the $10 kid’s meal price.

The best breakfast deal was at Core, the hotel’s elegant signature restaurant, where kids 5 or younger can enjoy the lavish buffet for free (be sure to mention your children’s ages to your server). Dinner at Core was also very good but with squirmy kids, we preferred Ignite where the kids had a little more diversions to keep them occupied. We had a casual lunch at the near-poolside Turquesa Latin Grill one day also. Sitting outside, beneath the bright yellow blooms of the Palo Verde trees, and watching people stroll to and from the adults’ pool and flames flicker in the numerous fire pits was lovely.

Kid's Menu
A special page on the Kid’s Menu where kids can collect stamps from around the property

Speaking of pools, we loved that there was a separate adults only pool so we knew our kids were welcome at the other one. A 235-foot water slide shoots into this absolutely remarkable oasis. Only 4 feet at the deepest point, there is also one area that is only 1 foot, 1 inch deep and another just a foot and a half deep, perfect for kids not yet swimming and delightful for parents as well. This is where we spent most of our time and this is what our kids are still talking about.

Kids heading to the pool
Heading to their favorite place
Coming down the waterslide
Rushing down the water slide
Our Girl in the Pool
Just the right depth for kids
kids in the pool
Happy Kids in the Pool
Poolside Sprinklers Shooting From the Ground
Fun Sprinklers Shoot From the Ground Beside the Kids’ Pool
Kids Playing Cards with Daddy Poolside
Semi-private cabanas are also available to rent

The other most-talked-about activity was geocaching. For $60, a family borrows a high-tech hand-held GPS for the day. Along with the GPS comes a map and insulated lunch bag with cold water and trail mix so adventurous families can search all around the property for 6 hidden treasures. Our 5-year-old son was especially interested and stuck with it despite getting slightly over heated and needing to take a break in between searches, one with Dad and one with me.

Boy studying GPS
Figuring out the GPS
Geocaching Boy with Red Treasure Box
Finding Treasure
Just about to open a geocaching box
Geocache Treasure
Collectible arrowheads and clay coins to take home as a wonderful memento
Geocaching beside huge Saguaro Cactus

This activity actually turned into really nice one-on-one time for everyone. Sara and I did some artwork while the boys geocached then later when William and I went searching, Daddy and Sara played hide-and-seek in the room (yes, the casitas are so spacious that she actually couldn’t find him a couple of times).


Family-Friendly Fun in Tucson, Arizona

Between visits to Great Grandma’s place in Arizona last Spring, we headed to Tucson and stayed at the super family-friendly JW Marriott Starr Pass resort for the first time. It was magnificent! Tucked into the desert hills beside Tucson Mountain Park is this gorgeous, sprawling adobe compound that was built only 5 years ago. There was a wonderful blend of luxury and family-friendliness. We didn’t have to go far for great food (there are several restaurants on-site and we love not having to drive anywhere to eat dinner) or entertainment (the pools and nearby hikes are fantastic). Water fountains that shot up from the ground and moved periodically were the kids’ favorite but we also loved the lazy river which wasn’t so lazy with kids on our laps in inner tubes, doing many laps of chasing each other.
Sara running alongside the lazy river while William and Dad float along
Single or double inner tubes for floating around the lazy river (there is also a water slide at one end)

We also loved that the Marriott was so close to the Saguaro National Park West so we could get an early start to do some exploring before the sun chased us indoors. William was especially eager to earn a Saguaro National Park Junior Ranger badge to add to his growing collection (he has ones from Olympic and North Cascades National Parks already).

Before having kids, I had never heard of this Junior Ranger program and I’m actually the child of a National Park Service Chief Ranger (darn it, Dad, I would have liked one of those badges myself)! Anyhow, if you aren’t familiar with it already, this fun, educational program is absolutely one of the best things around. Kids are given a workbook and asked to complete several nature activities (possibly identifying tracks, going on a scavenger hunt, or writing a haiku). William took his tasks very seriously and stuck with it even after bumping his leg right into a prickly pear! When they’re done, a park ranger reviews their work then asks them to raise their right hand and repeat this pledge:

“I, (fill in name), am proud to be a National Park Service Junior Ranger. I promise to appreciate, respect, and protect all national parks. I also promise to continue learning about the landscape, plants, animals and history of these special places. I will share what I learn with my friends and family.”

How cool is that?! Here is a list of participating parks.

William getting a little help from Bob Cat. Busy Sara helping some birds take flight
Reciting their pledge with Ranger Donna. When they finished, she made an announcement over the intercom to introduce their newest Junior Rangers. The kids were delighted.

Easier Airplane Travel

Looking Out the Airplane Window

Five easy things you can do to improve your next flight with kids:
  • Travel early; most kids are at their best in the morning
  • Be extra nice to the flight attendants and ask if there are any kid “perks”
  • If you’re a family of four, sit two by two, in seats in front of one another–this way the only seat your long-legged kid is kicking is your own
  • Bring small surprises to keep the kids delighted and busy (sticky mosaic crowns worked for us on this trip)
  • Don’t feel guilty about letting them enjoy more screen time than normal–it’s a treat for them (and your fellow passengers if it helps keep them occupied and quiet)

Hauling car seats, babies and luggage across the airport only to head toward tiny seats at the back of a cramped airplane is hardly an upbeat start to a vacation. That said, we just returned from a trip to Arizona and it seemed like many of those usual obstacles didn’t exist this time around. Sure, it still took a lot to get organized and nobody likes to transport those awkward car seats anywhere BUT, now that the kids are old enough (3 and 5) to really communicate, understand the steps along the way, and even help a bit, air travel has gotten much easier. In fact, their curiosity and sense of wonderment made many of those typically mundane steps entertaining and, dare I say, fun!

Excited observations like “I see Christmas lights!” and “Look, the moon!” chirped from the back seat during our 4:30am drive to the airport. Like little scientists, we observed the changes in the sky as the sun rose and commented on the colors–they were mesmerized. The shuttle bus from the parking lot to the airport provided similar thrills but that was before they even remembered all the elevator buttons, escalators, and the subway ride to our gate. You’d never know it was so early by looking at them, they were on full alert. Even the security checkpoint got them excited and they were so proud of themselves for following instructions and getting it right. As we boarded the plane, the adventure continued as the amazingly friendly flight attendant invited the kids to say hello to the pilot.

Kids In the Cockpit Talking to the Pilot

While he talked to them for several minutes, I mentioned to that flight attendant how I remembered getting little wings every time I flew as a child. Well, guess what… they still have those (a plastic version with sticker instead of a pin but still, how cool). She said nobody ever asks any more but was happy to give them to the kids. Thank you, Alaska Airlines.
Seating was three by three on each side of the plane and because we’ve had bad experiences with our long-legged boy kicking the seat in front of him, hubby Rob had the idea of getting pairs of seats in front of one another. Brilliant! Not only did it fix the kicking problem, it kept the sibling rivalry at bay, and gave each of us some nice one-on-one time. I’d like to say that we didn’t have to resort to electronics to keep the kids happy and busy but William got to watch a DVD and I let Sara play with my phone for a while. As much as I’d like to be an unplugged Momma, there is a time and a place, and I have to say, this was a good one.However, on the flight home, our batteries ran out and the kids were totally fine with that. Besides doodling with markers and a sketch book, Sticky Mosaic crowns were a huge hit. Normally I wouldn’t get very excited about an art project with such little room for creativity (numbered spaces are laid out for specific colored squares and jewels) but it turned out to be a good exercise in following a key, provided great fine motor practice and the pieces were remarkably easy to keep contained for travel.
Best family vacation yet!

Kids Watching Planes Take Off

Do you have some favorite tips and tricks that work for your family on Airplane Rides?