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Dreaming of Summer: Vacation Tips

By Karen Hendricks

Every year around February, it hits me. The winter blues. Time to start thinking about summer and reminding myself that it’s right around the corner—hopefully—before any more snowstorms hit. Planning and dreaming about a summer vacation help to get me through the winter blahs! That is traditionally the time our family plans, makes reservations, and marks the calendar for our summer destination(s).

When Memorial Day weekend comes, “the unofficial start to summer,” we know those vacation plans will soon be here, whether we’re headed to the beach, mountains, cities or amusement parks, and whether travel is for a day trip, weekend and/or vacation week. I loved fellow writer Jennifer’s post earlier this week about “Summer Fun in Your Own Backyard.” Lots of great, money-saving tips! I realize not every family has a vacation budget, but there are some wonderful, thrifty ways to “get away” without breaking the bank. My husband and I feel that taking a vacation is a priority so even during times when finances were tight for us, we found a way to make getaways a reality. We even keep one specific scrapbook specifically for vacation highlights through the years—and they are some of our fondest memories.

I recently conducted a family poll and we made a list of some of our favorite, family-friendly destinations through the years. Hopefully some of our tips and ideas will inspire you! (Please note, as is the case with every article on Off the Merry-Go-Round, we do not accept compensation for reviews or endorsements—of products, services, events, other websites, etc. All ideas and suggestions are truly our own.)

Footprints in the sand, in Bethany Beach, Delaware

Footprints in the sand, in Bethany Beach, Delaware

1. Bethany Beach, Delaware

This family-friendly beach has everything we love: clean beaches, a boardwalk, cute shops and plenty of activities nearby such as mini-golf, restaurants, museums, etc. The beach is not a huge sprawling beach, which we like because you don’t feel lost in a sea of people, and it’s easier to keep track of the kids. We like to stay in South Bethany, which is quiet and mostly residential. There’s a good mix of affordable rental houses just a short walk to the beach, and we always come prepared to cook dinner in-house several nights so that we can splurge and go out to dinner several nights as well. Entertainment and dining options are close-by in two larger beach towns–Rehoboth Beach, DE and/or Ocean City, MD. The town of Bethany is simply charming, with a style similar to Cape May, NJ. (Click here to visit the Delaware Tourism website for more info on Bethany).

One of our favorite spots in Bermuda: exploring Horseshoe Bay

One of our favorite spots in Bermuda: exploring Horseshoe Bay

2. Bermuda

We splurged and took the family on a cruise to Bermuda several years ago to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We chose Bermuda on the advice of our travel agent at AAA and it turned out to be excellent advice. Bermuda is not only beautiful, but very family-friendly with numerous gorgeous beaches and things to do. The cruise itself was wonderful—I highly recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines. Leaving out of New York City was an awesome experience! We took the train from PA directly into NY (and avoided parking fees), then cruised out of Manhattan past the Statue of Liberty and other NYC landmarks. It started the vacation with a bang! We stuck to our budget as planned and did not opt for add-in packages such as additional guided excursions; we still had plenty of fun, both on-board the cruise and during our stay in Bermuda. We purchased 3-day bus passes (for pink buses!) to get around Bermuda, which was an ideal, affordable way to travel and see the entire island, visiting different beaches and landmarks every day. My son was thrilled to enjoy at least one (sometimes two) ice cream cones a day on the cruise ship… that was one of the highlights of the vacation for him! (Click here to visit the Bermuda Department of Tourism’s website… the photos are breath-taking.)

I think it’s important to plan a “big” trip every few years, especially to celebrate milestone moments. We celebrated our 15th anniversary with a family trip to Disneyworld which was incredible and still very affordable. That will have to be a separate blog post for another day!

Family pic after climbing to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Family pic after climbing to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Racing down the sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park, Kitty Hawk

Racing down the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Kitty Hawk

Learning how to ride the waves along the Outer Banks

Learning how to ride the waves along the Outer Banks

3. The Outer Banks, North Carolina

From Duck to Kill Devil Hills, Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, the Outer Banks are dotted with lots of family-friendly beach towns. Prices for vacation rentals and/or hotels vary widely but there are plenty of affordable options. When our children were younger, I preferred staying near beaches that were patrolled by lifeguards; lots of the smaller beach towns do not have lifeguards on duty. Cape Hatteras is an example of one beach where lifeguards are present. There are plenty of things to do nearby, if you have a rainy day or if you need a break from the beach. One excursion I highly recommend is Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Kitty Hawk, where you can not only learn about the Wright Brothers taking flight, but you can trek across and run down the huge sand dunes. Fun and great exercise! There are plenty of great restaurants and touristy areas, but many of the towns along the Outer Banks also retain their quiet, residential status for a true “getaway.” (Click here for the official Outer Banks tourism website.)

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park

4. Shenandoah National Park

Renting a cabin for a week at Shenandoah was a great way for my family to experience “camping” without truly roughing it with tents, etc. (We have stayed in cabins/lodges at a number of national and state parks and both are fun, affordable options.) Located in Virginia, the Skyline Drive through the park is literally beautiful at every winding turn. We saw plenty of deer and even several bears during our trip a few years ago. Our family really enjoys adventures such as going on nature hikes and there are plenty of trail options at Shenandoah. One specific hike will remain a topic of conversation for years to come, because mid-way through a 10 or 12 mile hike one day, it began raining. A gentle shower turned into torrential rains and a “shortcut” trail turned out longer than our original route. Once we reached a key road, my hero of a husband ending up running two miles (still in the rain) to the car in order to pick us all up. We were drenched, several times over, but we can laugh about it now. Events like that are never “planned,” but they sure do make memories… and we can laugh about it now. (This link will take you to the National Park Service’s website for Shenandoah.)

The classic carousel at Hershey Park is the one pictured at the top of our website!

The classic carousel at Hershey Park is the one pictured at the top of our website!

5. Hershey Park / Knoebel’s Grove

It’s hard to imagine summertime without a trip to an amusement park! Two options in our “backyard” are Hershey Park located in Hershey, PA and Knoebel’s Grove located in Elysburg, PA. Our family has enjoyed a day trip to Hershey every year for as long as I can remember—it must be 15 summers now. We always spend a full day there, from opening to closing. There are plenty of kids’ rides, family-friendly rides such as the park train, and then thrill-seeking rides (for the teens and brave adults). When the kids were younger, we especially enjoyed taking a break from rides by visiting the zoo that’s located in the park for a change of pace. There are also performers here and there throughout the park—my family really enjoyed a rhythm performance similar to “Stomp” a year or two ago. There is also an entire section of the park devoted to water slides which we’ve enjoyed on super-hot days. Since it’s an expense for those of us with larger families, we usually look for discounted tickets available through area grocery stores, and we usually pack a lunch (picnic facilities are available near the parking areas) but purchase dinner inside the park. (Here’s the link to Hershey Park.)

You're never too old for a photo with the Hershey's characters!

You’re never too old for a photo with the Hershey’s characters!

Knoebel’s Grove is the quintessential old-fashioned amusement park with lots of charming rides. A huge, old-fashioned ferris wheel at the park entrance sets the tone. Mixed in with plenty of kiddie rides for younger family members are thrilling rides to keep teens on the edge of their seats. They offer a twist on admission and pricing: Admission to the park is free, with several options available for ride tickets. There are special days when you can “pay one price” to enjoy all/any rides, or you can purchase ride tickets in batch quantities to use them as you go through the park (but don’t put the tickets in a shirt pocket and ride an upside-down roller coaster as your first ride of the day… as one of my family members learned, you WILL lose your tickets… oops). There is a large picnic grove where you can enjoy lunch or dinner if you’d rather pack your own meals. Knoebel’s is especially a good option if you have family members who want to join you for a day at the park, but really don’t enjoy riding rides. Since admission is free, it’s easy for them to still get “in” on the family fun. (Click this link to visit the Knoebel’s Grove website.)

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Knoebel’s classic ferris wheel lights up the night

What are some of your family’s favorite vacation destinations? Feel free to share your ideas and tips below and join the conversation. Wishing you a fun-filled summer!

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A Special Sunday: A Mix of Mother’s Day Blogs

We are so honored to have Off the Merry-Go-Round featured on the WordPress blog, among some fabulous company! We are sharing the love… 🙂

The WordPress.com Blog

In some parts around the world, this Sunday is dedicated to the mothers out there. For Mother’s Day, we’ve rounded up sites on motherhood, parenting, and family. On WordPress.com, you’ll discover mothers on all paths: new moms, stay-at-home-moms, single moms, mothers who are full-time writers, and more. (Even mommy men, as you’ll see below.)

We especially want to highlight bloggers with unique perspectives and thoughtful commentary, as well as collaborative blogs with multiple contributors. So, we hope you enjoy this sampling of sites in honor of this special day.

Butterfly Mind

Creative nonfiction writer Andrea Badgley lives with her husband and two children in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. In the past, she’s caught our eye with thoughtful posts on both family and the writing life: a piece on putting food on the table, and a post on revisiting her childhood diaries. Her blog is a delight: lovely musings on 

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Celebrating Mothers

“A mother’s happiness is like a beacon, lighting up the future but reflected also on the past in the guise of fond memories.”

-Honore de Balzac

In the spirit of this quote, we gathered some of our favorite “mom”  photos through the years. Click on any of the thumbnails below to open a photo gallery… enjoy and Happy Mother’s Day!

“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”

-Abraham Lincoln

Happy April Fools’ Day: Prank Your Friends and Family!?!

By Mary Ann Filler

April Fools’ Day is celebrated annually in many countries on April 1st. Sometimes referred to as All Fools’ Day, it is widely recognized and celebrated as a day when people play practical jokes and hoaxes on each other. Practices include sending someone on a “fool’s errand,” looking for things that don’t exist; playing pranks; and trying to get people to believe ridiculous things.

I remember with fondness the first April Fools’ Day joke that my oldest son (then in preschool) played on me. He said, “Hey mom, there’s a spider on the fan!” I barely had time to react before he exclaimed with great pride… “April Fools!” I was quite surprised by this because we hadn’t really discussed the fact that the day was a day for “fooling” people. However, his preschool teacher must have had lots of fun with this date and encouraged her little charges to “plan a prank.”

I have to admit, I am presently not one that regularly goes around “pranking” others. But, that wasn’t always the case. In my freshman year of college, my roommate and I had quite a bit of insomnia. We would frequently scheme up seemingly harmless pranks to pull. I think the worst prank we ever pulled (it was the worst because we got caught) was piling the lounge furniture up in front of our Resident Assistant’s, RA’s, door. Unfortunately, we were laughing loudly and the RA opened the door and saw us. We also enjoyed switching signage around and once placed the Women’s Bathroom sign on a poor unsuspecting soul’s dorm room door.

In the spirit of my former shenanigans playing self, I’m seriously considering pulling an April Fool’s prank of some sort just in the name of fun! So, I’ve been trying to come up with something simple to “pull over” on my family members or friends.

There is always the old food prank such as switching the salt and sugar or even making food that looks like something it’s not. How about some blue milk or ice cream mashed potatoes?
http://shine.yahoo.com/parenting/hilarious-april-fools-food-pranks-162900438.html

Perhaps the old stand-by…placing a whoopee cushion on someone’s chair?

Our pediatric Dentist offers these obnoxious things as prizes for good check-ups!  UGH!

Our pediatric Dentist offers these obnoxious things as prizes for good check-ups! UGH!

What about this idea from Parenting Magazine?  Wait until your kids are asleep, and then switch them in their beds. Or, quietly swap around their dresser drawers. Obviously you will want to be there when they wake up in the morning to witness their surprised expressions.  Well, I can certainly switch the dresser drawers around, but won’t be changing my sons around in their beds any time soon!

Parade Magazine suggests changing your birthday on Facebook to April 1st.  When the well wishes start pouring in, change your status to April Fools!  Or if you want to fool your co-workers put a sign on the copier that reads, “This copier is now voice activated!”

How about calling your spouse and asking them where the extra $100,000 came from in the checking account?

I’m still searching for something to “pull off.”  How about you, what have been your most memorable pranks or are you planning any good ones for today?

Tie-Dye Easter Eggs

By Karen Hendricks

Just like your favorite t-shirts: tie-dye Easter eggs.

Just like your favorite t-shirts: tie-dye Easter eggs.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s still fun to decorate Easter eggs whether you’re 3 or 93. With two teenagers and one almost-teenager in my household, there’s a lot of growing up, going on. As much as I enjoy and celebrate my children growing up, notching accomplishments and developing character, there are aspects of childhood left behind that I dearly miss–such as making craft projects together, coloring, painting and drawing. So the wonderful, annual ritual of making Easter eggs brings us back together for a “craft project” of sorts once again.

We have had fun making a wide variety of Easter eggs through the years, but one of our favorite methods is tie-dyeing Easter eggs. The colors are brilliant, each egg’s pattern and coloring is unique, and there is no right or wrong way to tie-dye… So it’s a winning formula.

Tie-Dye Easter Eggs:

You will need: food coloring, vinegar, paper towels, foil and hard-boiled eggs

1. Protect your work surface with newspaper. Tear off a piece of foil that’s slightly larger than the size of a paper towel. Place a paper towel on top of the foil. Pour a few drops of vinegar (3-4) towards the middle of the paper towel. Put 8-10 drops of food coloring in the center area of the paper towel, allowing some of the colors to overlap slightly, spread and mix.

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2. Place a damp egg on the paper towel and very gently, press the foil around the egg until it is wrapped.

3. Carefully peel back the foil and towel and place the egg on a clean paper towel or a stand to dry completely. You can usually color 3-4 eggs with the same foil/paper towel before the colors muddy and/or the foil becomes worn. You can vary the effects, the color combinations and the folds in the foil.

The end results - eggstraordinary!

The end results – eggstraordinary!

Tip: Use rubber gloves so your fingers don't get stained.

Tip #1: Use rubber gloves so your fingers don’t get stained.

Tip #2: Use upside-down egg cartons as stands to let your eggs dry.

Tip #2: Use upside-down egg cartons as stands to let your eggs dry.

Show us your Easter eggs! Snap a photo (or two) and upload them to our Facebook page to share your family’s creativity.

Wishing you and your family a wonderful spring season and a Happy Easter! 

Icy Artwork

My daughter Kelly created Christmas-themed ice art, winter 2010.

My daughter Kelly created Christmas-themed ice art, winter 2010.

By Karen Hendricks

The saying goes when life hands you lemons, make lemonade… So when mother nature brings cold weather your way, embrace it and make a (temporary) piece of artwork out of ice!

This is a project my children and I have made many times through the years. I think we originally stumbled upon the idea in Family Fun Magazine. But I don’t think this project is only for children… I think children of any age, including us moms and parents, can get our creative juices flowing with this one!

Here’s how:

Materials needed:
Pie pans
Cookie sheets
String, yarn or fishing line
Fruits such as berries or sliced citrus
Natural items such as holly leaves, nuts or twigs
Water

1. Arrange your fruit slices, berries or natural items in a pattern of your choosing, inside the pie pan.

Orange, grapefruit and cranberries form a geometric design

Orange, grapefruit and cranberries form a geometric design

2. Take a length of your string, yarn or fishing line. Knot the ends together, tightly, to form a loop. Place one end of the loop inside your pie pan. -Or- Thread one end of the string through your citrus slice and knot your string so that it’s anchored to the orange or lemon.

3. Place the pie pan on a cookie sheet and then transport outside in the cold. Even if the temperature is below freezing, avoid sunny areas.

Warning: cranberries may result in PINK ice art! But this recent creation tied in nicely with Valentine's Day.

Warning: cranberries may result in PINK ice art! But this recent creation tied in nicely with Valentine’s Day.

4. Very slowly, pour water into the pie pan so that it’s deep enough to cover your design, about 1/2 – 3/4 inch deep. Make sure that the string is going to freeze within your design. If your design shifts when you pour the water, slide things back into place or wait an hour or two and rearrange when the water starts to turn icy.

5. Check your project in several hours or leave it sit overnight. (OR: Freeze your project in your refrigerator’s freezer.)

6. Dip the pie pan under hot water at your kitchen sink and loosen the ice from the pie pan.

7. Hang your icy artwork on a porch or from a shepherd’s hook for a beautiful, winter time decoration!

This project will “hang around” for several days (or even weeks depending on your climate) if you have an extended period of time when the temperature is below freezing.

If you try this project, I invite you to upload a photo to our Facebook page and share your creativity!

Roses are Red, Boys Don’t Want Flowers

By Jen Ashenfelter

I think guys have it easy on Valentine’s Day. I will gladly accept a wide variety of gifts–roses, jewelry, stuffed animals, sexy PJs, perfume…. I could go on. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe most gals would agree with me that those are acceptable gift choices. I’m easy to please–it’s the fun things, the simple things that really make this girl happy. (My hubby never disappoints.)

I remember several Valentine’s Days when my father walked through the door at the end of the day with a red foil-wrapped, heart-shaped box filled with chocolates…just for me. (My little sister received her own box.) I couldn’t even tell you what my mother got from Dad because I was just so over-the-moon about my own box of fancy chocolates.

Many years later, along came my sons Nick and Chris. I wasn’t used to thinking of Valentine’s Day gifts for boys. When they were younger it was much easier—stuffed animals were good. As the tween years approached, stuffed animals became unacceptable (and quite honestly, we were overrun by these fuzzy creatures).

Candy is universally accepted, except with one son having allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. Look at the ingredients on those heart-shaped boxes—a box full of disappointment for my youngest. What’s a mother to do?

With that said, my husband and I didn’t want to set a precedent for giving gifts more appropriate for a birthday or Christmas. However, I wanted to give the boys something special.

Here are a few ideas—which don’t require a holiday spending account—for a fun gift to give your special boy.

Toy sets – Add a train or track set to a Thomas the Train collection. The small LEGO kits include a variety of vehicles and mini figures to go with any larger set. Celebrate your future car enthusiast by adding more Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars to the collection.

Books – It’s a day to celebrate love so why not instill a love of reading with a new book.

Movies – There’s always another Disney or Pixar movie to own, as well as adding to a series collection: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, Batman…the list goes on depending on interest and age. If you don’t get out to the movie theaters often, consider a family dinner and movie date…or a gift card to the movie theater.

Music – A tween or teen can never have enough downloaded music and games so iTunes gift cards are perfect.

Art – Crayola, need I say more? Feed their love of art by adding a new piece to their creative supplies—stickers, colored pencils, stencils, finger paints or chalk. For older kids, sign them up for a photography class or spend an afternoon together at a local museum.

Exercise – An afternoon of rock climbing, hiking, biking, skiing, tubing, ice skating, bowling—you get the picture.chocolate covered strawberries

Food – What’s that saying: the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? With two growing boys in this household, food is never turned away. I’ve never been a fan of going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day, so I’m perfectly happy to make a favorite dinner we all enjoy, set a nice table and sit down together. To top it off, our dessert tradition has always been chocolate-covered strawberries!

I might stray from our tradition this year for something equally scrumptious: Oreo Truffles. I discovered these tasty gems when a coworker brought a batch into the office before Christmas. I can’t wait for Christmas 2013 so I’m making them now. (I could make them at any time but that would be too easy; it’s safer for my waistline if they are only made for special occasions.)

Something tells me I may be the last one in America to discover Oreo truffles but in case I’m not, here’s the recipe. Happy Valentine’s Day and show the little men in your life how much you love them with a special surprise. Enjoy…

Kraft Foods Oreo Truffles

Easy-OREO-Truffles-52162

Photo Credit: Kraft Foods

36 OREO Cookies, finely crushed, divided

1 pkg (8 oz) PHILADELPHIA Cream Cheese, softened

16 oz BAKER’S Semi-Sweet Chocolate, melted

Make It

  • RESERVE 1/4 cup cookie crumbs. Mix cream cheese and remaining cookie crumbs until blended.
  • SHAPE into 48 (1-inch) balls. Dip in melted chocolate; place on waxed paper-covered rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with reserved cookie crumbs.
  • REFRIGERATE 1 hour or until firm.

Kraft Kitchens Tips

How to Melt Chocolate

Place unwrapped chocolate in microwaveable bowl. Microwave on HIGH 2-1/2 min. or until chocolate is completely melted, stirring every 30 sec.

How to Easily Dip Truffles

To easily coat truffles with the melted chocolate, add truffles, in batches, to bowl of melted chocolate. Use 2 forks to roll truffles in chocolate until evenly coated. Remove truffles with forks, letting excess chocolate drip back into bowl. Place truffles on prepared baking sheet; let stand until firm.

How to Store

Store in tightly covered container in refrigerator.