Friday, September 5, 2014

Chicago "Train Day"

Hello there blog readers!!

I'll start by apologizing, I really should do a better job writing blog posts, but life gets busy, and we've been enjoying it!!!

So on to the meat of the post, the Chicago Train Day trip.

Our little man has quickly become obsessed with trains.  He loves to play with them, watch youtube videos of them, talk about them, see them in person, talk about them, pretend he is an engineer or conducter, and did I mention talk about them?

Well, we got the idea in our head that we would fill his day with trains, and WOW did it turn out great!!

Getting on the Train

The day started with a surprise (to him) ride on a train.  It went like this:

A: B, we are going to Chicago today, go get in the Van

B: Ok daddy

time passes....

A: B, do you wanna stop at the train station and see a train?

B: YEA!!!!  Can we Daddy?

A: Sure

We stop at the station, and walk out to the platform.  While waiting for the train to arrive:

B: Mommy, can we ride the train?

N: Daddy, what do you think?

A: Sure, why not

B: (eyes wide) REALLY!?!?!

Of course, we already had tickets, a day bag packed, and the van parked in the parking garage.

A few minutes later, the train arrives, and a very excited little boy gets to get ON the train!

The Ride to Chicago

Of course, we had to wear our engineer hat ON the train!  This little boy was in hog heaven.  

We purposely did not eat breakfast before we left, and once the train was moving, we told B that we were going to go to the dining car and eat..... yet MORE excitement!!
After breakfast, we settled in for the ride.  Its about 2 hours from Normal, IL to downtown Chicago, and B was enthralled the entire trip.  He did ask if there would be any tunnels (in his word, "time tunnels" as he loves dinasour train on PBS), and we told him he would have to ask the conductor.  He then asked to go back to the dining car to look for him, so we did.
He located the conductor, and the gracious man answered all his questions, and even fielded a radio call from "Mr Topum Hat"..... can you say happy boy?  The Conductor then punched a ticket for B to keep and we went back to our seat.

Arriving in Chicago

We arrived in Chicago at Union Station around 10am, and paused for a picture with the train.  We took some time to sort our our transportation for the day, finding the kiosk to get a CTA Day pass for the busses and subway/L.

A word of advice here, if your going to Union Station, the kiosk to buy CTA passes is by the rest of the ticket windows, and there was ONLY one, and the line was LONG!!  IF you can buy these online before hand, or have a friend who can pick one up for you, do it!!

I believe the weekend pass was like 8 bucks each for the adults, B was free, and that included unlimited rides on CTA trains and busses, but does not include the Metra trains.

We then located our bus to take us to our first stop of the day!

Museum of Science and Industry

We chose this museum, because they have 2 great train displays.  One has actual cars and engines on static display surrounding a HUGE HO scale model train layout!!

The other display was the Pioneer Zephyr train.  This is a restored 1930s train that you can tour the inside of.  It even has hydrolics underneath so you can feel the train moving like its on the track.

After seeing these two things, we grabbed a bite to eat at the cafe, which was actually REALLY good, and not badly priced.  We then headed back to the bus to head to our next stop!

Now, unfortunatly, I don't have much in terms of pictures of the next part of the trip, and I'm sorry about that!

Riding the Metra and meeting friends

The next part of our adventure was meeting up with a friend of N's and his son who is a little younger than B, and then getting on the Metra train to travel to the north side of Chicago.

B was very excited to get to ride on another train, and even went potty on the train, and he was excited about that!!

Our destination was Chicagoland Toys and Hobbies to pick up something very special for B.  We had called and pre-purchased an N-Scale train set for him. 

Chicagoland Toys and Hobbies

Its a short walk from the train station to the store, and then we entered heaven for a 3 year old obsessed with trains!  One of the employees saw us come in and immediately started a couple of model trains that were suspended from the ceiling, and B and the other little guy followed them around the store pointing and laughing, and having a good time!

We picked up our train set, and a couple extra track pieces for it, and then took B over to the used train car section and let him pick out another train car for his set!

This was all too much fun!!

After leaving there, we walked back to the train station, but still had time before the next train, so we made our way toward a park that was close. On the way, we passed a Fire Station just as an ambulance was coming in, so we stopped and watched, and one of the EMTs came out and talked with us for a while all about trains!

We made it to the park and hit the playground and swings!

Soon it was time to head back to catch the train.  B decided he wanted to ride in his new friend's stroller, and his new buddy decided he wanted to push, or at least walk along side.  They were adorable!

Metra Ride back and Dinner

Back on the Metra for the ride back to Union Station.  Once we were back, we located a place to eat dinner and chatted and relaxed for a while.

Heading Home

Back to Union Station, and back on the Amtrak, we got settled in for the ride home.  B didn't make it very long, and neither did I before:

A very nice conductor, seeing that he was asleep, helped us find a spot where he could stretch out a bit.

It was a very peaceful ride back home, and a great day was over!!

Things of Note

  • Kids under 2 are free on Amtrak, and children 2-12 are 50% off.  It was less than 80 bucks for the three of us to travel to Chicago and Back!
  • This is a VERY relaxing way to travel with a toddler.  He was so excited, could get up and move around, and just really enjoyed himself.
  • As I noted above, be prepared for CTA passes, the single Kiosk was a hassle!!!

This was an amazing trip, B had a blast, and does great with his new N-Scale Train, despite doubts from one store owner (not chicagoland) who all but refused to sell me a set... hence why we ended up where we did!!

I would strongly encourage any of you who have a city like Chicago within a few hours of your town by train to try this!  It was a lot of moving around all day, but almost stress free, and way to much fun!!


Friday, August 1, 2014

Upcoming Trip - Chicago "Train Day" Trip

I know its been quiet around here.  We've focused on spending time at home in our amazing community and on our local lake this Summer, so not much travel.

However, tomorrow, we will be headed to Chicago for a day trip on the train.  B loves trains... that doesn't really describe it well... he L O V E S trains.... probably his most favorite thing in existence!

Our Plan?

Take the Amtrak up to Union Station in the morning
Take Public Transportation to the Museum of Science and Industry for there 2 train displays
Take Public Transportation (including a train) to a hobby shop and buy B his first model train set
Take the Amtrak back home.

Its a long day, but lots of trains, and no driving!!  I can't wait!  And I'll document what we learn about train travel with a toddler right here!!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Gear Review - Post Cruise

Cruisin' Gear for a Toddler - The Aftermath!

Its been more than a few months since our cruise, and Its time I get going on my promises.  So today, I'll be taking you through a post-use review of the items we brought on our cruise with us that were worth noting.  I will say that there were some surprises and duds..
So, without further ado, the items:

Belkin Mini Power Strip

Amazon Link

As we have experienced on all our cruises, power outlets are a premium in your stateroom.  This little guy was a big hit in ours!!  We were able to keep our phones charged (used them as cameras) and added a 2 port plug in charger to this to keep the tablets charged for Mickey Time at night before sleeping.
This little power strip packs small, but really delivers.  The USB ports charged anything we threw at it, and the ability to rotate the plug allowed it to fit anywhere we needed it to, both in hotel rooms and on the ship!

PROS:   Small, rotating plug, plenty of power on USB

Melaluca Sunblock

We had used this sunscreen before in Hawaii, and generally really liked it, however, our mind was changed on this trip.

This sunscreen goes on easily, and isn't to greasy and has a plesant odor to it.  Performance wise, however, it didn't hold up.  Its resistance to water seemed pretty awful, and on one of our excursions we ALL ended up with pretty severe sunburns despite using the product.

Now, I will admit I probably should have been more careful reapplying, drying off before doing so, and the such, but in general, this sunscreen did NOT perform the way we expected it to on a more active vacation.

PROS: Easy to Apply, plesant smell
CONS: Did not hold up to water well, and did not protect the way we thought it should.

GoPro 3 Silver Edition

Amazon Link

Unfortunately, I didn't get to use this camera as much as I wanted.. but I will say that times I did use it (and the videos I got) where great, and it was fun to use!

We used this camera to take video while snorkeling, and while playing on the beach with the little guy, as well as on the waterslides on board.

I also grabbed some shots of the ship leaving port and the night sky..  Every video we took was great quality and more than overshot what we expected.

One thing that really surprised me was the quality of the still photos.  We used it that way a couple of times and the images came out great!!

PROS: Small, lightweight, HD, easy to use
CONS: No back LCD or view finder (though there are accessories)

Go Pro "Bobber" handle

This little accessory worked GREAT!!  While snorkeling with the camera, it gave an easy to use handle, and provided a sense of security.

Outside of the water, it makes for a very stable spot to grab and hold the camera.

Not much to say about it other than it worked GREAT and was very easy to use

PROS: Floats, easy to hold

Car Seat Tray

We did not end up buying one of these or taking it with us on the cruise... so no review

Google Chromecast

Well... this review is going to be an interesting one.  If I was just reviewing it as a travel accessory it would get a pretty negative review, but thats not a fair look at this little guy... so I'll give 2 perspectives.

As of right now, this thing is pretty useless in Hotels or on a Cruise ship.  The inability to sign in to hotel WIFI or accept terms and conditions for their services makes this thing just flat out NOT WORK.

This thing is AWESOME!  We use it all the time to stream B's favorite youtube videos and songs.  It gets regular use for netflix from our phones or the PC.  And it can easily move from one TV to another.

One thing to note.. it does require USB power to work, so check your TV and make sure it doesn't have a usb port on the back, or have the usb charger with you.

PROS: EASY to use, works with any HDMI TV, inexpensive
CONS: WILL NOT work at a hotel or on a cruise ship.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cruise Review Day 10 - Off the ship, but all is not over!

And finally it was over.  We awoke from a great nights sleep and the ship was already docked.
We were in no rush to get off the ship, and neither were our friends so we all met down at the Scarlett Diningroom for one last meal.
This meal was much more quiet than all the rest.. primarily because we all turned on our phones and were inundated with the backlog of emails, facebook messages, texts, voicemails and all the trappings of the digitally connected world we live in.  Part of me REALLY didn't want to turn on that phone.  I really enjoyed being present with my family and unconnected... but the inner (and outer) geek in me won over!
We had #2 for our debarkation number, so we were in no hurry, and lingered as long as we wanted.
After breakfast, we parted ways with our friends to meet again off the ship.  We made a stop by the photo gallery to pick up our photo order.  Something that was new on this ship that we had not seen before were the self serve photo kiosks.
You were able to swipe your sign and sail card and it would try to find photos taken of you.  They actually did a pretty good job of finding photos.  Note, they didn't turn on until a couple of days into the cruise.

We gathered our last few things from the room and headed down to debark. It was at this point that we really noted how much B was loved by the camp carnival staff. Many of them were helping direct people, and EVERY one of them made a point to run over and give Bryan a big hug. He waved and said by-by to each of them. Camp Carnival was a huge hit for us, and for Bryan!

Debarkation was soooooo much smoother than embarkation. Our bags were there waiting for us by the time we got off, and the customs stuff went smoothly with no hiccups. We were off and waiting for our shuttle to Budget to get our rental car in mere minutes. Our shuttle arrived after a short wait and off we went.

Our flights home were not until the next afternoon, so we decided to go visit the Brevard Zoo which isn't far away from Cocoa Beach.  We hopped in our rental car and took off.

We quickly discovered that this place is a MUST VISIT for any family who has some spare time.  Its not a huge zoo, but in terms of exhibits and things to do, it rates EASILY as one of my favorite zoos.  

Here is my Tripadvisor Review.  I'll not go into a ton of detail here, but there were lots of hands-on things to do, a great train ride, and even a SPLASH PARK for the kids.. so bring a swim suit.  And its not expensive at all!! 

B was a little tired, but he enjoyed himself!  After leaving the zoo, we headed to a post office to grab some priority mail boxes to lighten the load in our luggage after all the stuff we bought on the cruise (thanks again to Alegiant for the 40lb limit.. ugh).

We got back to our hotel and had decided to just share a room for the evening with our friends to save a little $$, and ended up with a HUGE room that we really liked!!  Kudos again to the Courtyard Marriott in Cocoa Beach!

Our room even had a view of "OUR" cruiseship, the Dream, leaving port

After some relax time in the hotel, and a quick trip to the store for a few things (like tape), we headed back toward Port Canaveral for dinner at Fishlips (and here is the tripadvisor review)..  This would be an amazing place to watch ships leave, but we were eating later than normal and had missed them.  Its RIGHT on the waterfront, and has a great view.  The food was good as well!!

We headed back to to the hotel and re-packed bags and dealt with packing the boxes we were going to mail. One of our friends had a 6:30am flight, so we got to sleep pretty quickly.

The next morning, my wife took our friend to her early flight, and eventually the rest of us got up and got moving. The hotel's internet was down, so we were unable to print postage, so after check out we had to find a self-service ready post office, and breakfast! 

We still had more than a case of diapers left, and had no intention of trying to fly home with them, so we were also on the lookout for a shelter or someplace to donate them. The hostess at the IHOP where we stoped for breakfast actually was a coordinator for a women's and family shelter, and she was happy to take them for us! 

Finally, we were headed to the airport. We got there without incident, we checked in without any problem, and got to the terminal to see the same family we had flown to Florida with, and they were excited to see us. 

An uneventful flight back home ended with the same bad attitude from the CIRA terminal employees of Allegiant, but once past them, all we had left was a 30 minute drive back home and our vacation was over.

It was a great vacation, and I'm ready to go again! The Dream is an AMAZING ship, and easily my favorite of the 3 we have been on. And, if you've ever considered cruising with a toddler, DO IT!! It was such a rewarding experience to have him with us and see his joy and fun. Plus, we got to spend the entire cruise just being together as a family! AMAZING!

I've got some other random pics and some videos to edit and I will post them here, as well as the Fun Times and I think we still have the camp carnival schedule. We will try to scan them and post them as well!

Ask if you have questions.