The Rainforest Cafe, Niagara Falls, and the Sheraton with Kids

Jake’s job is so glamourous, taking him to places like Utica, Jamestown, and New Rochelle, even Niagara Falls. I know, you’re super jealous. Nothing like a Hampton Inn next to the highway in an area with no sidewalks to really make business travel exciting. Niagara Falls is only two hours away but the days are long, so he stays in town and this time Adam and I joined him for a night.

The state park work is finally finished; the walkways and guardrails look great, even attractive and more in line with what one might see on the Canadian side. I’m so pleased that the architects decided form was as important as function as I feel like this is often missing from our modern tax funded projects. I think of the really beautiful building that is Detroit’s pumping station compared to many concrete utilitarian public works buildings of today. Adam made the short-for-adults/long-for-kids walk from the Sheraton to the falls and Goat Island, all the way to Luna Island, where he leaned against the railing and was, for the first time, really impressed by the water.

As four year old legs are wont to do, Adam’s were tired and we headed back to the hotel for dinner. The newly opened Rainforest Cafe is certainly a draw for children. Adam really likes Red Eyed Tree Frogs, and Cha-Cha, the RC’s mascot was instantly a hit (see our instagram feed @onafullstomach for shots of his enjoyment with that Cha-Cha headband!).

So here’s the list of Do and Don’t:

1. Pay attention to the kids menu: It’s a picture menu that leaves off pictures of french fries and coke products! Adam would choose french fries morning, noon, and night if allowed and this menu made it easy to make other choices. I’m not saying that all the options are healthy, but it’s better than every other kids menu out there. We looked at the cartoon images of each main dish, side and drink and he was able to choose for himself chicken, corn and apple juice and then point and tell the waitress himself as well. For a preschooler this was a great tool to force some better choices, work on manners in a restaurant, and feel a bit empowered. I know, all from a kids menu. They put the light up kid cups on a supplemental menu you can hide from your kid, but he’s going to see other get them and he’s going to ask. Note that they have a smaller version for little guys and consider NOT getting the Icee (I should have asked for juice…).

2. Suck up the prices. My salad at Rainforest was $17. A pretty average salad, while fresh and large, was a little expensive for what it was. But good freakin’ God, the Starbucks is insane. $25 for two egg sandwiches, one coffee, one chocolate milk and a granola bar. We had the same meal a few days later at home for $12. Consider the Sheraton buffet breakfast instead, at least you get more choices and a table.

3. You can get big wine, but not really very good wine. It’s not awful, Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, I drink it on the porch sometimes when quantity needs to win out over quality, and they will sell you 6, 9 and 12 ounce glasses of it. 

4. Get a suite at the Sheraton, it’s not a suite with a lock off living room, but there is a dividing wall and the bathroom is located in the bedroom section. You can put a couple kids to sleep in the living room area, and still watch TV, use the bathroom, and make coffee without bothering them. If you have one in a packnplay it will fit in the walk-in closet, allow for a nap or early bed time while the rest of the family hangs out in the living room.

5. Don’t forget quarters for the viewing machines. Just don’t. You really don’t want to listen to that complaint for days.

6. Stay tuned for some new development of the old Rainbow Mall area. Word is hotel and indoor water park will be part of the repurposing of that eyesore. And a Wyndam property is on the list as well. Old Falls Street is beginning to feel family and pedestrian friendly, but the vestages of shabby, old NF are still there (empty storefronts, vacant Rainbow Mall, weird Haunted House, tourist trap stores). It’s changing and while it’s slow, it’s been steady. With an upcoming Blues Festival, Taste of Niagara Falls, and it’s family fun nights I think we’ll see a very family friendly version of Niagara Falls as part of this rebirth.

What? Did you just say Applebees?

Yes. I did. I’m not proud. I’m sure you know this already, but I’m a snob. I’ll eat in diners and the like, but something about national chains gets me down. Yet Applebees happens sometimes because it’s easy; say you’re in, oh, Oneonta, NY, and your options are, uh, Applebees and Walmart, you go with Applebees.

And now I’ll go back. Not entirely because of the 9 ounce wine they pour (oenophiles are rolling their eyes everywhere) but because the kids meals and the relatively low calorie plates, but mostly the cheap wine.

We were in Oneonta for one night to watch Jake ride at the New York Safety Track and needed a kid friendly, alcohol serving, sit down meal to get ourselves through til bedtime with our four year old. While the King Suite as the Super 8 provided the weeman with his own space, Mommy was feeling a bit washed out after the four hour car ride that consisted mostly of someone repeatedly asking why. Why, Mama, why do airplanes use jet fuel? Why do dogs have fur? Why aren’t we living in a story right now?

Don’t judge me, you’d need a drink too.

So, Applebees. Where it turns out they have healthy kids choices presented in a way kids would actually consider eating them; crayons that actually leave color on the paper (I know you’ve been handed those cheap ass waxy things that don’t write in other places); a kids cup with a strong lid; and an option to pour 9 ounces of wine all in one glass. Alas, they no longer have balloons after some child somewhere reportedly tried to eat one and choked.

Adam ate chicken and applesauce, the adults shared some spicy shrimp and then had two the lower cal options (mine was steak with articokes and mushrooms, Jake’s has slipped my mind). For dessert we shared Adam’s favorite thing ever–s’mores. Note this is a take on s’mores that involves no fire; just churros, chocolate sauce and some fluff.

Really, it wasn’t amazing and the wine list isn’t great, BUT it was solid, inexpensive and pleasant. I’m really surprised!!

Taking a Preschooler to Disney World: Dos and Don’ts

We’ve been back for a month and Raddy G is STILL talking about Disney; the pool slide, Splash Mountain, his chair/bed (ched? bair?), and when he will be tall enough for Space Mountain.

Can someone tell me when four-year-olds finally understand the difference between their age and their height? He continues to tell me that he’s big because he’s four…

Rather than recap every detail, I’m just going to make a list of stuff that worked and stuff that didn’t.

What Worked:

1. Roll with it. I did plan ahead and acquire Fastpasses using My Disney Experience, but we were also very open to changes made at the last minute. Who knew he would want to go on Splash Mountain? He hates water in his face, but loves this ride. So, we roll with it, and change FPs, and wait in long lines, but if the wee man is happy, we’re happy.

2. Roll with it, part 2: We also planned to be in particular parks on particular days, with one day just for the hotel and pool. But after a morning swimming, the boy said he wanted to go on rides, so used My Disney Experience to get some FPs for Animal Kingdom and away we went.

3. Get as much ticket as you can afford. We get annual passes because we go twice in one year, 51 weeks apart, then repeat that the following year. The great thing about having more days than you need (or an annual pass) is that you don’t feel back running to a park on the day you arrive, or on a day you planned off. The additional days once you get to 4 or 5 aren’t significantly more expensive, and if you can swing it, it really allows your to be flexible.

4. Take your prepared kid to “Fancy, Grown Up Restaurants” (prepared is the operative word!). Originally we were going to have my parents along, allowing a date night for us, but that fell through. Rather than cancel that reservation, we made it for much earlier in the evening. Then we had a talk about expected behavior and really pushed how special it was for a kid to go to a nice restaurant. Then I packed my purse with a Smuckers Uncrustable and a new box of Lego City bricks. The waiters were excellent, even plating his sandwich for him (sooooo picky, but we bought a fruit side and the sandwich came from the quick service in the same hotel) and the Lego toy kept him entertained when needed. It was a total success.

5. Order Kid desserts!! The children’s dessert menu at Jiko included a donut decoration platter. He got three mini donuts, three small sides of different sauces/frostings, and mickey sprinkles. Again, don’t hesitate to take your small kids to the signature restaurants; Disney knows what they are doing!

6. Show videos of rides before you leave. Adam was prepared for ride ques and possible ‘scary’ parts. The big surprise was when he asked to go on Splash having not seen anything about it. The videos were how he learned about Big Thunder Mountain, Soarin’, Mine Train, Toy Story, and Haunted Mansion. For kids who dislike change/transition this can be a great solution.

7. Bring some pool toys. We have diving sticks shaped like squids even though our kid won’t swim or go under water. However, those diving sticks made him friends everyday at the pool and meant that he always had someone to play with besides us. I wish I’d brought six instead of three!

8. Have the bartender split the virgin frozen drinks into two cups, one for your kid to have today, one in your freezer for him to have tomorrow.

9. Give your kid a specific budget or item list for souvenirs. Adam knew before we left he was allowed to get one new stuffed animal and one new vehicle (matchbox sized). He was insistent that he get them right away, but after that he also knew he was done with trinkets from stores.

10.  Bring clothes pins. My kingdom for clothes pins!!! To hold the curtain shut while your little boy sleeps in for the first time in his life, for example. Or to hang your wet swimsuits somewhere other than over the chairs.

What Didn’t Work:

1. Fireworks. They were just too late at night. Parades were close, but as it turned out, the wee man didn’t like the Main Street Electric Parade because it lacked firetrucks. Who knew. We did enjoy Illuninations with him, as that happens at 9. (9 was pushing it for him, given the bus ride back to the hotel).

2. Singing and Dancing Shows–total bust for our guy. Your mileage may vary.

3. Carrying a backpack of crap around. This sucked and in the end, we hardly ever needed anything in it. We sunscreened up before we left the room and came back at lunch, so carrying more was silly. Snacks in the bag just get warm and/or crushed. Plus, who wants a bag of pirate booty or an apple when there is Dole Whip around? Next year, we’ll go bagless. It’s Disney, anything you discover you need is for sale somewhere nearby. Also, the entrance line is way shorter for bagless ticket holders!

4. Early AM flights on departure day. It was direct, that’s why I booked it, but if you want to use the check in service in the hotel lobby you must be there three hours ahead of time and they don’t open until 6:30 AM. Lesson learned.

5. Trying to stick to a plan made months beforehand. On the first day I was diligent about “the plan” but quickly came to realize that having fun was way more important than doing it all. So we had fun and didn’t do much. It’s okay, we’ll be back.

6. Working out. I brought the stuff and pre-kid I would absolutely have made time to run or go to the gym. But after carrying nearly 40 pounds of kid around at the end of each day I didn’t feel compelled to do additional exercise. We also learned that we walked pretty far (not as far as many claim they do at Disney–all that shuffling your feet in line is not really taking a step!), about 4-5 miles each day, sometimes more. Consider the hallways, walks to and from the bus stops and the pool and the steps do add up fast.

We had a great time, better than expected and I think it’s because we let some of the planning go. It’s important to plan, to have an idea of what is where, what you like and how you want to spend time. It’s important to make dinner reservations if you need them. But it’s also important to listen to your kid and willingly wait in the Splash Mountain line, again, and again, because he’s having a good time!

A Rare Airline Shout Out!

I don’t love the airlines. Any of them, really. I spent some time, too much time, traveling regularly for work on both Southwest and USAirways. Southwest was always on time and I had quite a few milage perks, but I really don’t like the cattle call boarding.  We had one poor SW experience when heading to Key West but I’ve mostly found them to be reasonable (Jake would not agree–recap here and he’s still pissed about it). However, I loathe USAirways, hatred with the fire of a thousand suns. Unfortunately, I’ve got a boat load of miles with them so I continue to try get just a few more and get our three free flights to Italy. We’ll probably be late to take off, miss our connection, lose 1-2 days of vacation and be super pissed off the whole time. But, FREE!!! (snort)

Anyway, USAirways is an entirely separate rant. This post is about the outstanding customer service I just got from Southwest. I might be ready to forgive the cattle call.

Short version: Family trip to Disney in May; my mother has fallen ill and can’t go in May, might not go anywhere soon or ever; I need to cancel Mom and Dad’s flights and pray for a refund, because they won’t be able to use the cancellation credit before it expires. SW to the rescue!!

I called Southwest to cancel my parents’ tickets and talked with a lovely customer service rep who chatted with me about my mother, shared her story of her father’s illness, and explained what I needed to do to get my refund. I was then connected to the customer service department for refunds and without question, they told me I could get a refund for my parents as long as I had a letter signed by my mother’s doctor indicating her inablity to travel. That’s it. Easy. No arguing about the policy of cancelled tickets, or about giving them an airline credit that I’m sure they would never use, and no making me feel like this was a special favor. Just a straightforward process–claim numbers, email address, include this and that and 2-3 months to process and you have your money back. The whole thing took me less than 10 minutes.

Frankly, I was stunned. I had been prepared to get nothing as the tickets are non-refundable and I knew that when I bought them. Armed with my ‘nice person’ voice I hoped they would make an exception, either extending the credit or allowing us to change the name, or partial refund. Anything.

I’ve long known that Southwest has a great policy about changing and cancelling tickets, but I really had no idea that they would be so reasonable and easy to deal with when an extenuating circumstance arose. I talked to real people, was not put on hold, even got sympathy for our situation along with actual action. I couldn’t be more pleased. Now, if they only flew to Europe…

Last Week in Wine

It was a hell of a week. In short, my mother is getting older and has many of the problems that go with that; these things cause me to spend inordinate amounts of time in hospitals and wine shops.

After the first 48 hours had gone by (including on night sleeping in a chair) and things were looking up, I headed home Wednesday to have a comfort meal with Jake. I’m not sure if I was exhausted or just feeling spendy, but instead of picking up a pizza like a normal person, I stopped at Wegmans for charcuterie and cheese, then the wine shop for what I decided was a night worth a “good” wine.

See that box of figs in the background. Insanity.

See that box of figs in the background? Insanity.

Enter Bacio Divino 2006 Red Blend for $50. We often have conversations about the price of wine, mostly wondering if we go upwards from $30 do we gain as much as we spend. Is a $50 red doubly as good as a $25 red? After this bottle, I’d say sometimes, maybe. How’s that for clarity?! We’d recently had the 337 Cab Sav were pretty happy considering the price tag. These two wines tasted side by side really demonstrated what time and cost might get you in terms of wine. The Divino was rich and delicate at once, with a sort of ‘nothing’ start, then the fruit comes but not too fruity (I lack wine words…) with a long finish. That my first thought, actually. A very long finish that I liked a lot (see, poor wine vocab on my part). Overall, it was subtle and I wasn’t entirely sure it was worth it as we were eating the platter of cheese, meat, fruit and bread.

But then. THEN. The dark chocolate covered figs. Mother of God. I’m weak in the knees just thinking about it. It was one of those pairings that makes you remember how wine makes food better and food makes wine better. Just ridiculous. Perfect pairing.

There was more dietary and alcoholic insanity as the week went on. Thursday was a beautiful 65 degree spring day, so again, on my way home from the hospital, I made the decision to get some Rose so I could sit on the porch and enjoy the weather. A wine friend at the shop recommended the Roger Et Didier Raimbault (note: I paid about 25% more than this link suggests) and the L’oliveto. I’d initially ignored the L’oliveto because it was $8 (note: it appears to be retailing at other shops for $14). Live and learn. She raved. I drank. It was solid, especially for wine you plan to drink a bunch of while sitting on your porch. I went back and bought a case. I also told her that we were having oxtail ragu over gnocchi for dinner (Jake is soooooooo good to me….) and she picked a Malbec that was a great match.

Saturday night was Jake’s first attempt at duck confit and it was RIDICULOUS. I picked a young pinot noir, Acrobat, I think (it’s all fuzzy by then) and promised a myself a solid detox this week.

This coming week will likely be devoid of wine (she says on Monday…we’ll see when Friday comes) and devoted to veggies and hopefully movement from the hospital into rehabilitation (fingers crossed). Because my richness and stress quotas have been met via charcuteris, oxtail, duck and old age.

Char

We go to Char entirely too often. Need a quick bite before RBTL? Char. Nightcap after RMSC event? Char. New Years Eve? Char. Date night? Char. Happy Hour before Play Ball at Strong Museum? Char.

See, a long time ago, we had a pork belly app here that still calls out to me. We return in the hope of getting that pork belly again. Unfortunately, it’s not on the menu anymore. But now they have a spicy sausage stuffed calamari and this oxtail gnocchi thing that are easily two of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Please keep in mind there are always many glasses of wine and a baby sitter associated with Char, so I might be biased.

I posted about RMSC Uncorked the other day and how it wasn’t really as, um, good/informative/not crowded as we’d hoped. We arrived there right at 6, after stopping at Hedges (always, it’s just down the road from our house and has a great view, dated everything else, but a great view) AND Char, for a glass of Girard Chardonay and some potato wedges. We knew there would be food at RMSC, but wanted a bit beforehand just in case there wasn’t enough. Well, there wasn’t enough.

Just after 8 we headed back to Char and were seated right away. Our table was one of the less desirable, but no wait is no wait. Overall, excellent again, both service and food.

1. Girard Chard–we like it, it’s not too expensive and pairs nicely with the oysters and calamari we ordered.

2. Oysters–$3 a pop, the special, and I can’t remember what variety they were. Four of the six we ordered were great, but two of them (two of mine) were bad–one had lots of broken shell and the other one tasted like cat litter. We told the server, assuming he’d take the $6 off the bill but instead he took the whole dish off. Great job, Char!

3. The aforementioned calamari stuffed with spicy Italian sausage and bread crumbs, grilled and served over cannellini beans and cherry peppers. This is the full squid, stuffed with the fattiest spicy pork sausage ever. Amazing. In some ways it reduces the calamari to a sausage casing, but I don’t care, it’s delicious and we get it every time.

4. The red wine-braised oxtail ragù with ricotta gnocchi. Do I even need to say anything else?! Tender, fatty, rich, amazing. Surely needs a good red to work with all that fattiness, but we didn’t order one to compliment this. (Are you counting; I’m up to a glass at Hedges, a glass at Char, tastings at RMSC, splitting  bottle back at Char…)

And we were home by 11!

RMSC Uncorked

Friday night we had a grown up night at the Rochester Museum and Science Center; we’re members and like to do the adult only fundraisers because it allows to actually look at exhibits we like for as long as we like without someone (ahem, Raddy G….) insisting that we move along.

I’m glad we went, but I’m not sure I’d go again. There were a wealth of local wineries, restaurants, breweries, bakeries, etc all with tastings included in the ticket. Sounds great, right? It was, mostly. To sum up: too crowded to actually talk to any vendor about their product and not enough, um, quality? Maybe that’s the food and wine snob in me (and I’m far from having a well developed palate) but there were only two wineries that I had what I would consider some of the best the Finger Lakes has to offer. And don’t get me started on the abomination that was the amatriciana from Mario’s. We’ve never had a great version outside of Rome, but this was basically orecchiette with sweet tomato sause, not the wonderfully fatty guanciale and tomato over bucatini that is typical.  I would have loved to talk to the Owl House rep longer, and the Silver Thread Winery owner too, but the crowd was huge!

The upside was walking through the temporary DaVinci exhibit with plenty of time and glass of (too sweet and not great) wine.  It focuses on many of his drawings turned into the three dimensional inventions he had in mind and also includes a very detailed analysis of the Mona Lisa. We enjoyed that so much we might go back.

In the end, I’m glad the museum can hold popular fundraisers, but I wish they could spread out the sampling area throughout the musem to relieve the crowds and encourage people to look at more exhibits. We left after two hours, annoyed by the impossiblity of actually relaxing and enjoying our samples, headed over to Char at the Strathallen and had an excellent unplanned dinner.  (review to come)