How to Visit Santa Claus
Yes, Virginia, you can visit Santa Claus. His workshop is not quite at the North Pole, but it sure is close. At the northern end of the Scandinavian Peninsula, in the Artic Circle, Finnish Lapland is home to frozen lakes, beautiful Arctic foxes, wolves, wolverines, and, of course, nearly 200,000 reindeer. And Santa Claus.
IS SANTA CLAUS REALLY IN FINNISH LAPLAND?
The surprising answer for anyone who has had “the talk,” is yes. Santa Claus Village, in Finnish Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi, is home to Saint Nick, his elves, a series of Christmas-themed caves, and even a reindeer farm. (Psst: Don’t tell the kids, but reindeer meat is a staple up here.)
WHAT DO YOU DO IN FINNISH LAPLAND?
Aside from hobnobbing with Santa, the incredible Northern Lights are the main attraction, viewable about 200 nights each year - the native Sami people call the aurora borealis “foxfire,” based on a legend that the lights are caused by an Arctic fox running through the snow. You can also go dog-sledding and skiing. If you visit in summer, you’ll experience one of the most dramatic “midnight suns” on earth.
IS FINNISH LAPLAND A POPULAR TRAVEL DESTINATION?
You bet, usually for travelers who fly to Helsinki and plan to spend a week or more exploring Finland. But flights from the U.S. to Santa’s workshop in the Finnish Lapland capital, Rovaniemi, start at a relatively reasonable $600 on Finnair. Lodging in Rovaniemi starts well under $150/night.
A theme park visit should be awesome. But it can also be long, expensive, and just a bit stressful. How can you make sure that, by the end of the day, “awesome” wins? I spoke with Linda M., a member of the Disney Parks Moms Panel and a specialist in Disneyland, who knows the ultimate theme park inside and out. And, to make sure I brought back the very best editor-tested survive-and-thrive tips, I visited Disneyland with my wife and two daughters this past July (I know, it’s a tough job, but I took one for the BT team!). Here, the Budget Traveler’s ultimate guide to Disneyland. SAVE MONEY “Booking a package is a great way to budget since you only have to pay $200 when you initially book your package,” suggests Linda M. “You can then make payments, in any amount and frequency that you choose, as long as your package is paid in full 30 days before your arrival date. I much prefer making small payments over time versus a lump sum all at once. Then, check the Offers & Discounts page of the Disneyland Resort Hotels website frequently.” Disneyland Resorts properties include Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, and staying on the grounds provides the most convenient access to Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park, and the restaurants and shops of Downtown Disney. “There are often new offers added for vacation packages throughout the year. If you book a package and a deal later becomes available that applies to your travel dates and accommodation type, you can usually apply that deal to your previously booked package to save some money.” GET FREEBIES “Don’t miss out on freebies!” Linda M. reminds me. While Disneyland visitors must, of course, pay for admission, meals, and souvenirs, you should remember that the park does offer ample free stuff too. “Grab your complimentary 1st Visit, Birthday, or Celebration pins upon entering the parks,” suggests Linda M. “Walk through Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop and you’ll be handed a free chocolate square. Take the walkthrough Bakery Tour of the Boudin Bakery for your free sample of delicious sourdough bread. Bring your own autograph book to collect signatures from all the Disney friends you meet and you will have a free and unique souvenir to take home. And, of course, get those free cups of ice water at quick service restaurants when it’s time to hydrate.” GET THE DISNEYLAND APP “My best tip for first-timers is to download the official Disneyland app before you arrive,” suggests Linda M. “This will help give you a feel for how the parks are laid out as well as provide you with all sorts of tools to make your visit go as smoothly as possible. You can view attraction wait times, FASTPASS return times, locate your favorite characters, make dining reservations, and so much more. If it’s your kid’s first visit, get them involved in the planning process! My daughter is only 4 years old, but we love watching attractions and rides through videos online to get excited for an upcoming trip. Also, plan on getting a souvenir to commemorate their first visit. Mickey ears are a classic option, but something I always recommend to parents is to have your child’s silhouette done at the Silhouette Studio on Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland Park. These are so precious and will be a personalized keepsake of your visit that you’ll cherish for years.” THE NIGHT BEFORE DISNEYLAND Pack snacks, lunches, water, sunscreen, ibuprofen, adhesive bandage strips, and moist towelettes in a small backpack you either don’t mind carrying or that can fit inside a locker. (And, especially if you’re traveling with a multigenerational brood, remember to pack any needed medications.) MORNING AT DISNEYLAND Layer up. Wear layers and comfortable walking shoes and bring hats and UV-protective sunglasses. Morning and evening in Anaheim may be chilly any time of year, but it’ll almost always warm up considerably by afternoon. Get early access. Arrive a half-hour before opening, leaving time for parking and to get a jump on some of the most popular rides, such as Star Tours, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and, for the younger visitors, Peter Pan’s Ride. Linda M. says, “Guests staying off-site who purchase three-day or longer theme park tickets have one Magic Morning entitlement (admission one full hour before the parks open to the general public) at Disneyland Park on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. Those staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel have Extra Magic Hour every day of their stay, including exclusive access to Disney California Adventure Park one hour early on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. We find these early hours to be invaluable as the crowds and temperatures are always low!” Prepare your kids' for safety and comfort. If you’re visiting with children, photograph them that morning so that, in the unlikely event that you get separated, you can show park employees exactly what your child looks like that day. Linda M. also suggests, “Come up with a meeting place, such as The Partners Statue (of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse), in the area in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, or the flag pole in Town Square. Or, tell small children that if they are lost they should find a costumed Cast Member, who will escort the child to a Baby Care Center where they will be looked after until the parents can be located.” Book breakfast with a Disney character. Do you think your child would enjoy having breakfast with a princess? “Breakfast is the most widely available option,” says Linda M., “with character meals taking place in all three Disneyland Resort Hotels, as well as Ariel’s Grotto in Disney California Adventure Park, and my personal favorite, the Plaza Inn in Disneyland Park. Each meal features a slightly different character line up from princesses to Mickey and his pals. These meals are popular, so it’s important to plan ahead. Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance online or by calling (714) 781-3463.” Maximize your time with MaxPass. The best way to see “everything” is to tour the park as efficiently as possible. The new edition of Disney MaxPass takes that to a whole new level. Linda M. notes, “Now you can obtain a FASTPASS for an attraction from anywhere in the park. Plus, if you have a Park Hopper ticket, you can select a FASTPASS for an attraction in Disneyland Park while you are in Disney California Adventure Park. Talk about a time saver! One tip that applies to MaxPass and using the regular FASTPASS system: always be aware of the time when you can obtain your next FASTPASS. This time is clearly printed on your paper FASTPASS reminder ticket or on the Disneyland app. Once you are able to pull another FASTPASS, I suggest you do so immediately. This will save you time and allow you to maximize the number of attractions you can ride throughout the day.” MEALS AT DISNEYLAND On our July visit to Disneyland, my family and I packed snacks and a light lunch, and grabbed a nice off-hours meal (around 4p.m.) at the Mexican cantina in Frontierland, which, on the day of our visit, was the least crowded of the park’s lands. “I’m not sure if Frontierland is regularly less crowded,” says Linda M., “but I like the strategy of eating at non-peak meal times. This is always a great idea to ensure you aren’t fighting the masses. I also suggest that people scope out restaurants for seating areas that might not be immediately in the line of sight. Many eateries are larger than what they seem and sometimes you can secure a secluded and quiet table if you just venture around the corner or go upstairs. My favorite is Flo’s V8 Café in Cars Land in Disney California Adventure Park. Not only is the food incredible at this quick service option, but there is seating around back that is hardly ever crowded. Plus, when you eat back there you have an amazing view of cars racing by on Radiator Springs Racers.” AFTERNOON AT DISNEYLAND Look for “Hidden Mickeys.” The night before my family's visit to Disneyland, our cousin Dominic reminded us to keep an eye out for the “Hidden Mickeys” that take many forms in many places around the park. Linda M. shares Dominic’s enthusiasm: “Hidden Mickeys are everywhere and my daughter always delights in finding them around the parks! There are even guide books you can buy that point out all the different hidden Mickeys at the Disney Parks. My suggestion is to look closely at anything and everything that is circular in shape/design. More often than not, a few of those circles will form a Mickey. My favorite hidden Mickey is in the dining room scene of Haunted Mansion. Take a close look at the plates on the table the next time you take a ride on a Doom Buggy!” Savor Disney history. Sure, you’ll love the thrill rides like Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and Indiana Jones, but don’t forget to immerse yourself in some of the park’s history and classic mid-century kitsch. My family loved the Dumbo ride, the Enchanted Tiki Room (where audioanimatronic tropical birds croon), the iconic Snow White wishing well beside Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and, of course, Main Street. “My daughter happens to love just about every attraction at the Disneyland Resort,” says Linda M.. “Some of the classics like It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean are among her favorites. She doesn’t realize the history behind them, she just marvels in the Disney magic that is presented around every turn in these attractions. The history at Disneyland is one of the things that makes it special. After all, here, you can walk where Walt walked. You can order some of Walt’s favorite dishes at restaurants, ride attractions today that originally opened with the park in 1955, and marvel at all the joy and magic that this place still holds.” Take a break. It may seem counterintuitive, considering how much time and money you’ve invested in your Disneyland visit, but taking a break midday is one of the best survive-and-thrive theme park strategies. “Absolutely!” agrees Linda M. “Taking midday breaks is a necessity for our family! As I mentioned before, we like to start early – sometimes as early as 7:00 a.m. So by the afternoon we are ready for a nap or some relaxing in the pool. After a short respite, we are usually ready to head back to the parks for dinner and nighttime entertainment. Additionally, we always stay at one of the three Disneyland Resort Hotels which means heading back to the room for a break couldn’t be easier – each hotel is just a short walk from the parks. The close proximity of everything at the Disneyland Resort makes visiting so easy and relaxed and I think this could be my favorite aspect of vacationing here.” EVENING AT DISNEYLAND Stay for the fireworks. We enjoyed the nightly fireworks display, Fantasmic, from a table near Space Mountain, which at that hour was not too crowded. Linda M. notes that viewing the fireworks is not much of a challenge from just about anywhere in the park. “There are actually lots of interesting places the catch the fireworks. If you are watching the early show of Fantasmic!, you can stay where you are and watch the fireworks that happen almost immediately afterward from that spot. There is also this new dining option called the Tomorrowland Skyline Lounge Experience where you get to enjoy a little box of treats and a beverage on the balcony lounge of the Tomorrowland Expo Center. So on nights when fireworks are presented, you have an excellent, elevated view from this exclusive area. If you are staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel, it’s possible to score a room with a view of the fireworks or if you are enjoying a meal at Catal or Tortilla Jo’s in the Downtown Disney District, the fireworks can be partially seen from those patios." Enjoy short (or nonexistent) late-night lines at popular rides. "Experiencing short queues late at night is pretty normal," says Linda M., "but something most younger families aren’t able to take advantage of. For those with older kids who would love nothing more than to stay up late, this could be a really effective strategy. After (or even during) the fireworks, most families will exit the park. But if you are able to stay until closing time, you will be able to walk right in to a lot of attractions.”
If the total eclipse got you hooked on the cosmos (or even if you’re already a devoted stargazer), there’s lots more where that came from. Across the U.S., major science institutions offer hands-on educational activities and plenty of fun. 1. Griffith ObservatoryLos Angeles Located more than 1,000 feet above sea level on Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, one of America’s most beautiful urban parks, Griffith Observatory is always free and hosts a wide range of activities for all ages, including nighttime telescope viewing (the Griffith Observatory’s 12-inch Zeiss telescope has been used by more than 7 million stargazers, making it the most popular telescope on earth), educational exhibits, live shows at the observatory’s planetarium, and pinch-me views of the city. 2. Hayden PlanetariumNew York City Part of the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space and led by world-famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Hayden Planetarium is a must-see for anyone visiting the Big Apple. Generations of NYC kids got their introduction to the stars here (including yours truly), and the Hayden has even been commemorated in a pop song, Fountains of Wayne’s “Laser Show.” Frontiers Lectures update audiences on the latest discoveries about our universe, Astronomy Live programs take visitors on a tour of the universe with a special focus on the night sky. 3. National Air and Space MuseumWashington, D.C. One of the jewels in the Smithsonian Institution system of free national museums, the National Air and Space Museum immerses visitors in the history of flight, space exploration, and the science behind those endeavors. Best known for displaying iconic early airplanes and replicas that allow visitors to return to the days of the Wright Brothers and other pioneers and the spacecraft from the 1960s and ‘70s that first orbited earth and took people to the moon, the Air and Space Museum is also home to an IMAX theater and planetarium. 4. Kitt Peak National ObservatorySonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ At the top of a nearly 7,000-foot peak in the Sonoran Desert, the Kitt Peak National Observatory boasts the world’s largest collection of telescopes and one of the clearest skies and most beautiful locations anywhere in the U.S. for viewing the stars. Docent-led tours take daytime visitors to three large research telescopes, live views of the sun, and a variety of indoor and outdoor exhibits. Nighttime visitors are treated to incredible glimpses of our solar system and beyond. 5. Very Large ArraySocorro, NM Sure, stunning visuals like galaxies and nebulas grab a lot of the attention. But if humans ever detect signs of intelligent life attempting to contact us from the depths of space, the Very Large Array may the place where it happens. After all, that’s where Carl Sagan set the dramatic opening of his novel Contact, in which an alien species sends radio signals to our planet that are first picked up by the immense radio telescope facility at “Project Argus,” which, in the 1997 film adaptation was set here outside Socorro, NM. Visitors can take self-guided tours and once-per-month guided tours to learn more about what scientists have learned about the nature of the universe through the study of radio waves. 6. Mauna KeaBig Island, HI Sorry, other awesome astronomy destinations, but at more than 13,000 feet on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific Ocean on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mauna Kea Observatory’s stargazing tours, telescopes, and visitor center are unparalleled and absolutely free each night of the year starting at 6pm.
Fall Festivals in America's Cool Small Towns
NATIONAL APPLE HARVEST FESTIVALBiglerville, PA; October 7 & 8, 14 & 15; $10; appleharvest.com For 50 years, the National Apple Harvest Festival has been celebrating the sweet, crunchy fall favorite with hands-on arts & crafts, demonstrations, music performances, and, of course, great food stands serving up (take a deep breath…) apple butter, apple cookies, apple bread, apple cotton candy, apple fritters, apple pie, apple dumplings, apple turnovers, apple cakes, apple cider, apple guacamole, apple salsa, apple pizza, and apple pie moonshine. If that’s not enough to satisfy you, take an orchard tour, visit the petting zoo, and see antique cars and vintage steam engine displays. And the whole shebang is in beautiful Biglerville, PA, an easy road trip from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C., and just 10 miles from historic Gettysburg, where we love the Federal Pointe Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, with rooms under $150/night. SIEGEL’S COTTONWOOD FARM PUMPKIN FESTIVALLockport, IL; September 23 to October 31, $15, ourpumpkinfarm.com An easy road trip from the Chicago area, Lockport, IL, plays host to this incredible celebration of everyone’s favorite Halloween fruit. Wander a 15-acre corn maze if you dare, explore more than 30 attractions, including Duck Races, Zip Lines, a pick-your-own pumpkin field that Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would certainly approve of, a haunted barn, train rides, a “giant mountain slide,” zombie paintball, and, of course, play areas and pony rides for the little ones. Two major attractions each year are the Pumpkin Weigh-Off and the self-explanatory Pumpkin Drop & Smash (which - if you’re wondering “how high?” and “how big a smash?” - involves a crane). Aloft Bolingbrook, a few miles from town offers rooms for well under $150/night. VALLEY OF THE MOON VINTAGE FESTIVALSonoma, CA; September 22 to 24; entertainment on the Plaza is free, with food and beverages for sale; valleyofthemoonvintagefestival.com In California’s wine country, an easy road trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, fall is the time for harvesting the incredible grapes that grow in the renowned vineyards that supply the world with some of its finest wines. And while that may evoke images of pricey bottles, the good news is that the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival, founded in 1897, throws a party on Sonoma’s historic Plaza that is anything but expensive. Bring a picnic, a blanket, and some cash to try some wine and beer tasting, local foods, and enjoy watching a parade, listening to great music, browsing the work of amazing area artists, and soaking up the atmosphere of a truly cool small town that has retained much of its Spanish Colonial flavor thanks to decades of forward-thinking preservationists, funky boutiques, great restaurants, and, of course, the stylish wine-tasting rooms that line the Plaza. Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn is a bargain at well under $200/night, and if you’re up for a bit of a splurge, the El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen, right on Sonoma’s Plaza, is a beauty any time of year (but they’re already booked solid during the Vintage Festival).
Fun Getaways for Mother's Day
FAMILY FUN IN UPSTATE NEW YORK An easy day trip or overnight from the New York City metro area, New Paltz, NY, and nearby Lake Minnewaska State Park Preserve are one of my family’s favorite ways to celebrate Mother’s Day. The Shawangunk Mountains will remind travelers of the granite peaks out west, and the hiking trails beautiful but manageable for all ages. The village of New Paltz has a charming Main Street, a welcoming flower-power vibe, and great eateries like Main Street Bistro, which has been honored by the Best of the Hudson Valley awards for its massive breakfasts. BEST B&B BREAKFAST IN AMERICA If you associate Mother’s Day with breakfast in bed, consider the Best B&B Breakfast in America, according to BedandBreakfast.com - the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield, Illinois, a two-hour drive from Chicago. Order their incredible Elvis Toast with Candied Bacon: It’s French Toast with peanut butter and bananas, plus bacon dredged in cinnamon and sugar (they’ll happily whip up a version sans bacon for vegetarians, of course). Enjoy a hike in nearby Starved Rock State Park and the scenic Hennepin Canal. JAZZ IN NEW ORLEANS Taking Mom out for brunch is a cliche. But a jazz brunch? In New Orleans? You’ve just won Mother’s Day. The city is legendary for heaping portions of jambalaya, beignets, and other treats, and the music is peerless. Take Mom on a carriage tour, a tasting tour, and catch as much live music as you can in the city that taught America how to swing. Learn more at neworleansonline.com.