Magnolia Markets at the Silos

Magnolia Markets at the Silos
Location: 601 Webster; Waco, TX
Price: Free
Smashed Penny Machine: No

I’ll be honest I don’t really watch Fixer Upper (in fact I had to Google the name of the show), I’ve seen a few episodes here and there and vaguely know who Chip and Joanne Gaines are.  This stop was not on my original trip plan and I had no idea what to expect.  My very good friend Jessie had told us about her visit and told us we HAD to stop by.  We finished our tour of Waco Mammoth National Historic Site just before lunchtime and thought we’d go down and check this out and get a bite to eat.

Magnolia Markets has its own free parking lot just behind the Silos grounds but fills up quickly on busy days.  A church down the street that had parking for $5 but we lucked into some on street 2-hour parking with a two-block walk to the grounds.  We visited at lunchtime on the Friday of Memorial Weekend and this place was busy.  With two hungry kids in tow, our first stop was the food trucks.  After surveying the options at ten or fifteen food trucks our girls decided on hot dogs for lunch.  Several of the other options included BBQ, pizza, and sandwiches along with sweets like snow cones, ice cream and gourmet popcorn.  My husband and I got gourmet dogs while the girls got their favorite: plain hot dogs.  Four hotdogs and two bottled drinks cost us about $24 which I didn’t feel was too bad for food trucks at a touristy area.  There was also a food truck that sold nothing but Southern sweet tea.  These were a little pricey at $16 for two sweat teas but they are large (easily 24oz) and you do get to keep the glass mason jar with lid and reusable straw.  To enjoy your food, there is a large covered pavilion with lots of picnic tables along with several independent covered picnic tables around the play lawn.

In addition to the food trucks, the Silos Baking Co is also on the grounds.  It had what the attendant said was a two hour wait to get inside.  We opted not to stand in the line.  We then attempted to go into Magnolia Markets.  It was very busy and full of breakable things.  My anxiety of having a toddler in such a store had me leaving just a few minutes later.  We opted to hang out on the lawn and finish our drinks.  The lawn has several lounging bean bags, corn hole and several other lawn games that you can enjoy for free.  There are also several photo ops around the grounds to stop and get a picture with.

Overall: This is one of those places that it’s hard to make a recommendation on it.  If you are a big fan of the show, it’s definitely worth checking out.  If you are more of a casual visitor like we were, I think it depends on the weather and crowd levels.  While the place had a fun atmosphere, it was hard to really just relax and enjoy it with the crowds and the heat.  I’d suggest coming earlier in the day for a more relaxed experience.

Waco Mammoth National Monument

Waco Mammoth National Monument
Location: Waco, TX
Price: Free but the guided tour cost
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, in the gift shop

This national monument is fairly new (established in 2015) and on the smaller side.  The park is technically free but you have to go on the guided tour to see the dig site, which is really most of the park.  The tour is very reasonably priced with the most expensive ticket being a general adult at $5.  There are discounts for seniors, military, educators and students.  You cannot use a National Parks Pass for the tour fee.  You purchase your tickets at the gift shop which also serves as restrooms, water refill station and ranger station.  The gift shop is small so if you have a larger party or it seems busy I’d have only one member go in to purchase the tickets.

On the day of our visit, tours were leaving about every 45 minutes.  Tours begin at the pavilion in front of the gift shop.  There are several benches and picnic tables in the shade if you have a wait.  There was also a tent set up outside with a ranger who had fossils and replicas.  Everyone was encouraged to examine the fossils while the ranger explained what they were.  The kids were allowed to touch all the fossils.  Behind the tent was a small sand box that was gridded off like a dig site where kids could use the tools to excavate “fossils” themselves.

Our tour had about twenty-five people on it.  The tour begins with an easy walk along a paved path to a small amphitheater.  The tour pauses at the amphitheater where you can take a seat along the benches in the shade.  Here the tour guide explained what the area would have looked like when the mammoths roamed the area and explained the differences between the two types of mammoths.  The tour then continues to the dig site building with a brief stop on the bridge to point out where the first fossil discovery happened.  The rangers require everyone to leave all food and drinks outside the dig building since it is an active archaeological dig.

The tour through the dig site is on an elevated walkway that overlooks the actual dig.  The tour guide covered an number of topics on this part of the tour including which fossils we were seeing, what scientist think happened to the mammoth herd found here and general information about the time period.  Once the tour is over, you are free to continue to walk around the dig building as long as you want.  The ranger stayed on site to answer any questions.  Our ranger, a retired schoolteacher, did an excellent job engaging our older daughter during the tour and helping her complete her Jr Ranger book.  In the dig building there are also two really cool murals.  The first was a full scale mammoth.  This was next to the walkway so you could see how you sized up against a mammoth and made a neat picture.  The second was over the dig site and depicted what the herd might have looked like.  After you exit the dig site building you return along the same path to the visitor’s center.  The path is completely paved and a very easy walk.  The tour was about an hour of standing and walking and was completely handicap accessible so you bring a stroller for little ones if needed.

Overall:  This park was very nice and the staff was very friendly and helpful.  Despite it being a smaller park we spent about two hours here with the tour and looking around at the fossils and playing in the dig pit.  If you are in the Waco area I would highly suggest stopping by to check out this park.

Sealife Aquarium

Sealife Aquarium
Location: Grapevine, TX – located in the Grapevine Mills Mall
Price: Base tickets: $22.95/12+, $18.95/3-12 years old
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes located in gift shop, cost $1.01

After spending several hours enjoying the water part at the Great Wolf Lodge we decided to dry off and check out the mall and get a bite to eat.  Sealife Aquarium is located in the mall right across from Legoland.  There is a combo ticket option for both venues.  With the combo ticket, you do not have to visit both attractions in the same day; however, the aquarium only took us about two hours so I think visiting both in the same visit would be very easy.  Both the general admission tickets and the combo tickets are several dollars cheaper if you buy them online.    We visited on a Thursday afternoon and there were only a handful of other people touring.

The aquarium has several different exhibits.  Each exhibit has touch screens so you can find out more information about the various animals in that tank.  My older daughter loved using the displays as a seek-and-find game to find each type of creature in each exhibit.  My younger daughter’s favorite exhibit was the stingrays.  The stingrays are housed in what looks like a huge see-through bowl.  The top of the bowl reached about to my chest so it was roughly four and half feet tall.  This was perfect for little ones to watch the rays swim by at eye level.  The adults in our group really enjoyed the Sea Turtle rescue exhibit.  The exhibit has you take a plastic baby sea turtle and navigate all the obstacles they face on their journey to adulthood.  At the end of the exhibit are the rescue turtles that are currently living at the aquarium.  Everyone enjoyed the ocean tunnel, which even had a glass floor so you could watch fish, eel, rays, sharks, and more swim next to you, above you or below you.

The final two exhibits are very hands on.  At the rock pools, everyone can touch and explore.  Several of the inhabitants of the pools are starfish, sea anemones and sea stars.  One employee also had a camera and they would highlight different features of the animals on a large monitor to help explain how they are adapted to survive in their environment.  Finally, you end with hands on exhibit on how each of us can do our parts to protect the oceans.

Throughout the tour there are a few small sets of steps to climb up or down but a ramp or elevator were available so you could very easily bring a stroller.  The tour ends at the gift shop that had reasonably priced souvenirs.  We spent about two hours in the aquarium and I felt we spent a good amount of time at each exhibit.  General admission tickets do allow for same day re-entry.

Overall:  This was a very nice aquarium.  All the walkways were clean.  All exhibits were clean and looked well maintained.  Staff was wandering through the aquarium the whole time we were there and were very happy to stop and answer questions.  I thought the length of time the aquarium took was about perfect.  I felt like we got our money’s worth without the kids getting bored.  The mall was about a ten-minute drive from our accommodations at Great Wolf Lodge making this a great break from the craziness of the water park and resort.  I would highly recommend a visit.

Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge
Location: Grapevine, TX
Price: Room rates vary, add ons
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, one the first floor

The basic idea of the Great Wolf Lodge chain is that you have a hotel with a water park attached.  In reality, they have a resort that could be your only destination for a whole trip.  We stayed two nights and spent one day in the water park.  We did not do any of the extras and I felt we had a very good time and got our money’s worth in our stay.

We arrived around 6:30 PM on our first night.  You can download the app and do early check in for your room prior to check in time.  This does save you some hassle when you arrive at the resort but you still have to stand in line at check in to get your wristbands.  Your wristband has a microchip in it that acts as your room key and you can set it up to charge things to your account via the band (you can opt for kid’s bands that do not have the microchip in them).  The wristbands are waterproof so you wear it the whole time you are at the resort.   Each kid also got a complimentary set of wolf ears at check-in, which were very cute, and a nice touch.  Our girls wore their ears just about everywhere while we were there. Just as we finished checking in, the staff announced that they would be starting the evening dance party.  My husband took the two girls to wiggle off some energy while I unloaded our bags to the room.  The resort had plenty of luggage carts.  I would suggest unloading in the loading zone because we always ending up parking far away from the doors.

The resort had two staff members leading the kids in some dances to current pop songs and it lasted for about a half an hour.  It was crowded toward the end but it wasn’t too hard to keep an eye on the kids.  After dancing the kids are encouraged to sit down on the rug in front of the clock tower and the clock tower goes through a short animatronic show/song for about five minutes.  Then the mascot of the resort, Wiley the Wolf, comes out with one of the cast members and they read the kids a bedtime story.  Story time lasted about fifteen minutes then Wiley posed for photos with the kids.  This whole activity time (dance time and story time) is aimed at the younger crowd.  My two-year-old was enthralled and my eight-year-old kept glancing at me rolling her eyes (but she was a good sport for little sister).  I’d say that the perfect age for this activity is probably four to six.  I will give big applause to the resort Wiley hung around till everyone got a picture that wanted one.  I came back by a half hour after story time was over and he was still taking pictures and interacting with the kids.

We had just a standard room.  There are upgrade room options available for additional costs that have bunk beds for the kids, rooms with balconies, or suites that could sleep a larger family.  Our standard room was very spacious though.  We had two queen beds and small sitting area with a pull out couch (I’d guess full size mattress) plus a small table and a mini fridge.  Even with both suitcases open on the floor and the kids spread out all over I still felt there was plenty of room to walk around without tripping.  Also there is a retractable clothes line in the shower which is perfect for hanging up wet bathing suits.

We had decided to do the character breakfast the second morning which is held in The Loose Moose Cottage which is on the main floor directly next to the clock tower.  We don’t know how to sleep in so we started our breakfast at 8.  At this point in the morning there were maybe 5 other families eating breakfast.  It is a buffet style with a few specialized stations: customized omelets and waffles.  The rest is a standard breakfast buffet offerings with a special kids section with treats not found on the main lines like donuts, mini pancake stacks and wolf print mini waffles.   About every half hour or so, they play some special music (that was a little loud) and the costume characters dance around through the tables.  The characters didn’t really stop at individual tables to interact with the kids but they did offer high fives and fist bumps as they went by.  When they aren’t dancing through the dining room, one of the characters is stationed in front of a backdrop by the exit so you can get pictures.  We only had two characters at breakfast the girl and boy wolf and only the girl wolf was posing for pictures when we left.  Drinks were not included in the price of the buffet so it ends up being semi pricey (about $20 per adult and $12 per kid before tip) but we ended up being so full from breakfast that we never stopped for lunch.   So I’d say the buffet was worth the money as a meal since you can get by with a lite or no lunch but I wouldn’t do it if your kids are hoping to see a lot of the characters.

We were finishing breakfast about 8:45 and people were starting to trickle in for breakfast but I wouldn’t say lines at the various food lines was very long yet.  We went back to our room, changed into swim gear, and headed down to the water park.  The water park opened at 8 AM the morning of our stay but at 9 there were very few people there.  We left our flip flops and cover-ups on one of the lounge chairs.  There are lots of chairs but it is a first come basis and later that afternoon there weren’t many empty.

The water park has several different activities for various age levels.  There are three large slides that are about three stories tall and you have to carry your tube up the stairs with you.  There are height requirements for these slides but allow for one or two riders.  I wouldn’t say any of these rides were very intense but they are mostly enclosed since all of them exit the building at one point before returning inside to the splash pool so younger kids may not enjoy them.  There are also two large group slides that four people can ride together.  You do not have bring a tube up with for these slides.  The Howlin’ Tornado is considered a “thrill” ride and it was faster than the other slides but it wasn’t super intense.  The other River Canyon Run is a milder family raft ride.  Any of these slides would be great for adults, teens, preteens and older grade school kids.

For the slightly younger set there are two smaller slides on the water play set Fort Mackenzie.  This is the attraction that you see as you first enter.  It’s several levels of water play with squirt guns and small buckets you can dump on people below.  There is also a large bucket overhead that fills and dumps every ten minutes are so.  This was a big hit with my older daughter.  She really enjoyed getting doused by the big bucket and enjoyed the slides.  The slides do not have a height requirement but young kids have to go down alone.  We sent our toddler down one of them once and she did not enjoy it.  I would suggest preschool age and up for these slides.  There was also a general pool that was around 4 foot deep with some basketball nets and a few anchored floats to play on.  My older daughter also tried her hand at crossing the floating lily pads.  The overhead ropes were designed with someone under 5 foot in mind so this is an activity for the younger grade school kids.

For the really little kids there was a separate wading pool.  This water was only about knee deep on me.  This area is filled with small play structures and a few water fountains the kids can turn on and off.  There are also two small water slides in this area.  Adults or older children can ride down these two slides with a toddler on their lap if wanted but my toddler had no problems going down these on her own.  This area was by far her favorite area.

Activities that everyone could enjoy include a lazy river (it’s not very lazy just a heads up, lots of kids swimming through) and zero entry wave pool.  The wave pool gets about 5 foot deep at the far end.  Waves run for about three or four minutes and then there is a five-minute break.  While the waves are not very high they did seem a little forceful.  I had a hard time keeping my position when I was seated in the shallow area with the toddler.  There were also two hot tubs: one for families and one for adults only.  Our location had an outdoor section of the water park but it did not open until after Memorial Weekend so we were not able to check that out.

The water park area is kept at a warm 80ish degrees so it felt comfortable moving from attraction to attraction and the water was comfortable throughout.  The park offers life jackets at a first come basis, we had brought our own but every time we went by the rake there were plenty available.  There were also two food options available in the park.  Buckets looked to serve basic burgers, hot dog, chicken fingers and such.  The other appeared to be more of a bar but did serve soft drinks.  The water park area does offer towels so there is no need to bring your own.  There is a towel check just as you come into the water park.  They scan your wrist-band so make sure you turn your towels back in before leaving the water park to avoid additional charges.

We stayed in the water park until around 1:30.  After four hours of playing in the water my kids were starting to drop but older kids will probably want to stay and slide until the park closes.  We opted to go check out the nearby Grapevine Mills Mall which has many stores, dining options, Legoland and an aquarium.

The resort offers some other amenities and add on extras we did not do.  Other free offers include morning activities with the costume characters, a lunchtime craft project and a fitness center.  There are also many activities that have an extra charge.  The resort offers three levels of PawPasses that lump together access to these activities for one flat rate or you can pay individually for any of them.  The extra charge activities include:  adult spa, kid spa, ropes course, XD theater, lazer maze,  arcade, Build-A-Bear and the Quest games.  The Quest games are unique to Great Wolf and there are three options with slightly different themes: MagiQuest, CompassQuest, and ShadowQuest.  They all run on the same basic idea.  You buy a “wand” and then pay for the game.  Each game has several quest you complete by following clues that will lead you across all the floors of the resort.  You’ll wave your wand at the correct piece of artwork, magic chest, screen, or other Quest item and once you’ve solved all the clues you’ll complete the quest.  You can buy additional wand toppers that give you different boosts or powers.  The wand and toppers are then yours to keep and can be brought back on additional stays to play again.  The game cost covers as many quests as you wish to complete for the full length of your stay.

In addition to the games and activities the resort offers shopping and dining.  The resort has a candy shop, a MagiQuest shop (sells the wands, toppers and costumes), a swim shop, a personalized souvenir shop and the main souvenir shop that sells general souvenir fare such as stuffed animals, t-shirts and home-goods.  For dining options in addition to the two options in the water park, the park offers an ice cream shop, a Starbucks, a buffet style restaurant, a pizza shop and a sit down restaurant.  You can also pre-purchase a dining plan if you want your stay to feel all-in-clusive.

Overall:   There is a lot happening at Great Wolf at any given time and I think it does offer something for every member of your group.  I would say that with what’s included in your stay (water park, free activities, etc) I think the cost is worth what you are getting especially if you can get a Groupon or special.  If you are looking for a quiet stay, you should probably look into something else.  If you are staying for several days or think that your kids would want to do several of the additional activities then the PawPass is probably a good value.  We did not do any of the extras.  Our younger one didn’t notice but our older one was very interested in the MagiQuest.  As for room locations, I would suggest asking for a room on a lower level.  There always seemed to be a wait for the elevator so it was nice to be able to take the stairs up one flight to our room.  I would also suggest requesting a room further away from the elevators.  All the MagiQuest props for your floor are clustered around the elevator.  The kids playing weren’t excessively loud but we could hear them while we were in our room.  The game does turn off at 11 PM and it had quieted down by around 10 but we had a toddler we were trying to get to sleep around 9.  So if you need to turn in early or really like a quiet room you’ll want to request at the end of the hallway.

George Washington Carver National Monument

George Washington Carver National Monument
Location: Diamond, MO
Price: Free
Smashed Penny Machine: No

We made a stop at this small national site on our way from Southern Indiana to Dallas.  My daughter had read about George Washington Carver during school this past year and wanted to visit this site.  The park is located on a rural highway about a half hour Southeast of Joplin, MO and is about fifteen minutes from Interstate 44, making it an easy stopping point if you are traveling through the area.

We started our visit of the park by exploring the museum.  The first floor offers a short film about George W Carver along with several exhibits detailing his life.  The second floor has several hands on exhibits for kids to explore Mr. Carver’s life and the general ecosystem of the area.  On this floor there is also a replicate of a one-room schoolhouse that my daughter was in love with.  There was also a very nice patio for wildlife viewing that overlooks the prairie.

After exploring the Visitor’s Center, we walked the Carver Trail. This is a fairly easy mile loop that takes you out to the farm house and back around to the Visitor’s Center.  While the trail is mostly flat it is also dirt on large parts of it.  You could probably take a stroller on it in dry weather but with all the rain this Spring it was fairly soggy and had standing water in some spots.  The trail takes you past a small community grave site where George’s owners/adoptive parents are buried along with several members of other nearby families.  The trail then walks through the woods with several informational plaques about George’s life growing up on the farm.  The cabin sits about the halfway point in the trail.  It is just a small two-room cabin with some informational plaques inside.   Unfortunately the property has changed hands several times before coming under the scope of the National Parks Service so most of what you see is not what would have been there in the 1870’s when George lived on the property.  From the cabin the trail follows back through the woods past a very nice contemplation garden with a statue of a young George and back to the Visitor’s Center.  The trail does climb up hill a little bit but it’s not hard.  Our two year old walked the whole trail herself (except where we were trying to keep her from splashing through puddles).

After returning to the Visitor’s Center, my daughter completed her Jr Ranger booklet and received her badge.  There were several picnic tables in the shade around the parking lot so it would be easy to bring a picnic lunch.  We spent about an hour and half at the park and that was more than enough time to experience it all.

Overall:  This is a very small and very quiet park (other than the school group there was maybe four other Visitor’s).  While the park was nice and we learned a lot of great information about a truly remarkable man, I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way for this park.  However if you are traveling I-44 this makes an excellent place to stop for kids to burn some energy and maybe learn something in the process.

Texas 2019

We took a short vacation over Memorial Day weekend to visit friends around Texas.    Our main travel group was just our immediate family: myself (35), my husband (33) and two daughters (8, 2).  We had a fair amount of downtime especially during our stay in Houston where we were just hanging out and catching up with friends.

Day 1 Travel from Evansville, IN to Grapevine, TX
George Washington Carver National Monument
Hotel: Great Wolf Lodge; Grapevine, TX

Day 2 Great Wolf Lodge
Sealife Aquarium
Hotel: Great Wolf Lodge; Grapevine, TX

Day 3 Explore Waco, TX
Waco Mammoth National Monument
Magnolia Markets
Hotel: Friends’ spare bedroom; Brookshire, TX

Day 4 Houston Zoo
Hotel: Friends’ spare bedroom; Brookshire, TX

Day 5 Big Thicket National Preserve
Hotel: Little Rock, AR

Day 6 Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
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Dinosaur World

Dinosaur World
Location: 711 Mammoth Cave Rd, Cave City, KY
Price: $12.75/adult; 9.75/kid ages 3-12, under 2 free
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes

Following our visit to Mammoth Cave National Park we drove to nearby Cave City.  Cave City is the nearest town to the National Park and is about a fifteen-minute drive from Visitor’s Center.   Cave city boasts a number of family attractions including zip-lines, golfing, and go carting.  There are also several sit down and fast food restaurant options.  After a quick lunch, we visited one of the more unique attractions in Cave City, Dinosaur World.

Dinosaur World boasts a number of attractions.  The main attraction of the park is the Dino Trail.  This is an easy paved trail through the woods making it very easy to push a stroller through this exhibit.  Along the trail there are life-sized dinosaur sculptures and small information plaques about the various species.  Most the sculptures are off the trail and are fenced off so there are lots of great photo ops but you can’t get especially close to most of the statues.  There are a few photo locations set up  such as a baby wooly mammoth you can climb on, a hatching dinosaur egg your child can climb into and a T-Rex head that you can climb into the back of so you can take a picture getting “eaten.”

There is a small side trail that is not paved about midway through the trail.  This trail leads up to the dinosaur statue that is seen from I-65.  You can climb on the base of this statue and get pictures.  The area also overlooks the interstate.  The older two enjoyed probably ten minutes of standing on a bench trying to get truckers to honk as they drove by.  There is also a small “herd” of mammoth status including the baby mammoth you can get pictures with.

The entire Dino Trail and the side walk to the interstate took probably 30-45 minutes to complete.  If you enjoy reading the information plaque or moving at a pace slower than overly-excited-toddler-that-has-not-napped I’d plan about an hour for the Dino Trail.  After the Dino Trail we let the kids play on the very cute dinosaur themed playground.  Around the playground is a covered picnic area and coolers are allowed so you could bring a picnic lunch or snacks.  We also found a soda machine by the museum.

Included in the price of kids admission was a ticket to the Fossil Dig.  You will have to buy a Fossil Dig ticket for $2 if you have a two year old that wants to dig.  The Fossil Dig runs for about 15 minutes every half hour.  It’s basically a giant sand box with some sand sifters.  Your kids can shift around and discover various “fossils.”  Most of it are broken shells or shark teeth.  To be honest I have a hard time believing any of them are actual fossils as all the sharks teeth seemed brittle.  Either way your kids will be excited to play in the sand and they get to bring home their three favorite finds as a souvenir.

While we waited on a few members of our group that were really enjoying the Fossil Dig, we played in the Bone Yard.  This is a giant sand pit with a large fake skeleton buried under the sand that kids can excavate using the tools.  There is also some benches in here and the area is covered so you are out of the sun (or in our case the light rain that had started).  The park also has a small museum that we did not check out and a gift shop that you have to walk through both on your way into and out of the park.

Overall:  We had fun exploring the dinosaurs but I’m not sure it is something I would do a second time especially for the cost.  The park was well maintained and clean.  I think it was a neat couple hour stop if you are in the area or driving by on the interstate.  This is aimed at younger kids with the ideal age probably being 3-7.  Also be sure to bring cash.  When we first arrived their credit card machine was down based on how their signs looked this is probably a fairly common occurrence.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park

Location: Cave City, KY

Price: Free, Tours cost

Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, one in the main Visitor’s Center and another in the secondary building

We visited Mammoth Cave National Park on a Saturday morning in late April.  As usual our large group was present: me (35), my husband (33), our two girls (8, 2), my sister (29), her husband (31), their two kids (6, 3), my two parents (60) and my grandmother (80).  Mammoth Cave is about two hours and fifteen minutes Southeast of Evansville, an hour and half South of Louisville and an hour and half North of Nashville making it an easy day trip from any of these locations.  The park is best known for its extensive cave network but also offers lots of above ground activities including hiking, fishing, canoeing/kayaking, and camping. 

Our trip was focused on doing a cave tour.  The Park offers over a dozen different tours.  Tour lengths vary from a half hour to all day tours.  Some tours are fully handicap assessable while others are ranger led caving expeditions that will require climbing and crawling through the caves.  Each cave tour has different age restrictions and cost.  Additionally certain tours are only over seasonally or on certain days of the week.  You’ll have to visit the parks website prior to your visit to determine which tour is going to work best for your group.  During busy seasons cave tours will sell out, you can reserve your spot online prior to arriving at the park.  We did this since we had a large group. 

This was a fairly busy park.  When we arrived at the Visitor’s Center the line to book cave tours was about 30 groups deep.  Regardless of if you pre-book your tour you are still going to have to wait in that line to print the tickets.  So arrive at least 30 minutes before the start of your tour.  Our experience with the reservation system wasn’t an overly positive one.  The tickets are purchased through a third party website that required us to set up an account and it wasn’t very user friendly.   And again despite buying tickets ahead of time someone still had to wait in the super long line. 

While one member of our party waited in line to pick-up the pre-ordered tickets, the rest of us visited the main information kiosk in the center of the Visitor’s Center to collect our Junior Ranger booklets and then toured the museum while working on activities.  The Visitor’s Center also has very large restrooms and several water fountains to refill water bottles.   Cell service at the park was nonexistent so make sure to set a meeting area for your group (a lesson we learned the hard way).  Most tours require you to take a shuttle to the cave entrance.  They will start announcing boarding for tours about 15 minutes before your shuttle is to load.  Shuttles load at a series of bus stops just outside the main building.

We had reserved tickets for the Domes and Dripstones Tour.  This tour is about ¾ of a mile hike and should take about two hours.  The tour is also considered a moderate level hike with over 500 stairs on the hike.  There isn’t an age limit on the tour however if you are nervous with heights or narrow spaces this is not the tour for you.  Also backpack carries are not allowed on any tour so younger kids will have to be carried.  I did see one lady with a soft chest carrier on the tour but I’m sure there were still a few spots that were hard to navigate with that on. 

This tour starts out at the bus stops where your ranger will meet everyone and do a basic safety briefing and go over cave rules.  It’s all pretty basic stuff: watch your step, use the hand rails, don’t touch the cave formations, don’t be a jerk and don’t take flash photography, stay with the group.  I would advise that everyone should wear good hiking shoes as the metal stairs and limestone ground were damp and slick in many areas.  Also the temperature in the cave is a constant mid 50 to low 60 degrees so pants and a jacket are probably a good idea.  After the safety briefing, everyone will board the shuttle buses to the cave entrance.  At the cave entrance the ranger will give a little bit of background about the caves and the route through the cave that the tour covers.  This was a large tour with over 120 people on our tour.  It was difficult to hear the ranger at times so I would advise trying to be semi close to the front of the tour group.

The initial part of the tour is literally just 300 steps down.  The steps are mostly metal so take your time as the steps are slick.  With over 100 people on the tour this part is really slow moving, be patient.  We did end up having to carry the toddlers through most of this tour (including the three hundred steps) so I really wouldn’t recommend this tour if you have very young children in your group.  There were a few formations to see on your way down the stairs but mostly this is a switch back of stairs going down a vertical descent to the cave floor. 

Once you reach the bottom you will follow a narrow passage way until it opens into a larger cavern.  In this cavern, there are rows of benches.  Everyone will take a seat.  The ranger will allow everyone in the group to work their way into the cavern and will do a short talk on the cave formation and the cave’s history.  Our ranger was really good at speaking and we were able to hear him from the back benches without problem.  The ranger will also take the opportunity to show you exactly how dark a cave is and will turn off the lights for a few seconds.

From this point everyone will file back out of this cavern up a semi steep path (after this point I felt the trail became easier although there were several sets of staircases but none as long as the first decent).  The hike continues through a series of passages and caverns.  I’m not sure if the ranger gave commentary as to what we were passing, we were too far to the back of the group and the group was really spread-out.  This part of the hike continued for a little while until we came to another cavern with benches where everyone was able to sit to wait for the last members of the group to catch up (there is a ranger at the end of the group as well) and did another talk here. 

The trail remains a little wider from here on (until the very end).  The ranger will stop everyone once more for a short chat (no benches though).  Then there is an option side tour down to see the bottom of the Frozen Niagara formation.  This is the biggest and best cave formation on this tour.  There are a number of steps to go down and then back up.  You don’t have to do this portion of the tour if you don’t want.  You can get a very nice view of the formation from the main trail path and everyone else will end up right back with you after hiking to the bottom and back up.  From here the trail goes through a few more passages before exiting the cave.  After leaving the cave you’ll board the buses again and return to the Visitor’s Center.  We were one of the first one’s out of the cave and once our bus was full it left so there was no waiting for everyone to exit the cave.

Upon returning to the Visitor’s Center area, you will be required to walk across these soapy mats designed to kill a fungus that is killing off local bat populations.  The buses drop you off behind the lodge so you’ll have to walk through that building and across a short bridge to get back to the Visitor’s Center.

The park does have an onsite lodge that you can rent rooms.  There are several different options including small family cottages.  There are also two restaurants onsite Green River Grill and Spelunkers Café & Ice Cream Parlor.  Both are located in same building as the lodge as well as two privately run gift shops.  There is also a gift shop run by the Parks Department in main Visitor’s Center. 

After completing our tour and doing a little souvenir shopping, we returned to the information desk to turn in Junior Ranger books and receive our badges.

Overall:  Mammoth Cave is a very large park.  There are many different activities to do here making it a very easy trip for just a day trip or a longer stay.  I think it is very important that you really look at the cave tours closely to decide what the best fit for your group is.  There are several other attractions in nearby Cave City (https://cavecity.com/) as well as lodging and food options.  Overall we enjoyed our trip to Mammoth Cave and since its fairly close to home will come back in the future and try other tours as the kids get older.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park

Location: 2995 Lincoln Farm Rd; Hodgenville, KY  42748

Price: Free

Smashed Penny Machine: No

Lincoln Birthplace Park is about two hours and fifteen minutes East of Evansville and about an
hour South of Louisville.  The park consists of two properties where the Lincoln family once lived.  Sinking Springs is the larger portion of the park.  The Knob Creek site is about 10 miles from the main park.  The Visitor’s Center and memorial is at Sinking Springs.  There is a seasonally staffed ranger station at Knob Creek along with restrooms.

We chose to visit only the Sinking Springs portion of the park.  We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center.  The Visitor’s Center has a small museum explaining President Lincoln’s life in Kentucky and general information about life on the frontier in the early 1800’s.  The museum is fairly small but had a replica of a log cabin main room and a play area with Lincoln Logs which the kids really enjoyed.  The Visitor’s Center also shows a short 15-minute video and has a small bookstore/gift shop.

After completing the museum portion of the Jr Ranger books, we took the boardwalk trail behind the Visitor’s Center (this is also the handicap assessable path to reach the memorial) up to the memorial.  The memorial sits on the top of the hill where the Lincoln cabin was probably located.  You can also access the memorial by walking up the steps in front of the memorial from the parking lot.  Inside the Memorial building sits a log cabin.  It is not the family’s actual cabin but it is representative of what the cabin probably looked like.  You are not able to enter the cabin.  There are a few plaques inside the memorial describing the significance of some of the architectural features of the memorial.

After looking at the cabin, we decided to hike the Boundary Oak Trail, which starts just behind the Memorial.  The trail is probably about a quarter mile.  There is one semi-steep hill and the trail is all gravel.  The trail is not hard, my three-year-old nephew, two-year-old daughter and eighty-year-old grandmother all walked it without problem.  There is not a lot to see along the trail.  It meanders through the trees.  Some of the trees have small plaque beside them identifying the type of tree and giving a few examples of how settlers would have used this type of wood.  The path does cross a small stream twice, which my nephew enjoyed wading across it with his rain boots.  The trail is probably a little nicer either late April/early May when wild flowers would be blooming or October when the leaves are in Fall colors.

The Boundary Oak Trail comes back out of the woods near the base of the stairs for the memorial.  Just to the left of the memorial stairs is a small set of stone stairs that lead to the spring the family would have used as a water source.  From the sinking spring we walked back up to the Visitor’s Center to turn in the Jr Ranger books and get our badges

Overall:  Honestly, there isn’t a lot to do at this park.  Lincoln Boyhood in Indiana is a better experience with the reenactment farm and larger museum.  There doesn’t seem to be much else to do in the general area either.  The park would make a nice stop off if you were traveling along I-65 (park is about 20 minutes from the Elizabethtown exits) and wanted a short stop off to let kids burn some energy.  You could also easily combine this with a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park (about 45 minutes Southwest).  Unless you are really Lincoln history buff or trying to collect all your Jr Ranger badges (which we are both) I would not go out of my way for this park.

Medieval Times

Medieval Times
Location: Dallas, TX
Price: General Admission $60.95/adult; $36.95/child, kids under 3 are free but they have to sit on your lap
Smashed Penny Machine: No

Medieval Times is a dinner theater themed around a medieval style joust.  The kids did an amazing job the whole week with minimal whining about hiking (and we hiked a lot) that this was a special treat for them at the end of our trip.

I would suggest you buy your tickets online beforehand for a number of reasons.  First the show could sell out.  Second the atmosphere at the castle prior to show time is semi organized chaos, having your tickets purchased before you arrive will help eliminate some of that chaos.  Third there are a lot of add-on options.  Buying online beforehand allows you to review what the up charges get you and if that fee is worth it for your situation.  Beyond the general admission, there are three other tiers of packages: Queen’s Royalty, Celebration, and Royalty Package.  We opted to add on the Royalty Package to our tickets.  This Package comes with the following perks: Priority Castle Access, VIP Seating, Priority Seating Access, Cheering Banner, VIP lanyard.  The perks we actually got to enjoy: VIP Seating, Cheering Banner, VIP lanyard.  I think I would still spend the money on the higher package IF you have younger kids with you.  The actual arena has stadium seating so I don’t think the higher up tables really have any worse of a view than the lower tables.  The real perk of the VIP seating is being close enough to the floor to be able to interact with the knights.  During the first part of the play, each knight will have about a dozen flowers that he will pass out to members of his cheering section.  Since you can only throw a carnation so far seating in the first three rows gives your kid a better shot of receiving a flower but that’s not a guarantee.  I don’t think you are going to miss any part of the show by going with the lower priced ticket.  Finally buying online gives you the chance to look for discount codes.  We found a discount code that gave us 10% off.  Depending on the time of year you are going you can get tickets much cheaper.

You’ll want to arrive at the castle at least 45 minutes before show time.  The castle doors will open 75 minutes prior to the show starting.  We arrived about 90 minutes before our show time (we got to Dallas a little earlier than we thought) and there was already a line in front of the castle.  Once the castle doors open, you will go to a cashier who will check your tickets and confirm the number in your party (if you did not go for an add on package I’m sure they’ll try to up sale you here).  At this point you will be assigned to your seating section.  Each section is color coordinated to a knight you will be cheering for.  Seating is first come, first serve so early arrival is more likely to give you better seating (center vs a corner).  After you are given you seating, you’ll be given a crown that matches your section and you’ll be ushered into the next room to take a group photo with a costume character.  This picture is taken in front of a green screen so if you plan on buying the picture try not to wear green (my niece has some stone works in the middle of her shirt in our picture because of the green lettering on her t-shirt).

Once you have had your picture taken you are released into the main hall to await the start of the show.  There are several activities in the main hall and several sets of restrooms.  I would highly encourage everyone to use the restroom prior to the show so you don’t miss any of the action.  There are also several gift shops with various medieval themed items ranging from kids toys to complete replication suits of armor.  Expect to pay theme park prices for just about everything.  Two full service bars on either end of the hall are available for additional costs.  If you are celebrating something special there is a guest service kiosk where you can pay to have the king/queen announce your party/birthday/etc during the show.  You can also pay to have a member of your party knighted by the king/queen (if you are noticing the word PAY a lot there is a reason).  Each castle has its own museum of medieval torture you can tour for an additional charge.  I did visit the museum at the Chicago castle once; the museum is not for young kids or people who are squeamish.  The castle has an additional photo booth where your party can dress up in costume for another picture.  You can also visit the kiosk to purchase the picture they took as you came in. Since it was a green screen backdrop, they had about twenty or so various backgrounds you could have applied to your picture.  We did end up purchasing the photo (how often do you managed to get all four kids looking into the camera at the same time!).  The cost was about $20 for an 8×10 photo and a cardboard photo frame.  If you are trying to not spend additional money, you can look at the horses in their stables for free (the toddlers loved it).  There are also lots of fun spots for your own photo-ops. Keep a close hand on your kids during this time as the hall is packed full of people and chaotic.

About thirty minutes to show time, they will start seating people in the stadium.  You have to listen for the door that your section needs to enter.  In theory, the VIP groups get to go to their seats first.  In our experience that does not really happen unless, you magically end up close to your door.  We were on the opposite end of the hall from our door and by the time we had worked our way against the flow of people to our entry they had already called for general admission to enter the stadium.  This doesn’t really matter because your table was assigned at check in.  Once you are seated, your serf (aka waiter or waitress) will come around and ask for your drink order.  Included in your meal is your drink choice of lemonade, tea or regular soda.  The serfs will come back through about mid-way through dinner to refill your drink.  Bar staff will also come around and you can order additional drinks through them for the same price as the bars in the main hall but this time it gets delivered to your table so you don’t have to try to carry it through a sea of people.  If you want to purchase a drink, you can save money by asking for your drink in a plain glass.  You are not required to buy one of the special souvenir cups.  Our drinks came in a basic plastic cup that was printed with the logo and I still got to keep it.

About ten minutes before the show, the serfs will come around and beginning serving your meal.  The meal consists of tomato soup, garlic bread, rotisserie chicken, corn on the cob, baked potato and a desert (ours was pound cake).  The entire meal is eaten with your fingers (you drink the soup).  The soup is served warm so you probably want to let it cool for the kids before letting them drink it.  While you are eating, the show will begin.  The show is about two hours and consists of horses doing tricks, a falconer and a falcon demonstration and the main event of the jousting.  The story line of the play changes every few years and each castle is doing a different story at any point.  The story always ends up with something dramatic happening that leads to hand-to-hand combat between the knights so you will see other weapons than just basic jousting.  The show can be loud and a little intense but nothing too dramatic but young ones might not like the loud noise from time to time.

Overall:  I think Medieval Times is a lot of fun.  I think it is worth the cost of admission.  You do need to go into the experience realizing it is a lot like a theme park.  The cast is trying to get you to buy the extras but you can still have a great time even if you turn all of those down.

Miss A, Miss L, Me and my friend Jessie enjoying the show

Miss A caught a flower from our knight

Miss E eating her chicken