Flying over Leeds Castle

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Get in the trees!

When our family ventured to London last June, we researched fun things to do with TEENS beforehand. Traveling with older teenagers is not like traveling with tiny children – but they aren’t quite like traveling with a set of contemporaries either.

adventure-GoApefamilyOne of the fun adventures my husband stumbled across online was Go Ape, a tree-top adventure that lets you “get in touch with your inner Tarzan.”

Their course includes a high ropes course adventure with a zip line at the end of each challenge. Our family had done a ropes course at Dollywood, but certainly not in treetops near a castle! And it did not include ziplining. (After only three years, Dollywood removed the two-acre Adventure Mountain multi-level rope course, so don’t go looking for it now…)

While at Dollywood, I found myself gripping the ropes tighter than I thought I would, getting a little stressed about falling despite the harness and safety wire. It was still an enjoyable trip, though, so when Brian recommended taking a train to Kent for the day and trying the Go Ape course, followed by a castle tour and hedge maze large enough to actually get a little lost in, we were all really excited about it.

On the train from London to Kent you can read, nap, chat, and enjoy views like these!

On the train from London to Kent you can read, nap, chat, and enjoy views like these!

We prepped by reading their website. The text and photos promised breathtaking views of the beautiful area surrounding Leeds Castle (near Maidstone), and “obstacles that will get the hairs on the back of neck bristling”. It also said the high ropes courses were approximately 40 feet above the forest floor and zip wires were over 800 feet in length – and my favorite part “leap off our Tarzan Swing and tackle our crossings whilst enjoying some of Britain’s most breathtaking scenery“.

Gorgeous castle grounds

Gorgeous castle grounds

raffi apeAlso thanks to the website, we knew how to get there, how early to arrive before our scheduled flight time, and what to wear – something you don’t mind getting grubby that covers your stomach and an emergency rain jacket. Appropriate close-toed footwear with soles with good grips – no sandals or slip-off shoes. Long hair should be tied back. And they recommended gloves, so I grabbed a pair of those $1 stretchy Target gloves for each of us. (I was the only one who wore them. I thought they were to avoid rope burn, but they were really to prepare for bad weather – and we had GORGEOUS weather!)

You can bring scaredy-cat friends who don’t want to participate to enjoy the forest grounds and take photos for you. You can also bring little ones: the Tree Top Junior Adventure includes up to an hour of exploring the tree tops for 6 – 12 year olds to enjoy.

We arrived right on time, locked up our belongings, signed insurance waivers, and got fit into our safety harnesses.

Brian steps into his safety harness

Brian steps into his safety harness

An adventure begins with a safety briefing. There was a group of teens there celebrating a friend’s birthday, and we had our safety talk together. That was nice, because you could see the information repeated a few times so it would sink in despite your excitement.

Then there are a couple of easy obstacles to try near the start, so the safety person can make sure you are doing them correctly, and so someone can back out if they are too uncomfortable.

Then you are led by signs through the forest from obstacle to obstacle, climbing at the start of each one, and meeting the ground after each one with a fun zipline down!

My daughter ascending to an obstacle

My daughter ascending to an obstacle

All of us enjoying the course

All of us enjoying the course

DD1 gets ready to zipline down!

DD1 gets ready to zipline down!

DD2 wanted me to take photos and videos of her throughout the course, but my hands were shakey from the height and from gripping so hard, and I was worried I would drop her iPhone! That didn’t stop her from making her own videos and taking selfies up high in the treetops without fear.

teen happy on ropes course

At one point my nervousness got the best of me. I ziplined down to the ground and took photos for a few minutes, and then finished up the course with the rest of the family. I just needed to feel solid ground for a few minutes, and my daughters applauded me when I stuck with it and climbed back up! #gotMyBack

Here are some more visuals of our tree-top Go Ape adventure:

teen on Go Ape ropes course

“I’m so glad we did this instead of Harry Potter, mom!”

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At the end we all received certificates of completion, as a memento to the fun you just survived. Just a short walk from the course is Leeds Castle, known as the Queen’s Castle and “the loveliest castle in the world“, where we planned to have a picnic lunch.

Enjoying the walk to the castle

My family walking to Leeds Castle on a gorgeous summer day in the UK

With peacocks roaming and sheep wandering, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away from it all! I loved much of the art inside the castle as well.

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Outside the castle an animal show geared towards young children was going on. We went into the hedge maze while many of the other guests are occupied. It’s NOT an easy maze.

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couple in hedge maze near leeds castle

The maze ends in the center, where you take steps down to an underground grotto!

Grotto near Leeds castle

In the grotto

On our way back to the meet the shuttle to our train, we spotted pre-wedding photos happening on the castle grounds. The castle was closing as the wedding caterer arrived.

wedding at leeds castle, kent, uk

This was certainly one of the best days of our London vacation in the summer of 2015! We had active time and passive time, we worked individually and as a team, we got exercise and enjoyed the amazing beauty around us. If you take a family trip nearby, I recommend a day trip to Kent, Leeds Castle and the GoApe treetop zipline adventure for sure!

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Meeting Author Ashley Rhodes-Courter

booksAshley Rhodes-Courter is the author of two books on the New York Times bestseller list, “Three Little Words” and “Three More Words”. The books tell the story of her childhood in Tampa’s foster care system, her ultimate adoption, and her efforts to make peace with her past. Ashley was invited to speak at Shorecrest Preparatory School, where my DD2 is a senior, about child welfare issues and court appointed child advocates.

“No kid should have to spend ten years in foster care,” a video clip of a teenage Ashley Rhodes-Courter proclaimed to an audience in the Janet Root Theatre at Shorecrest Preparatory School on November 30, 2015.

Why would a school bring in a speaker to talk about foster care issues? Two reasons…

  1. For over 25 years, Shorecrest has sponsored a holiday gift drive for children in the foster care system. Most recently, the children have been part of the Guardian ad Litem program. This is a system of volunteers who represent children in court – in some states they are called “CASAs” Court Appointed Special Advocate. Basically, when a ruling is made on the case of a child in foster care, everyone in the room has their own agenda, but no one is hired to speak for the child. These volunteers see the child regularly, be sure their needs are being met, listen to them talk about where they are living, how school is going, etc. and then stand up for them in court. This year, Shorecrest will gather gifts for about 220 children, and for some of these kids it will be the only gifts they get all year. In addition to making wish lists before the season, these kids also send thank you notes that always bring tears to my eyes. Sometimes they ask for diapers for their baby sibling instead of toys for themselves. Some kids want a dream gift, like a new bike or video gaming system. Some want basic necessities, like gloves and socks. (The girl we’re shopping for this year wanted a baby doll and roller skates.)
  2. Another reason Ashley Rhodes-Courter came to Shorecrest has to do with their new Guardian ad Litem club started by two high schoolers. Some of the parents at school volunteer with Guardian ad Litem, and students hearing about the program during the gift drive and from the parents wanted to help the children beyond the two weeks of the gift drive. One of their first initiatives of the 2015-2016 school year was sitting down with Ashley to interview her (video here) – and later to ask her to host a discussion and book signing at school.

Her first book is linked with Reese Witherspoon in movie talks… which has been going on for a couple years. That, coupled with Ashley’s busy national speaking circuit schedule, made us a lucky group to hear her story first hand for about an hour, teamed with a question/answer session, book signing, and Guardian ad Litem reps available to answer questions or sign up new volunteers.

Many people in the audience of over 300 were somehow involved in child welfare – through work, volunteering, or their personal experiences. One of my friends who attended works as a high school guidance counselor for Pinellas County students in the foster care system. One is a Guardian ad Litem who has asked me to donate time and clothes to foster care teens in need who she knew. Many had already read Ashley’s book and had hot button questions waiting for her at the end of her talk.

ashleyrcraffiAshley was funny, down to earth, off the cuff and complemented my earrings (which I told her were just $3 on clearance at Charming Charlie). We spoke about being a mom and cat allergies. We talked about how much I love Shorecrest, and how it takes a village of caring people to raise kids the way we would hope to raise them. Now we follow each other on Instagram.

After years being shuffled from foster home to group home, Ashley was lucky enough to obtain a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). This one volunteer, Mary Miller, changed the course of Ashley’s life. “Mary Miller was the one person not paid to take care of me, yet she was the only one who believed me when I said I was being abused… and ultimately helped find me the adoptive family that transformed my life. That is the power of one person.” Mary remains a constant in Ashley’s life, and was present at her college graduation, wedding and baby shower. Ashley is both a foster and adoptive parent. Her boys are 1, 2 and 3 years old! Her husband was there too and seemed very sweet and quiet.

IMG_8462GALs do so much for children in the foster care system. They follow up on case plans, represent children in court, make sure they are safe and their needs are being met – and all because they have a little extra time and a big heart.

Guardian ad Litem Foundation’s executive director, Amy Foster, was also on hand to recruit volunteers and mentors. I’ve since poked around online and read more about her recent life. She’s a very inspiring woman! You may know her name as a City Council member in St Pete. Just last summer she adopted a girl who had recently graduated high school. This teen girl and adult woman are filling holes in each others’ lives. (If you need a heartwarming cry, check the story & video out here.) “Today there are more children in care than ever, and every one of us can make a difference in the life of a child, whether we do it with our time, talents or treasure.” Amy Foster told the group at Shorecrest. “Being a Guardian ad Litem volunteer… is really one of the most rewarding roles that I’ve ever served in.”

Find out how you can be a voice for a child here: http://www.guardianadlitem6.org/menus/become-a-guardian-ad-litem.html

or give back by strengthening families in need with the Foundation for Sustainable Families here

Watch clips from the special night at Shorecrest here:

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Family trip to London

Thanks to a whole lot of travel points, we took a family trip to London in June. It’s a big year for us. The teens graduating high school, the parents turning 40… all in a span of 13 months! So we boldly went where none of us had gone before – and yet were still able to speak the language.

We left Tampa on the afternoon of my 40th birthday. I had enough time to celebrate in the morning with Wendy getting my free Denny’s birthday meal. We also split a tasty smoothie. I stopped by the office and my boss had a giant cupcake for me 🙂 She also found the perfect glittery Disney card. Last minute packing details got taken care of and we headed for TPA.

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We had a delay after our first flight, but it only added an hour of travel time. Then we were in London!

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I guess they knew it was my birthday!

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An elevator is a lift over there…

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The Marriott Regents Park where we stayed for a week.IMG_1984

The Marriott reads their tweets! They had birthday flowers and wine waiting for me!

Read about our zipline adventure in Kent over Leeds Castle here.

Read about our family dinner at Dishoom, Kings Cross here.

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Beauty and the Beast

When I was in college, I knew someone whose mom worked with Broadway costume designers. She offered us tickets to a special event. Disney was putting together Beauty and the Beast for Broadway, and there was going to be a reveal on stage of some costuming, a couple of songs, and other ideas for a V.I.P. crowd. Directors as well as cast would be on stage with a big projector screen to bring the ideas to life.

I already loved the story. When I was a senior in high school, the movie hit theatres and I saw it with my friend Cindy. I remember leaving wow‘ed by the attention to detail. During the big ballroom dance scene, you could see the reflection of the chandelier in Belle’s fingernails. Now THAT’S animation!

beauty_and_the_beastobjectsI don’t remember who I went to this Broadway preview with, but I remember seeing the jovial Lumiere with his hands in the air representing a candelabra, and an over-the-top yellow ballgown for Belle. “Disney might actually be able to pull off people playing people turning into inanimate objects,” was my parting thought.

When my daughters were little princess freaks, the movie was played on a huge IMAX screen near us, and we went as a family. I’m pretty sure we have it on VHS in the attic too. And we’ve seen the stage show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and enjoyed Enchanted Tales with Belle in the Magic Kingdom. Now you can even drink LeFou’s Brew (an apple soda with a marshmallow foam topping) in the Beast’s enchanted castle! 

beautybeastThen my daughters became older princess freaks, and their school performed Beauty and the Beast Junior. DD2 was in 7th grade and was in the chorus. She sang, danced, and swung a metal beer stein around. She wore a dumb flowered dress. And her best friend played a whisk! With shiny, wobbly things around her head she danced to Be Our Guest along with forks and plates.

When I first heard Beauty and the Beast was coming to the Straz Center, I felt like I had enough experience with the show and I really didn’t need to go see it. But princess moments are becoming fewer and further between as my daughter age out of the house, and DD1’s good friend played Belle in the school production, so I thought we’d have a fun girls night out at the show.

It ended up not being girls night out, because the show fell during AP Exam week. *shudder* (Be happy you’re not in high school anymore!) We managed to get a group of 4 excited viewers together for the show.

Most importantly: The touring Broadway musical is a lot like the movie come to life. I missed Mrs. Pott’s accent and didn’t care for the alterations made to Belle’s dress in the final scene of the show, but other than that it is exactly what someone who enjoys the movie would expect. There are many of the same jokes – LeFou and Gaston had us laughing out loud a lot – and some extra songs. Jillian Butterfield had me believing she was born to play the role of Belle! Her sweetness, chutzpah and smarts filled Straz Center’s Carol Morsani Hall almost as well as her beautiful singing voice did. Gaston had the giant biceps, Chip had the adorable innocence and the Beasts yak-like horns were creepy.

beourguest

Despite my prior experience with the story, I had a new perspective last night. The beast can certainly represent a rotten brat becoming loving, but suddenly I thought of the story being all about one character. What if Belle, the Beast, the inanimate objects of the castle, Gaston and all the others were parts of the psyche of the same person!? The moral there could be that the Beast is trapped in his current state – which might be low self esteem or depression – and until he can throw off the Gaston parts of himself and embrace the Belle parts of himself, he’ll never become the Prince he longs to be. If he lets life go by without learning to love himself, he remains a Beast (in nature) forever.

This is truly a magical musical – and a great first musical – for little ones who love fairy tales, ballgowns and princesses. Running time for Beauty and the Beast at the Straz Center is approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission. There were still plenty of little ones dressed in their yellow dresses and hugging blankies despite the late run time. Hurry – the show is only here through May 10!

Thank you Tampa Bay Bloggers and the Straz Center for 4 free tickets to the show. All opinions and my latest Beast epiphany are my own! #ad.

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College Tour Done Right

collegetourIf you are the parent of a high school junior or senior, you may start to receive invitations to special informational events on college campuses. Perhaps your child is vying for a scholarship, a spot in a prestigious honors program, or they just want to get to know a potential school better.

Although you can attend local seminars in high schools, in hotel conference rooms on random evenings, or at college fairs, you learn more by attending events on a campus if you can make it there.

alicenhsRecently my daughter was invited to one event that was wrapped up with such a nice scholarship offer that we decided to fly out of state to attend. We figured she could get questions answered, get a feel for the campus, understand how to travel there from home with me by her side the first time – and possibly end up with a free college education. Good ROI.

I contacted the university about 6 weeks before the event. College counselors will often tell your child to contact schools on their own, but I had something up my sleeve this time. Instead of contacting the local area rep, like my daughter would do, I contacted the Honors department of the school who was offering the prestigious scholarship. They were kind of recruiting my daughter, letting her know all the great things she could accomplish in their program. I wanted them to know all the great reasons why they wanted my daughter on their list for sure.

I called the right contact, let her know we’re scheduled for the event on campus, and that it would be our first time in the area. Then I asked if we could come a day early so my daughter could spend the day before the event seeing what it would be like to be a student on their campus. I told them that she has friends in college, but when they come home they don’t chat about classes, they chat about sororities, football games and parties. My daughter makes a point of studying and getting good grades, and she wants to know that other students around her will be doing the same thing. (Not everyone gets drunk every weekend at college. I know because I didn’t. I went out and had fun, I went to bars, and parties, and comedy clubs. Sometimes I even had a drink, but I never got wasted. I never threw up or passed out. And I was able to keep my place on the Dean’s List. My husband wasn’t a big partier, and neither is my daughter’s boyfriend.)

The woman at the college was VERY receptive. She sounded thrilled over the phone. She asked me to email a list of what DD1 was interested in and exactly when we would be there.

There was some passing back and forth of duties in her office, and I had to follow up a couple of times and resend an email once, but a couple days before our flight out I was emailed an itinerary and it was just what we wanted.

While at this school my daughter spent Friday:

  • seeing the Honors College office
  • learning about the special program they were inviting her to apply for
  • meeting with a professor in her intended major department
  • going on a campus tour – which I did with her
  • having lunch with a friendly Honors student (on their dime) in one of their dining halls, who invited her to a genetics class
  • seeing the digital media center because I told them my daughter was editor of the school newspaper (turns out journalism was not in the same place, but it was a cool tour and she got to see behind the scenes of where they broadcast football games)
  • taking an Honors Bio class with a teacher who DD1 thought was both brilliant and hysterical
  • meeting the bowling club
  • meeting an advisor in her major department
  • having dinner with a sorority girl to learn about Greek life on campus (friend of a friend)
  • learning where the Honors college would be taking her out of the country for special projects.

Everything was prearranged and they gave her a schedule with who to see when, and what their phone number was, along with a highlighted campus map.

On the 2nd day we were together the whole time for the event that about 600 other people came in town for. We learned about residence halls, financial stuff, had a mock Honors Seminar class, had lunch in a different dining hall, heard a panel of engineering professors, and she spoke with the professor who would probably run the research she’d get to be a part of in 10 months.

So she had a day that was completely personalized – and got to feel like a college kid behind the scenes without mom. Then she had a day with mom acting like a tourist and getting a sales pitch. After both days she was completely exhausted. Not only is she often an introvert, she felt like everyone she spoke to was kind of interviewing her, so she was trying to be her best self constantly. But if we had only had that 2nd sales pitch day, we would have just scratched the surface. The extra day really let my daughter see beneath the veneer.

That’s all I can say for now. Perhaps when she has made a final decision I can share with you how we came to that decision. It will probably be another 6 weeks before that happens. Applying to college these days has a lot more steps then when I went through the process! My daughter spent about 4 months writing essays for colleges, scholarships and special programs within those colleges. Hopefully her decision will be the best one for her!

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