Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Staycation idea: Comedy clubs, open mikes

The best comedians I’ve seen live are Jerry Seinfeld, who is as polished as an adored sports car, and Ellen DeGeneres, who is so nice that she actually takes requests from the audience. But I saw them at huge venues, which aren’t the best settings for comedy.

So I think I’ve had more fun during trips to smaller comedy clubs. Some of the performers I remember by name, as in the well-known comedienne Kathleen Madigan. But others are just a blur of faces who delivered one-liners and entertained the crowd for a night. Some are great, some aren’t so great, but they are always interesting. And it’s a fun change of pace from a night at the movies or a nightclub. If you don’t know where or if there’s a comedy club in your area, you can find a list of clubs at www.chucklemonkey.com.

Open-mike nights are also fun, and less expensive, at comedy clubs. Open-mike is often during the middle of the week and serves as an audition for a spot in the weekend lineup of comics that warm up the stage for a headliner. It’s fun to watch, but if you’re talented, and brave, you can get up on stage for a few minutes. Many comedy clubs also offer comedy workshops that give people lessons in performing stand-up comedy, so maybe your staycation could be the first step toward getting discovered.

Or you can just watch. That’s much more relaxing.

Open-mike nights aren’t just at comedy clubs. Other bars and clubs open up the microphone to wannabe singers, storytellers and poets. You’ll see some people with real talent who you’re surprised haven’t been discovered. You’ll also see some people of the character Phoebe on Friends who clumsily strummed a guitar while singing “Smelly Cat.” Either way, very entertaining.

You can find an open-mike night near you at www.openmikes.org. A list of poetry slams, a competition where authors read their works and judges vote for their favorite, is at www.poetryslam.com.

*** "The Great American Staycation: How to Make a Vacation at Home Fun for the Whole Family (and Your Wallet!)" is now available. You can find it in stores or online.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Staycation idea: Great Wolf Lodge

The check-in line at Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine has a sign that says, “Start your adventure here.”

What kind of adventure?

Well, about 50 feet from the sign are two animatronic trees that will be harmonizing with a pretend raccoon before the day is done. It’s that kind of adventure.

It’s kind of like being immersed in a Disney movie about kids taking over a hotel and building an enormous water park inside. Unlike a movie, however, Great Wolf Lodge offers the added bonus of a chance to spend $25 on a magi wand or $50 on a stuffed animal with your child’s wish sealed inside.

Bring the whole family and your credit cards. It’s that kind of adventure.

But wait … this is actually a positive review of Great Wolf. The biggest reason is that the water park, which is huge, great for all ages and kept at 84 degrees year-round, has pretty much ruined every other water park for me.

Great slides for kids and adults. Very short lines. No sweltering heat or need for me to slather SPF 150 sunblock on my pale skin. It’s so different from the experience at most water parks, where you bake in long lines while trying not to notice aging back tattoos.

(TATTOO SIDEBAR: Have you ever noticed that tattoos -- while they are pretty cool, edgy, sexy, all that on young skin – give off a very different vibe on older skin? It’s kind of like seeing a mom drive by in a minivan that’s blasting death metal. And an elderly person who is heavily tattooed? He or she looks like a dented UPS package that fell off the conveyor belt and got stamped dozens of times as it traveled the world.)

Anyway, the Great Wolf water park is definitely a winner. The staff is also pretty cheerful and helpful. Not so helpful during my visit were the elevators, which broke down in the morning as we were trying to get a stroller to our room on the fourth floor. Also not helpful was the person who swiped my wife’s sandals off the deck of the outdoor pool, leaving Janell with no shoes as we were leaving the resort.

Janell had to walk to the car in a pair of sandals normally worn by our 6-year-old son, Ryan. Janell was pretty ticked off as she walked to the car with her toes hanging out over the end of Nerf pool sandals, which looked ridiculous enough to become the next fashion trend. But upon further review, we decided that her sandals were probably picked up by mistake and not actually stolen. That could certainly happen in the rush to pack up a family’s pool paraphernalia. Also, although the economy has caused us all some pain, I find it unlikely that anyone would stoop so low as to swipe a pair of $8 Wal-Mart flip flops.

My wife did manage to avoid the greatest adventure of our trip to Great Wolf: staying overnight in the hotel with our two oldest sons. That was a very exciting part of the trip for Ryan and Cooper, and for me, uh … it was memorable. Here’s how it went:

After a long day of water-park fun, my wife drove home at about 8:30 p.m. with our 16-month-old son. We decided that getting Nathan to sleep in a hotel room was more adventure than we wanted. So Janell left, leaving the two double beds for Ryan (age 6), Cooper (age 4) and Dad (age well beyond that at which sleepovers are thrilling).

After a trip to the arcade and some of Cooper’s leftover birthday cake, it was time to go to sleep. Or at least it was time to discuss the sleeping situation.

First, Ryan showed me several options that would create lighting conditions like those at home. Ryan flicked lights on and off throughout the room and brought up other creative ideas. My favorite was his idea to leave the door open on the microwave because that was like having a night light in the room. We finally decided to leave the bathroom light on and crack the door.

After a bedtime story, Cooper and I climbed into one bed and Ryan got into the other. But then Ryan decided that he wanted to sleep in our bed, too, giving us three people in one double bed. Then Ryan changed his mind because it was too hot and went back to the other bed. Thank goodness.

He fell asleep pretty quickly. Cooper, on the other hand, decided that he needed to touch my arm every 30 seconds to make sure that I was still there. I’m not sure how long it took him to fall asleep, but it took me even longer. Part of the reason was a tremendously overstuffed pillow.

(PILLOW SIDEBAR: Do hotels generally use overstuffed pillows because they seem more fresh or upscale than an average pillow? I can understand that a flat, mushy pillow can seem like it’s worn out, but that’s the kind of pillow I prefer. The pillows at Great Wolf were like completed Jiffy Pop bags. They were so plump that my head felt like it was nearly at a 90-degree angle as I tried to fall asleep.)

The next morning, Ryan and Cooper both agreed that it was the best sleepover ever and that they slept really well. Apparently, they slept well despite waking up several times to go to the bathroom and get drinks of water. Each time, Ryan would tap me on the shoulder to let me know what was going on. Cooper also would tap me on the shoulder, but not to tell me he needed a drink or needed to go to the bathroom. Cooper just wanted to make sure that I hadn’t died or been replaced by a mannequin in the 10 minutes since he had last checked.

The most interesting part of the night was when I noticed Ryan sit up in the bed for a minute or so and “sleep sit.” At least that’s what I think he was doing. I said, “Ryan, are you OK?” and he just kept sitting there, looking straight ahead, his eyes opening and closing as he nodded off. He looked like my dad trying to fight off sleep in the middle of a church service or me battling the sleep monster in one of my political-science classes in college.

The day we returned from Great Wolf, I felt a lot like I did in those political science classes. I was tired, hungry and a little confused. How could the trip to Great Wolf be so much hassle – going anywhere with three kids always is -- and yet so much fun?

At this point in my life, I guess seeing my kids have fun trumps just about everything else. And I know I should enjoy any experience in which my kids still want to have fun with me because I know that won’t always be the case. The “parents are a total embarrassment” stage will be here before long.

That will be a very different kind of adventure.

*** "The Great American Staycation: How to Make a Vacation at Home Fun for the Whole Family (and Your Wallet!)" is now available. You can find it in stores or online.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Staycation idea: The Backyard Theater

Drive-in theaters peaked before I was born, but my family took at least a few trips to drive-in movies in the Seventies. I don’t remember the films, but I vaguely remember lying in the back of the station wagon with my pajamas on.

Drive-ins couldn’t compete with movie theaters and their better images, sound and climate control. That’s made drive-ins very rare, so if you can find one in your area, it’s a cool nostalgia trip for a staycation. You can search for one near you at www.driveintheater.com. And if there isn’t a drive-in nearby, you can create one within walking distance ... in your backyard.

It won’t be as cheap, but it can be even more fun. All you need is a computer with a DVD player, a white wall or bed sheet to use as the movie screen, and a projector, which you can find by doing an Internet search for “projector rental” and your city. Stores that rent audio-visual equipment for business meetings will have basic projectors for about $100 a day or weekend. If you tell them what your plans are, they can make sure it will work. They also rent projection screens if you want one.

Then plug in some small speakers to your computer, get out some folding chairs, and enjoy a classic double feature in your backyard. If you have a pool to float around in while you watch, rent Jaws.

The movie won’t be high-definition, but the backyard drive-in will fit the definition of a good staycation. There’s no doubt it’s far from ordinary. You can even make it part of a backyard camping experience.

*** "The Great American Staycation: How to Make a Vacation at Home Fun for the Whole Family (and Your Wallet!)" is now available. You can find it in stores or online.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Staycation fun: Water parks

If you haven’t been on a water slide in a few years, you should give it a try. Chances are it’s more thrilling than dropping a swimsuit size.

Seriously, water parks are a great low-cost, high-excitement destination for people of all ages. And they’re not like 25 years ago, when a metro area might only have one or two monstrous parks, which then catered mostly to young adults seeking big water rides and teenagers wearing Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts.

Make it special by finding a hotel near the water park, checking in for a couple of nights and having food delivered to the hotel room. The bang for the buck will be immense if you have young kids, who will remember the experience long after your next big vacation. And for families with teenagers, getting one hotel room for the parents and another for the kids can be a worthy upgrade.

Important note: If you do embrace the thrill of a big slide and you’ve dropped a few pounds since your swimsuit purchase, you might want to shop for a new one. If your bikini is a little loose or the drawstring on your trunks isn’t pulled tight, it could be the most talked-about staycation ever.

You can find links to water parks at The Water Park Review.

*** "The Great American Staycation: How to Make a Vacation at Home Fun for the Whole Family (and Your Wallet!)" is now available. You can find it in stores or online.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Staycation idea: Virtual vacation

Virtual worlds are becoming more and more popular on the Internet. Web sites such as Second Life www.secondlife.com allow you to customize an avatar and interact with others in a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game.” If that sounds weird to you, you’re not alone. The sites actually allow you to shop, with real money, for virtual items. I’m just not into spending real money for a virtual pair of jeans. I don’t care how good the jeans look on the virtual me.

That’s not what I mean by virtual vacation. I’m referring to creating a trip overseas by immersing yourself in a different culture through cuisine, language lessons, and films. The Wall Street Journal had a story about a woman in New York who did that. She viewed Japanese films, shopped at traditional Japanese markets, and bought souvenirs there. She ordered in Japanese at the restaurant and partook in traditional activities such as running down a road screaming, “No! No! It’s Godzilla!”

OK, not that last part. I apologize for comparing modern Japanese culture with its well-known cinematic export.

Back to seriousness. If there’s a country, or area of the U.S., that you want to visit or know more about, you can take a virtual vacation there. With a library and the Internet, it’s easier than ever to find information about customs, clothing, food, films, music, and the history of an area.

You can also take advantage of Google Earth (www.earth.google.com), a free Internet application that provides satellite images, maps, terrain, and 3-D views of buildings from all over the world. A few years ago a global poll decided the new “Seven Wonders of the World.” With Google Earth and other Web sites on the Internet, you can virtually visit the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome, the Taj Mahal in India, and the other new wonders of the world.

You can also look at stars and galaxies with Google Earth. It’s a great educational tool for you and your kids, and can be combined with a trip to an observatory or stargazing during a camping trip. And here’s another free Google treat to check out:

Google maps (www.maps.google.com) offers street-level pictures for areas all over the U.S., as well as in several other countries. Google sends out teams of people with cameras mounted on dashboards to take photos all over the country. The result is a massive collection of photos of downtown areas, tourist spots, and residential areas that you can find on a map. It’s fun to look at different areas of the country, especially if you’ve lived in several areas and want to see your old stomping grounds. It’s addicting, but even if you waste time, you won’t waste money. Virtual jeans are not for sale.

*** "The Great American Staycation: How to Make a Vacation at Home Fun for the Whole Family (and Your Wallet!)" is now available. You can find it in stores or online.