Archive for September, 2009

First Week of Kindergarten

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Our son started Kindergarten this week, officially starting his journey through the public school system.  This is definitely one of the most prominent of the well-known moments of mixed emotions experienced by parents.  I am immensely proud of the smart and very personable kid and thoroughly enjoy the experience of seeing him grow and mature. At the same time, I miss the baby that he was and the ability for my wife and/or me to be there for every part of his life.  Even as I write this, I know that this whole dilemma sounds kind of clichéd, but it also is unquestionably real.

I’m sure it is normal for us as parents to have quite a bit of apprehension and uncertainty as our son starts school.  We have a lot of awareness of both his strengths and weaknesses and can’t help but wonder how each will affect his experience.  We do know that our son is quite smart, even already having some pretty decent reading skills.  He has known basics like his alphabet and counting since not too long after he learned to talk and he has even learned some simple math.

On the other hand, he also has some definite problems with listening and following directions, which are going to take some work to overcome.  After his very first day of school, the teacher already noted that he wasn’t listening as well as he should and moved him to a desk closer to the front of the room.  We’ve also recently learned that his eyesight is not very good.  While he got his first set of eyeglasses yesterday, he is still nearly blind in one eye even with the lenses.  Obviously, that is going to be a bit of a challenge to overcome and probably also explains why his motor skills haven’t been as strong as his intellectual talents.

Our son has been through 2 years of pre-school as well as a few months at a drop-off school-skills class, so we didn’t experience as much separation anxiety as some families do.  Even when he first started pre-school, there really wasn’t any major problem when my wife left him for the first time, something that surprised us a bit since he had always had a really difficult time with babysitters.  My wife, who is a stay-at-home mom, has probably had more of a difficult time with the adjustment than my son has.

The shift from pre-school to Kindergarten is still a big adjustment.  His pre-school was only 4 days a week, 3-hours per day.  The elementary school he is going to has a full day Kindergarten, which means 5 days a week, 6 1/2 hours per day.  This includes lunch at school, which is also a pretty big change.  The pre-school was a cooperative type, which meant that my wife stayed to assist with the class one day a week.  It also had pretty much an open-door policy where parents were pretty free to stick around if there was something going on that they wanted to observe.  Not surprisingly, Kindergarten has much more of a closed atmosphere.

We definitely do still intend to be very involved in our son’s school experience wherever we can.  My wife has already made certain that the teacher and the parent’s organization are aware that she is available to volunteer as needed and we expect that there will be many opportunities.  The class has 24 students and there are no teaching assistants, so the teacher did indicate that parents should have opportunities to stick around and assist in the classroom periodically.

While my work schedule limits my availability, I certainly hope to be able to take part whenever I can as well.  I did take the day off of work this week so that I could go along to the parent orientation on Tuesday, which gave me the opportunity to meet his teacher and see the classroom.  I expect to attend parent activities and meetings whenever my schedule allows.  I also definitely plan to continue to spend lots of time working with my son directly to help reinforce and practice the lessons he is learning in school.

I was impressed by the teacher and the classroom during the orientation on Tuesday.  The classroom immediately made a very good first impression due to the teacher’s decision to heavily feature “The Cat in the Hat” as a central theme to the decoration.  That was one of the very first books that we bought for my son and we have read it (and its sequels) together numerous times over the years.  My son’s reading skills have been improving rapidly and, just last weekend, I helped to guide my son through his first time reading “The Cat in the Hat” himself. 

The teacher herself definitely seemed very kind and skilled to me, based on my first impression.  She has quite a bit of teaching experience and seemed to have a good handle on how to work with kids this age.  After the first 2 days, my son’s impression of her is very positive and he still seems excited about going back again tomorrow.

While it is not always easy to watch my child gain independence and move forward, he is also my greatest pride and the most important part of my wife’s and my lives.  I look forward to continuing to share this adventure with my family!

Courtyard Marriott San Diego Mission Valley/Hotel Circle – Hotel Review

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

This past weekend, we did a trip to San Diego to take our son to Sea World for a couple days as an end-of-summer treat before the start of school.  After researching rates and options at hotels in the area, I booked two nights at the Courtyard Marriott hotel located in the Hotel Circle area just a few miles south of Sea World. 

Unfortunately, the experience was disappointing at best and we ended up changing hotels after the first night.  I do want to emphasize that the problems we encountered were somewhat unusual and, to a degree, outside of the hotel’s control.  We didn’t feel that the hotel management and staff handled the situation exceptionally well, though.  I acknowledge that the hotel was generally reasonably nice, but our experience does leave it a very unlikely choice for us for future visits to the area or if anyone asked us for recommendations.

Whenever possible, we prefer to book hotel stays in 2-room suites, since we generally like having the extra space and, more importantly, because our son gets to sleep much easier and more quickly when he is in a separate room from my wife and me.  After a long day at a theme park or doing other touristy things, my wife and I both tend to like to spend a little time reading or using our laptop computers to unwind before we go on to sleep, but our son doesn’t go to sleep easily unless the lights are all off and the environment is mostly distraction free.

I was able to find a rate of $139/night at the Marriott for a 1-bedroom, 2-room suite with a king bed in the bedroom and a pull-out sofa in the living room.  This was an excellent rate for exactly the room type that typically works best for us.  The offer was sweetened a bit more by the promise of a $20 Visa gift card to be given to us at check-in as a sort of rebate.  The deal was only hampered a bit by the $14/day charge for parking, but it still overall worked out to a nice price.  My research found that the hotel was pretty new and appeared to have decent amenities (as would be expected with a Marriott), so I went ahead and booked it.

We were taking advantage of a Sea World admission offer for a second-day free, so we went straight to the park on Friday afternoon, stayed until closing, and then headed over to check into the hotel afterward.  This means that we arrived at the hotel around 10pm.  We were all pretty tired after the drive to San Diego in the morning and 7-8 hours at the theme park.  Of course, it was also pretty far past my son’s usual bedtime.

The Hotel Circle area is aptly named, essentially a split roadway (divided by the freeway) with a continuous series of hotels on each side.  Essentially every major hotel brand is represented here, some with multiple properties (Marriott has a Residence Inn in the area in addition to the Courtyard).  The Courtyard Marriott is a high-rise (10 stories) building pretty far down the street, but still pretty easy to get to and find. 

Parking is all outdoors (no garage) and is not overly secured.  They had access control gates at the entrance and exit, but they were not in use during our stay.  There was only a very limited amount of parking in the front of the hotel and we did have to drive around a bit before we found a time-limited “registration only” space to use while I went inside to check us in.  We also were delayed a little bit because the entrance road and “to registration” signs directed us into a loading/unloading area in front of the lobby that was only one car-width wide, causing a bit of a back up.  More parking was available at the back of the hotel, although I don’t know how full it was as, after checking in, we did manage to grab a spot near the side entrance. We did notice that quite a few cars were parallel parked on the driveway on the side of the hotel, although those spaces were striped.

Check-in was fairly quick and the desk clerk was friendly.  One minor glitch was that they had run out of the $20 Visa gift cards, but they wrote our information down and promised to mail it to us later (it hasn’t yet arrived at the time that I’m writing this).  During check-in, he confirmed that we had a suite and indicated no problems or concerns about the room.  Usually, I will go up and check the room at a hotel before getting our luggage, but it was late and we were tired so instead we immediately gathered all of our stuff after re-parking and headed up to the room.

Immediately after opening the door to the suite, we were immediately greeted by the unmistakable, very strong odor of cigarette smoke. At that point, my first thought was whether I had accidentally booked us a smoking room (unlikely since I’m very sensitive to cigarette odor and tend to be careful about that) and I quickly pulled up the confirmation email on my cell phone to double check.  The email confirmed that, in fact, smoking was prohibited throughout the hotel.  That surprised me a bit as most non-smoking hotels mention it at check-in and even have the guest sign a statement authorizing a cleaning fee if the policy was violated.  Nothing had been mentioned when we checked in, though.

Walking into the living room area, we immediately noticed that a portable air purifier had been placed in the middle of the floor, obviously indicating that the odor had been noticed by the hotel staff earlier in the day.  The odor wasn’t too bad in the bedroom area, but was very intense in the living room area, which is also the location of the pull-out sofa that our son would be sleeping on.  We quickly realized that this wasn’t going to work and I headed back down to the registration desk to discuss the problem.

A different clerk than the one that checked us in was at the front desk and she didn’t seem overly concerned about the problem. She explained that the hotel was “sold out”, but that she would send some one from the maintenance office up to see if he could do anything.  The maintenance man came up and immediately acknowledged that the problem was obvious and that the air purifier device showed that it was known.  He said all he could really do is bring in some air freshener, but that he doubted it would accomplish anything.  He then said he would go down to consult with management to see if there was anything they could do and send someone up.

At this point, another 10 minutes or so passed until we finally got a call from someone (I think the same woman I had spoken too at the front desk) offering to move us to a standard, 2-queen bed room.  She said that they could drop the price down to $109/night (a $30 reduction), but that was really all she could do.  A little research since then has shown that rate was almost certainly the regular price for that room.  I asked for her to please send a manager up to the room and was told that the manager was currently “off duty”.  At this point, I was tired, frustrated, and irritated at the prospect of being stuck with a room that was much less than we had wanted/expected on this vacation and I lost my temper a bit and insisted very strenuously that I be allowed to speak to a manager.

The manager (or at least someone saying he was a manager) did call us back a few minutes later.  He still insisted he could not go below the $109 rate, but he upped the offer to a standard room with a king bed and a sofa bed (instead of two queen beds) and he also offered to comp parking, give us $40 in meal vouchers, and 5,000 Marriott reward points.  This was a reasonably decent offer, essentially knocking another $54 off our out-of-pocket price for the night and we really didn’t have much of an alternative, so we went ahead and took it.

While the savings weren’t bad, the $109 rate for the night still seemed pretty high for a pretty small room that didn’t really seem much nicer than what you typically find at a Holiday Inn or similar class of hotel.  Eliminating the parking fee was nice, although the hotel really shouldn’t be charging one to begin with considering that they have a completely outdoor, non-secured parking lot.  As of this time, the 5,000 bonus points haven’t shown up in our rewards club balance shown online, although the regular points for the stay are there.  It still wasn’t that much of a bonus as a single reward night starts at 7,500 points at their lowest end motels.  Even most of their low-end Fairfield Inn locations are 10,000 points and the Courtyard Marriott where we were staying started at 15,000.

The meal vouchers were probably the best bonus given to us.  We used them for breakfast the next morning and were able to get bacon and eggs for both my wife and me as well as a pastry for our son and bottled juices or water for each of us.  We were a bit surprised that the hotel restaurant was counter service instead of full table service, though, with only a small number of tables that were shared with the business center.  Initially, I thought the restaurant was just a coffee bar and even went up to the registration desk to ask for directions to the restaurant.  The prices were pretty inflated, although probably typical for a hotel.  For the $40 (including a $5 tip), we got a meal that was similar in quality and content to what you would pay around $20 for at a Denny’s or somewhere similar. 

I was still a bit irritated that the manager didn’t seem overly apologetic and kept insisting that they had “done their best” to solve the problem before we arrived.  Other than the one air purifier device, we really didn’t see much evidence that they had done much.  For starters, when we arrived, the room was closed up tight and the air conditioner was turned off, which would have kept the air from circulating much.  While we don’t really know exactly how much cleaning was done, there was none of the cleanser odor that might have suggested any kind of deep cleaning such as shampooing the carpet or furniture.  Admittedly, they wouldn’t have known that we wouldn’t be there until 10pm and were probably trying to have the room ready by the 3pm check-in time, but it still seemed like they could have done a lot more than they did.

I do realize that the problem was ultimately primarily the fault of the guests that stayed in the room the night before.  Looking at the hotel’s website, I see that they only have 8 suites and I do believe that the other 7 were almost certainly already occupied by that time on a Friday night.  I do wonder a bit if they might have been able to find us a more suitable room at the nearby Residence Inn, though, or possibly even at one of the numerous non-Marriott hotels in the area.  While we were waiting for the manager’s call-back, I even took out my laptop computer and started doing some quick research into availability at other area hotels, although we ended up having to make a decision before I had time to get very far with that.

Of course, this problem didn’t ruin our trip and we did at least have a reasonably clean, safe, and comfortable place to stay.  Walking into the tiny standard room after seeing the much nicer two-room suite did dampen our spirits and we all did end up getting to sleep later than we had hoped (it was around midnight by the time we settled in) without really having any time to decompress.  As is typical in standard rooms, getting our son to sleep was not very easy, adding to the frustration and fatigue.

Once we were settled in the new room, I did get out my laptop again and started a search for a better option for Saturday night.  I ended up finding us a 2-room suite at the Embassy Suites in La Jolla (about 10 miles north of Sea World) for $143.10.  After confirming with the front desk staff at the Marriott that there would be no fees charged for us checking out after just one night (no argument at all there), I booked that.  We ended up very happy with that hotel, where the room was just about perfect for our needs and the amenities, including a very good included breakfast buffet, were all really great.  We will definitely keep that hotel in mind for future San Diego trips and I really wish we had found it during our initial research.