Memories of My Son’s Birthdays – Part 3 (Age 5)

Click here for Ages 1-3
Click here for Age 4

Age 5

5th Birthday Family Picture 

By Andy’s 5th birthday, he had completed his first full year of pre-school, as well as a couple years in a weekly Gymboree program.  Between the two, he had made a lot of friends and had also had the opportunity to attend quite a few of his friends’ birthday parties.  This led us to think that it was a good idea to celebrate his 5th birthday (something of a milestone) with his first real birthday party with other kids.

We live in a townhouse that doesn’t have a yard or an overall design that would really be suited to having a large group of kids over.  While there is a party room available for rent in our condominium complex, it isn’t really overly kid-friendly either.  We realized that we really needed to find a kid-appropriate venue for the party.

Our first thought (and Andy’s first suggestion) was Farrell’s, having spent his birthday there the two previous years.  We looked into it and found that the price wasn’t too out of line, but we had major reservations about whether or not it would really work all that well for a big group of pre-school aged kids.  Other than the little merry-go-round, Mountasia really doesn’t offer much for kids that age and we were picturing a party that was little more than the kids all sitting around a big table eating ice cream and pizza. 

Farrell's at Age 5 Farrell's at Age 5

Andy was still kind of pushing for having the party there, but we were able to placate him by promising a family visit there not too long after his birthday.  We ended up going up there the weekend after his birthday for dinner and ice cream, inviting a few of our adult friends to meet up with us there as well.  Of course, Andy again got in a bunch of rides on the little merry-go-round.

Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree

Having recently been to another kid’s birthday party that was held at a local play gym, we realized that it would be vastly preferable to go somewhere that the kids could run around and play.  As I mentioned, we had been taking Andy to classes at a local Gymboree Play & Music location since he was really young. 

Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree

We checked into it and found that their prices for birthday parties were within our budget and that they had availability on Andy’s actual birthday (which was on a Sunday that year).  During his weekly class, we mentioned that we were considering having his birthday party there to his teacher, who is an outstanding teacher that Andy, and we, adored.  The teacher responded by offering to host and run the party if we booked it, which pretty much instantly sealed the deal for us.

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Memories of My Son’s Birthdays – Part 2 (Age 4)

Click here for Part 1 (Ages 1-3)

Continuing my look back at my son’s previous birthdays in celebration of him turning 6 this week, here are my memories of his 4th birthday.  As he has gotten older, I have found that I had a tendency to take more photos, so the remaining posts will cover just one year at a time.

Age 4 (2007)

Andy's 4th Birthday Andy's 4th Birthday

Opening presents at Farrell's Opening presents at Farrell's

Andy’s 3rd birthday was the first that he still remembered pretty well a year later.  Because of that, he decided that he wanted to do pretty much the same thing as the year before, returning once again to Farrell’s.  This time, we decided to forgo the formal birthday package and instead just let everyone order whatever they wanted off of the menu.

Bite your nose! Shark attack! 

Opening presents at Farrell's Opening presents at Farrell's 

As with the previous year’s visit, we included some play time in the game area at Mountasia.  Once again, Andy used the majority of the game/ride credits that we got for him to ride on the little merry-go-round.  During this visit, he did also give skee-ball a try for the first time, although I really was doing most of the work.

Farrell's Merry-go-round Skee-Ball with Daddy

A couple months before his 4th birthday, Andy started his first year of pre-school.  For birthday kids, the teacher had a short celebration where the child was given a birthday crown and allowed to put candles onto a felt birthday cake. 

Andy's 4th Birthday at Pre-school Andy's 4th Birthday at Pre-school

Finally, we did also do the now-traditional cake and gift-opening at home on his actual birthday.  Once again, the cake was an ice cream cake.

4th Birthday Cake 4th Birthday Cake

Eating Cake Eating Cake

He had received most of his major gifts during the party at Farrell’s, but we gave him a toy fire truck that I had found at a really good sale price between the two parties and he also had gifts from his grandparents to open.

 Toy fire truck Toy fire truck

Opening presents at home Opening presents at home

 

To Be Continued with Memories of Age 5.

Memories of My Son’s Birthdays – Part 1 (Ages 1-3)

Today is my son’s 6th birthday!  As a celebration of that big event, I thought I’d share some memories of his past birthday celebrations in posts over the next few days.

Age 1 (2004)

Disneyland Plaza Inn Birthday PartyAndy's First Birthday Party at Plaza Inn

To celebrate his first birthday, we attended the Disneyland Birthday Celebration that they offer a couple times a day at the Plaza Inn restaurant on Main Street.  At this event, everyone gets an undecorated cupcake along with small cups containing frosting and sprinkles to use to decorate them.  A character named Pat E. Cake hosts the event and Mickey and Minnie Mouse also pay a visit.  Quite a few of our friends were able to join us at the park for the party as well.

Family with Mickey and Minnie at Disneyland Plaza Inn Birthday Party Andy's First Birthday Party at Plaza Inn

The first birthday also started our now usual tradition of going out somewhere for a bigger party, but also having a little family-only party at home with cake and the opening of his presents from us and various relatives.

Andy's First Birthday Party Andy's First Birthday Party 

Andy's First Birthday Party Andy's First Birthday Party

This was also the one time that we attempted to make his birthday cake instead of buying one from the store, but we found that we generally lacked much cake decorating talent.

Andy's First Birthday CakeAndy's First Birthday Cake 

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First Week of Kindergarten

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!

Fourth of July Memories

I’ve always really liked the 4th of July, a holiday that has always seemed particularly celebratory while still being generally more casual and lower pressure than most.  I’ve always had a bit of a patriotic streak and enjoy the day of paying tribute to the United States.  I also have a definite fondness for the marches and other patriotic tunes that dominate the holiday.

For the past several years, my family has been going to Disneyland on the 4th of July to see their special fireworks show.  We have learned how best to manage the crowds on that very busy day, making it a pretty easy experience.  We also get a hotel room close-by in order to avoid having to deal with the night-time traffic.

When I was growing up, more often than not we spent 4th of July at home instead of trying to go out to see a professional fireworks show or some other public event.  Generally, we were pretty satisfied simply enjoying the day at home as a family.  This would usually include watching the Boston Pops’ 4th of July concert on TV or other similar patriotic shows.  We would often have a BBQ dinner at home.  There were a few years that we did go out to municipal fireworks displays, though, so I did at least have that experience a few times as a kid. 

The most memorable trip out to see a 4th of July fireworks show was in 1977.  That summer, my father had just taken a new job that required our family to move from Florida to Flint, Michigan.  For the first couple months, we had to find an alternative place to live while we were waiting for the house my family had purchased to be vacant and ready for us.  We had a Starcraft pop-up style camper that we used on vacations, so we spent that time staying at the Holly Hills Campground (based on an online search, I think it is a KOA now) in nearby Holly, which was just a short distance outside of Flint.

On that 4th, we decided to drive into Flint for their big municipal fireworks show downtown, but it ended up being Mother Nature that put on the more memorable performance that night.  There was a huge rainstorm and I honestly can’t remember for certain whether or not the fireworks display actually took place, although I think it did.  The most memorable part was returning that evening to learn that a tornado had touched down in the campground while we were gone!  We were lucky that the actual touchdown (and most of the damage) was on the opposite end from where our campsite was located, which meant that our camper was ok.  It was definitely a bit of a fright and still is the closest call with a tornado that I ever experienced.

I don’t remember completely for certain, but I don’t think we ever went out to public events on the 4th of July in any of the other years that we lived in Flint, instead opting for celebration at home.  In the late 70s and early 80s, Michigan had pretty loose restrictions on the sale of fireworks for home use, which meant that every supermarket had big display tables with a big selection of firecrackers, sparklers, roman candles, bottle rockets, and other similar items.  My parents were appropriately nervous about these types of things, though, and would only allow us to get some sparklers, which we would only use with close supervision.

Many of the neighbors did buy and use the other kinds of home fireworks, which meant that there was always a sort of second-hand display that we were able to watch a bit on the evening of the 4th.  On the 5th, the neighborhood streets would be very littered with the spent casings from many of the fireworks and firecrackers that had been set off the night before. 

My best friend and I had a tradition, which we obviously never told our parents about (this post may end up as a confession…), walking through the neighborhood on the 5th examining the litter from the night before searching for accidentally discarded fireworks and firecrackers that had not yet been fired.  Each year, we found and gathered up quite a bit of stuff that was still live.  I remember one year we even found an unexploded cherry bomb, which was a particularly exciting find for a couple pre-teen boys.  I don’t remember exactly what we did, but I remember that it was never much of a problem finding a spot outside of eye and earshot of parents in order to light off everything we found.

Regardless of whether I just stayed at home with family or went out to do something special for the holiday, my memories of the 4th of July are pretty much all positive.  Here’s hoping for another great 4th of July holiday tomorrow.  Happy Birthday, USA!

Holiday Memory: The Disneyland Candlelight Stampede of 1998

As a very regular visitor to Disneyland over the last 12 years or so, I have seen a lot of major events at the park and have been there for a few customer-relations stumbles as well.  In one case in particular, namely the poorly run ticket-distribution for the 1998 Candlelight Processional show, one of Disneyland’s less shining moments ended up being one of my personally most important and memorable experiences at the park.

The Candlelight Processional is a long running holiday tradition at Disneyland.  It is a concert program that they typically run around the first week of December, which is a musical celebration of the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday, featuring a professional orchestra and a large massed choir formed from numerous church and school choirs as well as some Disney employees.  The show also features a celebrity narrator, who tells the Biblical Christmas story in between the songs.  This show has been a favorite Christmas season tradition for me for as long as I have lived out here in Southern California.  It is something I really look forward to every year.

Traditionally, this concert is performed on a stage set up in the Town Square area of Main Street, with the Railroad Station used as the backdrop.  In most years, there are just 4 evening performances of the show, two each on Saturday and Sunday.  The majority of the Town Square area is blocked off for the stage as well as for a large seating area.  Tickets for viewing the show in the seating area are mainly distributed to Disney’s corporate partners and other VIPs while regular park guests start staking out seats early to the sides and further back in order to get even an obstructed view of the show.

This can result in a lot of logistics problems and major bottlenecks in that part of the park on those days.  Because of this, Disney a fairly short-lived (5 years) experiment starting in 1998 of moving the show to the Fantasyland Theater, an outdoor performance venue located across from "It’s a Small World".  Walt Disney World had moved their version of the show from Town Square in the Magic Kingdom to a similar theater in Epcot a few years earlier and had eventually managed to expand it multiple shows a night throughout the holiday season, with reserved seating tickets being sold through popular dining packages.  There was a lot of speculation that this experiment with a change of venue at Disneyland was also hoped to eventually lead to a similar expansion of the program, although that never materialized and the show was finally moved back to Main Street starting in 2003.

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Thanksgiving at Disneyland

We have had an exceptionally busy month of visiting relatives and our son’s birthday celebration and, to top it off, we have a trip to Florida coming up next week.  With all that going on, we decided that we just didn’t feel like going through all the work of preparing a big Thanksgiving dinner at home this year.  Knowing from past experience that, on Thanksgiving, Disneyland isn’t overly busy and they offer special menus of traditional turkey dinners at most of their restaurants, we decided that a day at the park was an ideal way for us to spend the holiday.

We left for the park around 11am and I was pretty surprised at how heavy the traffic on the south 5 freeway was.  In the past, I’ve usually found that traffic is pretty light on Thanksgiving, but the drive this time turned out to be pretty slow-going.  We didn’t see indications of any accidents or other problems, so I suspect that our timing was such that there were just a lot of people heading down to Orange County or San Diego for holiday gatherings.  The drive wasn’t particularly unpleasant, though, and we enjoyed listening to the Christmas music station on XM satellite radio during the drive.  Thanksgiving is the first day that I’m generally willing to start listening to Christmas music, even though it seems like some stations start playing it earlier every year.

We occasionally switched over to the traffic reports on XM, but didn’t get any information from that either.  We found it weird when they were reporting one major incident on “southbound I-10”, considering that the 10 is an east-west freeway.  Eventually, we figured out that the traffic reporter was misreading the first digit of “110” as an “I”.  We often find the traffic reports on there a bit amusing since the reporters are clearly not in Southern California and often seriously butcher pronunciations.  It is particularly fun listening to some of them trying to pronounce “Cahuenga” or “Sepulveda”.

By the time we actually got into the park, it was close to 1pm.  During a previous Thanksgiving visit, we had eaten at Carnation Restaurant on Main Street and had found that to be an especially good choice.  It is a table-service restaurant, which is preferable to cafeteria style for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Americana setting of Main Street just seems exceptionally suited to the holiday.  We were briefly concerned that the weather was a bit drizzly and overcast and the restaurant has all outdoor seating, but the weather was already clearing by the time we got there and we noted that they had large umbrella coverings over all the tables, so we decided to go ahead with it.  Even though we didn’t have reservations, we were seated with only about a 15 minute or so wait.

When they brought the menus and explained to us about the special Thanksgiving dinner, we immediately ran into a very large irritation, although it was one that wasn’t entirely unexpected based on a previous experience.  Despite the fact that it was Thanksgiving and the fact that Disneyland is obviously well-known for attracting families with small children, they were not offering a children’s portion of the turkey dinner.  Basically, children had to either order the adult portion (at the full price) or settle for a choice of chicken strips, macaroni & cheese, or PB&J.  Our 5-year-old most certainly was not going to willingly accept anything other than a turkey dinner, which is one of his favorite meals even when it isn’t Thanksgiving.

When this came up 2-years ago (and our son was only 3), we ended up escalating the issue to a manager and eventually the chef actually came out and offered to prepare a half-portion for our son.  He also instructed the servers to make that option available to any other families and we saw several other families order the same while we were at the restaurant.  I had hoped that after that experience they would start simply placing it on the menu, but I guess that didn’t happen.

Our son’s appetite has grown quite a bit and, quite honestly, we just weren’t in the mood to go through the big hassle of escalating the issue again this year.  Therefore, we just went ahead and ordered 3 adult meals.  We figured my wife and I can also augment our own meals a bit, if it proved to be too much food.  The portions were really quite large, though, and he did end up leaving some of the turkey (and most of the stuffing) on the plate, even after we did both take some of his food as our own second helpings.  We did see other children in the restaurant also struggling through the large portions and I suspect they ended up with a bunch of waste.  In retrospect, I do kind of wish that we had made more of an issue out of it again.

The food was generally pretty good, although we did agree on one complaint.  The gravy used on the potatoes and turkey was quite a bit more salty than it should have been.  It certainly didn’t help that it didn’t occur to me to test it before adding a little additional salt.  It still wasn’t bad enough to warrant sending the food back, but I did find myself scraping off much of the gravy.  Other than that, the turkey was served hot and wasn’t overly dry and the potatoes and stuffing were good as well.  The meal also came with some cooked vegetables which aren’t to my taste (I really don’t like any cooked veggies other than corn) and some fresh cranberry sauce and a dinner roll.  With the obvious caveats above, it was a pretty decent Thanksgiving meal for about $15/person and the location certainly was top-notch for it.

While pumpkin pie was available as a special Thanksgiving-only dessert option, none of us really care for that and decided to opt out from it.  Instead, we got ice cream sundaes from the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor as our dessert and enjoyed them while listening to the piano player at Refreshment Corner.  One of Disneyland’s long-standing traditions for the holiday season is to offer special seasonal food choices at some locations and one of my absolute favorite is peppermint stick ice cream.  That was a key motivation for me wanting to get ice cream for dessert and it was as good as ever.

During the remainder of the afternoon, we took the opportunity to enjoy some of the park’s special offerings for the holidays.  This included two rides (one during the day and one after dark) on It’s a Small World, which they have been extensively decorating for the holidays for a number of years now.  That is something we look forward to every year and we were particularly excited to see this time, since the attraction had been down for a major refurbishment since the beginning of the year.  We only noticed a few minor changes (most notable being all new boats), but everything looked to be in excellent condition.  This is a very popular attraction during the holidays, but the lines were very short (10 minutes or so) each time.  Thanksgiving just isn’t a very busy day at the park.

Other than the two rides on Small World and one ride on King Arthur’s Carrousel, we didn’t actually do any other rides that day.  Instead, we spent some time looking at the various decorations as well as paying a visit to the "Reindeer Roundup" area on Big Thunder Trail to see the pardoned national turkeys (who usually end up at Disneyland after the ceremony with the president) and pay a visit to Santa Goofy.  We also enjoyed a walk through the newly re-opened and updated Sleeping Beauty dioramas in the castle.  This had been closed for about 7 years and it was nice to see it return.  After dark, while my wife went off to do some shopping, my son and I enjoyed sitting for a while at the hub waiting for and watching the lighting ceremony where they turn on the elaborate Christmas lights on the castle.

We left the park for home around 7:30pm or so and found traffic to be fairly light for the drive home.  We made a couple attempts to see if we could find any fast food restaurants opened for a small and quick dinner, but found that everything we checked was closed.  I guess there just isn’t much demand for McDonalds or Burger King on Thanksgiving. While we were getting a bit hungry by the time we made it home (and fixed some hot dogs), I did think it was nice that those places let their employees spend the holiday evening wieh their families.

This was a nice Thanksgiving and, despite some complaints about the meal, I felt we made a good choice as to how to spend the day.