Giving Kids the Gift of Travel

Over the years, we have been working to give the kids in our lives more experiences and fewer things as gifts. This year, we gave our niece a trip to Universal Studios for Christmas. I hoped she’d have fun, make memories and maybe learn valuable life lessons.

I planned out what I thought would be a perfect weekend that started with picking Alexandra up from school early on Friday afternoon. We flew out of Oakland International on Southwest Airlines into the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, two of the easiest airports to navigate, at any age.

Photo from the airplane.

Our niece taking a shot on our flight to Burbank.

Given that my eldest step-daughter lives in Los Angeles and has fabulous taste, she gave me great recommendations for our weekend itinerary which began with dinner at Casa Vega, an institution in Sherman Oaks. It’s a funky, Mexican restaurant with Christmas lights decorating the bar area, old red leather booths, young hipsters slumming with older regulars and waiters in formal attire. It is also known as a great spot for star sightings. What a hit. The moment we walked in, our niece said, “I love it.”

The bar at Casa Vega Restaurant

Cool Casa Vega Restaurant

Throughout dinner, I was hoping to spot a famous face. No luck. After dinner, my niece and I take a walk to the bathroom in hopes of snagging a peek at someone famous tucked in the back somewhere. No luck. We headed for the parking lot and as I reached to open the door, it opened up and MATT DAMON and his wife walked in! Huge sighting.

Matt Damon

Yes, this guy!!

We stayed at the Beverly Garland Hotel in a Kid Suite in Studio City. I was very disappointed in the room. Turns out that the photography on the website is so good, the rooms looked much brighter, newer, and fresher than they really are. I was told that they are going through a remodel and the rooms should look terrific in real life soon. The staff was really wonderful and helpful and our niece loved having her own little “room” with a bunk bed and TV. Their restaurant was clean, modern with friendly service and terrific food.

After Saturday breakfast, we hopped on the hotel’s free shuttle for the brief ride to Universal Studios for the day, and we had a blast. The first stop was the Studio Tour, which being a maniacal movie fan, was right up my alley. A spunky guide gave an informative, occasionally funny, well-scripted tour through the studio lot, which included an incredibly realistic King Kong “ride” in 3D. It was interesting to see the fake city streets, and learn how the flat buildings are painted using trompe l’oeil, to give viewers the perception of depth.  I would’ve loved lots more history and lore, but I’m a raging Hollywood history and trivia geek.

Trompe l'oiel painted buildings on the Universal Studio set.

Trompe l’oeil used to trick viewers into believing the flat buildings are real.

The Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride wasn’t open and the Water World ride was closed during our visit, but we did The Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy (which had cool live characters wandering the streets), Shrek, Transformers, Jurassic Park and the Special Effects Stage (not as cool as it should be). The rides were fun for a chicken like me because they rely mostly on 3-D to give the sensation of moving instead of actually hurtling through space. For real thrill-seekers like my hubby and our niece, the rides were fun, but a bit tame.

Egyptian Queen at Universal Studios

All the rides had incredible live characters circulating around. This Egyptian Queen, here with our niece, on stilts was magical.

As you’d expect, there are countless opportunities to buy Universal Studios-themed land-fill crap. We got away with purchasing just one Minion – a little one who didn’t make this picture – and we just posed with the other stuff.

Minion-mania at Universal Studios.

Minion-mania at Universal Studios

Universal Studios

So long, Universal Studios (Notice the little Minion we did take home?)

Dinner that night was at Pace Restaurant, another fantastic recommendation by my step-daughter. One step in this lovely, unexpected spot and I was brought back to the days when Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash were living together in this artsy, rustic Lauren Canyon community and songs like “Our House,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Let It Be,”(oh my gosh, I was in LOVE with Paul in 5th grade – those eyes!) “Both Sides Now,” and “A Case of You” were on the radio.

The uber-romantic Pace Restaurant in Laurel Canyon, California

Pace Restaurant in Laurel Canyon

It’s beyond romantic, and my nostalgia for the old hippy days of my childhood made everything all the sweeter. The food was perfect – Alexandra loved the butternut squash ravioli, I had the cedar wood grilled salmon and Patrick had his favorite, linguini alle vongole and we shared the chocolate lava cake for dessert. The one drawback was that it was so loud in this little room, conversation was nearly impossible.

I had big plans for Sunday, staring with an early breakfast at the historic Los Angeles Farmers’ Market, then a Movie Star Home bus tour.

Los Angeles Farmers Market, Third and Fairfax in Los Angeles, California

The Original Los Angeles Farmers Market was established in 1934

Unfortunately, the gridlock traffic from the Los Angeles Marathon put an end to my plans. We sat in traffic for two hours before we finally gave up and drove back to the Valley. We were lucky and found a surprisingly good spot for brunch at Vivian’s Millennium Cafe on Ventura Boulevard.

The funny thing about hanging out with kids is that often you are the one learning the lessons. While I was sputtering and fuming about my dashed plans and about the personal injustice I was forced to endure at the hands of LA traffic, Alexandra simply lived in the present and made the best of the day. I think she had as much fun at Vivian’s and then strolling through Urban Outfitters in Burbank as she would’ve had with the day I had planned.

One thing I know is that she’ll remember our adventure together, and I’ll remember the wisdom of  living in the moment and rolling with life’s punches.

Do you travel with the kids in your life? What are your favorite spots? Tips? Tragedies? Tell me your stories.

A few links to enjoy:

I must visit Greece before I die.

I cannot wait to see Boyhood. It took 12 years to make.

Hunt this movie down and see it: The Lunchbox.

How to look better in photos.

This book on kindness looks like a great graduation gift.


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