Appalachian Trail - Carvers Gap to Highway 19E

Around Thanksgiving of last year, my Dad came up with the idea to get the family together for a reunion. This happens very rarely (never), but sounded tolerable none-the-less. He's good friends with the innkeepers of The Inn Around the Corner, a quaint B&B in Black Mountain, NC, who graciously agreed to host our entire clan for the weekend.

Our kids were on Spring Break from school and so it was that we found ourselves in western North Carolina, just a short drive from the fabled Appalachian Trail. The plan was to hike a 2-day, 1-night section along the North Carolina and Tennessee border from Carvers Gap to US Highway 19E. I had done some preliminary research and discovered that the Mountain Harbour B&B in Roan Mountain, TN offered a shuttle service and hostel for AT hikers. We could park our car, hitch a ride to the gap, and hike back to the car so we didn't have to retrace our steps. This section of trail was especially noted for its picturesque balds and mostly downhill elevation profile. A desired quality considering we planned to drag our kids along.

For early April, the weather outlook was good. After a fantastic breakfast, we said our goodbyes and headed out under blue skies and a warming sun. My Dad agreed to see us off, so we caravanned to Tennessee. The blue skies quickly changed to gray, which quickly changed again to snowy white as we gained elevation. By the time we reached Roan Mountain, TN, it was positively scary -- the snow wasn't falling down, it was blowing horizontally. Even though we had prepared for inclement weather, it was apparent that it would be negligent to willfully take our kids up the mountain with a mandatory 15-mile hike to the nearest town. We decided to stop at Mountain Harbour for some local knowledge. Turns out they had been busy performing rescues for AT hikers all morning. They had brought several groups out and recently noted that the road up to Carvers Gap had iced over. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize we'd be crazy to attempt it -- especially with young kids. In the end, wisdom prevailed and we decided to try again the next day. The local forecast was calling for an abrupt end to the blizzard and pleasant temps for the remainder of the week.

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Dad continued on to Indiana and we decided to explore the local area. We made a brief visit to nearby Linville Carverns and were led through the caves by a most uninspiring tour guide whose only comprehensible sentence was, "Does anyone have any questions?" Soon after, the weather broke and gifted us with a winter wonderland -- the rare kind that can only be seen in those fleeting moments before nature reverses course and erodes the very scene it so painstakingly created. We still had a few hours before sunset, so we drove up to Carvers Gap to scout. We were blown-away by two things: 1.) The incredible beauty of wind-driven snow plastered to every surface, and 2.) The wind. We were literally blown-away. We could not stand up straight. Backpacking in these conditions would be miserable, not to mention dangerous. We went to bed hoping tomorrow would be better.

We awoke to gray skies and little wind. After a hearty breakfast we packed our gear and were shuttled to Carvers Gap to try again. The sun peeked out on the drive and we arrived to discover that much of the snow had melted overnight. What a difference! We unloaded and were soon left to fend for ourselves.

The first part of the trail winds through a natural Fraser Fir forest. John Fraser discovered and named the species in this exact area in the late 1700's. After a too-short trek through the fir forest, we were exposed to our first of four grassy balds. How and why a summit develops into a grassy bald is curiously unknown.

We passed through another historically interesting area near the well-maintained Overmountain Shelter. The area was used by the Overmountain Men in the American Revolutionary War where they crossed the mountain at Yellow Mountain Gap.

We camped for the night in a grassy area on the leeward side of Little Hump Mountain. What a view -- both at sunset and sunrise! The wind whipped up again during the night so our plan for pancakes was postponed. Starting the stove would have required a bit more fortitude and I was anxious to get moving. We needed to make it back to Indiana as I had to work the next morning.

(Big) Hump Mountain was the last rigorous climb on the route. It was all downhill from the summit. Six miles of downhill. Our quads took a beating, but we grinded it out and arrived at US Highway 19E at about 3:30pm. I slack-packed another .3 miles west to Mountain Harbour to get the car. Mel and I witnessed true deliriousness on the drive home. For 45 minutes, the kids literally could not stop giggling at the most dull things. For example, "Did you see that car? It was red." This mundane observation was followed by 5 minutes of uncontrollable laughter, and then the process repeated itself. Then, as if a switch was flipped, they completely zonked out. Greta was still holding a drink in one hand and a half-used napkin in the other. Dirk was her mirror opposite. Hopefully, they aren't permanently scarred by the experience.

Several general AT trail observations in no particular order:

  1. The footpath is often several inches, and in some cases a full foot, lower than the surrounding flora. I can only assume that it has been worn down by decades of use.
  2. We enjoyed meeting all of the thru-hikers we came across. (A thru-hiker is attempting the entire length of the trail in a single year. It's roughly 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine.) We encountered several, and the kids enjoyed learning their trail names. Of course, we had to adopt our own trail names. Dirk quickly became "Topple" -- he face-planted into the mud more than once. Greta is "Cruise", Mel is "Slide", and I'm "Kodak".
  3. Waterproof shoes are an absolute must-have. Even though it wasn't raining, we did encounter more than enough mud to make a passel of pigs forget they were hungry. Everyone had good shoes except for Dirk (age 7). We didn't see the point in spending a bunch of money on something so temporary. We improvised and used plastic baggies from Subway over his socks. This worked pretty well.
  4. Water sources were plentiful, but often not on the beaten path. Plan to walk a few extra miles on side trails to retrieve water. I'm not sure if this is true of the entire AT, or just this section.
  5. Kids need to use the bathroom. A lot. Not surprisingly, there aren't any facilities. We should have practiced this more ahead of time.

Mel's 40th Birthday - Sedona, Arizona

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not big on birthdays. Unfortunately, Mel is also keenly aware of this fact and has lowered her expectations over the years to feeling lucky if I remember, and downright giddy if she receives a birthday card or some other bauble. It's against this backdrop that I decided to plan something big for her 40th -- time to use those years of lethargy to my advantage!

What to do? Mel's good friend, Sarah, raised the bar pretty high by inviting us along on her 40th birthday trip to the Alaskan backcountry. We enjoyed this greatly and hoped Sarah and her husband Chad could be part of any birthday plan for Melanie. So, a trip, but where to? Mel indicated in veiled conversations that she'd be interested in going somewhere warm -- this winter has been particularly biting. Another requirement was not sleeping on the ground.

We're a pretty active group. Lounging at a beach is good for an afternoon, but we could hike for days and be even more content. Especially hiking to places off the beaten path with vantages not likely to be gained without moderate effort. I do some work for Arizona Highways magazine, so I have no shortage of inspiration. Sedona and Tucson both sounded promising. The L'Auberge de Sedona looked really nice and was in the heart of uptown Sedona. Sold!

Next, instead of a boring birthday card, I wanted to up the ante and create a photo book with memories and photos from 40 of her closest friends. This was much harder than I thought it would be! I received all sorts of things: Photos, hand-written notes, flyers, illustrations, and even a complete page layout. I took stock of everything, semi-organized it sequentially, and transformed it into spiral-bound booklet she was sure to love.

Finally, I planned an impromptu surprise party to spring all of this on her. I'd take her to dinner while the kids covertly decorated the house.

On the day of Mel's birthday, I unremarkably intoned that I'd pick her up at 6 o'clock and left for work. So far so good. As the day wore on, the weather went from bad to worse; freezing rain, sleet and snow all conspired against me. A 20-minute drive to dinner turned into an hour. Party guests outside of a 5-mile radius couldn't be expected to brave the conditions. The good news? We had the restaurant to ourselves. We ordered and I presented the photo book. Bad idea. The waitress spent the next half-hour trying to decide if it was safe to visit our table because she couldn't be sure if Mel was crying from anger, or joy. The food was really good, but we took most of it home. The grand party I had planned turned into an intimate gathering with close friends and more pints of Graeter's ice-cream than we could consume.

Two weeks later we found ourselves on a plane bound for Phoenix where we rented a car for our drive to Sedona. The weather would again factor into our plans; instead of sunny and warm, the forecast called for buckets of rain. Let's look at the bright-side -- not everyone gets to see rain the desert! Over the next 24-hours, central Arizona would set the single-day record for rainfall. Good thing we bought all that rain gear we didn't use in Alaska. We didn't need to be in Sedona until later that evening, so we meandered down Highway 87 through the Tonto National Forest with a couple of strategic detours along the way.

The first stop was the Pine Creek Loop & Ballatine Trail. We walked a 3-mile loop through a native saguaro habitat. The size of these desert sentinels is impressive; we saw several over 40-feet tall. Our next stop was at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. This park may be small, but it makes up for it with some truly grand scenery. We were able to successfully navigate the canyon floor before scrambling up the slippery red rocks, just as the park was closing. We encountered another family as we were climbing out. They had at least one young child and a stroller which they had managed to get down the trail much further than I would have thought possible. We collectively arrived at the trailhead at roughly the same time only to discover that the gate had been closed and secured with a chain and padlock. The surrounding fence wasn't razor-wire, but it was a problem for a child in a stroller. I hopped the fence in search of a park ranger. I was almost to the ranger station when I began to hear hearty laughter echoing across the valley. The moral? One cannot always assume a closed padlock is actually locked.

I'd like to say the remaining drive to Sedona was uneventful. By this point, we were in the Mogollon Rim area which varies in elevation from 5,000-8,000-ft. The roads at this elevation are especially susceptible to freezing whenever there is precipitation. We encountered two overturned cars within 10-miles of one another, and we were the first car on the scene for the second crash. Miraculously for the driver, we'll call him "JC", the car flipped into perfect position on the uphill side of the mountain. The other side of the road featured a perilous drop-off. JC walked away without a scratch. We waited with him until the emergency responders arrived.

We arrived in Sedona, at last, and checked into the resort. Someone then decided that what we needed was to get wet. The pool and hot-tub was a short walk from our cottage. By now, those buckets of rain the forecasters predicted had turned into barrels. We donned our robes, put on our rain slickers, and headed to the pool.

By the morning, the rain had turned into a cold mist, which was a marked improvement. Chad was adamant that we attend a morning yoga session; when in Sedona, do as the Sedonans do. This was a new and strange experience for me. Can't say I'm eager to try it again, but I did enjoy the instructor's flute solo at the end. I had researched a few different day-hikes in the area and decided that Bear Mountain would be a good candidate. It was 6-miles round-trip -- 3 miles up and 3 miles down without any swollen creeks to wash us away. (Many of the photos are from this trail.) By the evening, the sun had peeked out. Hoping to see a grand sunset, we grabbed our headlamps and climbed nearby Doe Mountain. It wasn't to be, but we did get to use our headlamps for the hike down. Afterwards, we were in the mood for some southwest cuisine. A local recommended Oaxaca for dinner and we were not disappointed.

I had one more trick up my sleeve, and this surprise was for the whole group. I had booked us on an early morning hot-air balloon ride. The balloon company had been grounded for the previous three days, but I was hopeful the inclement weather would soon pass. In the morning, I slumbered onto the deck to check our fate and was greeted by the twinkle of early-morning stars and calm winds. Yes! We were picked up in the lobby by Red Rock Balloon Adventures and driven to the launch site. If you ever get the chance, a balloon ride in the desert southwest is a real treat.

After the balloon ride, we had time for one more trek. Many of the trails in the area were closed or impassable due to high water, so we stopped in at The Hike House to consult with the locals. A new trail system not yet on many maps was nearby and highly recommended. The Hangover Trail is a combination mountain bike (rated double black diamond) and foot trail. Typically, I don't like bike trails for hiking, but this one was an exception. In fact, if we hadn't seen it first-hand, I wouldn't have believed sections of this trail were even possible to bike on. We encountered a few different ecosystems all on the same loop. Munds Wagon trail follows the pine forest floor via a creek bed while the north side of Hangover is predominately in the shade with clumps of manzanita. The saddle area on Mitten Ridge is exposed red rock and breathtaking -- we could have stayed there all afternoon.

By nightfall, we were thoroughly exhausted and hungry. We grabbed a wood-fired pizza at the Sedona Pizza Company, where Mel orated a heart-felt toast. I have a hunch that this was the first of many informal valedictions yet to come. After dinner, we headed back to L'Auberge to get what little sleep we could before our early morning departure in Phoenix. As far as birthdays go, I'm off the hook for another 40 years!

Alaska Trip - Part 2 (Exposure Alaska Extreme Week)

Over the last 6 months when we told our friends and family that we were going to Alaska they often responded, "That sounds great! Are you taking a cruise?" Turns out we're a bit crazier than that. Our friend Sarah is having a big birthday this year. To celebrate, she convinced her husband and then us to come along on her "dream" vacation to the Alaskan backcountry with only what we could carry in a backpack. We weren't ready to brave it alone, so we signed up for a guided expedition with Exposure Alaska. This paragraph from their website sealed the deal -- at least for me. ;-)

"If you're not up for experiencing the real Alaska and possible difficulties and discomfort that comes along with it, please take the cruise with the thousands of others that visit Alaska that way. We'll all be much happier."

In all seriousness, if you're reading this review and thinking about going on this trip, I can confirm that this is not a "van tour". Be prepared to put your body through some vigorous outdoor activity. Train as much as you can. The reward? You'll see one of the last rugged and unspoiled lands on our planet. Raw beauty and solitude is omnipresent.

We chose the "Extreme Week" expedition. This is a trip in three parts: Kayaking, glacier climbing, and backpacking. Glacier climbing is the most relaxing of the three -- more on that in a bit. Our communication with Exposure Alaska was primarily via email. About a week before the trip, we received an email stating when and where we were to meet our guide. I can remember standing outside the hotel at 8:30 am with several big questions: What if our guide doesn't show up? What if this was all a big scam? These fears were all unfounded. Joe showed up right on time, quickly stowed our bags, and we set out for the Prince William Sound Kayak Center in Whittier. This is a one-hour drive from Anchorage along a very scenic highway that runs alongside the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet.

Day 1 - Kayaking (Prince William Sound - Whittier)

After a high-tech gear check (Joe had a rocking PowerPoint cardboard sign), we were fitted into two-man fiberglass kayaks and sent to the Sound to fend for ourselves. I remember the sky was an impossible blue, salmon swam underfoot, and bald eagles soared overhead. I don't remember much else about those first couple of hours. The sense of wonderment was high, beauty was everywhere, and I had a mile-wide grin on my face the entire time.

We paddled 4 miles to Emerald Beach, had lunch, and watched the tide come in. Scott guided us on a little-known trail that had been built by Don and Tina, the owners of Exposure Alaska, when they worked for the forest service. We paddled another 5 miles and made camp at Decision Point. The beach and campsite here was first rate. There was a formal outhouse and boardwalks to protect the forest floor. Several of us remarked how the Alaskan rain forest looked like "The Shire" from Lord of the Rings. We learned how to bomb-proof a tent for wind, rain, and possibly a zombie apocalypse. I was "knot" familiar with several of the required knots. The "slip knot" and "taut-line hitch" should be pre-requisites on the gear checklist. Joe instructed us in boat aerobics while we demonstrated how not to wash dishes.

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Day 2 - Kayaking (Prince William Sound - Blackstone Bay)

As if 9 miles of paddling wasn't enough, Joe informed us that we were in for at least 16 miles on day 2. We had breakfast, packed up camp, and set out on a foggy morning. There is a quiet serenity in the fog. The surface of the water was like glass and as the fog lifted we were treated with views of distant glaciers glowing in the sunlight. We followed the coast south to Blackstone Bay. Waterfalls became more numerous, any one of which would be its own state park in the lower 48. We took a break at 13-mile beach where salmon were swimming in the brackish water formed by freshwater mixing with the salty seawater. A week later and the salmon will begin migrating upstream.

That afternoon we paddled up to the Beloit and Blackstone glaciers and were greeted with strong katabatic winds and floating ice chunks. We made camp under the Lawrence glacier, affectionately called "Larry" by our guides. Calving ice could be heard all night.

Day 3 - Kayaking (Prince William Sound - Blackstone Bay)

After a quick breakfast, we performed more boat aerobics and set out on a short day hike to Larry's terminus. Great views of Willard Island and several glaciers could be seen from our elevated vantage. We scrambled back down to the beach and paddled about 5 miles to 13-mile beach where we caught a water taxi back to Whittier and headed for Palmer where a hot shower was waiting at the Colony Inn. Along the way, we stopped at the Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria to reacquaint ourselves with civilization. It was weird to see so many people after seeing so few for the previous three days.

Day 4 - Glacier Climbing (Matanuska Glacier)

Joe allowed us to have a real cup of coffee at Vagabond Blues, a local coffee shop, before we headed for the Matanuska Glacier. Day 4 was the most relaxing day for me. Glacier climbing is quite exhilarating, but it's done in fits and starts. Joe was in his element here and was able to belay us in all sorts of crevasses. We found glacier climbing easier than the indoor rock climbing we've done around Indianapolis. More leg strength is required, but less arm strength. The topography is ¾ alien landscape, and ¼ snow cone. We finished the day with a BBQ at "The Homestead", Don and Tina's place near King's River.

Day 5 - Backpacking - Chugach State Park

Well rested and fed, we headed for the South Fork Eagle River Trailhead in the Chugach State Park. Our Indiana training was about to pay-off -- or so we thought. The first 6 miles was relatively "easy" with fairly flat well-maintained trails along the valley floor with steep mountains on each side. We saw a grazing moose and passed through a mile-wide boulder field to arrive at picturesque Symphony Lake. Honestly, we could have stopped here for 3 days and it would have been one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever done. Joe had other plans. After a short break we were back at it, climbing through the tundra with every step sending us higher than the step before. We were shooting to make camp at Lower Symphony Tarn which was always "just ahead." 4-"Alaska miles" later we found it, and I was wrong. This was even better than stopping at Symphony Lake. We found a level spot on the tundra, pitched our tents, ate, and crashed. I'm not sure it was in that order.

Day 6 - Backpacking - Chugach State Park

With our shoulders still aching from kayaking and now our feet throbbing from a long hike, Joe announced that it was time to summit Triangle Peak. He actually told us this the day before, but after pointing the peak out to us, we thought he was joking. He wasn't. The good news was that we didn't need full packs because we'd be coming back to the same spot to camp. The bad news was that our Indiana training did not include a regimen of boulder hopping, talus scrambling, side-hill navigating, and ridge traversing. One wrong step would result in injury or worse. I remember hearing Joe's "guide voice" when a falling boulder was headed down the slope at our group. Somehow we made it and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks, glaciers, and valleys. Our entire route was visible from this vantage. Going down is just as hard as going up. I'm fairly sure my bruises had bruises.

Up until this point, the weather could only be described as perfect. As this area of Alaska is normally shrouded in clouds and rain, we knew we were living on borrowed time. That evening brought gale-force winds, and by nightfall it was a tempest. Our tent spent more time collapsed than standing erect. Chad and Sarah even found time to remodel their tent during the night.

Day 7 - Backpacking - Chugach State Park

After a long night, we cleaned up camp and made ready for the hike out. We could have hiked back the way we came, but Joe isn't one to retrace his steps -- the plan was to hike along the ridge above camp and back to the trailhead. The wind might have died down to 20-mph at this point, but once we crested the ridge I'm confident it was closer to 50-mph. Even Joe "Bunyan" thought this might be a bit much so we started down the other side of the ridge in search of an alternate route. Turns out the alternate route was going to require a significant detour, so Joe huddled us up for a pep-talk. To recap: The plan was to hike back up to the forsaken ridge with perilous 1,000-ft drop-offs on both sides while lugging 30-lb packs and resume our original path. Did I mention that the wind was gusting 50-mph? Somehow, someway, we put one foot in front of the other and made it off that mountain.

We had a great time with everyone at Exposure Alaska -- cheers Don, Tina, Joe, Scott and Katie! Happy trails, until we meet again.

Here are the stats from Mel's FitBit for the week. (Kayaking is excluded because a pedometer can't really track that. We kayaked ~30 miles total.)

  • 168,787 steps taken
  • 77.91 miles walked
  • 1,206 floors climbed
  • 27,381 calories burned

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q.) What was the food like?

A.) Hot drinks (coffee, cocoa, tea) are plentiful in the morning and evening. Overall the food was great! My favorite was the smoked salmon bagels with Havarti cheese, avocado and cucumbers. Each day starts by filling a quart-sized Ziploc with candy bars, trail mix, mixed nuts, dried fruit, etc. Some other meals were:

  • English muffins, reindeer sausage, scrambled eggs, salsa
  • Penne pasta, brie, basil, tomatoes, cream sauce
  • Penne pasta, pesto, pine nuts, olive oil
  • Cream cheese stuffed blueberry pancakes
  • Deli meat wraps with sun-dried tomatoes, hummus, swiss cheese
  • Blueberry cheesecake made in a glacial stream
  • Hiking meals were generally snacks (trail mix, PowerBars), cheese, crackers, and reindeer sausage

Q.) Will there be flush toilets anywhere?

A.) Not many. I remember modern plumbing only in Anchorage and Palmer. There will be an outhouse if you're lucky.

Q.) I've heard stories about man-eating mosquitoes. Is there any truth to this rumor?

A.) Everything you've heard is true. The mosquitoes are present and accounted for. Exposure Alaska does provide head nets. They work pretty well.

Q.) Should I bring shorts?

A.) Several times the weather was warm enough to warrant shorts. However, the mosquitoes will feast on you. Wear light-weight pants and long-sleeve shirts and convince someone else to wear shorts. Then they'll feast on them and not you. Do bring layers. In the span of a couple hours I remember going from a t-shirt to 4-layers (short-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve shirt, fleece, rain shell) and back to a t-shirt. Convertible pants are a good option.

Q.) Do I really need gloves for the kayaking portion?

A.) I used bicycle gloves and was glad I had them.

Q.) What time of year did you go?

A.) July 28 - August 3.

Q.) The title of this post references "Part 2." Where is "Part 1"?

A.) We went on a flightseeing tour of Denali National Park before our backcountry adventure started.

Alaska Trip - Part 1 (Flight-seeing Tour)

Flying to Alaska from the Eastern time zone is a big change. With never-ending daylight and a 4-hour time difference, we decided a day of acclimation was a good idea before heading off on our grand adventure. Our friends had pre-arranged a Denali Flightseeing Tour to Mt. McKinley.

Mel and I were a little apprehensive about flying in a little plane. Chad, who was a pilot in a previous life, assured us it was safe. We also figured if the pilot had a problem, Chad could take over and get us back on solid ground. With that we set out from Anchorage in a 6-man seaplane. Fortunately our pilot did great, although the turbulent air on the return leg did make at least one cabin member a bit nauseous.

Taking off and landing on water is a thrill. Basically it turns Alaska into thousands of ready-made runways. The first leg of the trip was relatively flat and we spotted a couple of moose from the air over the flatlands leading up to Denali National Park. When you get to Denali, you'll know it. The foothills rapidly become mountains not unlike those seen in the movies. Mt. McKinley cannot be understated. It towers above everything else. Glaciers are miles long, crags are massive. The scale is hard to describe.

On the return trip, we landed on a remote lake with great views of the surrounding area. My favorite photos of this were taken on an iPhone and posted to Instagram. [Photo 1] [Photo 2]

Several locals recommended Simon & Seaforts Saloon as the "best" place for fish and we concur. We finished the day with a great dinner of locally caught wild salmon and watched the seaplanes take-off and land. I became worried that it couldn't possibly get any better than this. It did.

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Disney World vacation recap

Now that we've returned from Disney, several people have asked us how the vacation was, and what did we think of Walt Disney World. Overall the trip was fantastic, and it was really nice to be able to turn my brain off for hours at a time. (Those that are self-employed know what I mean.) My best memory of the trip isn't so much of Disney itself, but rather the expressions of wonderment on the faces of Greta and Dirk. You can see some genuine smiles in the photo gallery. They were loving it! And, as a parent of young children, when your kids are happy, you are generally happy.

The fun started at the new Indy airport. Both Greta and Dirk have flown before, but Greta was glued to the window this time. And Dirk was fascinated by going "super-fast". We spent 7 days/6 nights at WDW and I couldn't help but be impressed by the well-oiled machine it is. Everything is designed to make you forget that there is a real world just outside of the property. And logistically, the U.S. Army has met it's match. Once we'd checked our luggage in Indy, we didn't see it again until it arrived magically in our room at the Wilderness Lodge. The resort resembles a Lincoln Log fortress, complete with a mountain stream, scenic waterfalls, and a hot springs geyser. We opted for the meal plan, which I would recommend if it's in your budget.

The parks themselves are like Las Vegas for children. An abundance of color, sound, and smell all compete for your attention. In most cases this formula works -- there are ample distractions while you're standing in line or waiting for a show to start. In my opinion, the shows and parades are worth the price of admission. The best ones are comparable to good Broadway plays shrink-wrapped into 20 minutes. The shows for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King should not be missed. Many of the 3D attractions are also top notch and were a lot of fun for the kids. Greta's first roller-coaster experience was the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is also one of my childhood memories of Magic Kingdom.

Epcot was our favorite theme park. They have a section of the park dedicated to many countries of the world. Our German heritage wouldn't let us pass up an opportunity to eat at the Biergarten Restaurant where Oktoberfest is recreated Disney-style. Our family enjoyed polka dancing, and we returned home with an authentic Bavarian hand-made cuckoo clock. I'm not sure I'm ready to return anytime soon, but I'm glad we went!