- Prep your kids for what you'll see. In December, we went to San Diego for a few days to kick off Christmas vacation, and went to the San Diego Zoo on one of those days. For weeks beforehand, we'd go around the table at dinner and talk about what kinds of animals we most wanted to see at the Zoo. We watched videos about the different exhibits, looked at the map so everyone could pick out what sections we were most excited about, and pulled up pictures from our previous zoo visits. By the time we went, everyone had a feel for what our day at the Zoo would look like and was excited about what we'd see.
- Bring a jacket. We went to a show a few weeks ago and it was 113 degrees outside, but it was so freezing inside the theater that I was uncomfortable nearly the whole time and wished I'd brought along a jacket. When we went to San Diego in December, we spent one day wearing sunscreen at the beach and the next day at the San Diego Zoo wearing coats while it drizzled. I can't stand to have our trip derailed because I just didn't think to grab a few sweatshirts.
- A stroller is always a good idea. My children are always swearing up and down that they won't want to ride in the stroller, and then forty minutes later, we're trying to figure out how to get three children into our double stroller (no ways that are approved by the stroller manufacturers, I'll tell you that). Especially if you're going to a zoo or amusement park, that thing is worth its weight in gold - we walked MILES at the San Diego Zoo, plus it was handy to have a place to stash our maps.
- Don't rush your children along. I first started noticing this at Christmas a few years ago, when the urge to say, "Don't play with that present! Let's open the next one!" is strong. Now I try to fight that urge when we visit somewhere new too - if my girls want to watch the baby giraffe (he was only a few days old in December!) for thirty minutes, I try not to rush them along so we can also hit the koala exhibit. I'd rather they remember having all the time in the world to watch a jaguar with their nose smashed up against the glass than their main memory being me hustling them along to the next exhibit.
- For a special occasion, be willing to adjust your child's schedule. I generally am pretty strict about nap times and bed times, but I think this makes it even more special when occasionally you toss the rules out the window. At Disneyland last week, my girls were thrilled to be up hours past their bedtime, riding rides and watching the fireworks. If we were visiting San Diego this month (and I wish we were!), I would absolutely keep them up late for the Nighttime Zoo celebration.
- Don't stay longer than your kids can handle just to "get your money's worth." I'm definitely one of those people who wants to feel like I got my money's worth, but Bart always reminds me that once you've paid an entrance fee, it's a sunk cost. If nap time is approaching or someone has a complete meltdown or whatever, there's no gold medal for staying longer. Be happy for the fun time you've had and know when to call it quits. I need this tattooed on my arm.
- Snacks. Always snacks. I'm that mom who never has snacks along (because it's so annoying to me when my children don't eat at meals), but when we're going on a family outing, we always pack snacks so that everyone is fueled for more than five minutes. I know this is a ground-breaking tip, right here. And of course, I'm always the one downing half the snacks (the other reason I don't generally pack snacks . . . ).
- If you don't have time for everything, let everyone pick one thing. We started doing this years ago in Boston when Bart's brother came to visit and we went to an enormous museum we knew we'd never get all the way through. We looked through the map and everyone picked two sections they wanted to see. Now we do the same thing with our kids - even if we don't get to the whole zoo, at least everyone got to see at least the one thing they were most excited about (and if you're not that thrilled about what your child picked, at least you get to see YOUR biggest priority).
And if you've never visited the San Diego Zoo and you have the chance to, this summer is the perfect time - they have so many amazing animals, they're working hard to end extinction, there are so many fun events as part of their centennial celebration, and, let's be honest, San Diego has the best weather ever.