Thursday, December 31, 2015

Gatlinburg, Tennessee Travel with Children

2015, the year of the mini-vacation, is officially over.  Although I was skeptical about replacing one long vacation with three shorter ones, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it all turned out.  My girls are still talking about our first mini trip to Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as well as our mid-year mini break and once in a lifetime chance of being up close and personal with manatees in Crystal River.  Two weeks ago, we spent our final mini holiday in the mountains of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Being that we live in Florida, this qualified as a road trip, as it took over ten hours to get there.  Luckily, we are huge fans of Harry Potter, so The Goblet of Fire audio book kept us entertained for most of our journey.  We left early on Sunday morning and arrived at out hotel, the Bearskin Lodge, around dinnertime.  Our Florida blood turned to ice the moment we stepped out of the car into the forty degree temperature.  However, once in the lodge, we were greeted with the hotel’s cozy, rustic feel, complete with fireplace, rocking chairs and complimentary warm apple cider and cookies.  This hotel was the next best thing to renting our own log cabin in the mountains.

After check-in, we went up to our room on the 5th floor.  We had an executive queen stream-view room, which had two queen beds, a balcony with a beautiful view of the mountains and the stream below, a working fireplace, and a whirlpool.

After ten hours in the car, this was heaven. Normally, we try out the beds first, but the fireplace was much more alluring.  Unfortunately, the fireplace was closed off, so we were unable to snack on the s’mores I had packed.  However, the lobby fireplace is open, as is the fire pit near the pool, so there is plenty of opportunity for s’mores indulgence.

After exploring our room, we decided to go to dinner.  Because of the cold, everyone voted in favor of eating somewhere close to the hotel.  The Bearskin Lodge is in a quiet location behind the main drag called the Parkway, but we only had a three minute walk before we found Luigi’s Pizza, which we quickly darted into to avoid the chill.  As we entered, a warm fireplace greeted us.  There were only a few patrons and we had our choice of seating. We chose a spot in the back, away from the door.  The menu consisted of standard pizzeria fare, so we selected a pizza pie, mozzarella sticks and garlic knots.  The pizza sauce was incredibly sweet, and really did not make for a great tasting pizza.  However, the cheese sticks and the knots were so scrumptious that I wished I had ordered another round of each.  Overall, the atmosphere and the appetizers were enough to keep us happy.
After dinner, I saw that the Ober mall was right in front of us, so before heading back to the hotel, I decided to buy snow tubing tickets.  Note to travelers-you cannot buy tickets online.  You have to do it the old school way and physically show up to buy tickets.  To make matters worse, you can only buy tickets up to three days in advance, which might have been an issue for us because we were only staying for four days. Because snow tubing is super cool and sells out fast, my recommendation when arriving in Gatlinburg is to get your tickets before doing anything else, even before checking into your hotel.  Fortunately, all but one slot was sold out when we got there, so I paid $106 for the three of us to go snow tubing from 5-6:30pm on our last night in Gatlinburg.
When we woke the next morning, we opted for the breakfast that I had packed for the trip, rather than going out to eat.  Once finished, we hung out on our balcony and enjoyed our view of the mountains.  Around 9:30am, we made our way to the Parkway, which was filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, old-time photo shops and various family friendly activities, including an assortment of Ripley’s owned tourist traps. So naturally, we decided on Ripley’s Believe It or Not as our first stop of the morning. We’ve been to the Ripley’s in Orlando, and my girls really loved it, so they knew what to expect when entering.  This one had some of the exact same things as the Orlando Ripley’s, so the girls had a decent amount of fun, but weren’t all that impressed.

Next, we ventured off to the Ripley’s 5D Moving Theater.  On the way there, we stopped at a shooting gallery and tried our luck at shooting targets in hopes that our aim would get some mechanical objects to move.  For $2, we had a great time and did pretty well.

A few minutes later, we arrived at the Ripley’s theater, and handed the cashier our ticket, which included two movies, Roadhoggers and Winter Wipeout.  The movies are roller coaster-esque and your seat moves pretty violently, so make sure you and your children are strapped in!  The movies were adorable.  We especially loved the Winter Wipeout because there was artificial snow falling from the ceiling as we virtually joined the snowmen on their snow tubing adventure.  I didn’t keep track of time, but I would guess that each movie was roughly 10-15 minutes long.  We all truly enjoyed this experience and would definitely recommend it for families (my girls are 8 and 11 years old and they had a blast).
After the movie, we did some shopping for our plant shelf item.  For readers who don’t know our tradition, each time we go on vacation, we purchase something from our travels that we can place on our plant shelf at home.  So far, we have items from Paris, New York, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, and now, Tennessee.
We found a cute shop in Elks Plaza called Smoky Mountain Art that carried wood carvings and pottery.  My youngest pointed out a lovely green-blue bowl with Gatlinburg 2015 carved inside.  I thought it was perfect, so we made the purchase.
Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel for some lunch (again packed from home for this trip).  Once we got some of our energy back, we decided to visit Ober.  We took the Aerial Tramway up the mountain, which was worth the $31 ticket price.  The views were breathtaking, and the ride was so much fun!  Even my oldest daughter, who is scared of heights, had a great time traveling up the mountain this way.

Once we got there, we bought tickets for the Wildlife Encounter.  We got to see a black bear, an otter, an eagle, a bobcat and some nocturnal animals.  For the most part, this was an extremely small and limited zoo.  For a total cost of $14, it was worth a look, but all in all, it was more of a sad experience than a lively one.

After our wildlife encounter, we went outside to view the snow tubing and ski areas. Then, we came across an area for smaller children with a large mound of snow called “Cubbies”.

My youngest daughter has never seen snow, so despite our ages, I bought us all tickets for the kiddie area where we immediately pelted each other with snowballs.  I know this sounds terrible, but watching my daughters nailing each other with snowballs was my favorite part of that day.  I am thankful to Ober for reminding me of how much joy can be had during a snowball fight.
Just a note-Ober also offers skiing, an alpine slide, a ski mountain coaster and indoor ice skating.
Once we got down from the mountain, we decided not to be too adventurous with dinner, so we stopped in for some burgers at Five Guys.  Then we strolled around the Parkway some more and came across The Village Shops.  It was such a lovely little shopping cove with a diverse group of shops including a sock store, a candle store, a donut shop and our favorite, the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, where we bought some after dinner chocolate treats.  From there, we decided to visit the Guinness Museum.

It was similar to Ripley’s, only more focused on what Guinness is known for, which is odd, record-breaking feats.  There were some areas of interest for all three of us, but like Ripley’s, it fell a little flat.  Being that our day was jam-packed with so many activities, we didn’t really give much thought to rating the events of the day.  The great thing is that we were having fun and making the most out of everything as a family.
On our last full day in Gatlinburg, we went to Ripley’s Aquarium.  So far, Ripley’s wasn’t all that impressive, so my expectations were a bit low.  But as soon as we were through the aquarium’s doors, I knew this was going to be different.    The sheer size of it was surprising, and as soon as we handed over our tickets, the girls’ excitement was hard to contain.  Our first stop was the stingray touch tank.  It was enormous and even has smaller sharks roaming around as well (the staff was very insistent on taking your hands out of the water as soon as a shark appears).  Even though we have all done this once before at Sea World, we kept our hands in the water for a good twenty or thirty minutes, just enjoying the experience.

Once we got our fill of the stingrays, we headed to the shark tank, where we stared at a variety of different sized sharks.

After about ten minutes, we moved on to the rest of the aquarium.  One of the best features of the aquarium were the hands-on exhibits at every turn.
Want a fish manicure?  There are doctor fish waiting to eat your dead skin (it actually tickles).
Want to learn about swarms?  There is an interactive game that allows you to choose which fish you want to learn about and how far apart they swim around each other in the ocean.
Want to touch a horseshoe crab?  No problem.

Want to check out how mice live?  You can crawl through a tunnel and get up close and personal.
Want to see all of the fish in the aquarium tank?  Hop onto the moving platform that takes you through an impressive aquarium tunnel, where all types of ocean creatures literally surround you.

Because we had reserved a penguin encounter for 1pm, we didn’t spend too much time in the public penguin area, but enjoyed the parts we were able to see.

After eating lunch while watching the fish swim by in a huge tank, we headed off to meet Maureen the penguin.  For an extra forty dollars per person, we had 45 minutes to spend with a penguin.  We learned about penguins, got to take a picture (which is included in the fee) and got to touch and pet her.  It was definitely the highlight of the day and well worth every penny!

After the aquarium, we headed back to the hotel to change into warmer clothes and boots for our snow tubing session.  We lined up for our session, received a tube, and waited on the conveyor belt to take us up the mountain.

For me, speeding down an icy hill in a tube ranks highest on the “coolest experiences in Gatlinburg” list!  My older daughter is scared of heights, and my younger daughter expected more of a roller coaster experience, so they weren’t as impressed, so we left our session early.  Although we all had mixed opinions of the snow tubing experience, going down the mountain in the Aerial Tramway for the last time was quite a fun ride.  Because it was dark, the views of the mountain were gone, but the beautiful lights of the city were stunning.
In addition to all of that beauty, the 100 people stuffed into that tramway all started singing Jingle Bells…loudly.  I felt like I was in a musical as the people around me, one by one, randomly burst into song.  While most people probably think that this is the cheesiest way to end our vacation, I couldn’t help but feel the love and the joy protruding from these strangers’ hearts.  And it truly turned what could have been a sour night into a memorable one.
The next morning, we got up early and walked to Crockett’s Breakfast Camp for our last breakfast before we left town.  Crockett’s looks like a log cabin, very similar to our hotel, complete with fireplace and cozy furnishings and menus designed to look like newspapers.

My daughter even had a glass of water brought to her in a mason jar.  While the d├ęcor was charming, the food was not as great.  The pancakes were on the dry, yet sweet tasting side (without syrup).  My daughters also were not thrilled with their choices of waffles and eggs.  Though they made a yummy version of a cinnamon bun, I’m sorry to say that I probably would not recommend Crockett’s.
Well folks, that wraps up our last trip of the year.  This year, we will be replacing the mini-vacation concept with a two week trip to Ireland (and my girls’ first trip outside of our country)!  I look forward to giving you all the details of our trip, so stay tuned! Thank you so much for reading!