When looking at the list of museums that share reciprocity with Discovery Place, I noticed several museums listed in Virginia. We live about two hours south of the VA border and we've never traveled there as a family. I pulled up a Virginia state map and found several free things we could do along the coast.
Within the Norfolk area, we visited the Virginia Living Museum, Air and Space Museum, Wisconsin Battleship, Virginia Zoo, and Children's Museum of Virginia. Admission fees to those places would have totaled over $300 for our family, but everything was free with our membership. In between museum and zoo trips, we spent mornings and nights swimming in the hotel pool and the Chesapeake Bay. We only stayed two nights but we spent three very full days in Virginia. We thoughtfully planned all meals, taking advantage of packed groceries, restaurant gift cards, and kids eat free deals. The total vacation expense (including hotel, gas, food, entertainment) was under $350. Jesse and I agree that it was our best family vacation to date.
As you know, I tell stories through pictures and there are lots of stories to tell, so brace yourself for a very photo heavy post.
Sunday, June 19 (Father's Day)
We left around 4:30 a.m. It was a very easy drive up 85 most of the way. I love driving late at night or in the early morning before the sun rises, and I always find driving in the wee hours to be easier on everyone. There's never traffic and it reminds me of cross country road trips during my childhood. Jesse and the kids slept peacefully, despite James having a nosebleed.
We stopped at the visitor center/rest stop on the state line. We ate breakfast, got dressed, ran around the playground, and took silly photos.
The rest of the drive was easy. We stopped again a bit later to fill up on gas and switch drivers. Jesse read online that fathers could get a free entree at McDonald's for Father's Day. The McDonald's where we stopped did not honor that promotion, so Jesse spent the next half hour pouting before his coffee kicked in. The only thing slightly eventful about the rest of the drive was an unexpected toll.
The most engaging part of of the trip was the dinosaur exhibit. There were several life-size robotic dinosaurs that moved.
Other highlights from inside the museum included aquariums, jellyfish, swamps, caves, and a fun children's area.
We were surprised to discover even more dinosaurs on the outdoor trails. The kids still talk about this spitting dinosaur several weeks later!
The boardwalk gave us a much needed opportunity to stretch our legs while viewing wildlife.
Our next stop was the Virginia Museum of Air and Space. Located in Hampton, it was only a 15 minute drive south of the first museum. To have such complex scientific artifacts, this museum was exceptionally kid friendly. It was pretty awe inspiring simply to stand next to objects that had actually left this planet.
Our favorite part of the museum was an actual airplane cabin you could go inside. The kids played with the seat belts and trays,
then sat in the pilot's seat inside a real cockpit. I'm not going to lie; I really wanted to sit there myself but other kids were waiting to play.
Jackson practiced taking off and landing with a flight simulator.
There were numerous play areas, complete with dress up, huge blocks to build rocket ships, toy planes, books, puzzles, etc.
There was an intense "trip to Mars" simulator we went inside. We were basically held hostage in a small closet with bright lights, explosions, meteors, and loud, panicked messages between astronauts. We stayed for several minutes until we finally pressed the emergency escape button and evacuated the small room. Wanting some fresh air, we headed to the observation deck.
After going nonstop for twelve hours, it was time to check-in at our hotel. We took the tunnel/bridge from Hampton to Newport News. This tunnel was another topic of conversation for weeks to come.
Once at the hotel, we unpacked and relaxed for an hour. And by "relaxed" I mean stopped James from turning the oven on, Amelia from turning the AC off, Maddie from calling people on the hotel phone, and Jackson from unlocking the deadbolt. We had selected a waterfront hotel, though our suite did not have a balcony or a view of the bay. I was initially disappointed, but quickly became grateful that it was one less thing to worry about with the curious kids.
Dinner was at Olive Garden, thanks to a generous gift card we received several months back. Our dining experience was stressful at best. We rushed out as soon as possible, with plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day.
The night before, I told him we were going to put him in the van in the middle of the night, then he would wake up at the beach. All day long, Jackson kept asking where the beach was. I had promised Jackson we could go on the beach before bed. After a long day and challenging dining experience, Jesse really wanted to go straight to the room, but the kids literally ran into the water and started taking their clothes off.
I ran to grab swimsuits and sand toys. Our quick walk on the beach turned into 45 minutes playing on the beach, discovering lots of treasure, including this guy.
We incorrectly assumed the kids would pass out from exhaustion. It took them over two hours to fall asleep. We had booked a suite, with the intentions of Jesse and I sharing the private room and the kids each sharing one of two queen beds. Our sleeping arrangements ended up being Jesse and Amelia in a bed, Jackson and Maddie in another, and James and I in the other room. Thankfully we all slept soundly.
Monday, June 20
We wasted no time the next morning, dressing the kids in swim suits and enjoying the continental breakfast. We had a slight parenting fail when we were scolded for not putting shoes on the kids. Whatever, they didn't walk around at all and shoes should always be optional at the beach.
One of the biggest reasons we chose to stay in Norfolk, as opposed to Virginia Beach, was because the reviews said Norfolk was less commercialized and more secluded. Also, the waves on the Chesapeake Bay are much calmer and kid friendly than the Atlantic Ocean. Norfolk was an excellent choice; we practically had a private beach the entire time!
James and Maddie spent the morning collecting shells.
Amelia was less impressed with the water and stayed on the sand with her fellow water-hating daddy.
Jackson and I waded waist deep in the water, until joining others on the sand. Jackson wanted to be buried. The trio happily obliged and followed his bossy demands.
After rinsing off in the outdoor showers, we took a quick dip in the hotel pool.
By late morning we were on our way to visit the Battleship Wisconsin. We parked in a parking deck a block away. As we walked towards the museum, hundreds of people walked past, rolling suitcases behind them. We didn't even notice the museum because of the enormous cruise ship unloading in front of us.
The Nauticus museum had a confusing layout. We got off to a very rocky start when an employee told us we had to take the children out of the wagon for the escalator. (Why she didn't suggest the elevator we later discovered is beyond me!) This escalator was similar to a moving sidewalk at the airport, except it went up at varying degrees.
All four kids lost their balance at some point. It was a domino effect of screaming, terrified toddlers rolling down this death trap, with Jesse pulling an empty wagon. Yep...taking them out of the wagon was definitely the safer bet!
As I said, the museum was a bit hard to follow. We weren't entirely sure what we were seeing half the time, though the exhibits held our interests.
Jesse claimed petting this shark in the shark tank was "one of the greatest moments of [his] life".
The high point of the trip was touring Battleship Wisconsin. We watched a brief video on the history of the battleship. (This would have been beneficial to see before we walked through the exhibits.) Jackson was mesmerized and had many questions about the fighting.
We walked freely across the deck and top floor of the mammoth ship. The only way to reach the lower levels was to take a ladder down. Jesse and I discussed one of us taking Jackson to the lower levels, but we were both so captivated with the experience. We ended up taking all four kids down the ladders. Jesse went first and I went halfway. Together, we formed an assembly line, passing toddlers down.
We all started to get claustrophobic as we navigated the narrow hallways. The beds pictured below were called "coffin beds" for obvious reasons.
Jesse let Jackson pick out this $5 hat. Our handsome little sailor!
After touring the battleship, we walked around the block to explore the Norfolk waterfront. Here are some random discoveries:
Jesse and I completely agree with the sign below.
There are several dozen larger than life mermaid statues throughout the city.
Here's another view of the USS Wisconsin. I can't imagine it chopping through the water.
The kids were exhuasted, but in true vacation mode, we persevered by taking them to the zoo. The Virginia Zoo was free with our NC Zoo membership. However, I told Jesse that I wasn't too concerned about going there. He knows me well and decided to go ahead since we were already there. It was a small zoo that we zoomed through in little time. The highlights are as follows:
The other noteworthy animal was the red panda. We kept looking around their habitat trying to find them. All of a sudden, I looked up and they were directly above us.
In fact, there was a ladder they could have climbed and jumped right onto our heads. I obviously know nothing about red pandas. I'm assuming they must be gentle creatures, but there was nothing preventing them from mauling us.
We watched tigers playing,
and saw a close view of a lion.
There were plenty of other animals, but we were all worn out from the events of the day and walked quickly through the exhibits. The kids fell asleep on the short drive back to the hotel. We lounged around and ate Little Ceasar's pizza in the hotel room while watching TV. Dinner and downtime led to a second wind, where we spent the early evening back at the beach and pool.
Once again, the beach and pool felt private. Apparently, Monday and Tuesdays are excellent days to beat the crowds!
I was frustrated at Jackson's refusal to swim. He was overly cautious in the pool and either stayed on the steps or clinging to my body the entire time.
We had the opposite problem with James, who wanted nothing more than to go in the deep end. The girls were happiest in my arms. (Jesse stayed on the steps since he was tired and can't swim.)
Jesse suggested going out for ice cream. We debated having him go pick up ice cream while I got the kids in pajamas, but they freaked out at the thought that they may miss ice cream. We all went through a Dairy Queen drive-thru, then watched the sunset at a public beach.
In hindsight, we should not have dressed the kids in pajamas since they were dripping in chocolate and sticky ice cream. Oh well, live and learn.
We headed back to the hotel, cleaned up, and went to bed. Jesse and I didn't even attempt to sleep together this night; we just wanted everyone to go to sleep as quickly as possible. Both nights, James talked my head off in bed. It was one of the sweetest moments we shared. I'd rub his back or stroke his hair and he just kept telling me about his day. "Mommy, the dinosaur spit on me!". "We drive through tunnel. It's dark!", " I fall down on big ship. I not like it. It was scary." It felt like a sleepover with a best friend, talking until you fall asleep.
Tuesday, June 21
Our second morning was much like our first: breakfast, beach, pool. Check-out was at 11, so we had plenty of time to take advantage of our surroundings. Amelia and James refused to play on the beach. They were more interested in the outdoor shower. Maddie, Jackson, and I built a sand bakery shop and decorated cakes with shells.
We swam in the pool for a bit.
I was adamant about taking a family picture on the beach. As I've said, we were one of the only families on the beach every single time we went out. Yet, the one and only family picture we have, the person took of us directly in front of their family setting up a canopy. I found this especially annoying, even though a quick photo cropping fixed it.
Our final stop was the Children's Museum of Virginia. Located in Portsmouth, it was another 25 minute drive south. James fell asleep in the van and did not wake up even when we put him in the wagon and entered the museum.
This museum was exceptional. The kids had such a blast and Jesse and I were equally impressed with the different themed areas. One of the reasons I wanted to go was because of the train exhibit. James was a very happy boy when he finally awoke.
The museum had areas similar to our local children's museum, but enhanced. The fire station included pretend fires that you could put out with hoses.
I could easily write an entire post about the children's museum, but this post is already too long. The library, city bus, bubble station, fishing boat, circus, amusement park, bank, vet clinic, farm, grocery store, dentist office, etc were all so thoughtfully organized. Here are some of my favorite photos:
At last, our trip concluded. Jesse drove the first 2.5 hours. We stopped at a Denny's since it was a night when kids eat free. We then navigated to a semi-sketchy park so the kids could burn off some energy, then I drove the final 2.5 hours home. It was a very fun, exciting, memorable trip that will likely remain one of our favorite vacations for years to come.