What the 11-year-old wanted for Christmas

For the past two years, my 11-year-old has requested experiential gifts for Christmas. Especially for older kids, I think this can be a great idea. My son didn’t need more stuff (though I did wrap a trinket to represent the present). Experiences make memories and can stretch out the fun of the holidays well into the new year.

A caveat: I am not sure how sustainable this would be if all four of the kids started requesting big experiences as Christmas presents, but so far that hasn’t been an issue. The others still like toys. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Anyway, this year the 11-year-old asked to go to San Diego, and see the zoo, Sea World, and the Zoo Safari Park. Last year, my husband took him to the Georgia Aquarium, so this year was my turn.

It was a lot of traveling for just 2.25 days of being there. We flew out of Newark (instead of Philly) in order to fly direct, but this added 90 minutes of driving to the beginning and end of the trip. I was especially aware of this on the way home when our flight to Newark was delayed*, making it a very late night jaunt on the New Jersey turnpike. Also, I was sick for much of the trip. I woke up every night coughing and had to find a CVS to replenish my Ricola cough drop supply.

But we did a lot of cool things. We stayed in Pacific Beach, in a hotel on the ocean, and every morning I did a quick run along the beach walkway. My son and I took a long walk along the beach together on our last morning; the previous evening I went down to the water and put my feet in. In January! We also enjoyed a few plunges in our hotel’s outdoor hot tub, and even a quick dip in the regular pool, which was surprisingly reasonable.

(Because let’s face it, one of the upsides of a trip like this was missing the snow and the temperature plunge on the east coast. Both Saturday and Sunday were mostly sunny and 70 degrees!).

The zoo, which we visited on Saturday, was cool as usual. We especially liked the new section that opened since our last time there (in 2016) with exhibits from the African highlands and Madagascar. It’s also a nice touch for parents on zoo duty that most of the snack carts sell craft beer. The panda exhibit was underwhelming considering its fame, but the three polar bears were all up and eating meat chunks that had been attached to the rocks. We left midway through the day and jetted over to Sea World, where we saw the dolphin show, the orca “encounter” (they’re not calling that one a show anymore) and the Wild Arctic, which was my son’s personal favorite. He liked the simulation bouncy helicopter ride in, and then he watched the belugas and walruses for a long time. We visited friends after for pizza. We actually ate pizza both nights and in the San Diego airport on Monday. Did I mention that this was the 11-year-old’s Christmas present?

Our visit to the Zoo Safari Park on Sunday was definitely a trip highlight. It’s a great park in general, with animals displayed in something closer to their natural habitats (possible in 1800 acres). But what made it particularly fun was that we booked their “caravan safari” and went by truck into the African plains exhibit, where we got very close to giraffes and rhinos, and got to feed both of them. Now, as a veteran zoo-goer (I do have 4 kids) I have fed giraffes before. But not a rhino! The rhino also let us pat her after feeding her apples. That was a new experience for me. It is amazing to see those animals up close. This is an upside of experiential gifts for kids. Sometimes they can be cool for parents too!

Alas, the flight home was incredibly bouncy — penance for the nice weather I suppose, and we landed in terminal C after parking at terminal A, necessitating a long wait for the AirTran (how can 4 trains go by in the opposite direction before one comes your way?). If only southern California were closer to Pennsylvania. But then it wouldn’t be California, I suppose, a fact driven home as my son and I raced through the 15 degree cold to the car in our t-shirts and fleeces.

Photo: A mommy and pre-teen son rhino. Just like us! 

*Of course, this is why we fly direct if remotely possible. A one hour and 15 minute delay could easily mean a missed connection, thus magnifying the delays.

6 thoughts on “What the 11-year-old wanted for Christmas

  1. Hi Laura! We met a million years ago in NYC, when you’d just had your first child, thru OpEd project. One tip re: experiences and gifting. We have gifted trips *to the whole family*, the trick is making it feel like a gift. We get a blank puzzle, draw the name of the gift on it (“we’re goin to Disney!!”), and then split the puzzle pieces and “wrap” individual pieces for the kids. This way during gift time they’re creating the puzzle together and together solving it. Then we plan a per diem per kid for spending – which adds up. So it’s like, “3 days at Disney plus $60 to buy whatever you want”. Been a great way to shift to experiences, together – and also share the experience across the family.

    1. @Tereza – hey, good to hear from you! It could be a great idea to give a trip/experience to the whole family. As long as it truly was fun for everyone, then why not? That said, I think one of the reasons my son wanted his trip is that he did get a chance to spend solo time with a parent, and do what he wanted (not what his siblings did). So that was part of the gift too.

  2. We did experience gifts for the first time this year for all but our youngest kiddo (who is only 3). For our 11 and 8 year olds (and my husband and I) “Santa” brought Hamilton tickets. We have been trying to take the kids for awhile and were finally able to get tickets in November. They aren’t until May, but all the kids (even the two aren’t quite yet ready to go) are listening to the soundtrack and having tons of fun anticipating the day. For our 5 year old we got Aladdin tickets–this meant he spent an afternoon alone with both my husband and I and went out to lunch in NYC and to a matinee and he cannot stop talking about it. These are by far the most memorable Christmas gifts we have given them. And they don’t add to the clutter in our household of 7 people. We will definitely be continuing with the experiential gifts.

    1. @Gillian – good for Santa for scoring Hamilton tickets! And yes, solo time with both mom and dad simultaneously is very precious when you are one of four! That’s great that you could work that out for your 5-year-old.

  3. Our kids aren’t kids anymore, they are 25 and 20, but their birthdays are close together and they have a common interest. So this year, their birthday gift was a trip to PAX South, a game convention, in San Antonio. Our older son had gone to a PAX in Boston in conjunction with a college visit back in high school, but the younger had never been. So, San Antonio in January? DH and I went too! My husband worked, I walked, went to a museum and read all the little signs at my leisure, and explored a neighborhood.

    On a flight home, I sat next to a fellow who had attended PAX with his family. He teaches video game design at a high school, so I appreciated hearing his experience at PAX. And I asked what his preschool children enjoyed. “The escalators!” Oh well. My guys went to a session on game localization for different languages and cultures, I’d have enjoyed that. But when they were 2, they’d had preferred the escalators, too.

    But my favorite was walking the river walk. Along the restaurants, along a residential district, dinner by the river, to the UPS store for a tube for DS’ souvenir posters. Wearing a sweater with everyone else in parkas. It was around 50 and sunny, perfect. Oh, and at dinner we sat near a fellow whose son was hosting a kid from our town as a prospective student at his university. Small world.

    Came home to a driveway full of snow, adding an hour to our return to get the car in the garage. Oh well.

    Happy Double Matchsticks to your son!

  4. I love the idea of experience gifts for Christmas. My children are 17, 15, and 8 and we do an experience gift for the entire family every year for each of their birthdays. I do a special breakfast at home and a small token gift on their actual birthday. This past year we went to see Phantom of the Opera for the 17 year old’s birthday, went to see a show and spent a night at a hotel for the 15 year old’s birthday, and did a bunch of local experiences as a family on the weekend of the 8 year old’s birthday (pottery painting place, etc.).

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