Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas Bustling?

My oh my what a busy "break"! I think the word "break" was meant to be, like, break in the action. To provide a time of quiet and rest. I think this "break" was meant to be like, break the bank, and break my back, and break neck speed. It's been great fun and we have been able to see all our grandparents! I can't recall a time when we have seen all the grandparents in such a short stretch of time.

The "Break" started with a quick over night at mom's house for Carl's memorial. We spent the time after the service with Dad and Sally. We couldn't stay another night because we needed to be at church the next day, all the kids were in the Christmas Program.

Bob worked on Monday and Tuesday. The kids and I just hung out and did a little shopping. We made the mistake of meeting daddy down by his work for dinner on Tuesday night. The mistake was leaving home at 4:55, in the rain, right before a major holiday when everyone was headed out to do some last minute, late night shopping. AND the place we were going was across the street from a major mall. It's usually a 15 minute took almost an hour.....Lesson learned....

Mom and Ed arrived on Wednesday. We set up the basement as a guest room since Bob has taken over the former guest room as an office. It worked out nicely. Sophia and I went out for a couple hours to do some last minute shopping our selves. We knew exactly what we were going to get and how it would go. We worked in a lunch at Nordstrom and had a really nice time together.

Christmas Eve we went to church, wrapped presents and set up Santa Gifts. As you know.....Santa is a busy guy. He can't wrap his presents but he does put them together or set them up. (Bob and Ed) Santa built Sophia's Playmobil horse training facility. It took an hour and a half and a couple shots of Tequila but Santa got the job done. Ed made the following mistake on Christmas..... He said to Sophia (when he was sure it was done by Bob) "Darn, I wish I could have put the Vet Center together with you." She said, "We haven't done it yet Grandpa!" Ed laughed, rolled his eyes and got to work. He and Sophia worked diligently for about 45 minutes and then Sophia was bored so Grandpa finished the job. He won't make that mistake again and for his part now.....Lesson Learned.

Christmas day was a flurry. We all got plenty of stuff. The kids got less then last year and that was great. In early December we went through their stuff and got rid of the old to get ready for the new. The things that they got went along with current things. I do not want to start a new collection of what ever. You have Legos, you get more Legos. You have Playmobil, you get more Playmobil. You get the idea. This has worked well for us.

Christmas Night we had dinner at the Wang's with the Klines as well. Sarah's mom and her husband were in town too. You'd have thought Sarah's mom and my mom were old high school buddies. They chatted and laughed their heads off. We all had a wonderful time. The kids played, we laughed and talked and shared the responsibility for the dinner. It worked out very well and was great fun.

Mom and Ed left on Saturday morning because they needed to get to Seattle to celebrate with family up there. We packed and got ready for the Great Wolf Lodge for Coulter's Birthday.

Sunday...Great Wolf Lodge. It was a total cluster last year. Lots of waiting in line. This year we arrived at 12:20 and walked right up to the desk, got checked in and went to our room. Talk about a different experience! It was great! Rex and Tina met us there. We went sliding for hours. The toddler pool was closed, some kid threw up in it, so Kees was pretty bummed and bored. He and I left the pool early and played Magic Quest and had a hot chocolate. He loves his mommy and Kees time.

We had microwave dinner from Trader Joe's and then Dad and Sally came to visit. It was low key and really fun. I had been worried that it would be too crowded and chaotic but really, it was fine. Dad, Sally, Rex and Tina took the kids to play Magic Quest and Bob and I went to the bar for a glass of wine. It was nice. We hadn't just sat down with only the two of us in at least a week. We enjoy each other's company so a week is a long time when we don't get to be together alone. After about an hour we all congregated back in the room. We ate cake and Coulter opened presents. Dad and Sally left and Rex and Tina took the kids back to the arcade. The kids didn't get to bed until 11:30. When they did they passed out in about 30 seconds.

All 8 of us would have slept fine except Kees was coughing, the kind of coughing that has sent him to the hospital twice this year. I got up and had him upright so he would stop coughing. He slept on me most of the night. I didn't sleep much or well. You know, sitting up with a coughing kid on you, it's not really conducive to a good night's sleep.

Monday, more sliding, more Magic Quest, pack and head home. Oma and Opa (Bob's parents) were pulling up in front of our house exactly as we were pulling in the drive way. We had prepared the basement for their arrival before we left town and were really glad because, obviously, NOW we didn't have time to get ready. Hugs all around, lots of chatting, left overs for dinner and an appropriate bed time.

Tuesday was Coulter's actual birthday. Being Coulter he was now expecting his birthday party. I explained that the Great Wolf Lodge was what we did INSTEAD of having a party. He still wanted to know who was coming and when. OH, and it snowed! The kids were all ready to build the "Black Diamond." Last year Bob built them a luge course right out the front door. That was with 2 feet of snow or so, not 2 inches! I ordered a Star Wars Cake for the evening. We had a present for him, the neighbors came over and we ate cake....Good enough. The kids played Wii, they went to bed, the adults played Wii and we went to bed. It was a nice day.

Wednesday the kids had play dates and played all day. We went out for Chinese food for dinner. A little more Wii. Another great day.

And today is New Year's Eve. Our neighbor is having a last minute get together. We will go for a bit but I don't anticipate being there long. Ans and Bert have to leave our house at 6:30 to make their flight. I don't want the kids staying up too late because we HAVE to get them back on a schedule.

Our last couple of days of this "break" will be spent as a family. Hopefully unwinding a bit and just hanging out. I wouldn't have cut any part of it out because it has all worked pretty well and we have enjoyed seeing all of our grandparents and friends. One thing dove tailed into another and timing was everything. It was a lot of planning and work but really worth it.

We have enjoyed all the chaos, busy-ness, fun, family, sliding, etc but it certainly was NOT a "break" for us. I think that you can agree that in this instance, we really should come up with another term for it. This year we had a Holiday Chaos or possibly a Holiday Willy Nilly, maybe a Christmas Crunch or Christmas Bustling? Any of those could work but certainly not a "BREAK."

Have a happy and safe New Year's Celebration. We will see you in twenty ten.

Monday, December 21, 2009

2009 Holiday Letter

I can’t believe that it’s that time of year again but…. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!! And a very Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends too!!!!! Kwanza…Festivas for those of you who celebrate those…. Am I leaving anyone out? In this amazing year of hope and change I want to make sure that we are all included.

Our lives continue to be full of new experiences and lots of growth. The kids are all getting so big. Sophia is 8 (almost 9) and has lots of interests. She’s played tennis, basketball and soccer this year. There has been lots of crafting, sewing and fiddle lessons too. This is the age of trying out lots of new things. Sophia is already turning into a t’ween. I can hardly believe it. She is a lovely young lady who is protective of her brothers and is so very smart.

Coulter will be six, four days after Christmas. He is very energetic and funny. He played soccer this year and LOVED it. He also tried tennis and seems to be a natural. Time will tell. He is learning so much in kindergarten. One morning I got up and saw a bunch of math problems written on some scratch paper. I asked, “Who helped you with this?” Coutler looked confused and said, “No one.” Like duh mom…. He’s reading and spelling too. I marvel at how their little brains absorb so much, so fast. It’s like watching God work right in front of me. It’s amazing to say the least.

Kees is 4 now and loves school. He is there 5 days per week and is in Debbie’s class. Most of you don’t know Debbie but Sophia and Coutler had her and now it is Kees’ turn. He marched in the first day of school like he owned the joint. He too tells me about all the things he is learning. He has a real sense of wonder in his big brown eyes when he tells me about his discoveries. He’s also very funny. When we’re driving around we pick out Cruisers, Minis and Buggies. On a recent drive Kees reported, “I just thaw an inbisibul puhpuw cwuizer.” Bob said, “How can you see it if it’s invisible?” Kees said, “I duthst have beddah eyes den you.” Funny boy.

We had LOTS of adventures this year. 2009 was the biggest year of travel so far. We started at the Oregon Coast for Spring Break and had a marvelous time playing together. It’s always so relaxed and fun out there.

Summer travel…. First Atlanta for a week the day after school got out. We had a great time with family and a few friends. It’s always so hard to see everyone we’d like to see. Next it was off to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas for 9 fun filled days. It’s amazing! The water park, the Cove Cabanas, swimming with dolphins, great food, friends, family and for us there were VIP Parties. That you’ll have to hear about in person. We had two sitters with us, Mackenzie and Clara, and that made it more fun for us all. I’m pretty sure they didn’t feel too stressed with their “work load.” Then it was back to Atlanta for a couple days with family up at Lake Lanier. Good times.

We spent the 4th of July in Manzanita with Mom, Ed and our friends the Wangs. It’s so much fun with the small town feel and big fireworks on the beach. The kids all rode on the fire truck in the parade down the main street. And to top it all off the weather was perfect.

I took a road trip with the kids to the Bay Area where we stayed with our good friends the Slacks. They were gracious hosts. So much so that this could become an annual event….poor Slacks. They live in the East Bay Area so we took the BART into the “city” a few times and really enjoyed that experience. We visited many tourist spots, rode the cable cars a lot and spent quite a bit of time in Chinatown. The kids loved that. We visited our friends the Sobels and had a lovely lunch with them. It was very successful and the kids set the pace.

We took our annual Decatur Island trip in the San Juans. It was, as usual…GREAT! Our friends the McGanns couldn’t make it this year but the Shannons and Leeks did our best to keep the tradition going. Clara and Mackenzie made the trek to the island with us too. Clara’s parents, Rebecca and Greg, came for 2 nights. They’ve been hearing about the island for so long and were dying to see what it was all about. It was everything and more they had imagined. It’s a magical place for us all. The kids gained a little more freedom this year and the big girls were allowed to go kayaking on their own. The weather was perfect and as usual…the food and friends are always the best. There is nothing quite like standing around the big spool at sun set, eating piles of fresh crab with great friends. It’s heaven on earth.

I have taken a couple nights away on my own. I recently went to a wedding in California where my friend Marilyn married Majid Karimi. He is so warm and lovely as is his family. Marilyn’s family was wonderful as well. The Karimis were like my long lost Persian family. It was great fun and I was able to catch up with friends too. My good buddy Ellen took excellent care of me there.

Most recently we spent a fun filled weekend on Mt. Hood with 4 families. All the kids had a blast and there was hardly a cross word among them. We had the last sunny weekend on the mountain. The views from 7000 feet were breath taking. The following weekend it snowed a foot and a half. Yikes…we just dodged that one. Thanks so much to Becky and family for that experience.

Bob continues to be very successful with Kaiser Permanente. In May he was promoted to CIO of the Sunnyside Hospital in Clackamas. And recently, he was asked to take on some additional duties supporting the CEO of the hospital. He’s busy and happy and that’s how he likes it. They’re all still in the “Love fest” phase… “You’re so good at thus and so. You really nailed it.” “Oh thank you, I couldn’t do it with out your help.” It’s the best.

Our lives have been so busy this year and equally blessed. We enjoy that our kids are happy to share experiences with us and that they are great travelers. It’s a wonderful time with our small people. They are quite excited for Santa to come and are leafing through the toy catalogs that come in the mail. They cut out things that look like fun and glue them to paper for their wish lists to show Santa. When I look sideways at the expensive or odd choices Sophia says, “What do you care? You don’t have to pay for it.” She may be becoming a t’ween in some ways but she’s not there yet.

May you share in a child’s wonder of the season this year. It is such a blessing. Christ came as a child to be with us as a human and may we, in turn, see God through the children in our lives.

Please keep in touch. We love hearing from our friends. Our information remains the same.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Good Times, Good Break.....

I have to say mostly good times though. It's been a busy couple of weeks. First the Polar Express debacle, the next week our giant Christmas Party and this week time in Tacoma. We went to my friend Carl's memorial service. I'll go down the line and fill you in.

Polar Express, read posts below. Nuff said......

The Christmas Party was a success. It ran from 3 to 8. We invited about 120 people and had about 100 show. It's an open house format so all 100 aren't here at once. The kids ran wild, the food came and left with the people (it was potluck) and everyone had a good time. Everyone (except one) left before 8. We had one friend who stayed late. I didn't really catch that their kids didn't have school the next day and I was having fun catching up. Bob was cleaning up and I didn't want to slow him down. The next thing I know it's 10:30 the kids are still up and I have had one (or two) too many glasses of wine. Yikes!!!!! Go to bed kids, you have school tomorrow!!! The kids go to bed and so do I..... It's been another successful party. Monday was a little tough on us all but we made it.

Our week bumped along. The kids' excitement about the holidays seems to grow exponentially with each passing day. I don't know how their teachers deal with all these hopped up kids, but they do. It was hard enough dealing with 3 kids.

Our family packed up and headed north for Friday night to go to my friend Carl's memorial service. I still can't believe he is gone. We stayed with mom and Ed along with my brother Rex and sister-in-law Tina. We left town around 4:00 so we had a good portion of the evening to share with family.

At about 8:45 Bob realized that he had left his suit hanging on the back of our home. He had on jeans and a short sleeve shirt, that was not going to cut it. Luckily Kohl's is open until midnight and they had suit on sale. AND....they had Bob's size. That was lucky. We pulled together a suit for him and were home by 10. He got all black...jacket, pants, shirt and tie. He looked like Johnny Cash.

The memorial service was on Saturday at 11 at the same church where Bob and I got married. It was so strange to be there under those circumstances. We explained to the kids that it was imperative that they behave for this service. To encourage their good behavior we bought them bribes. Hot Wheels trucks for the boys and a Webkin horse for Sophia. I am not above a good bribe. Bob wanted to put the kids in the cry room but I insisted that they be in the sanctuary. I think that kids need to learn to behave in various circumstances and this was one of those times. To their credit they were good, REALLY good. They earned their bribes.

The service was so Carl. It started out with a 6 piece brass band playing New Orleans style jazz. It made me smile. There were lots of stories about Carl and about his character. He was involved in so many things and loved by so many people. I laughed, I cried but mostly I remembered my friend and felt lucky to have known him for so long. He was like another dad to me. There was a beautiful slide show with music and in the middle of it was a recording of Mary, Carl's wife of 41 years reading words that Carl dictated on November 25th of this year. She read the following;

I thank God for hastening us to life. I thank God for summoning us to a celebration of the senses. I thank God for the sun and the moon and the glory of the heavens, the majesty of nature, man's power to know and reason, the incredible beauty of great art and music that penetrates the soul, the wonder and mystery of the unknown which keeps us striving, the gift of friendship and the power that draws us together in the community of spirit, a family that allows us security, warmth and pleasure of the fireside.

More specifically, I'd like to thank our friends and loved ones who took care of our family during this very difficult time.

It was truly humbling to see the care, the sense of community, the humanity, and the unbridled spirit of giving. We are deeply indebted.

And finally, I thank the incarnate God, Jesus, that came to this earth and died for our sins and delivered us to eternal life.

-Carl Francis Loovis-

Carl was a great man.

I saw lots of people I hadn't seen in ages. It was nice to catch up with them. We all shared Carl stories and laughed. Most Carl stories are pretty funny.

And now we are home. The house is all decorated, the refrigerator is full, gifts are purchased (not wrapped yet) and we are ready for Christmas. Mom and Ed are coming on Christmas Eve and we will all share Christmas Dinner with friends. This next week will be a busy one. Bob is off starting on Wednesday until January 4th. Mom and Ed come, then we're road tripping to the Great Wolf Lodge for Coulter's Birthday, Dad and Sally will meet up with us there, then Bob's parents come to town for 5 days. A two day respite and then the kids go back to school. Winter Break...yeah right! We're looking forward to seeing all our parents and to all the festivities of these holidays.

May you find peace in these next two weeks. Merry Christmas to all and to all a GREAT BREAK!!!!!!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Santa, Fairies, and all the Rest

If you have read my last couple of posts you know that Sophia figured out the Santa situation. It was very sad for both of us. She cried like she had lost a good friend, and in essence she did.

Last night while I was cooking dinner she came in to talk to me.

She asked, "Mom, if Santa is a spirit and Twinkle (her personal fairy) knows Santa. Does that mean that Twinkle isn't real either?"

I stopped cooking, took her in my lap and we talked. She looked afraid and sad already. I wasn't going to lie to her. I knew this was coming and had been dreading it. I said, "Sophia, I am not going to lie to you. Twinkle isn't real either. I am Twinkle."

She started softly sobbing and laid on me. I said, "I am so sorry. I wondered if I should be lying about all this. Would it have been better if I didn't lie?"

She said, "No. It's your job as a parent to lie."

I said, "NO, NO IT ISN'T!!!! Parents are not supposed to lie."

She said, "Yes you are....about Santa and stuff."

I agreed that maybe that was OK. I told her that those were all the secrets, that I wasn't lying about other things. I just wanted to give her a rich fantasy life. We talked about all the stories that I had made up about fairies.

She asked, "Can I make up stories now?" She seemed excited about the prospect.

I said, "Of course you can. I even thought that when this happened that you and I could make up stories and write a book or something. We could really have fun with it."

She really liked that idea and said we could mail it to a publisher and have the book made for real. Then, as a real book, it could be in the library and stuff. I guess only the books in the library are real.

I told her about the Tooth Fairy, The House Fairy the boy's Fairies etc., etc. I told her how I named the Fairies from the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star so I could keep track of the names. Otherwise how would I remember them. She smiled and laughed about all the stuff that I had to remember and the silly things I have done to be a fairy. She asked where the gifts came from. I told her I had to go out after they went to sleep to get stuff. It was a pain but I did it because I love the kids. She wanted to see where I kept her teeth. Yes, I kept her baby teeth. I showed her. Then she wanted to know where the fairy dust was. I showed her. She asked if it was real fairy dust. I said, "I bought it, I am a fairy, it's real fairy dust." She laughed. She seems to understand it all. She's still sad about her loss but is happy to help in the future.

So the cat is out of the bag and her fantasy life is much diminished. It does make things simpler for me. I was talking to Sophia this morning and I said, "So knowing what you do now, does it make more sense why Twinkle forgot to write back sometimes? You know she's busy and has other priorities."

All Sophia said is, "What are priorities?" So I explained that. She agreed that Twinkle did fall down on the job every now and then but it did make sense now.

Sophia is still sad about the death of her fantasy. I tried to make it less sad and recruit her as a helper. She did slip the other night at the dinner table saying, "Mom, Carlie knows the secret about Santa."

I said, "What about Santa?" Total rookie move on my part.

She said, "About how Santa isn't real."

I was like, "Shhh, shhhhhh.... Let's not talk about that here. Not right now!" The boys were right there. Luckily it went right over their heads. She felt really bad.

After about 5 minutes she said, "I'm sorry mom. About what I said."

I said, "It's OK. They didn't get it." And I smiled really big. I could see the relief on her face. I wasn't mad. I remember having to learn when to and when not to say things. It's a hard thing to learn. She is so sweet and wants to help with the boys and their experience.

So that is what is happening here. Sophia is totally clued in. She is sad about her loss but excited to share in perpetuating the fantasy. I am sad too. My baby is growing up. I know this is part of the plan but it's sad to see her innocence slipping away. I am so proud of her and the girl she is becoming. My baby is growing up.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More Express...

As you may have noticed in my last post, I was a bit perturbed by our family experience on the Polar Express. It was disappointing to say the least. The last post was my letter to a Jon Schlegel who is the VP and GM of Rail Events, Inc. They license each of the railroads to do the Polar Express and are responsible for making sure it is a quality event. The Polar Express brand is owned by Warner Brothers. Following is the email that I received from Jon on Monday afternoon.

Dear Mrs. Leek,
Thank you for contacting me regarding your unpleasant experience on The Polar Express at the Mt. Hood Railroad. I am sorry to hear it was such a disappointment. Our company, Rail Events Inc., licenses this event on behalf of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, Inc. It is our responsibility to ensure our host railroads are portraying the event in a quality manner. One of our company representatives will be in Hood River tomorrow night, Tuesday, December 8, 2009 to ride and conduct an event evaluation.

I just returned from visiting four events in the Midwest and East Coast and will tell you that they were all wonderful events! I am disheartened to hear your accounts but do appreciate your detailed explanations as it will help us rectify the situation. I am copying Michelle Marquart, the General Manager of the Mt. Hood Railroad. Perhaps you already sent this to the railroad but I want to make sure your comments are addressed. I assure you we will follow up with the railroad.

As the parent of a 10 year old boy who still believes in Santa, I understand how awful this must have been for you and your 8 year old daughter. My apologies go out to you, your daughter and your entire group.

Please do not hesitate to contact me again if there is anything else you want to share with me. My information is listed below.

Kind Regards,
Jon Schlegel
Vice President & General Manager
Rail Events Inc.

I thought it was a nice first step. He was right, I had sent an email to the Mount Hood Railroad (MHRR) but hadn't heard back from them. There is a form you fill out and it goes to what I assume is a general mail box.

I had also cc'd the Mayor and City Manager of Hood River. Both of whom wrote back. They both said that they were not affiliated with the MHRR but were sorry that we had a poor time. Then they both took the time to give me good ideas of fun things to do in the future. I was grateful.

Next I got an email from a woman who works at Nora's Table in Hood River. When I mentioned this to my friend Annette she told me, "Oh, that is the best restaurant in town!" I am really looking forward to going there on our next trip. Apparently my letter / email has been flying all over Hood River to the business owners. This is good. While I know the MHRR isn't affiliated with Hood River it is where they do business and it's important for the right hand to know what the left hand is doing. Hood River is so cute this time of year and they are working hard to be successful it seems a shame to have one entity failing the entire group.

I received an email from Michelle Marquart, the GM of MHRR asking me to call her. I called her in the early afternoon on Tuesday and we talked for about 20 minutes. She apologised again and again. She assured me that they were working hard to make the experience better. She had flown people out to experience other Polar Expresses. They were to come back and report on their experience and come up with a plan to improve their Polar Express. Next there were people flying in from Chicago to address some of the issues. All in all, there was action going on. She offered me my money back and tickets for next year. She promised that the experience will "knock my socks off." I accepted but I told her I couldn't promise we'd ride again next year. There are some very raw nerves about this right now. I did tell her if we did ride next year that I would report back on the experience honestly. I really want to give them a good review but there is a lot of work to do.

I also sent my letter to a few people at Warner Brothers. It was hard to figure out who was who on the web site but apparently I got at least one of the people right. Here is the reply I got from Warner Brothers....

Dear Mrs. Leek,

Thank you for your note and for alerting us about your experience. I am sorry to hear that it did not meet your say the least. I am pleased that Jon from Rail Events responded quickly and I have asked the appropriate individuals within our organization to also follow-up with him.

Again, thank you for taking the time to let us know.


Barry R. Ziehl
Senior Vice President, Worldwide Public Relations and Marketing
Warner Bros. Consumer Products

He responded within a couple hours of my email. I thought that was great. I wrote him back and said that Jon had contacted the MHRR and we were working it out.

So that is what is happening with the Polar Express. I am impressed that so many people hopped to action. I felt cheated and like MHRR and all the entities involved just wanted my money. I am now softened and feel like they are trying hard to make this right. That even a big corporation does care about the experience of our collective children. There is a lot of training and money that go into a quality experience. You can't have management on every train so sometimes things digress. That has obviously happened on the MHRR. By all accounts of what is happening now I would say it will get better. It needs to. It needs to improve for the MHRR, for Rail Events, Inc, for Warner Brothers but ultimately for our children. They are so full of magic and wonder this time of year. It's a shame that Sophia lost her belief in such an abrupt way. I really don't want that to happen to another kid, at least not while you are supposed to be sharing in the fantasy. And now I believe that all the corporate entities involved want a positive experience for our kids too. Sometimes it just takes a bit of a reality check to get things back on track (so to speak).

Thank you to all the people in Hood River who sent me emails and well wishes. I want Hood River to succeed. If you haven't been out there for the holiday season you should go. It's really festive. I look forward to revisiting the Hood River Hotel and Nora's Table on my next trip among many others.

Thank you to the people at Warner Brothers, Rail Events, Inc. and MHRR who are trying to make this right. It really is for the benefit of everyone who works with the experience and the riders who want a fantasy. As I stated earlier. I want this to succeed. This is a fun fantasy and if done right could be a great family tradition. Time will tell.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Polar Express.....or Polar Depress? You Decide....

Dear Jon,
I am writing to share my Polar Express experience with you. I will preface this by telling you that I have been an event planner and also a restaurant and hotel manager. I have been given lots of feed back over the years, some helpful some not. I will try to make this constructive as that is my intent.

I read about the Polar Express ride and was very excited to purchase tickets and share that experience with my husband and 3 children ages 8, 5 and 4. When I shared with a couple friends that we were going they decided to join us. We had 6 adults and 8 children total. Not only did we spend $300 on tickets we decided to make a whole weekend out of it. We stayed at a hotel and in total our weekend netted Hood River about $1000. Good for Hood River, they need it.

We had a great day on Friday in Hood River and needed to go to the train at 7:30 so we wrapped up our hotel fun. Everyone was very excited about the Polar Express. We boarded the train, found our seats. As the train left the station, there was no music that we could hear, there was no guidance on the train to find seats, there was no decor to make it feel special. There was a lot of noise and chaos. About 20 minutes in some high school aged kids came through the train car and handed out cookies out of a plastic laundry basket. Immediately following came the hot chocolate. It was awful. Made with powder and water in really cheap Styrofoam cups......that leaked....on my jacket.... That is just a side bar. There wasn't any personalization, no smiles, no Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah, just a, "Here you go."

Next the story. It was a recording on the overhead and we couldn't hear it. The speakers were very poor and the volume was low. Again, the high school kids came in, this time with books. They moved fairly quickly through the train car but the kids didn't get to see most of the pictures and when they did it was a fast glance. It was pretty upsetting to my 4 and 5 year olds.

The lights inside the train were too bright and there was NO light outside the train. It was like being in a subway tunnel for 2 hours. All during this time my son wanted to see what was going on outside the train. I ended up giving him my jacket so he could put it over his head so he could see.

We arrived at the "North Pole" the train slowed. I was under the impression that we would get off to see Santa. Instead we could see Santa and some "elves" waving at us. There were some lights that showed some outlined houses and that was pretty much it. The train stopped, reversed direction and left town. I have to say I was shocked. Really, that would have been the perfect place to see Santa, add a gift shop and have some carolers.

The train pulls out and....we wait. About 10 minutes later and some disappointed kids later Santa shows up with an elf. This is my favorite part. The Santa was so bad that my 8 year old daughter burst into tears and says, "He's not real. He's not! I'm beginning to think it's just you and daddy. That you are Santa." She sobbed for a long while in my arms. It was a very hard thing to talk about in that venue. You may think that 8 is the right age to figure this out and that may be, but on your train, paying for this experience, it was NOT the place nor the time. Seriously. This was supposed to be part of the fantasy not the end of it.

Next the caroling..... Two more high school boys came in and announced, "Let's sing some carols." They yelled out a song title and we were supposed to sing along. Neither of these boys could sing, at all. They started out the songs with, ", two, three, four." This is not a rock band and their counts had nothing to do with the beat that we were singing. They were so bad that a woman in the back of the train essentially took over. She got everyone singing the same songs. It was a relief. The boys stood in the middle of the train and sang badly, following this random woman's instructions.

FINALLY we arrive back at the Hood River station. We filed off the train and there were some high school kids singing one song or another. That was the most festive part of the whole thing. I am not sure if that is part of the "experience" it seemed like they just felt like singing. They were laughing with each other and not generally being silly. I felt like the people exiting the train were secondary to their good time. As we stepped off the train there were more high school employees standing next to exit on the outside of the train. I believe they were there to assist people so they didn't fall. They failed. My friends son fell down the stairs. Rather than attend to the situation one of the high school kids yelled at one of the other high school kids and said, "What are you doing?? You are supposed to help people." They never asked if he was alright and didn't seem to really care. It was very disconcerting.

We departed the train, stopped at the gift shop and hit the restrooms. I was very thirsty and I needed to go to the restroom during most of the trip. I found out after the fact that there was a restroom on the train and there was water available. If there had been an announcement early on I may have known that.

So that is our experience in brief. It was horribly disappointing and my daughter now had lost her belief in Santa. It was NOT worth our $300. Honestly, it wasn't worth much of anything. I felt cheated, lied to and disappointed not only for myself but mostly for my children. This is such an exciting time for them and they were cheated and I was cheated out of seeing them enjoy the experience.

When we got back to the hotel all the adults stood there and stared at each other....."Did you just experience what I did?" We couldn't believe that was it. We felt ripped off, we were having a better time in town. One of the dads said that if he had known where we were he would have gotten off the train. It was that bad. I felt like we were on a subway car going through a tunnel for 2 hours. A New York Subway ride would have been better because you know you can get off every couple of minutes. On the Polar Express you are trapped for 2+ hours. It was awful. Really, awful.

There are SO many things that could have made it better. First, if the employees that cared about our experience. I understand that these kids are young. They don't have kids so they don't understand why it would matter to a small child. It doesn't matter if we have fun or not. They get their $8.40 an hour whether we have a good experience or a bad experience. What's their motivation to give us a good experience? None. They're much more motivate to have fun with and impress their peers, as they proved last night.

How about some lights outside the train to light up the scenery? The kids tried so hard to see outside but couldn't see anything. I know that would cost something but it couldn't be much when spread over the cost of tens of thousands of tickets.

Stop the train at the North Pole and sell some stuff. I know this would be tricky with Santa time but you could make a haul at a gift shop, hot chocolate / coffee shop, caroling time, maybe a little play or a real reading of the book. People could sit on hay bales, sip hot chocolate whatever. Yes it would take more time but it would be great and better then time spent on the train....staring out at darkness.

The hot chocolate in the story was big. Kids LOVE hot chocolate. Make it better quality. And what about a little song and dance with it? I know this takes training and money but I really believe it would be worth yours / their time.

Those are just a few of the suggestions.

We will not be riding the train next year. We will, however, go back to Hood River for the weekend. I guess if you want the big positive for it was that we had such a nice time in the town. I am still disappointed that we left our good time in town for a 2+ hour subway ride to nowhere.

Next year we'll return to Hood River for the holiday celebration on December 3rd. We've already made our reservations. We're going to take our $300 and spend it in the town. We're going to bring an LCD projector, show the movie in our hotel suite and give our kids a real experience. We're bringing a train whistle and doing it right. We'll sing, dance and give our kids hot chocolate made with real milk and whipped cream and marshmallows.

You may want to talk to the Mt. Hood Railroad and talk to them about their hiring practices. They may want to take a page from Disney and mirror their practices. They should be selling experiences not just a one time $25 time slot. They should want you to come back.

Mt. Hood Railroad just wanted my $300 and apparently doesn't care if I ever come back. Their lack of care made the biggest impression on me. It's what I will share with everyone and what I carry with me. I have a blog with many readers and will be posting this letter. I encourage you to respond to my letter and I will post your response on my blog as well. I am also copying this to the mayor of Hood River and the City Manager. I promise you that this is not just to complain but to give you feed back. The Mt. Hood Railroad is giving you and your organization a bad name. You either need to insist on improvement on their part or discontinue a relationship with them. It should be an embarrassment to your establishment and needs to be dealt with.

Heather C. Leek

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Few Pictures of Carl Having Fun

This is Carl as we started out on a hiking trip. He carried in about 4 quarts of already made stew....that's heavy. Note the tubs tied to his back pack. He rented his gear and didn't check it out before he left home. Ahhh...we were camping in the Rain Forrest and ahhh....Carl's tent didn't have rain flys and the couple others he rented didn't either.

This is what it looked like in the morning along the nice quiet creek that we set up camp next to. Everyone was soaked except for Laura and I. We were sleeping like babies, because we had a rain fly.

Mary and Carl out for the evening.

Mary and Carl in Paris. This was such a great trip.

Carl pointing out something or other at Notre Dame. He used his umbrella as a pointer the whole day. We still laugh about that.