Ready to Roll(er Coaster)?

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are going to Orlando to visit some theme parks with our kids, ages 4 and 8. We’re all super excited, but I’m worried about how to make sure the kids have a good time and the adults still feel that we’ve had a vacation. Any suggestions?

A: I am so jealous. My 12-year old daughter and I love roller coasters and for years we’ve been talking about doing an extended coaster tour. It’ll happen one of these days. But let’s get back to you. Going to amusement parks with kids as young as yours and still having fun yourself will be challenging. But it’s definitely possible. Here are some ideas that will help.

  • Go online before you get in line. Make an adults-only visit to each park’s website. Find out their hours, age- and height restrictions, ride closures, whether you can bring in outside food, whether they have lockers, and so on. Most sites have recommendations for families with young children. Once you’ve mastered all that, go back and visit the sites with the kids—but show them only the things that they’ll actually be able to do. There’s no sense getting them excited about rides they can’t go on. Then, have them put together a list of their favorites.
  • While you’re online, follow the parks on social media (so you can get money-saving discounts and followers-only access) and download the apps for each park you’re planning to visit. Besides including maps of the park—complete with where all the bathrooms are—the apps usually include schedules for shows and photo ops with characters, restaurant menus, and more.
  • Plan your meals. To get your money’s worth, you’re going to want to stay at the park all day, and you’ll need to eat. Of course, it’s more convenient to buy all your meals and snacks in the park. These days your food options go way beyond burgers, fries, and fried donuts. Most now offer all sorts of ethnic options, and you’ll almost always be able to find fruit, veggies, and other healthy foods. If money is an issue, bring as much food as you’re allowed to (details will be on the park’s website).
  • Plan your day. The kids (and maybe you) will probably need some breaks during the day. If you’re staying at a nearby hotel, consider going back for a nap and a dip in the pool. Then hit the park again. If not, all the parks have air-conditioned theaters that are great rest spots.
  • Stay cool. Everyone needs a hat, plenty of sunscreen, and a water bottle. No exceptions. According to, “more visitors suffer from sunburn, rashes, heat exhaustion and heatstroke than all other injuries put together.”
  • Start really, really early. If you get to the park before it opens, you can dash to the most popular rides before the lines start getting crazy.
  • Think safety. If your child has a tendency to disappear into crowds, consider a wrist bungee or harness. A lot of kids (and adults) find them horribly embarrassing, so the mere threat of using one might be enough to keep the kids nearby. You might also consider one of the many GPS trackers; some can be worn on the wrist, others attached to the kids’ clothing.
  • Split up. If you and your husband want to go on adult rides, think about having one of you stay with the kids while the other goes in the single-rider lines, which are almost always shorter. Then switch.
  • Remember, you’re on vacation. Relax and try to see the parks—and the world—through your children’s eyes.

Going outside? Don’t forget your sunscreen–too many of us do

If you’re over 50 and you put on sunscreen every time you go outside–even if it’s overcast–give yourself a pat on the back. But know that you’re in the minority. Fewer than 30 percent of men 50 and over (compared with 43 percent of women) say they always put on sunscreen when going outside in the sun, according to new research  by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

You should read the rest of my article at the Talking About Men’s Health blog, here.

Here Comes—or There Goes—the Sun(screen)

Dear Mr. Dad: I thought I was doing the right thing by slathering my 1-year old with sunscreen when we go outside, but I just read that the chemicals in sunscreen could be more harmful than the sun. Now what are we supposed to do?

A: Summer is winding down, but there are still plenty of sunny days ahead, so your question comes at a good time. For years, we’ve been programmed to practically marinate our kids in sunscreen before sending them outside. But recently, as you point out, the effectiveness—and safety—of that strategy is in question.

Before we get to the actual ingredients of sunscreen, let’s talk about the vocabulary, which can often be contradictory, confusing, or both. In June 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to deal with this issue by coming up with new regulations for sunscreen labeling, including requiring a “drug facts” box, forbidding claims such as “sunblock” or “waterproof,” and clarifying which products can be labeled “broad spectrum” (meaning that they protect against both UVB and the more deadly UVA rays). Unfortunately, these requirements don’t go into effect until summer 2012.

Okay, back to ingredients. In a 2010 study, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit watchdog, reported that only 39 of the 500 sunscreen products they examined were safe and effective. The study claims sunscreens flaunt false sun protection (SPF) ratings, that one commonly ingredient, oxybenzone, is a hormone-disrupting chemical that can affect puberty, and another, retinyl palmitate (a derivative of Vitamin A), could actually accelerate some cancers instead of preventing them. But the emphasis needs to be on the word “could” as the research is hardly definitive.

The American Academy of Dermatology, for example, maintains that sunscreens—even those with oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate—are safe for most people over the age of six months. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees, but recommends that babies under six months be kept out of direct sunlight and shouldn’t wear sunscreen except in very small areas, such as their hands. For babies over six months, the AAP recommends sunscreen but says the best protection is limiting sun exposure—especially around midday—and wearing protective clothing, including a hat.

If you’re concerned about sunscreen chemicals, look for “chemical-free” or “mineral-based” brands that don’t contain oxybenzone. These mainly use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient, both of which form an actual barrier on the skin without being absorbed and start working immediately upon application.

But don’t go overboard. In small doses, the sun is actually healthy. Those UVB rays help our bodies produce vitamin D which is essential for healthy immune systems and bones. If you’re going to be out in the sun for a few hours, you and your children need protection; if you’re just running around for 10 minutes, you should be okay (but check with your pediatrician to be sure).

Here’s how to protect babies and toddlers from the sun:

  • Limit exposure to direct sunlight, especially between 10am and 4pm when rays are strongest.
  • Use protective lightweight clothing to cover up, including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses (if they pull them off, keep putting them back on).
  • If you’re not using a zinc or titanium blocks, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside so it has plenty of time to get absorbed into the skin. But regardless of the type of sunscreen, reapply every two hours or after swimming (no sunscreen is completely waterproof.)
  • Don’t fear the sun. A little every day is good for you.