Family Travel Planning (Episode 4)
Shannon Jones, Founder & Author
KeeKee’s Big Adventures
Family Travel Planning Conversation
I love KeeKee. KeeKee is quite the world traveler, and you tell her stories in a series of books. Share with us a little bit about what brought KeeKee to life and where KeeKee has been?
I’m the founder and creator of KeeKee’s Big Adventures. It’s the kids and family travel entertainment brand. We created it to inspire kids and families to explore the world. To have an appreciation for other places and cultures and languages and to get families exploring. Hopefully raising more global citizens. That’s what we are trying to do.
It all started more than 10 years ago when the first book came out. We thought there were so many ways to create this platform and idea, and we thought creating a character that kids and families could love would be a great way to go in a picture book series.
So we started with “Big Adventures in Paris, France” and then we created four more books from there. So in her books, she’s been to Paris, France, Rome, Italy, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Athens, Greece, and London, England. It’s five books and then it’s actually grown into so much more.
We have a Family Travel Podcast and KeeKee is the family travel mascot for AAA clubs across the country. We are creating more content and more programs to help introduce kids and families to the country and the world.
I don’t know if I told you this when it happened, but my first trip to Paris was maybe two and a half years ago. In order to prepare for the trip, I read KeeKee’s Big Adventures. I made my to-do list. So even as an adult single traveler, it was so digestible to go, “Oh, here’s what KeeKee did. Let me go visit some of these places.” And that’s how I decided what I was gonna do.
As the writer of the books, I wanted to make sure that grownups are having to read picture books to kids all the time. And so it should be fun for adults, too. At bedtime, why not take a trip to another country? And what I tell kids in schools, or kids that I meet, that I introduce the books to, everywhere that places KeeKee goes in the books are real. It may be illustrated in an all-animal world because KeeKee is a curious world, traveling cat. It may be all animals, but everything that she does and sees is real. And then you as a person can go and do those things as well, except for swimming in the Trevi Fountain. That would be the one exception.
You have done a great job of showcasing parks in your books. Tell me about some of the parks that KeeKee has visited.
Well, it’s funny. When you said that to me, I was like, “Have I?” And I have. There’s so many types of parks and so many ways to explore parks. We actually feature parks in all of the books. Parks are an amazing way to explore any city, especially as a family. When you’re traveling with kids, you need places for them to run around.
There are famous parks in every city. One of the main first places KeeKee goes in her Paris Adventure is the Tuileries Garden, which is right by the Louvre. You can just stroll around, get a crepe from one of the vendors, and watch the little sailboats on the pond.
In Rome, the Roman Forum that’s near the Coliseum. It was once the center of the Great Roman Empire and you can walk through for free. It’s a park slash giant outdoor museum?
Just outside Amsterdam, in a city called Lisse is Keukenhof Gardens, which dates back to the 15th century. It’s only open for eight weeks each year and it features more than 7 million flowers. You are just surrounded by flower fields. When you fly into Amsterdam in the spring, you can see the rows of the flowers. It’s like someone has painted the ground.
In London there are so many parks. Hyde Park is the largest and oldest park in central London, and it’s actually one of eight royal parks. And then of course, the parks around Kensington Palace.
I love to see how people use the parks. You’ll see people taking a nap or exercising or playing games. It’s so diverse and for some people it’s like their backyard.
Oh yeah. In a lot of these big cities, like New York City, people live in smaller places and so places like Central Park or Hyde Park or any of these parks do become your backyard. That’s the only outdoor space that you have.
Near Kensington Palace is the Princess Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, which is great for kids.
One that I think is super cool is in Athens, Greece. There is a place called The Agora that is at the base of the Acropolis, the Parthenon on top of it. And then down below was the Agora, which used to be the center of Athens like back in ancient times. That’s actually where Greeks invented democracy and Socrates preached there.
You can visit it for its history or you can visit it because you’re getting a little exercise or looking for a place to play.
Exactly. Those are some of the places in the books. KeeKee has become the family travel mascot for many AAA clubs across the country. And so we’re doing a lot on state parks and national parks and, they’re great for, for everyone.
I think we’re really lucky in the US. There’s so much public land that’s set aside for us. You had mentioned before you were doing some things on the state parks. What is it that you like about the state parks when it comes to family travel?
Well, first of all, there’s over 10,000 state parks in the United States.
In the summer, families want to go on a park vacation. National Parks can be very crowded.
State parks are a great option. There are tons of activities like hiking, swimming, fishing, camping and boating, depending on what park you visit. And you can camp, or stay in lodges or cabins.
I was just writing an article for AAA about the 10 best state parks for family vacations. There are just such cool parks out there. Like New York has Letchworth State Park. It’s known as the Grand Canyon of the East. So you don’t even need to go to the Grand Canyon to see a grand canyon. It has 20 waterfalls, 66 miles of hiking trails. You can stay in historic Glen Iris Inn
You can also check out Assateague State Park in Maryland. There you will see wild horses. You can also find hiking for all levels.
There’s a Devils Fork State Park in South Carolina that has Lake Jocasse. It has this amazing clear water and it’s fed by all of these mountain streams.
And then there’s a park in Kentucky called Cumberland Falls State. They have a 69’ high waterfall that is often called Little Niagra. And one of the cool features in this park are the moonbows. It’s a white rainbow, or also called a lunar rainbow. And it appears for two or so days as long as the sky is clear on either end of the full moon. It’s one of few places in the world where you can see a moonbow.
North of Sedona, Arizona is a park called Slide Rock State Park. It has what is called “mother nature’s slip and slide”. It’s an 80 foot long red rock water slide. That’s fun for the whole family.
One of the tips that was given to me was that there’s often a state park that butts up to a National Park. If the National Park is too busy or crowded, head to the State Park to see similar features.
Exactly. For example, Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab, Utah is a fantastic alternative to Arches and Zion. And you can see views of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. It’s also was the location of the filming of Thelma and Louise’s iconic last scene. So you think that’s in the Grand Canyon, but it was actually in this state park.
Let’s talk a little bit about preparing for a trip to the park. I certainly have spent a lot of time preparing for trips to parks, but iit is different when you’re preparing for a family. What suggestions do you have for families as they’re making those plans?
Well, like most vacations, first of all, you think about what time of year you want to go? How long do you have? How far do you wanna travel? And what are the things that you want to see and do? I think those are the prerequisites to planning any vacation.
The cool thing about parks, especially the National Parks, is that you can plan a trip on your own. There are also companies, like Trafalgar, that host guided vacations to the parks if you didn’t wanna plan the whole thing. They take care of everything for you, and you can even stay on a places like a dude ranch as part of it.
Think about making reservations in advance. When you’re a family, you can’t wing it. You need to have a plan, especially during peak season. For National Parks you can book on recreation.gov. State Parks usually have their own reservation system. Many of the booking processes open up six months in advance. Consider going in the off-season or doing a not-so-busy weekend.
Get the kids involved in the planning can be a great to get them excited about the trip. There are a lot of resources out there to help you put your plan together.
I love that parks tend to be leisurely, everything is slower. For many, this is incredibly challenging – no cell signal, no devices. The National Parks host a Junior Ranger Program to help guide kids through parks. What other tips do you have for it?
Most parks have a calendar of events that you can access on their website. Many have a junior ranger type of program and a lot of educational opportunities, events, and other ways for people to engage with. The Visitor Center is a great place to start when you get to the park.
We’ve also created a few outdoor scavenger hunts for AAA. It’s a great way to keep everyone involved.
You can also create your own activities like bird watching. Make up activities like how many birds can you identify, or noting their markings or their songs. Bring binoculars and a chart to track your findings. Make it a family experience. You can do the same thing with leaves or rocks.
Are the activities you created for AA available to the public?
Some of these things that we’ve created for AAA you can find on the AAA Family Travel website.
You can come to our website for a lot of other activities.
One of the other activities that I think is really cool, and I know you are big on this, is star gazing. A lot of parks host programs around star gazing. And some of the parks are Dark Sky Parks I think it would be amazing for kids to experience this part of the park.
One idea that popped into my mind is to touch base with your child’s art teacher. So much art can be done in nature and their teacher may have some suggestions for you.
Another thing on KeeKee’s Big Adventure website is Flat KeeKee. I love Flat KeeKee.
Flat KeeKee just loves to travel. She loves everything. We’re in the process of developing a plush, but that’s something that everyone has always asked for. For those of us who are older, Flat KeeKee is similar to Flat Stanley.
It’s a cutout that you can laminate her and take her on your adventures. That’s another way to engage with kids. Let them figure out where to take photos of Flat KeeKee.
There are so many places that she goes and I’m jealous of her travels. You can go to our website and join the free KeeKee Club. We have a weekly newsletter, KeeKee’s Club Courier, that has fun things like travel or non-travel exploring that can be done at home. Signing up for the KeeKee Club and there’s a fun downloadable board game that you can just print out at home, fun for the kids to play.
And then when you’re traveling, make sure that you tag KeeKee’s Big Adventures or even #KeeKee’sBigAdventures or #flatKeeKee so that we can share our pictures too cuz we love getting those. We post a\ KeeKee Friends Friday on Instagram and Facebook and we love to share things that we get from fans.
You have a new feature coming to the website? I, I’m not sure if we’re allowed to talk about it, but I’m going to put you on the spot here. Can you tell us about this new passport program that you are launching?
When you think about it, you really only have 18 years of vacations with your kids. So as a family, that’s, 18 summers. So we’ve created the Family Travel Passport with AAA to be the first of its kind web-based app, really designed to help families plan and make the most of those 18 years of vacation together.
It’s really cool. So it’s FamilyTravelPassport.com, powered by AAA Travel. And it’s great because the whole family gets involved. Everyone goes into the app and selects activities and attractions and destinations and then it literally creates your family’s very own family travel passport that you can use to really maximize your time together over the next however many years you have left with your kids.
Everyone that’s tried it and all of the families that are using it are just loving it. So can’t wait for your listeners to check it out.
What is your earliest park memory?
I grew up in the Washington D. C. area and we were lucky enough to be really surrounded by the National Mall and all of the museums and all of the amazing monuments. So my earliest memory I would say is being at, all of those locations and discovering everything that the National Mall had to offer.
What made you love the parks?
I think it’s everything that you can discover in most of the parks. You know, that could be something new in nature, or it’s something that you learn. Being outside, I’m a huge fan of nature, so it’s something that you, definitely get to do in the parks.
What park have you yet to visit but is on your bucket list and why?
I can’t wait. I know it’s The most famous park, but I can’t wait to see Old Faithful and Yellowstone. I’ve never been to Montana or Wyoming, North Dakota, or South Dakota, so I can’t wait to just get out there and explore those.
What is your favorite campfire activity?
My favorite campfire activity is…S’mores. I mean, what else is there to say? And I, you know what, forget it, s’mores. Roasted marshmallows. I love roasting marshmallows and just that whole activity and taking it layer by layer. That’s my favorite activity.
Tent, camper, or cabin?
I’m going to go with camper or cabin, preferably.
What is the best animal sighting that you’ve had?
You know, we were just recently in Myakka State Park, and we saw, of course, tons of birds, there’s just such amazing ornithology here in Florida. We have parrots in our backyard. I mean, come on. But the best animal sighting just recently was seeing an alligator in the park that was a little bananas.
What is your favorite sound in the parks?
My favorite sound in the park, is quiet and just the birds.
What is the greatest gift that the parks give to us?
The greatest gift that parks give to us is nature, and a place that you just know is not going to be developed and whether that is among trees, in the water. You can go to Biscayne National Park, which is what, what is it, 80% underwater, or go to beaches. There are just so many places that parks preserve for us to enjoy.
I think that’s the greatest gift.