Celebrating Special Family Occasions with Memorable Travel Experiences

By Ellen H. Parlapiano

As any parent of teenagers knows, teens are a tough audience to impress. So when my daughter Amy called her recent Sweet 16 celebration at Woodloch Pines in the Poconos the “best birthday ever,” I was feeling pretty proud of myself for picking such a perfect place for a party.

It was actually Amy’s request not to have a traditional Sweet 16 party that first got me thinking about going away for the weekend instead. “I just want to do something special with my 3 BFFs,” she said, referring in teen-speak to her “best friends forever,” Anna, Laura and Liz. But what could we do that wouldn’t be boring, babyish or ordinary?

“Maybe we could all go away somewhere,” I mistakenly mused aloud one day, only half-seriously. “OMG, that would be so cool!” Amy replied, in the same reverent tone she uses when talking about her favorite TV show, “The O.C.” I knew there was no turning back now.

Planning the Birthday Vacation

To help narrow down possible destinations, I made a list of must-haves. The place had to be within driving distance—no more than 4 hours away from my home in Westchester County, New York. It had to have enough to keep four teenagers busy, happy, and out of trouble. Since her birthday is in February, I needed winter activities, yet I didn’t want to go to a ski resort. I didn’t want to cook either, or splurge on restaurants every day. So I added a meal plan to my wish list. And having chaperoned my share of sleepovers through the years, I knew the girls would be up most the night talking. So a separate bedroom, with an adjoining door to their room would be also be nice—allowing me to stay within earshot, without losing too much sleep.

Woodloch Pines fit the bill in every way. Located on a lake in the Pocono Mountains, in northeastern Pennsylvania, it’s just two hours from my house. Judging from the license plates in the parking lot, however, it’s also a popular winter weekend getaway for families from as far away as Maine and Virginia. And in the summer months, it attracts vacationers from all over the country.

What I found most appealing was the seemingly endless array of activities and food available for one all-inclusive price. It’s difficult to find winter resorts that offer enough non-skiing alternatives. But when I checked Woodloch’s website (www.woodloch.com), I was amazed to see that there is stuff going on all day long—from snow tubing, ice skating and Winter Olympics competitions to bumper cars, scavenger hunts and Family Feud. Plus, there’s an indoor pool and hot tub, and a theater that presents Broadway-style shows. (In the summer, there’s even more happening at the pool and lake, where you can go swimming, boating and waterskiing, and take part in Summer Olympic games.) Add to that, three delicious family-style meals a day—plus homemade cakes and muffins with coffee, in mid mornings and afternoons—and I was hooked.

As I checked availability, I discovered that Woodloch offers special “Red Mittens Weekend” packages during January and February, as well as mid-week deals all year round. (See “If You Go” for pricing information.) While going on vacation for a birthday might seem like a splurge, a 3- day getaway would probably cost as much as (if not less than) a three-hour catered party in a hall with a DJ.

Woodloch has accommodations to suit families of all sizes. There are standard rooms that sleep up to 6, suites that sleep up to 10, and roomy guest homes that sleep up to 12. I decided to stay in one of the 2-bedroom Edgewater suites, with a kitchen, spacious living room and dining area, and 2 bathrooms. Each bedroom had two queen beds, and I knew the girls would be happy to double up in their room, while I had the other bedroom to myself. The suite was located in the Mountain Laurel building, steps away from the indoor pool, and just a short walk from the main lodge and dining room. But there’s also a convenient free shuttle service that runs every few minutes to take you around the sprawling grounds.

An Extra Element of Drama

To add suspense to the birthday weekend, I billed it as a “Mystery Road Trip.” I sent out “Save the Date” cards about 2 months in advance, telling Amy and her friends that only I knew where we’d be going. (Of course, I called the parents to get official permission and fill them in on my secret plan.)

Two weeks before the getaway, I mailed each girl (including mine) a poem full of clues to keep them guessing:

“Our Mystery Road Trip is just a few weeks away, Here are some things you’ll need for your stay: A warm jacket, gloves and boots, in case there’s snow, There’s no skiing involved, but you’ll be on the go. Pack a bathing suit, but you won’t need suntan lotion, Cause we won’t be anywhere near an ocean. Bring a dressy outfit, cause you never know, When we might be going out at night—maybe to a show….”

I agreed to pick them up after school on the designated Friday and bring them back Sunday afternoon.

Let’s Get This Party Started!

When the big weekend finally arrived, there was so much excitement as we piled into the car. But the real thrill came 2 hours later, when we scrambled back out, and the girls raced into Woodloch’s cozy lobby. “Totally awesome!” was the consensus, as they grabbed an activity schedule. In the five minutes it took me to check in, they had figured out everything they’d be doing for the rest of the day. We had no time to waste! There was snow tubing at 4, dinner at 6:30; movie trivia at 8:30; and karaoke and dancing after that!

Good thing there was plenty of food to keep us energized for all that action. Woodloch’s meals are a multi-course event. Breakfast features specialties like Scandinavian pancakes and Belgian waffles. At lunch and dinner, homemade breads, soups and salads whet your appetite for main course choices like barbecue platters, roast pork loin, mini ravioli, jumbo shrimp and Alaskan king crab legs. On Sundays, there’s a lavish Smorgasbord buffet lunch. And of course, you must leave room for desserts like red velvet cake and mud pie. You can even arrange to take a bit of the Woodloch flavor back home with you by ordering some of resort’s famous baked goods the night before you leave. Woodloch will have them bagged and waiting for you after lunch on departure day.

Just Like Family

By the time we finished dinner our first evening, the girls had already affectionately dubbed the place “WP,” and decided that they were honorary members of the Woodloch family. “I feel like Judy is our aunt,” said Liz, about our waitress, who showered us with TLC, and offered to bring both shrimp and pasta when Amy couldn’t decide on just one. “The food is so intense,” chimed in Laura, as we made room on the table for warm-from-the-oven pumpkin bread and Italian wedding soup. “Can I get cheesy fries on the side?” wondered Anna. And just a few minutes later we were making more room on the table, while snitching fries from Anna’s plate.

Even though the dining room is huge and bustling with families, the Woodloch staff makes you feel as if you are the only person in the room. And since you’re assigned to the same table and servers every day, you forge a relationship with the people who work there. “JK’s my homey,” announced Amy, referring to John Kiesendahl, the resort’s owner—also known to guests as the guy with the silly pants, because he wears trousers adorned with penguins, snowmen, and other whimsical characters. John grew up with Woodloch Pines, and his love for the resort and its guests is palpable. He and his staff run the place with the same personal touch made famous by his parents, Harry and Mary, who founded it in 1958. At mealtimes, JK is at the door to greet you, and comes around to every table for a quick chat. It’s easy to see why families return to Woodloch year after year, choosing to celebrate special milestones there. On Amy’s birthday weekend alone, there were 5 other Sweet 16 celebrations, as well as several other assorted birthdays and anniversaries. The staff will present you with a cake on the night of your choice, and JK leads the whole dining room in a round of Happy Birthday! Like my daughter, many of the birthday girls donned tiaras for the entire weekend, and I’m sure every single one of them felt like a princess.

Amy chose to have her birthday serenade on Saturday night, which was Woodloch’s gala “Hooray for Hollywood” themed celebration. At dinner, the staff dressed up like movie characters and welcomed us to the dining room, and during dessert they paraded through the room, then posed for pictures. What an eclectic bunch! It was silly, but the girls loved it and raced off for photo opportunities.

After dinner, we headed to the theater for dancing and the “Night on the Red Carpet” show, featuring award-winning songs. (For families with younger children, Woodloch has a special matinee performance of the show at 5:00.) The girls loved the “clubby” atmosphere of the cabaret-style theater, and I ordered them pitchers of soda to go with the munchies that were in bowls on everyone’s candlelit table. It was such fun seeing them in their dress-up clothes, and I was amazed at how well Amy’s tiara was holding up—given the fact she’d been wearing it for 2 days straight!

Savoring Special Moments

The homespun atmosphere at Woodloch gave me a chance to reflect on past birthdays, and contemplate how quickly my baby was growing up. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Amy was a headstrong toddler who refused to wear birthday hats? I was so happy to be in a place where I could still glimpse the little girl inside my sophisticated 16-year-old.

One of her favorite attractions of the weekend, believe it or not, was something called “The Forest”—one of those indoor playgrounds with tubes, slides and ball pits. I don’t think I’d seen her in one of those since her 6th birthday! Nevertheless, when she and her pals heard that teens were allowed in, they exuberantly squeezed through the narrow tunnels—stopping occasionally to tap on the window and wave to me. I thought of my days as a young parent, sitting outside similar playgrounds while Amy romped joyfully. And I was happy to have the chance to do it again—even if only briefly.

I had expected to spend lots of time on the sidelines like that, but the girls were happy to have me join in most of the weekend’s festivities. Many of the activities at Woodloch are designed for families to share—and it’s common to find multiple generations partnering up. We formed a team called “Sixteen Candles,” and turned in respectable performances in “Name That Tune,” Movie Trivia, and Family Feud. We danced side by side, and sang along to show tunes. And we stayed up past midnight to catch the comedian’s show. Our short time at Woodloch was filled with non-stop fun.

Toward the end of our trip, Amy’s tiara was beginning to droop, but her smile was as broad as ever. This had been one special birthday!

As we drove home, the mood was much more subdued than it was on our way there. “I miss it already,” said Liz. “We have to come back,” said Anna. “Maybe for my 16th,” offered Laura. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” added Amy. “We can come back again when I’m 16 and a half and try out the summer stuff! Couldn’t we, mom?”

Hmmmm…..Not a bad idea.

If You Go:

• Bring a group. The saying, “The more, the merrier,” is certainly true here. The activities are meant for families to share; and most games and contests require at least 8 people on a team. However, if you don’t have enough, the Woodloch staff will pair you with others who also don’t have enough to make a team. We got together with a small group from Long Island, New York for Family Feud, and nearly won the championship! Woodloch also specializes in arranging family reunions, so if you’re planning one, talk to a representative for help.

• Check Woodloch’s website (www.woodloch.com) and click on “The Edge” for game cheats for many of the activities. That’s how we knew to bring “Hershey Kissables” for the scavenger hunt!

• You can order balloons or flowers for your party by calling Honesdale Greenhouse at 570-253-3050. They will deliver them right to your room.

• Rates vary according to season, with summer and holidays being the most expensive. Here are rates for different times of year:

In spring (March through May): Weekend packages (2 nights) start at $285 per adult; $95 ages 3-6; $140 ages 7-12; $160 ages 13-19. Midweek packages (4 nights) start at $380 per adult; ages 3-6 free through the month of March, ($95 other times); $80 ages 7-12; $96 ages 13-19. In early summer (June): Weekend packages (2 nights) start at $330 per adult; $80 ages 3-16; $120 ages 7-12; $140 ages 13-19. Midweek packages (4 nights) start at $496 per adult; $68 ages 3-6; $112 ages 7-12; $152 ages 13-19.

In summer (July through August): 3-night packages start at $659 per adult; $230 ages 3-6; $391 ages 7-12; $492 ages 13-19. 4-night packages start at $879 per adult; $230 ages 3-6; $391 ages 7-12; $492 ages 13-19. 7-night packages start at $1337 per adult; $350 ages 3-6; $595 ages 7-12; $749 ages 13-19.

In fall (September through November): Weekend packages (2 nights) start at $340 per adult; $90 ages 3-6; $140 ages 7-12; $160 ages 13-19. Midweek packages (4 nights) start at $530 per adult; ages 3 – 6 free; $110 ages 7-12; $130 ages 13-19. In winter (December through February): Red Mitten weekend (2 nights) packages start at $385 per adult; $115 ages 3-6; $185 ages 7-12; $225 ages 13-19. Mid-week winter packages (4 nights) start at $305 per adult; ages 3-6 free during January and Feb; $70 ages 7-12; $85 ages 13-19.

Ellen H. Parlapiano is an award-winning writer who has covered family travel for magazines such as Family Circle, Parents, Child and Working Mother. She lives in Eastchester, New York with her husband and two children and has traveled extensively with her family.

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