Last thing before leaving home Connor drew a big red heart on a piece of paper, cut it in two and gave one half to his parents.
"When we are reunited," he told them, "we can put the heart back together."
Connor, age "six and three-quarters," was about to fly to Walt Disney World with my wife and me, known to him as Nana and Grandpa. It would be his first overnight trip without his parents and he was nervous. Little did he know that he was taking part in one of the hottest trends in travel - a grandparent-grandkid vacation on which Mom and Dad are not invited.
A 2009 study by Travelhorizons, the research division of the U.S. Travel Association, indicated that grandparents travelling with grandchildren represent 7 per cent of U.S. adult leisure travellers. No figures are available for Canada, but companies like Merit Travel Group of Toronto and Adventures Abroad of Richmond, B.C. have extensive experience in the field. Today's grandparents live longer and are more robust than previous generations and are involved as caregivers to their grandchildren, mainly because of two-career families, explains Lori Copeland, Merit's director of business development. "They have a desire to share experiences with their family while they're living, rather than leaving an inheritance upon their death."
Connor had already been to Disney World with his parents, so we decided to include something a little different - golf. Grandpa has played golf, badly and only about six times. But Connor watches golf on television and has started taking lessons at home. Wouldn't it be fun for him and Grandpa to take a joint lesson from a pro?
First, however, we had to get him away from his parents at the airport. No sooner were they out of sight than he burst into tears. He was still crying at U.S. pre-clearance when an immigration agent asked him, "Do you know these people?" Luckily for us, he said yes.
On the plane, he morphed back to his normal happy self as he watched children's videos and played computer games. On landing, he insisted that we phone his parents immediately. After that, he was satisfied with one call a day at bedtime. On day three, he told us, "I feel like you're my parents now."
Travelling with a grandchild, we discovered, wasn't that different from past trips with our own kids, except that now we're out of practice and out of shape. Six-year-olds, we were reminded, can't be programmed. They need time to climb on rocks, play hopscotch on the hotel carpet and dash into every souvenir store they pass.
We started our golfing experience at Disney's Fantasia Gardens miniature golf course, where Connor beat the old folks. The next day, Connor and I progressed to the real thing, our golf lesson from PGA professional Mike Gertzberg at the Palm, one of two Disney courses that will host the Children's Miracle Network Classic next month. Mike had planned to teach us the fundamentals of posture and swinging, using videos to highlight our mistakes. Connor wanted to hit the ball his way. So Mike, a man of great patience, spent much of the lesson persuading Connor to look out for nearby people before swinging. When it was over, Connor had at least learned how to scoop up a ball with a sand wedge, so he considered the lesson worthwhile.
Our biggest mistake was trying to cram too many experiences into a four-day trip. We stayed at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, where we could watch giraffes and zebras from our balcony. But Connor was more interested in using the clue sheet we got at check-in to hunt for "hidden Mickeys" in the lobby. He sat transfixed through La Nouba, Disney's Cirque du Soleil show, but told us after that "a little bit of it was boring."
One highlight for him was dinner at Chef Mickey's, where costumed characters came to our table to sign autographs. He rates it the best restaurant in the world. He also liked Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom, where he cleaned up at every trick-or-treat station he could find. By the third morning, he asked for free time. So instead of another theme park we fitted in a swim and a video arcade at our hotel.
On the final day, when we had to leave our last theme park for the airport, Connor balked. "Phone Mommy and Daddy and tell them we are staying another night," he demanded. He even cried a little, but this time he was faking.
Back home, he rushed to show his parents the treasures he had purchased, including a scary plastic tarantula and a "dinosaur egg" he's convinced will hatch in 10 years. He forgot all about reuniting the pieces of the paper heart.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- You may not need it, but Foreign Affairs recommends bringing a notarized letter from children's parents giving permission to take them out of the country.
- The world's your oyster, but choose a destination appropriate to the children's ages.
- Involve the kids in the planning experience.
- Make sure there's some down time.