Sesame Place: Special Needs Accommodations

Sesame Place 300x300 Sesame Place: Special Needs AccommodationsThis is the 3rd post in the Sesame Place series. Part 1 was planning your visit and deciding if it’s right for your family. Part 2 was about when to save money and when to splurge. And today I’m talking about Sesame Place and special needs accommodations. My children are autistic, but any disability would go through the same basic processes.

Sesame Place in 2012 was our first theme park visit and our tickets were provided so we could get a chance to try out special needs accommodations in that setting. Now we’ve been around the block a few times and this time came with 2 special needs kids. Here’s how it worked for us and what to keep in mind for your family.

Getting a Bracelet

2012 08 29 13 01 45 897 300x224 Sesame Place: Special Needs AccommodationsWhen we arrived we went to the Welcome Center (easy to miss, right next to the entry gates) and signed up both kids for the Ride Accessibility Program. I gave them the kids’ diagnoses and wasn’t asked any prying or unnecessary questions. They even had Graham still in the computer from our previous visit so we could speed right through. Both kids had their height checked to confirm the rides they were eligible for, and then each one was issued a bracelet.

The bracelets are bright orange and ours had 3 tabs off the side. Three of the water rides only get one line bypass per person, though this wasn’t fool proof, I noticed some of the tabs were coming loose in the morning. Still, we made it just fine. You’re also given a sheet of paper for each person which has additional information. You show this to the ride attendant each place you go, though we had to get a waterproof pouch for it later in the day when we hit the water rides.

Rides and Shows

Like most parks, the disability entrance is just the exit. It’s usually right next to the attendant’s controls. At Sesame Place, it also happens to be the location of Abby’s Magic Queue, aka the line-skipping pass. I actually liked that part of it since using that entrance was used often enough that we never had to try hard to get anyone’s attention. 

Our experience with the employees at Sesame Place was really great. Everyone was very kind as they let us on and off, if we ran into the slightest hiccup they were very apologetic. As my kids have invisible disabilities, it was nice to have the paperwork to just hand over and not have to answer any questions. (And the paperwork rarely got more than a cursory glance.) 

2012 08 29 12 21 04 773 300x224 Sesame Place: Special Needs AccommodationsIt’s not quite so easy when it comes to the shows. For us, going to a show is a bigger commitment than a ride. It lasts more than a couple minutes so there’s always the potential that we’ll have to make a quick exit. Luckily for us we snagged a few of the reserved disability seats at the show we attended in 2012. But you’ll still want to arrive a few minutes early to make sure you can get to the seats. At the indoor show we went to in 2014 it was so full by the time we came in right before showtime that disability seating wasn’t an option.

Shows do have loud sound, those of you with noise sensitive kids will want to bring along your noise-canceling headphones if you think they’ll want to go. A few rides also have sound, but overall it wasn’t bad.

The Water Park

For sensory kids, the water park will either be a breeze or a nightmare. You probably know which kind you have. Graham was pretty happy with all the water rides, but he was not terribly enthusiastic about the two big spray areas, especially the Count’s Splash Castle, which was really loud, really crowded, and really hard to keep an eye on your kid. Ernie’s Waterworks is smaller, has younger children, and is much more low-key, though neither of my kids were up for it. Tessa had to be coaxed through a few parts of the Lazy River because she didn’t like the parts where she could get splashed or sprayed, and so she skipped some of the rides all together to avoid a freakout. 

Tessa’s favorite water ride, Slimey’s Chutes, was a small and gentle tube slide that lets a parent go in the back and a child in the front in a double tube, or a child solo in a single tube. It only has one line bypass and the line can get long. While we waited in line for her second go-round I saw a special needs family encounter a problem that I hadn’t considered. Their special needs daughter, a teenager, was too big to go on the ride with a parent and had to go alone if she was going to go. For most of the rides this wasn’t an issue at all, but for this one my heart went out to them. But the story ends happily! She went by herself with minimal help from her dad, and her mom and brother cheered for her at the bottom. I may have gotten a little misty watching it all unfold.

But for most children, they’ll be able to go with a parent for several of the water rides, including Slimey’s Chutes, Big Bird’s Rambling River, Sky Splash, and Sesame Streak. (The same goes for dry rides, where you can generally be in the same row/car when you ride together.) 

Allergies

We don’t have food allergies in our family, but I did see that Sesame Place now offers three special allergy-friendly snack packs (free from wheat, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, and soy) that you can get at various parts of the park. You can also go to the Welcome Center at the front for allergy information and an allergy card. As their food policy does allow medically necessary items, you may be able to bring some food of your own inside. Best to read their info in advance or contact them before your visit.

 

I recommend anyone visiting with special needs go over Sesame Place’s accessibility page and their full guide.

We received complimentary passes to Sesame Place in 2012, but financed our 2014 trip on our own.

Sesame Place: When to Splurge and When to Save

Sesame Place Sesame Place: When to Splurge and When to SaveThis is Part 2 of my Sesame Place series. Part 1 was about planning your visit and if the park is right for you. Part 3 will cover Special Needs Accommodations.

When you think of visiting a theme park, you probably think about parting ways with a good deal of cash. If you don’t go prepared it’s possible to drop a lot of money for very little. It helps to be savvy and to know what is worth your money and what’s not.

2012 08 29 13 01 24 461 Sesame Place: When to Splurge and When to SaveFirst off, at Sesame Place you can save yourself some effort by getting the Discovery Dollars wristband. You can get it at Guest Relations just outside the park or the Welcome Center just inside. You give them your credit card, they put down a $50 hold, you are free to spend as you like without having to pull out your wallet. Your account will settle at the end of the day, so it’s not like you have to spend at least $50. If you’re planning on getting wet or leaving your things in a locker or in the car, this is a great option. I just hated the thought of digging through my bag full of diapers and extra clothes and such every time we needed something.

Parking is $17 for the least expensive lot. You can stay at the Sheraton across the street or try to find a local hotel with a shuttle to the park. (Though those may save you some cash on parking, you may also want to consider the non-monetary cost of waiting for a shuttle or walking to your hotel at the end of your day with wet, exhausted children. And the value of being able to keep extra stuff in the car just in case.) The cheapest lot really isn’t far from the park entrance. We’re not talking Disneyland parking here. We’re talking parking at the mall.

As far as food goes, Sesame Place allows you to bring in a small soft cooler for baby food and formula. So sorry, no snacks to get you through the day. It’s a recent policy change, and one that I don’t love, but it’s typical for parks. Keeping a cooler in the car for a snack break at the picnic tables is a smart idea. 

2012 08 29 13 01 16 597 Sesame Place: When to Splurge and When to SaveWe did buy the refillable cup from one of the many drink stands. The cup, filled was $6.99 and refills were $0.99. Not cheap, but for a theme park it’s certainly not bad. Plus the cup came with a handle so we just hitched it to our stroller and it was super easy. Theme park drinks usually run upwards of $3 so a comparative good deal. Also it meant we could all share it since none of us have cooties. We used it mostly for water and lemonade to keep us all hydrated since we couldn’t bring drinks in the park. If you plan to return, it makes sense to get one to re-use on future trips.

As far as food goes, we’ve gone two different routes.

Dine With Me

If you are bringing Sesame-obsessed kids to the park, doing a Dine With Me meal may be a good splurge option. The Dine With Me meals are the only time your kid will have time to chat with their favorite monsters without a line of kids waiting behind them. Sesame is a little skimpy with the characters, and there’s usually a line, so this will win you big parent points. There’s a breakfast with Elmo & Friends that’s $19 for adults, $10 for kids. There’s also lunch or dinner with Elmo & Friends for $25 for adults, $15 for kids ($27 for adults at dinner). For these, you book a time and you get reserved seating. (As a bonus, if you book the early breakfast of 8:45, you’ll be able to ride in the park at 9:30, a half hour before the park opens. That is, if you can pry your kids away from Elmo…) There’s also a Cookie’s Country Breakfast and Big Bird’s Backyard BBQ, though be aware these are outside  whereas Elmo’s meals have air conditioning.

For our 2012 trip, our Dine With Me lunch was by far my favorite part of our Sesame Place experience. First off: the food. 2012 08 29 14 03 34 101 Sesame Place: When to Splurge and When to SaveA buffet is a nice change from the a la carte dining you get in most theme park restaurants. I was pleased with the variety of food available. I was able to get a bunch of different, healthy choices for Graham, including applesauce, green beans, corn, rice and he even took a bite of salmon. They had plenty of kid-friendly options like mac & cheese and chicken fingers. But happily there is also grown-up approved food. There was salad, the aforementioned salmon, chicken stir fry and more. The line was never long.

At our assigned table we were waited on by very friendly staff who brought us drinks and refills. Graham’s milk came in an Elmo cup with a straw that he got to keep.

There were two family restrooms inside, which meant I could take my kids in and change them into their swim clothes in peace and quiet and without the insanity of a theme park bathroom. (This was the only bathroom we used while we were there and it was lovely. I can’t vouch for how the others were.)

There was also a plentiful dessert bar after the meal, including a soft-serve machine, cakes, cookies, cupcakes and more. You will not go hungry.

And, of course, the big draw: the characters. Our Dine With Me lunch had Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, the Count and Abby Cadabby. Big Bird, being quite tall, was kept in one place in the center of the room where you could take your kids for pictures. Elmo had a special spot for pictures, too. But later on in the meal he came into the center of the room where we snagged him.

Sesame Collage Sesame Place: When to Splurge and When to Save
Graham poses and Elmo tries to nom Tessa

The other characters went to EVERY SINGLE TABLE in the place. Not only that, later in the meal they asked who hadn’t seen them and everyone was visited before a character left. It was wonderful. The kids had plenty of time for pictures and cuddles. Cookie sat at our table and the Bug was pretty thrilled. Each character also had a few minutes to perform a song for the kids.

I’d worried it would be kind of a madhouse, but our lunch was very calm and happy and once everyone realized they’d all get a chance to see everyone it was pleasant and lovely. The staff was solicitous and helped with spills, which is kind of a given with so many toddlers around. There were plenty of highchairs and lots of space. 

Eating Off-Site

My plan for our 2014 visit was to give ourselves a park break in the middle of the day and head off-site for lunch. I didn’t feel confident we’d be able to get a parking spot again so I did some Google Map scouting to find a good option nearby. Walking is not encouraged around here. My city kid was thoroughly confused and wondered why no one was walking. Spoiler: no sidewalks. Not very family-friendly. BUT there is one sidewalk heading away from the park and what do you know, at the end of that sidewalk is a Red Robin.

It took us about 5 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the restaurant. We had a nice meal, a good break from the craziness of the park, we all had plenty to eat, the kids got balloons, and overall it worked out very well. Initially we had a bit of complaining from a certain almost-5-year-old about leaving the park but once we were there he was happy as a clam. Happier once he got a balloon. 

On the way back we stopped at the car for our things to do our midday change to swimwear. Because we weren’t allowed snacks, I promised the kid an Elmo cupcake. It was only $2, cheaper than I can find cupcakes around here, and bought me some parent points.

A Two-Day Low-Cost Visit Plan

Here’s the way I’d master plan it:

Day 1: Eat lunch on your own, come to the park afterwards, around 12 or 1. Get in a few good hours, buy a refillable cup, and you can probably get out without a meal.

Day 2: Do a Dine With Me breakfast, get in a few good hours, and leave for a late lunch and a nap back at your hotel.

You get 2 days free with a 1-day pass, so you can get maximum park in without having to cram everything into one big day with some cranky kids. To avoid tantrums, make sure you chat about your plan with the kids in advance. You could also use this plan to have a “wet” day and a “dry” day, so you don’t have to worry about changing clothes and packing a big bag.

There are cabanas and lockers available, though I’d recommend you bring just one basic bag. If you’ll be getting wet with the kids, you will need a locker for your bag, or some kind of waterproof bag you can keep with you with keys and such necessities. If you have a stroller, bring it instead of renting one. It’ll also give you some extra storage space. I don’t think you need it for bigger kids, but if you have one you think will crash it’s not a bad idea to have it around.

2012 08 29 13 45 26 423 300x224 Sesame Place: When to Splurge and When to SaveDespite our frugal tendencies, I did totally do the obnoxious parent thing. I bought a DVD of Graham on his first roller coaster. I could not deny the cute face. SO CUTE. Yeah, it was $16. I’m a sucker. But we all have those moments, right? I still think we played it pretty frugal. There are a couple gift shops in the park on the small side. They have better stuff than you’ll find at a lot of museum gift shops, mostly toys, stuffed animals, and shirts. Prices are high but not crazy. They’re also pretty easy to avoid, none of that funnel entry stuff some places force you into.

The fact that Sesame Place isn’t in the middle of nowhere makes saving money easier. You’ve got a mall, a Target and lots of hotels and restaurants close by so you don’t have to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. But make sure you check on whether re-entry is possible if you’re getting in your car to head out in the middle of the day but still want to come back.

And just like most theme parks, make sure you check their website for promotions and deals as well as local vendors. Check with the hotels listed on the Sesame Place website in particular to find out about discounts.

Do you have any tips on saving money while traveling, visiting theme parks in general and Sesame Place in particular? Please share!

I received passes for Sesame Place for our 2012 visit to facilitate this review.

Sesame Place: Before Your Visit

Sesame Place Sesame Place: Before Your VisitThis is Part 1 of my Sesame Place series. Part 2 is on saving money and Part 3 will cover Special Needs accommodations.

We visited the park twice, once in 2012 when the kids were 3 and 6 months, and once in 2014, when the kids were 5 and 2. I’ve updated this post to reflect any updates and to help give a broader look at the park. Our first visit had complimentary tickets to help write our review. 

Is Sesame Place Right For Your Family?

The park is geared at children ages 2 to 7, and I think that’s pretty accurate. While there is a substantial portion of the park devoted to water rides, your kids over 7 are probably going to get bored after a few hours. 3 to 5 years old is your sweet spot where they can go on most rides, enjoy the shows and the parade, and really have a great day.

sesame 300x224 Sesame Place: Before Your Visit
Picture by BlueK9

As for infants and toddlers, I’d give Sesame a miss. I’m not saying you can’t bring them. The park makes a lot of allowances for strollers. While it can be a little tough navigating through the water park side with one, you also have a pretty good baby wave pool. Baby Tessa’s visit was pretty smooth, but I don’t think it’s really fair to her that she was stuck in her stroller for so much time. Besides the carousel, there aren’t really rides you can carry a baby on.

Admission is $63 for everyone 2 and older. You can get a 2-day ticket for the same price and it’s worth considering depending on your children and your other plans. Doing two half-days would probably be easier on kids than one long, full day. (And easier on you, too.)

If you can’t get to one of the Disney parks, there aren’t a lot of amusement parks fit for little kids, especially not ones with Elmo. (I think Graham prefers Elmo to Mickey, just between you and me.) So this is a good option if you’re on the East Coast.

What’s In the Park

The park basically has two sides: the wet and the dry. You’ll need to know that going in to make sure you have the right clothing and supplies. There isn’t a lot of shade so bring plenty of sunscreen. There’s also very little around with air conditioning, so when you’re looking for shows with the kids, consider going to the ones in the indoor theaters that are nice and cool. They no longer allow food and drink inside except for formula, baby food, and medically necessary items. So if you’re packing your own lunch have a cooler in the car. There are picnic tables just outside the park gates.

The dry side is going to be better for the little ones, with the exception of the roller coaster right at the front of the park. There are a whole bunch of rides together now that Cookie’s Monster Land has opened. We got a few good hours with both kiddos and they probably would’ve happily stayed there for a good while. Even the 2-year-old could ride nearly everything over there, though she was too little for the giant swing so I distracted her while her brother got a shot. There are a few rides we skipped due to excessive spinning because a parent’s got to make it through the day, you know? Lines on the dry side aren’t too long, which is why I definitely recommend going there first and getting some good time in before you surrender to the crazy of the wet side.

The wet side of the park will amuse your older kids a lot better. The older ones especially congregate at The Count’s Splash Castle, which is basically the biggest spray park-slash-playground ever. You can let them loose in there and you may not see them again for a while. But there’s still plenty for the littles. Mine weren’t too pumped about the loud spray and play areas, but they really loved the lazy river and the slides that even the little ones can go on. The 2-year-old was a huge fan of Slimey’s Chutes, where we rode in a double tube. 

There are some beach chairs around the spray park areas but not a lot. And there aren’t many places to stash towels so you’re probably best off leaving them in the car or a locker. There isn’t much in terms of seating or shade, so I recommend you pace yourself and not try to do too much. You won’t have a lot of options to rest.

Where To Stay

Sesame Place is North of Philadelphia, pretty close to New Jersey and not far from New York City. If you’re planning a visit of Philly or NYC, you can certainly come in just for the day and get back out again. But if you’re making a special trip and want a hotel nearby, I’d definitely recommend where we stayed in 2012: Homewood Suites by Hilton® Newtown. (I wanted to stay there again in 2014 but it was booked. Apparently the secret’s out.)

Traveling with young children is not easy. I made the 2012 trip solo with a baby and a 3-year-old. Absolutely essential to me was a suite where I could close a door to separate sleeping space from living space. This usually limits me to Homewood Suites, Embassy Suites (both Hilton) or Residence Inn (Marriott). I’ve had great experiences at all 3 chains, but after doing some research I decided for this trip to go with Homewood and I’m glad we did.

The hotel is about a 10 to 15 minute drive from Sesame Place. It’s located in a small industrial park that didn’t have too much traffic and there were plenty of signs directing you from the freeway.

Our suite was a 1-bedroom with a King that had a living room with a pull-out sofa and a kitchen. The kitchen had silverware and tableware included and a good-sized refrigerator/freezer. There was a microwave, dishwasher, coffeemaker and a full stove/oven. The bathroom was attached to the bedroom and had a full tub/shower. It was a huge relief to be able to put Tessa down for a nap, then shut the door and let Graham run rampant and watch TV or whatever. Sleep can definitely be the most stressful part of that kind of trip. Since it was just me, I had the two kids in bed with me, but it would’ve been easy to put Graham on the fold-out and Tessa in a crib. I was very pleased with the cleanliness and quality of the room. I’ve stayed in a lot of mid-level hotels and this was one of the better ones.

homewood 300x300 Sesame Place: Before Your Visit
A look at the King Suite and the lounge at the Newtown Homewood Suites

They offer a full breakfast in the morning that continued past 8 a.m. (Hooray! I hate it when I have to wake up early for breakfast.) The hot items were nothing to write home about, as is generally the case with hotel breakfast. But the variety was really extensive. Along with your hot items (of which there were 3 or 4, including eggs, bacon, potatoes, etc.) there was a make-your-own-waffle station, oatmeal, cereal, pastries, bagels, fruit and juices/coffee/milk. It was quite easy to get enough different items to please my picky 3-year-old and myself each morning.

In addition, there was a light evening meal Monday through Thursday which included complimentary beer, wine, lemonade and iced tea. For me this was a big plus. Right after we got back from the park I needed a pick-me-up big time. And so did the kids. A great alternative to stopping for fast food or trying to survive a sit-down restaurant while we were all tired and cranky.

The hotel had just a few Sesame-going families, it was mostly businesspeople. The breakfast area was never close to full. The staff was top-notch, very kind and helpful.

The only real criticism is that there is nowhere to eat within walking distance. But the hotel guide in the room had menus for several local restaurants, including many that delivered.

There are lots of other hotels nearby. The Sheraton is within walking distance of the park though due to the lack of sidewalks in the area, walking may not be a great choice. And there are a few hotels with shuttle service to the park, which may save you the $15 parking fee. Many are listed on the Sesame Place site.

Planning Your Visit

This is a theme park, so you’re definitely going to have issues with crowds during peak times. In 2012 we went on a weekday in late August when a lot of kids were already in school and found it very manageable. In 2014 we went on a weekend in June and it was more crowded, though not as bad as I expected. They start full-days in May, so that may be another good time. And since it’s mostly outdoors, keep in mind you may have a hot crew on your hands.

sesame place site 300x158 Sesame Place: Before Your Visit
SesamePlace.com

The Sesame Place website is very very good and has virtually all the information you’ll need to use on your trip. They even have the menus of all the in-park restaurants listed. That’s gold, my friends. The park isn’t so big that you won’t be able to know in advance where the best spot to eat for your bunch is.

You can also get information on other items in advance that you may want to book. Think about the Dine With Me lunch. Characters like Elmo aren’t all over the place and you’ll appreciate the break to sit and cool off. (More on our Dine With Me lunch in the next post.) There are cabana rentals if you plan on spending a lot of time in the pool area. We didn’t get to try one, but they were off in some quiet areas and looked pretty swanky. When I had a stroller with us we didn’t use a locker, but when the kids were walking it became kind of essential for us to manage the water rides. You can rent strollers and wheelchairs.

There are 3 parking lots, priced at $17, $20 and $30 for VIP which is booked in advance. The $17 and $20 lots really aren’t that far and if you get there early you’ll have just as good a $17 spot as the people in the $30 lot. We arrived at 10:15, not long after the park opens at 10, and decided to go for a close and shady spot in the $20 lot since the $17 lot was already looking pretty packed. But no parking spots are really that far away.

If you’ve got the cash and you don’t want to waste time you can buy an Abby’s Magic Queue pass which allows you to skip the lines on certain rides. While this may not be the most democratic approach and maybe not the best “teachable moment,” it’s your money and your kid and this is the age of the FastPass.

If you forget anything, fear not: there is a Target just down the street from the Sesame Place. (I might have stopped there both times…)

Other Attractions

You’re close enough to Philadelphia to visit the Zoo, the historic sites and I’ve heard great things about the Please Touch Museum, which is also geared at kids 7 and younger. It’s about 90 minutes away from Atlantic City.

 

Stay tuned for more in my Sesame Place series, including how we handled the park and accommodations for special needs families…

 

Disclosure: I was provided one-day passes to Sesame Place for my 2012 review.  All expenses in the park, including food, parking, etc., and my stay at Homewood Suites were paid for myself for both visits. Images of Homewood Suites Newtown were provided by Homewood Suites.

Fireworks and Memories

When my friend Kirk asked if I wanted to go out in a kayak on the Charles River for the fireworks on the 4th, my initial instinct was to say no. More specifically something along the lines of Hell, no. 

It was a reflex. I haven’t celebrated holidays for years. And holidays involving big crowds and late nights are generally something I avoid. If it sounds exhausting I’m usually not up for it.

But instead I said yes. Because, well, why not? I didn’t have the kids that day and I figured I might as well go for it when I no longer had them as an excuse. 

Thanks to inclement weather, the fireworks on the 4th got moved to the 3rd and our leisurely outing became a bit more hectic, with both of us scrambling to get there after work and not having the time we expected to prep. But we had an anchor, we had a couple snacks, and they gave us everything else we’d need when we got there. 

So off we went. Kayaking down the Charles. 

I admit, one of the things that held me back is that I am not a particularly athletic person. I think I did much better than I normally would have done since I’ve had to lug around a certain 2-year-old who’s decided she must be carried everywhere for the last couple months. I did okay. I took plenty of breaks. And WOW it was a long trip. From all the way out in Brighton to the middle of the city. 

A visual aid, if you will.

kayak Fireworks and Memories

For those of you who like to be precise about these things, the distance from start to finish is approximately 70 bajillion miles. Very, very windy miles. 

But despite my tired arms, it was delightful. A different way to look at the city. And I was glad I was doing it now, just having passed my 4th anniversary as a Bostonian, when I could look on the city with grateful and loving eyes. 

We arrived pretty early. Not many kayaks were around, but there were sailboats everywhere, terrifying me since they seemed to have no clear idea which direction they were going. We dropped anchor on the opposite side of the lake from the fireworks set up where the sailboats were less plentiful. We chatted and passed the time waiting for the sun to go down. It was lovely. Not too hot, though it was too windy because this is Boston so of course.

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Windswept, on-a-boat, Pru-photobombing selfie

When we were out on our kayak I thought back to all my previous fireworks outings. And there honestly aren’t that many as an adult. Watching the fireworks over Town Lake in Austin with my summer boyfriend (and Allison) when I was 18. Watching the fireworks over Lake Tahoe with my on-again-off-again semi-boyfriend when I was in law school. Watching the fireworks over yet another lake with yet another boyfriend in my mid-20′s. And I’m pretty sure that was it. Which means it’s been nearly a decade. And that my experience of fireworks mostly involved boys and bodies of water and I didn’t have anything particularly memorable. I hadn’t even spent much time remembering those previous firew0rks-watching escapades. Sometimes you have to do something to remember what it’s like, how you’ve done it, how it fits into your history, how it makes you feel. Skipping the 4th for so many years meant I’d forgotten so much of that.

I was deeply happy to be out there, having the freedom to do something I wouldn’t normally do, something that would’ve been nearly unthinkable just a couple years ago. 

I started hatching plans while I was there to stop avoiding these big festivities and just finding a way to do them that works for me. I thought maybe next year I’d get a room at the Liberty or the Sheraton and bring the kids and watch the fireworks from our room together. 

It got dark, we watched the big boats come in and get settled, we got kudos from the State Police and the FBI for our impressive anchor (the cop presence was well done on the water) the Boston Pops began to play, a group claiming to be the Beach Boys sang three entire songs, (though I was unable to see who they were and they sounded suspiciously un-Beach-Boys-like, so I sat there wondering which bastardized re-birth of the Beach Boys this was, the one with Mike Love, or the one with the other guy who I don’t think was actually an original Beach Boy, and of course I regaled Kirk with my vast knowledge of Beach Boys history) and then the show finally started.

I didn’t take pictures.

Because pictures of fireworks do not do them justice. They can’t recreate the sparkles, the sounds, or the smell of the smoke, or the bang that you feel in your bones. I realized how long its been since I’ve seen a fireworks show, or a really good one, and saw kinds of fireworks I’ve never seen. Stars, smiley faces, one that kind of looks like Saturn that gets this amazing circle of sparkles after a ring of color. 

It was amazing. It was incredible. It made me smile. I remembered that when I see fireworks that sometimes I just can’t help gasping or saying “Oooooo” out loud without meaning to.

It was something you really should do, especially if you delight in the fact that the water wasn’t crowded and you didn’t have to deal with the masses of people one normally does at these events. 

The other bonus: you don’t have to wander through the busy streets and subway tunnels.

Well, you usually don’t.

About 15 minutes post-show, when we’d pulled up our anchor, got our lights ready, picked up our paddles and began our long trek back to Brighton, my inner monologue went something like this:

Brighton is SO FAR. I know I’ve had like 4 hours of rest, but that 70 bajillion miles is really going to take some effort. 

Didn’t we row into the wind on the way here? How are we rowing into the wind AGAIN on the way back? And wow, they must be getting a great fireworks show over in Newton or wherever that is. Because those are some bright lights flashing off the clouds. 

My arms are already getting crampy. This is going to be sooooooo loooooooong.

We haven’t even hit the first bridge yet. And my recollection is there are many many many bridges. So many bridges. Seriously, Newton, kudos on the fireworks. I mean, that is definitely fireworks. So much light, so regular, it’s definitely fireworks.

Still, at least we have a pretty clear route ahead. I finally see other kayaks and canoes. They’re all ahead of us since they didn’t go all the way to the opposite end of the river like we did, but they’re out here, too. And many of them are probably wusses like me. We’re in it together. Even if they’re all in front of us. The water is so choppy, thanks to all those big boats with motors getting out of here. I keep getting splashed. It’s making it even harder to row. Ow, my arms. Maybe I should rest for a minute.

So many people still on that bridge and on the streets. 

Do I hear screaming? I definitely hear screaming. Lots of people screaming. WHY ARE PEOPLE SCREAMING? I didn’t hear gunshots, I didn’t hear a bomb, what is happening? Why are they screaming?

Oh. Oh crap. Oh oh oh oh crap. That wasn’t fireworks. It’s lightning. And they are screaming because they just got hit with rain. Rain that sounds like it’ll be here any second. Rain that sounds like it will be really really hard.

And here it is.

I yell for Kirk to get out the rain jackets, but it’s too late. By the time he passes me one we’re already soaked through. It is that rain that comes down so hard it hurts. 

And if you’re lucky enough to have only experienced that kind of rain while on dry land, let me explain how it works when you’re in a little kayak on a big river. First it hurts. Then you realize you cannot see. You literally cannot see. All I could see was our boat occasionally and sometimes a glimpse of just how big the waves were right next to us. 

We tried to paddle and for a minute or two we went nowhere. And I thought, While it’s a really good thing we read all the safety information before we got on the kayak I’m really feeling underprepared for the current crisis. We finally got a slightly less horrific patch of rain and started to paddle to shore. Only to realize that shore on the Cambridge side nearest us wasn’t exactly somewhere we could dock. But then I spied a boathouse and we paddled over as quickly as we could. 

Luckily for us, it was the MIT Boathouse and it was full of kids partying. Kids who were playing around in the rain and who were fortunately not drunk enough to respond to my calls for help and to assist us in getting the kayak out of the water.

We were drenched, to put it lightly. We called the kayak place and were told to wait it out.

And then the MIT grown-ups in charge of the place said that they were closing up and that even though the rain was letting up they couldn’t let us back out on the water due to the lightning. 

IMG 20140703 232308 e1404490054719 Fireworks and Memories
Not-so-windswept, very-wet selfie.

So we said goodbye to our kayak, walked our wet, wet selves a couple blocks in to Cambridge where the roads weren’t blocked off, and uber’d it over to Brighton where Kirk’s car was and to give the kayak rental place our tale of woe. Some people had actually made it back, most of them spry looking guys in their 20′s. A few, like us, had abandoned ship. 

It was a crazy, beautiful, wet, terrifying adventure. And it’s nice to know that you’ve set yourself a new record. That is, by far, my most memorable 4th of July. 

The End.

So hey. I’m divorced. 

Well, I am for all intents and purposes except that I can’t get married for 90 days. 

It’s been almost exactly a year since the divorce ball started rolling, and around 14 months since the separation began. 

I was in court recently to wrap it all up and I stood there thinking I should feel more. But marriages don’t begin and end the same way. It’s more of a bang/whimper scenario for the beginning and end, respectively. You don’t have a party when it’s done. You’re not surrounded by your friends and family. I was just standing in a courtroom in front of people I didn’t know who weren’t paying any attention. 

Since then, though, I occasionally feel a wave of… something. I don’t know what. But I’ve learned that during this process emotion can hit you in unexpected ways. It doesn’t always make sense. I can’t even tell you what these random waves mean or how I feel when they hit. Just a little weighted down, rather sad.

I want to be able to look back and say that it was something wonderful that just ended. But I can’t. Because time plays with your head. And the good days were in the beginning, of course. So much has happened since then. It’s honestly hard to tap into that old happiness after a few years of sadness. Likewise, it’s even hard for me to tap into the sadness of those last few years together after this year being on my own.

A lot of that is because I’m moving forward. My life is mostly about today and a little about tomorrow and a teeny bit the days after that. It’s not much about yesterday.

I wish I could say that we’d gone through a lot together and that was worth something. But mostly I trudged through parenting and autism and depression alone. Well, not totally alone. A lot of you helped.

And that’s how it is now. There’s still all this life and parenting and work and balance to figure out. I’m relieved to finally have this year of limbo over. But still….

I’m not sure what it is I think I should be feeling right now. Or even what I actually feel. 

Then again, the beauty of living day by day is that I’ll probably feel a lot better tomorrow.

Off-Topic: The Supreme Court and Hobby Lobby

I had a feeling going through my social media feeds yesterday that I’d need to do a Hobby Lobby case post. I have friends of all political stripes, and whenever I see either my liberal friends or my conservative friends react strongly to a SCOTUS case at the end of the term, it has generally resulted in writing up the decision. We react so quickly to these case outcomes without knowing much about the analysis or the actual terms of the decision. As I usually do, I’m going to cover just the basics of the ruling itself as objectively as possible. (You can also check out my previous posts on DOMA, the Voting Rights Act, and the Affordable Care Act.)

The Basics

One thing that I’ve heard almost nothing about in this discussion is the law central to this ruling. It’s not the ACA, but the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (hereafter the RFRA). It is also not about whether women’s access to contraception, it’s about these specific regulations. These cases often involve a kind of balancing test. The questions are: 1) Whether the RFRA applies to this case, and 2) if it does, does the Department of Health and Human Services’ set of regulations impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religious freedom; and 3) if it does impose a substantial burden, is it in service of a compelling government interest; and finally 4) if so, is it the least restrictive means of serving that interest. 

Spoiler alert: the answers are Yes, yes, yes, and no. So fear not, the Court does treat access to contraception as a compelling government interest. It’s simply found that this specific set of regulations aren’t the least restrictive ones available.

Under this decision contraception is all good. Free contraception is all good. It’s simply a question of how to set up a framework of payment to do so without imposing on religious liberty.

One major reason why the answer to #4 is no is that the HHS already has a system in place for religious non-profits to avoid paying for contraception while still making sure it’s provided to women. So it’s hard to argue that the HHS guidelines are the least restrictive.

The RFRA

As is often the case with the Supreme Court, if you’re happy or unhappy with the outcome you should save a good portion of your feelings for Congress. Hobby Lobby has a nice recap of the Court’s religion cases for the last few decades and Congress responded to some of the Court’s decisions by enacting the RFRA and later the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 1993 and 2000, respectively. Basically when the Court sided with the government’s interest Congress came back and codified religious exemptions. 

The RFRA holds that even neutral laws that aren’t aimed at religions can still interfere with religious liberty and thus: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” Under the RFRA you can claim an exemption from a law that interferes with your religion unless the Government shows it has 1) a compelling interest and 2) the least restrictive means of fulfilling that interest. Thus the test referenced earlier.

The RLUIPA also has some language that is critical for purposes of this decision. They wanted a stronger religious protection than what was provided in the Constitution and the Court’s previous rulings. So it says that when it talks about exercise of religion it means “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” It also orders that it be construed as broadly as possible in favor of religious belief and practice.

This is what this case is really about, these two laws, and you should probably send your anger or happiness in their direction more than the Court’s since they make this ruling possible. There is basic evidence provided showing the religious beliefs of the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga (the other company in this ruling) and as long as those basics are there these laws give them basically a default in their favor without much scrutiny. 

The ACA

Now let’s take a look at what the ACA requires. The major issue is that employers must provide health care plans that comply with the ACA or face a penalty. The size of the penalty is what the Court is most concerned about since it decides whether the burden of the law is “substantial” or not. If an employer doesn’t provide the required insurance, they can be charged $100 per day for each individual affected. If they stop providing health insurance, they can be charged $2,000 per year for each employee. Hobby Lobby could be subject to a fine of $475 million per year.

The ACA only requires that women be able to get preventive care and screenings, but authorized the HHS to decide what that would be. They decided to include contraception as well as exemptions for religious employers (like churches) and nonprofits. These employers have their insurance companies perform a little mumbo jumbo so that contraception is still provided to their employees but doesn’t give that expense to the employers.

The Court also notes that there are several exceptions to these requirements as well and that about 1/3 of people have employer health plans that aren’t covered by the contraception mandate.

What is a Person?

This is the area of the decision that’s most subject to controversy.

The RFRA includes the general term “persons” under its protection. And what is the generally held definition of person? It includes corporations, once again according to an act of Congress. The RFRA has already been found to apply to non-profit corporations.

The majority points out that corporations have more goals than to make money and often have humanitarian goals and support charitable causes. It also acknowledges that the decision to organize as a for-profit instead of a non-profit may have little to do with the goals of the corporation but the advantages available by filing as a corporation that can help achieve worthy goals, including lobbying for legislation and supporting political candidates. 

HHS contends that for-profit companies are different than non-profits because it can be difficult to determine what their beliefs are and cites publicly traded companies. And this is where the Court decides to narrow its decision to only apply to closely-held companies, or those that aren’t public offerings.

It’s quite typical for the Court to limit its decision only to the exact set of circumstances in front of them. This is a line of reasoning I’m familiar with. Like yesterday when my son asked if we would ever buy lollipops. I said, “Not today?” He said, “Never?” And I repeated, “Not today.” Same deal with the Court. It takes the case as it is and rarely makes any statements that go beyond that set of facts. 

This is also the weakest part of the Court’s decision because it finds that it’s “unlikely” that a publicly traded company would ever try to exert this kind of privilege. Not the strongest legal argument. 

As for companies where there is disagreement as to whether it follows a set of religious beliefs, that is governed by state law and isn’t at issue here.

The Dissent

The main thing the majority and the dissenters disagree on is how broad the decision is. The majority insists that it’s limited, the dissenters see potentially broad implications. You’re probably much more familiar with these issues as they constitute a lot of the public discussion about what the decision means and what its effects will be. Just a few notes on the opinion in the dissent.

The dissent does not rely much on the RFRA, but instead relies on previous Court rulings that concern a conflict between religious liberty and the liberty of others. The dissent would end it there and not address the RFRA. It’s also of note that 2 Justices (Breyer and Kagan) don’t actually join the RFRA portion of the dissent because they find it unnecessary.

But Ginsburg continues and basically departs from the majority’s findings at each point. It doesn’t find that the use of “person” in the RFRA should apply to corporations. It emphasizes the fact that no commercial entity has received religious protection prior to this decision. It takes the non-profit vs. profit split in a very different view than the majority. 

The dissent is also unconvinced by the findings of substantial burden and least restrictive means in the majority opinion. 

As For Me

Well, I don’t usually give much of my own opinion in these cases. Here I have a few thoughts but most of them are irrelevant because I’ve never agreed with the Court’s and Congress’s treatment of corporations as persons. So much of the decision is moot to me. 

What concerns me far more than the Court’s approach (neither the majority nor the dissent strike me as doing anything particularly nuts, there’s a lot more that makes sense here than in plenty of other decisions) is the response to it. Enacting the ACA is a bumpy ride. Giving women full access to contraception won’t happen without some obstacles. I’m honestly less concerned with this decision than most other people I’ve heard from. Women will get contraception, women will be able to afford contraception, and this is the direction that we’re moving as a nation. I feel confident that women’s voices will continue to be heard. 

As for the Court’s jurisprudence when it comes to RFRA, that remains to be seen. It’s not unusual for them to zig zag around as they negotiate around the moderate members of the Court. I’m looking at the long game, and it’s impossible to know whether this is the kind of big step the dissent worries it is or whether it’s just a baby step like the majority says. Only time will tell. For now, I’ll just take my birth control, thanks.