How to Prepare for a Guided Kayak Tour of St. Joseph Bay in Gulf County, Florida

Visit Gulf County

There is no better way to introduce our kids to life on the water in Florida than a guided tour of St. Joseph Bay by kayak. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Gulf County for IZEA. All opinions are 100% mine.

Our visit to Gulf County this weekend begins with an Eco Tour of St. Joseph Bay and its watery environs bright and early Saturday morning. It will be the boys’ first time in kayaks; their first time on a small boat of any kind, actually.

I can think of no better way to initiate them into Florida’s life aquatic than to trust in the experience and knowledge of Debbie and Dan VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak & Canoe Outpost in Port St. Joe.

Visit Gulf County

“It’s not staged, because the bay is different all the time. It’s fun to see what it offers that day and that moment.” – Debbie from Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

Because we weren’t sure what to expect from our tour, I called Happy Ours this week and got Debbie on the phone. She told me that Happy Ours, which opened on Jan. 1, 2000, has been around longer than any outfitter in Gulf County. She also told me that they are the only service with a dedicated launch directly into St. Joseph Bay, and they have accommodated parties of more than five dozen guests

Saturday morning, it will just be me, Beth, Jay and Chris. Dan gets most of the kid tours, Debbie said; his background as an educator comes in handy during such trips, and the kids seem to gravitate to him.

“I’m not going to give too much away, because there are surprises,” Debbie said. “The games we play with the kids, and spontaneity we provide – that makes it memorable.”

The clear, shallow water of St. Joseph Bay sounds delightful. We hope to come face-to-face with fish and other wildlife, but part of the appeal is the unpredictability.

“There is a lot of hands on,” Debbie said. “We don’t just talk, we get out and touch. It’s not staged, because the bay is different all the time. It’s fun to see what it offers that day and that moment.”

I’m pretty sure Jay and Chris will enthusiastically embrace the adventure. Pretty sure. There is always a chance one or both of them might get a bit squirrelly about doing something new.

If so, the VanVleets know what to do.

“We talk to them about their fears,” Debbie said, “and sometimes make them less scary.

“The kids love it, because there are no waves to knock you down. We pick depths you’re comfortable at. There’s a huge area just to walk along and pick things up, and to learn and to explore on their own. They feel comfortable doing that.”

We’ll be out for about four hours, and you can follow along starting at 9 a.m. on Twitter and Instagram. This is the kind of thing I dreamed about when Beth and I exchanged our marriage vows 11 years ago today – learning new things together, making memories, having fun as a family.

And here are a few tips Debbie and Dan passed along to us for our kayak tour of St. Joseph Bay:

  • Apply water-resistant sunscreen an hour before arrival.
  • Bring an extra towel to drape over your legs for extra protection.
  • Hats and sunglasses are permitted.
  • Wear a synthetic material long-sleeve shirt to protect your arms.
  • Wear water shoes, rather than flip-flops. (Happy Ours provides water shoes for rent if you don’t have your own.)
  • Freeze your water bottles overnight to keep them nice and cold throughout the trip.
  • Bring non-refrigerated snacks to eat.
  • Wear a watch to keep up with the time; Happy Ours is on Eastern Time, while northern Gulf County and Mexico Beach are on Central time. A mobile phone might pick up either Eastern or Central.
  • Arrive at least 15 minutes early to sign the waiver and settle payment before departure.

For other great ideas about how to create your own family adventure in Gulf County, check out the Gulf County Adventure Guide.

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7 Ways to Create a Family Adventure in Gulf County, Florida

Visit Gulf County

Sunset over St. Joseph Bay — the backdrop for any great family adventure in Gulf County, Florida. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Gulf County for IZEA. All opinions are 100% mine.

As the day draws near for us to head north from Tampa to Gulf County, Florida, I’ve done what many veteran reporters do – I’ve put in the research to know our options.

The Gulf County Tourist Development Council makes that process simple for first-timers like us. Their website and Gulf County Adventure Guide provide a marvelous array of relaxing, educational and just plain fun experiences for families like ours. Creating our own adventure has never been easier.

Visit Gulf County

Horseback riding. On the beach. You can do that there? Yes. Yes, you can. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

Camping, fishing, endurance racing, serious hiking and watersports – it’s all there. One day, I’m sure, we’ll step out of our comfort zone for fun, and it already started with a non-theme park Memorial Day weekend in the Florida Panhandle.

Maybe one day we’ll charter a boat and head out onto the open water of the Gulf of Mexico and go in search of a basking whale shark (our younger son, who’s 6, has mentioned his desire to see a whale shark more than once this week). Perhaps someday soon we’ll go frog gigging or track a wild hog through the palmetto scrub (hey – it’s possible).

One thing we know for sure we’ll do is right at the top of my list of intriguing ways to create your own family adventure in Gulf County, Florida:

1. Take a guided Eco Tour by kayak.

This tops our agenda for this weekend, and we could not be more excited. Debbie and Dan VanVleet from Happy Ours Kayak & Canoe Outpost have set us up for a fun, safe and educational excursion out on the water, where we will experience up close all the shoreline beauty St. Joseph Bay has to offer. Look for more detail about this trip in a preview scheduled to publish here on Friday, and follow along during our kayak adventure Saturday at 9 a.m. on Instagram and Twitter.

2. Horseback riding along the beach.

Confession time – I’m 46 years old, and I’ve never sat on the back of a horse. My kids both have, and so has Beth. But I have not. The opportunity simply never arose. Where better to try horseback riding for the first time than one of Gulf County’s gorgeous beaches?

Visit Gulf County

Baby sea turtle? Maybe not this time of year, but we will keep an eye out for mama. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

3. Fishing (freshwater and/or saltwater).

Once upon a time, I was an avid freshwater fisherman. I still love to wet a line in search of bass every now and then in the ponds and lakes around our house in Lutz, Florida, and the boys have expressed an interest in learning the sport. Gulf County’s inland waters and the Gulf of Mexico offer some of the finest freshwater and saltwater fishing in the South.

4. Scuba diving and snorkeling.

With more than 200 artificial reefs at depths of 20 to 150 feet, Gulf County has something for the experienced diver and novice alike. All we’ve ever done is mess around with snorkels and fins in very shallow water at Cape Cod and Fort DeSoto Beach, but learning to dive – with or without tanks – is something we would love to try one day.

5. Shelling on Cape San Blas.

Fortunately, our home away from home for three days and nights this weekend is right on Cape San Blas, so we’ll be able to stroll across the dune and start hunting for beautiful shells. Our boys love to move along the beach, pails in hand, scanning the sand for natural treasure. You will, too.

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Shells. We love ’em. They’re up there at Cape San Blas, waiting to be found. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

6. Swimming with turtles.

It’s my understanding that turtle season begins in May around Gulf County, so we will be on the lookout for these beautiful animals. During trips to the aquarium or Florida’s ocean theme parks, our boys have spent hours watching the sea turtles and learning about their migratory habits (as well as the dangers they face from birth).

If we see a sea turtle during our trip, I guarantee it will be one of the great childhood memories for our sons. I know – I saw many turtles at Jupiter Beach and other South Florida coastal areas when I was a kid, and it remains a vivid and fond memory for me to this day.

7. Beach life – just let it happen.

With only one scheduled event for the weekend, there is an excellent chance that our primary activity Saturday afternoon and most of Sunday will be to play and relax on the beach at Cape San Blas. While my wife and sons are the true beach lovers in the family, you better believe I’ll be out there with them building castles, playing ball, and just lying back in the sand, taking it all in and enjoying the time with people I love.

One of the great advantages of living in Tampa is that we are only a short drive to a place like Gulf County, where there is far more to do than we could ever hope to experience in one long weekend. In addition to chowing down on some super seafood, we hope to see Dead Lakes, Indian Pass Lagoon, St. Vincent Island (home of the Sambar deer), and some of the great family-friendly parks in the area.

You know what, though? There’s always next time!

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Beach life. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

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Frozen on Ice: a Brilliant Memory for Mommy and Son

Frozen on Ice

Beth and Chris enjoyed a special day at the Florida Aquarium and Frozen on Ice at Amalie Arena. Photo: Disney on Ice.

My wife, Beth Gaddis, attended a performance of Disney on Ice’s Frozen on Ice at Amalie Arena on behalf of DadScribe last week. Here is her recap of that show, which was the perfect conclusion to a perfect day of mommy-son memories for her and our younger son. 

By Beth Gaddis

“Good morning, good morning, it’s time to wake up,” I sang off-key as I headed into my 6-year-old’s room. I turned on the bedside light, spent a few seconds figuring out how the blanket got so wrapped up around his legs, then started to tickle him. It was our usual morning ritual, but this was no ordinary day.

It was Thursday, and for the first time in a long time, I was taking the day off.

“Wake up, Chris!” I found Olaf half-hidden in the blanket and put on an impromptu puppet show with the stuffed doll. “Hi, I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs!”

Chris does not wake gracefully. Before the sun rises, he is a 6-year-old teenager, loath to stir without the proper incentive.

“No!” he shouted, squeezing his eyes shut tightly and rolling away from me, hiding his face in the pillow. “No! It’s not time to wake up yet. Just let me sleep.”

“Come on, Chris,” I said. “Today’s gonna be a great day. We’ve got the aquarium, and then we’re going to see Frozen on Ice!” I reminded him, engaging in a tug of war over the blanket.

That got his attention. Today was no ordinary day. For the first time in forever, this was a day for Mommy and Chris.


Mommy and Chris, together at Frozen on Ice.

Mommy and Chris, together at Frozen on Ice.

Chris is a champ. As the younger sibling, he has spent a lot of time going to his big brother’s soccer matches and baseball games. He wears a lot of hand-me-downs and loves the games, toys, and books his brother has outgrown. We do a lot of family activities, but it’s not often that Chris gets to do something first or alone with his dad or me. He never complains; honestly, I don’t think he even thinks about it.

That’s what made this day so special. I met his school bus at the Florida Aquarium and chaperoned Chris and several of his classmates as they explored life on the shore and under the sea. Chris veered from being an independent first-grader laughing with his friends, to a little boy who would hold my hand as he studied the sharks.

He proudly introduced me as his mom, and looked to me as the expert on sea horses, otters, and spider crabs. My cell phone stayed firmly in my purse other than to snap a few photos. I turned off my work cell phone and focused just on this rare weekday treat with my son.

Frozen on Ice

One of Chris’ favorites was Marshmallow the Snow Monster. Photo: Beth Gaddis

That night, he and I piled in the car and drove off for another adventure: We were headed to Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa to see Frozen on Ice. We’ve been to several Feld Entertainment productions and loved them all, but this one blew us away. Chris was spellbound as he watched one of our favorite Disney movies come to life, climbing into my lap and craning his neck so he could see even better.

He gave the show the greatest compliment a 6-year-old boy can: He gave it his full attention. He didn’t ask to leave. He didn’t ask to play on my cell phone. He just remained rapt.

As we walked back to the car, I asked him what his favorite parts were.

He had a long list:

  • Kristoff’s flips and “awesome tricks”
  • The scary wolves
  • Olaf singing and skating with bumblebees, birds, and flowers (I think he really liked the bright costumes)
  • Marshmallow the snow man growing to monster-sized proportions right before his eyes
  • The trolls

Then he asked if we could see it again.

The next morning, he talked non-stop through breakfast, describing the show for his 9-year-old brother and peppering his commentary with “you’ve got to see it!” It was a true tribute to the overall awesomeness of the show – and an affirmation that while it’s cool to do something alone with your mom, it’s even better when you can do something as a family.

Next time, all four of us will go. The boys can’t wait.

Tickets for Frozen on Ice were provided by Feld Entertainment for review purposes.

Frozen on Ice

Sven the reindeer was another big hit at Frozen on Ice. Photo: Beth Gaddis


Creating Our Own Adventure in Gulf County, Florida

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The Gulf County beaches beckon, and we will answer. Our family’s Memorial Day adventure is just around the corner. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Gulf County for IZEA. All opinions are 100% mine.

Early on a Saturday morning two years ago, I woke my older son and reminded him where we were going for the weekend.

He stirred and twisted into his pillow. In a sleepy, sweetly grumpy little voice, he said the last thing I expected: “Again? Why do we have to go there EVERY weekend?”

I blinked.

“Because,” I said, baffled that a 7-year-old kid would ask such a question, even though he was about to visit for the fourth or fifth time in recent weeks. “It’s Disney World.”

Later, as our car approached I-75 shortly after sunrise, we saw a hot-air balloon rise huge as the harvest moon above the tree line. I drove on toward I-4, but caught a glimpse of the drifting red orb in my rear-view mirror. A part of me wanted the four of us to be up there in that gondola, taking in the morning view of West Central Florida, breathing the clean air among the clouds.

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Only in Florida can a family be on the way to Disney World and become pleasantly diverted by a serendipitous sight of a hot-air balloon drifting on the morning breeze.

It dawned on me, not for the first time, how fortunate we are to live in a state where such  sights and experiences are part of the fabric. Only in Florida can a family can be on the road to the Most Magical Place on Earth and find themselves pleasantly diverted by yet another incredible activity, yet another memory in the making.

This is our Florida: theme parks and beaches, nature walks and serendipitous glimpses of hot-air balloons rising high above the morning dew. Lolling manatees and frolicking dolphins are our shoreline companions. The call of sandhill cranes on the wing is as commonplace and welcome to us as sparrow song up North.

More often than not, when we head out for weekend excursions, theme parks are involved. We were seasonal pass holders at Disney World for a year. Living in Tampa, it only makes sense to own annual passes to Busch Gardens.

The kids love it – and so do Beth and I.

Yet, we know there’s so much more to do in Florida. Outdoor activities abound all year long. We spend lots of time at the local beaches and traipsing along the forest and wetland trails at our favorite hidden gem in the Tampa Bay area, Brooker Creek Preserve.

Visit Gulf County

Kayaking on St. Joseph Bay. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

The boys love to explore their home state, and we love to make it possible.

Now, we’re about to embark on what might be our family’s greatest Florida adventure yet.

Gulf County, Florida, is tucked among the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a quiet, green buffer between the metropolitan bustle of Tallahassee to the northeast and Panama City to the west.

I have never been there, but I imagine it combines everything we love about natural Florida and our family’s traditional summer vacation spot, Cape Cod – the beaches, the seafood, the ability to easily commune with the outdoors and appreciate being together in nature.

On Friday, thanks to Visit Gulf County, Beth, the kids and I will make the relatively short drive to a gorgeous beach house on Cape San Blas. There, we’ll usher in the summer with a long, leisurely Memorial Day weekend spent taking in all that Gulf County has to offer.

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Sharing the water’s edge with a Great Blue Heron never gets old for true Florida kids like ours. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

Honestly, as much as we love Florida and the outdoors, it had not occurred to us to explore the panhandle. Like many Floridians, our weekend getaway plans usually are centered on Central Florida, where the mega-parks beckon with their brilliant, but manufactured fun.

Now that we’re going to Gulf County, we find that we have never been more excited about a Florida vacation. Our anticipation grows daily. In addition to spending the weekend enjoying an incredible beach home from Coastal Joe Vacation Rentals, we are scheduled to immerse ourselves in the natural beauty of the Gulf County shoreline with a guided Eco Tour on Saturday with Debbie and Dan from Happy Ours Kayak & Bike Outpost.

That’s only the beginning. The Gulf County Adventure Guide allows you to “explore Gulf County from the inside.” There, you’ll find the resources to help you create your own family adventure. That’s a luxury you won’t find at any paved-over attraction elsewhere in Florida.

Check back here Wednesday and Friday for more detail about the many Gulf County outdoor adventures at your disposal. This week, I’ll publish a “dream trip” guide to help you plan a future excursion to Gulf County, and I’ll preview our Saturday Eco Tour with a handy preparation guide based on sound advice from the outdoors experts at Happy Ours.

The memories already are starting to rise. Now, as the anticipation builds, is when we lay the foundation for a new family tradition. We love our theme parks, and we love Central and South Florida. Starting Friday, I have a feeling we’ll begin a lifelong love affair with Gulf County and the Florida panhandle.

Visit Gulf County

No words necessary. Gulf County, like Cape Cod, could soon become a Gaddis family tradition. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

Please join the Gaddis family this week and throughout Memorial Day weekend as we explore the splendor and quiet beauty of Florida’s Gulf County and Cape San Blas. I’ll share our adventure on Instagram, Twitter  (hashtag: #GCFLNoFilter) and Facebook, as well as the Gulf County social platforms on Twitter and Instagram.

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The Doofus Dad Stereotype is Still a Thing, Unfortunately

Doofus Dad

I don’t ask for credit for being able to take care of my sons while their mom is out of town. But I, and other dads, don’t want to be ridiculed as idiots, either.

Our older son is at a Friday night birthday party in the next neighborhood up the road. Our younger son requested a viewing of Frozen.

My wife, their mother, is – as of this writing – stuck on an airplane that is runway-bound while it waits out a nasty Central Florida thunderstorm. She is on her way to Cape Cod for a brief family visit, a weekend with her sister and mom.

That means it’s … it’s … just me and the (gasp!) boys. Oh, my God. What am I … what am I supposed to do? What’s … where’s … I …




Yeah, right.

I got this.

Just like millions of dads all over the world would have it if their parenting partner went out of town for a weekend or longer. This is part of the deal. We cover for each other – when I’m out of town, she’s fine. And vice-versa.

If this is starting to sound familiar, that means you are probably one of the very, very small handful of people who used to read this journal in its infancy.

My goodness. I just checked the date of the last time I wrote a post proclaiming that “I got this.” It was May 16, 2012 – almost three years ago to the day.

Here’s a sample from that post, When Mom Travels for Work … It’s Cool:

“When MomScribe leaves, the boys and I miss her. A lot. She’s absolutely the straw that stirs. Over the long term, we’d be lost without her. (Ugh. I almost deleted that sentence, because it’s too painful to even contemplate.)

But listen … we’re fine. The boys get fed. They get bathed. They receive my attention. They get hugged and rough-housed with and loved. The only real adjustment is I get up a half-hour earlier so I can take my shower and get dressed before they wake up.

I don’t need MomScribe to leave me a check list. I already know how to call their pediatrician, if necessary. I know how to feed them, and dress them, and bathe them, and read a bed-time story to them. I know how to take care of them. They’re my kids. Of course I know how to take care of them. I’m fortunate in that I have an incredible partner, and there’s no way I’ll ever take what she does and who she is for granted. We need her, and even though that doesn’t change when she goes on the road, we’re fine for a while.”

Was that me, trying to make myself out to be some kind of special snowflake dad who is so much better at this than the rest of you? Hell, no. It was me refuting the antiquated notion that dads are imbeciles who are helpless without someone there to hold their hands when their parenting partners are not around.

A writer for Babble, Lori Garcia, expressed that same sentiment. Not three years ago. Yesterday.

Here is Lori’s salient point:

“Dads, I love y’all, but I’m not falling all over myself because you acted like a parent. You’re capable. You’re intelligent. You’re great at it. And you do it all the damn time.”

Hell, yes! We’ve made it! No longer must engaged, loving, competent dads be considered helpless buffoons in the absence of their partners!

This is great! This is …


I spent a good portion of this evening taking the losing side of an argument that I honestly believed was settled a while ago. After all, hadn’t I written about it three years ago? Hadn’t a lot of people?

Weren’t big brands taking notice that the tired, old doofus dad trope was done and dusted? Hadn’t Dove Men+Care raised the bar for everyone? Hadn’t we decided as a society that dads can (and should) Lean In, too?

Yes! We are beyond it! Aren’t we?

Here’s what I wrote in a good conversation with a group of less-naïve dads on Facebook. I reference the Babble story mentioned and linked above:

“I guess I’m as confused as Lori about why it would be (still) the majority opinion that if one parenting partner takes off for a while, the other parenting partner would melt into a puddle of confusion and despair about bath time and bed time or whatever. Yes, there are ‘red state’ ways of thinking about the family dynamic, but I want to believe that the old, tired way of thinking about these things is being overtaken by more enlightened ideas. At least in theory, if not in actual everyday, everywhere practice. No?”


As I naively tried to argue in favor of progress, a fellow dad posted this ridiculous commercial from AT&T in the same private group: Piece of Cake. Basically, it’s a dad who is left at home alone with the kids and is so inept that only a magical AT&T app that controls everything in the house helps the husband and kids survive the mom’s absence.

It’s the first big-brand commercial I’ve seen in a while that relied on the doofus dad as the primary conceit. And listen – I am aware there are dads who are doofuses. I am aware that everyone forgets things and takes shortcuts and needs a little help every now and then with the kids and with life in general.

I also am aware that in our insular group of fathers who write and interact on social media – the Dad 2.0 Summit crew, City Dads and many others – we do not necessarily fall within the cultural perception of the usual. Maybe it just seems to me like it’s no big deal for dads to be “left alone” with the kids for a while because of the company I keep.

I’d like to think it’s beyond that, though. I’d like to think there has been progress. I’d like to think that it’s “normal” for a dad to be able to pick up his kids at the bus stop on an afternoon, drop off his older son at a birthday party, watch Frozen with his younger son, and plan a fun, productive weekend while his wife was enjoying a wonderful weekend with her mom and sister.

I’d like to think that. Until there are no more commercials like that silly AT&T nonsense above, I’m afraid my fellow fathers are right.

We still have a lot of work to do.

Disney’s Frozen on Ice: Yes, it’s Fun for Boys, Too

Frozen on Ice

Our boys loved the movie, and we know they’ll love the Disney on Ice production of Frozen, too. Photo: Feld Entertainment.

I thought we were past this. When I recently mentioned to a neighbor that I was looking forward to taking the boys to see Disney’s Frozen on Ice at Amalie Arena, the father of two young boys gave me a quizzical look.

Frozen, really?” he said. “Your boys like it?”

I blinked.

“Well … yeah,” I said. “It’s a good movie. They love the songs. I mean, so do I. I sing along with them all the time in the car.”

Turned out his older son had seen the movie, but just wasn’t that crazy about it. Fair enough. Not every kid will enjoy every kid movie. Just because Frozen is the highest-grossest animated film of all time, it doesn’t mean it’s compulsory viewing for every elementary school kid in the country.

But listen – I thought the gender question was settled even before the movie came out Thanksgiving week in 2013. My friend Whit Honea put it best with this piece on the Disney-owned website Babble:

Frozen is a movie about princesses, and it is full of action,” Whit wrote in his preview of the film, which he had shown to his two sons during an early screening. “It is a good film for boys. And girls. And anyone else that enjoys a great story.”

So, we’re going to Disney’s Frozen on Ice, and we know we’re in for a great story. On ice.

Don’t take my word for it. If you know the movie and you love the songs and story, I’m betting you’ll get chills watching this first-look video from the Disney on Ice YouTube channel:

Our boys are going to love Sven the reindeer and skating Olaf the snowman, but they’ll love the singing and magical special effects, too. I’m sure it won’t hurt, either, that the show includes appearances by Mickey Mouse and lots of other Disney and Pixar characters.


As of today, there is some question whether Disney’s Frozen on Ice will take place as scheduled (Thursday-Sunday) at Amalie Arena. The Tampa Bay Lightning remain locked in a second-round Stanley Cup playoff series with Montreal, and if the Lightning win, there’s a chance the arena could be needed for NHL hockey. A contingency plan is being developed, and information will be posted at the Amalie Arena website as it becomes available.

For now, we’re planning on being there Thursday night, reliving our fondest Frozen memories and belting out the tunes together at the top of our lungs. Our boys love it, we love it, and no matter when it happens, we’ll be there.

Click here for show times and links.

UPDATE (May 12, 3:04 p.m.): I’m now told that the Thursday and Friday shows are safe and will take place as scheduled! The Saturday and Sunday shows are not confirmed as of yet, but we will know more later in the week.

7 Life Lessons from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

The enchanted objects from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a family favorite at the David A. Straz Center (Morsani Hall) in Tampa through Sunday. Photo: Straz Center.

This is the first guest post for DadScribe written by Beth Gaddis, my incredibly talented wife and fellow member of the Tampa Bay Bloggers group.

Fans of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will love the latest production, on stage at the David A. Straz Center now through May 10 (Sunday). Stand-out performances from Jill Butterfield as Belle and Ryan Everett Wood as the Beast, coupled with uproariously funny performances from Cameron Bond as Gaston, Jake Bridges as Lefou, and Patrick Pevehouse as Lumiere, create a delightful and engaging show.

In a tale as old as time, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast stage production also includes life lessons as valid today as they were when the book was written by French novelist Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont more than 200 years ago. Told through humor, drama, and unforgettable music, everyone can learn:

1. Don’t let others tell you what you should think, what you should say, or what you should do.

Part of Belle’s beauty comes from her inner strength when she stands up to Gaston and refuses to be his wife. In a scene that’s even funnier on stage than in the movie, Belle refuses his offer of marriage – and his assumption that she would want to spend the rest of her life massaging his feet while his latest kill roasted on the fire.

2. Home is where the heart is.

In a poignant song that’s only in the stage production, Belle wonders if she can ever feel at home in the Beast’s castle. Throughout the stage production, you see how she turns the cold fortress into a warm home through laughter, music, and shared memories.

Beauty and the Beast

Ryan Everett Wood as the Beast, and Jillian Butterfield as Belle. Photo: Straz Center.

3. Books can inspire you.

Fans of the movie will remember how Belle and the Beast settle in front of the fireplace to read a book together as they take the first few steps toward friendship. In the play, we learn that the Beast can’t read. Belle reads the story of “Arthur” to him out loud, opening his mind to a world of bravery, chivalry, and imagination. It’s one of the moments when the Beast seems most human.

4. Don’t judge based on appearances.

The ferocious Beast is actually a good guy, the gorgeous Gaston is actually a villain, and Belle wants to be known for her brain, not her beauty.

5. Stand up to bullies.

Belle is the ultimate heroine, standing up to the Beast when he’s imprisoned her father and when he tries to bully her into joining him for dinner, and when she stands up to Gaston and the villagers as they prepare to attack the Beast’s castle. In every confrontation, she puts her own personal safety at risk to do what is right.

6. Always use good manners.

In a funny scene that struck a chord with every parent who has ever had to remind their child to say “Please,” the Beast’s servants try to get him to ask Belle to dinner politely instead of ordering her to come down. It doesn’t quite work out the way he likes, but at least he tried.

7. It’s OK if you’re still figuring out who you are.

Neither Belle nor the Beast quite fit in with their peers – and that’s a message that resonates with a lot of children and teenagers. Even though Belle is happy, she knows others find her “odd” because she has different goals. But she stays true to herself and her core values rather than sacrifice them to fit in. The Beast has a different problem; he starts off mean and unfeeling, and suddenly has an exterior appearance that matches his beastly behavior. It’s only when his behavior changes as he matures into the man he wants to be that he truly becomes human again.

Above all, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is about love – both learning to love yourself and learning to love others – and redemption. Those are life lessons that all of us can take away from this timeless classic.

Thanks go out to the Straz Center, which provided four tickets to Beauty and the Beast for review purposes, and to Tampa Bay Bloggers. Opinions are those of the reviewer, who frankly is crazy about this show — and has been for years! Beauty and the Beast is at the Straz Center through Sunday. For tickets and showtimes, visit the Straz Center website


The Wasp

The Wasp

This hitchhiker FREAKED us out after the ball game tonight. As far as I know, it’s still in our car. Unrelated news: I have just placed a well-loved, 2005 Honda CRV on the market. Priced to move.

The game and the season ended in triumph. My sons and I walked together in the dark back to the car, which was parked on a grass and gravel lot beyond the outfield. I had backed it up against a fence and left it under the low branches of an oak, Spanish moss dangling around the windows.

We were jubilant. Jay had reached base and scored a run, and Chris had only spilled water all over his shorts one time — he was nearly dry by the time the final out was recorded and the Rays were declared victorious.

When we got to the car, the boys and I began to pile in. We froze when Jay’s voice cut through the warm evening air.

“Dad! There’s a wasp in the car!”

Sure enough, hovering under the dim dome light in the middle of our 11-year-old CRV was an insect that looked large enough to carry our 6-year-old back to its nest to feed its ravenous brood of wasplings.

“Get out!” I cried. “Keep your doors open!”

The wasp, unperturbed, hovered there and mocked us with its waspishness.

Adrenaline is funny. It can save your life under the right circumstance. It also can cloud your thinking and compel you to do the EXACT thing that you should absolutely NOT do to extricate yourself from a compromising situation.

A hovering wasp in the center of your car on a warm Florida evening after a leisurely Little League baseball victory qualifies as compromising. The LAST thing we needed was a stung kid.

The kids agreed.

“Is it gone?” Chris asked. “Where did it go?”

We stood a generous distance from our respective car doors and peered into the dim interior of the CRV. The wasp no longer hovered. It seemed to have taken full advantage of all the open doors and windows and vacated the premises.

We did a thorough search — front seat, back seat, way back — no wasp. We gingerly settled into our seats and I lowered all four windows in case the wasp still had not gotten the hint.

After a while, we settled into the usual routine for our 10-minute drive home after a night-time ball game. The boys were given their marching orders — shower, pajamas, bedtime snack, brush teeth, get to sleep.

I cranked up a Phineas and Ferb song on the CD player and drove on.

A mile from our subdivision, Jay got quiet.

“Dad?” he said. “Can you get home as soon as possible?”

“We’re almost home, bud,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I’m still freaked out by the wasp,” he said.

I told him that wasp was gone, that it had probably been more afraid of us than we were of it. We didn’t need to worry about that wasp anymore. It was gone.

“Then what is that moving,” he said, “in the bottom corner of your window?”

Yeah. It was the wasp. Or a deer fly. Maybe a horsefly.

I don’t really know, but it didn’t really matter. Impossibly, it looked even bigger in the dark, crawling up the side dash about 20 inches from my vulnerable driving arms.

I swallowed, gripped the wheel a little tighter, moved subtly and slightly to the right in the driver’s seat, and rolled down the front windows again.

I laughed to mask my terror.

“Ha ha ha! Look at that! I thought it was out of the car,” I said. “Huh. Guess it was hiding. Well, it’ll be all right. We’re almost home. Ha ha ha! HA HA HA!”

The boys urged me to speed home, but I maintained the neighborhood-wide speed limit of 30 mph and never once took my eyes off the killer insect stalking me mere inches away. OK, no, I watched the road. But I also watched that wasp, and if it had made a suspicious move I was ready to jam the car into park and run for my life.

I told the boys as much.

“What do we do?” Jay asked.

“Pray,” I said, agnosticism momentarily forgotten. It’s true, after all: There are no atheists in fox holes or wasp-infested sport utility vehicles.

No one was stung. (Witness the power of prayer.) We pulled into the garage and the boys fled into the house. I calmly gathered my iPhone, a pack of gum and my wallet from the center console. I had to do so from memory, because I never took my eye off the insect. It just sat there, wasping, daring me to make my move.

I escaped and slammed the driver’s side door.

The boys were waiting for me inside.

“Is it gone?” Chris asked. “Because we just wanted to make sure it was gone.”

“It’s gone,” I said, laughing the laugh of an inmate pardoned at the last second — a little too hysterical, a little too relieved. Just glad to be alive.

“Get upstairs and put on your pajamas,” I said. “I’ll be up with your snacks.”

Oh, and hey. Totally unrelated — I have just placed a well-loved, 2005 Honda CRV on the market. Priced to move. Quickly.



Here, We Play

Somewhere in America, a baseball game was called on account of rioting. Here, we play. 
Somewhere in America, a father won’t call the police to report breaking and entering. The police might not be on his side.

Here, we play and never give a second thought to riots or severed spines. Cars and pharmacies burn in Baltimore. Here, we question the eyesight of the tired old man in blue behind the plate.

Out? Safe? Ball? Strike?

That matters … why?

Somewhere in America, a mother still fumes after slapping her son silly in his mask. Here, now, I wonder if that mom ever got to watch her son play left field or power forward. I wonder, sometimes, how we can just play on when somewhere, the world burns.

The music plays between innings, and the little kids dance while the pitcher takes his warmup tosses. Somewhere in America, a kid is warming up his arm to throw a brick at the indifferent world. 

And the world, momentarily aroused, casually catches it and throws it back.

Free-Range Parenting: Knowing When to Let Go

Free-Range Parenting

I asked our 9-year-old son if he thought he and his 6-year-old brother were old enough to walk the mile between our home and the neighborhood community pool without me or Mom.

He shook his head “no” before I finished the question.

“Maybe in one more year,” he said. “But right now … it’s a mile.”

He paused to marvel at the magnitude of the word, the vast distance it represents for a third grader, the incomprehensible here-to-thereness of it.

“There’s so much chance of bad stuff happening along the way,” he continued. “Like, what if there’s a snake or something?”

Yes. Exactly.

What if the mean streets of our suburban Central Florida neighborhood were over-run by an army of hungry Burmese pythons, on the hunt for new meat after eating all the rabbits and deer in the Everglades?

Or something?

Something like aggressive, stinging fire ants, which can swarm up a small child’s leg in an instant and inflict dozens of painful wounds.

Something like reckless high school-age kids tearing around the neighborhood like idiots on modified, rocket-propelled golf carts.

Something like a careless driver flying along far too fast to see two little boys alone crossing the road.

Something like open bodies of water – retaining ponds, drainage creeks and golf course lakes.

Free Range Parenting

Actual alligator sunning itself near the sidewalk connecting our house and the community pool. It looked hungry to me.

Something like the alligators that frequent those bodies of water. (Seriously. They’re everywhere. See photo.)

Something like a bad person looking for an unprotected kid to take.

Something like an over-zealous “good Samaritan” watchdog poised to place a panicky phone call to an over-zealous law enforcement agency that stands ready to over-zealously protect the children of the world from parents who have the gall to allow their kids to walk alone on a public sidewalk less than a mile from home.

It’s a jungle out there, right?

No. No, it’s not. Not here.

It’s a pleasant, 15-minute stroll, with broad sidewalks attended by shade trees the whole way. Wide strips of low-cut St. Augustine grass form a green, well-tended barrier between the walkways and the occasional passing minivan.

It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s a safe neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where friends respond gladly to neighbors in need. Crime is low.

This is home.

Yet, even in this idyllic setting, danger lurks behind every swaying palm tree. The seemingly tranquil stretch between our driveway and poolside actually is a battle scape.

In my mind, at least.

Listen, we trust our sons. They have proven worthy of that trust time and again. They are growing up well and confident.

But they’re kids, and we’re parents. They don’t yet possess the capacity to deal with crises — or even minor conflict — without adult supervision. It’s our job as their parents to help them learn those skills, and part of learning means failing at it. We understand that, but we’re not going to be irresponsible about it, either.

So, when they play outside, they must do so within shouting distance of the front or back doors. If they plan to go inside at someone else’s house, they must let us know where they’ll be and for how long.

When they want to go swimming, we take them to the pool. One day soon they’ll ride their bikes or walk that mile alone, but not yet.

Does a cautious approach make us helicopter parents? Are we over-protective? Too risk-averse for the healthy emotional development of our sons?

No. We aren’t over-protective. We are risk-averse, admittedly, but who in his right mind is risk-agreeable when it comes to their own kids? We aren’t Free-Range parents, either.

We are, simply, parents.

My wife and I are doing everything we can to prepare our kids to live life well. We also are doing everything we can to make sure they enjoy a happy childhood, and we’re in no hurry for that to end.

Confession: My greatest fear is that something catastrophic will happen to one of my sons, and I won’t be there to help them.

I’m not paralyzed by this fear. I don’t sit in the dark and rock back and forth, contemplating the horrific potential of the havoc rendered by the forces of darkness.

But the fear is there. I can’t deny it. It might not be rational, especially when you consider the statistics behind this recent Washington Post headline: There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

Still, I want to protect them. I need to protect them. It’s more than a sense of responsibility or duty. The compulsion is visceral. It’s fierce. It’s real, and it’s not going anywhere soon – if ever.

This urge to shelter them from the harshness of the world is something I’ll have to work through as a father. As they grow, so too will I.

Part of being a parent is learning when and how to let go. It’s gradual, sometimes imperceptible, but eventually – they let go of their need for reassurance. They no longer feel the urge to look over their shoulders and make sure we’re still there. They let go and move on, alone in the world but ready for what comes.

When that happens, I’ll have to be ready to let go, too.

Not yet, though. Not just yet.

Maybe in one more year. But right now … it’s a mile too far.

Free Range Parenting

One day, he won’t look back to make sure I’m there. I need to be ready for that day. I’m glad it’s not here yet, though.