Arizona Spring Training

I like to think we’re fearless parents (although I have a lot of fears when it comes to parenting). We bring our kid with us everywhere. We do our grocery shopping together. We take him to movies. We bring him to date night dinners, hockey games and sports conventions. It’s hard to imagine a life where we leave him to have these experiences alone. Don’t get me wrong- I know it’s important for parents to find time without their kids, but I want our son to experience the best adventures alongside us.

Heading to Arizona was a last minute vacation. We originally wanted to go for the weekend but had a hard time justifying the expense of flying without substantial time dedicated to the visit. The best part about this trip was we didn’t overplan. I have a tendency of drafting itineraries, researching menus and searching Instagram for the most photogenic spots before we’ve booked a trip. Planning two weeks in advance made us commit to travel without figuring out all the nitty-gritty details.

We originally tried staying at Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West because it’s located directly across from Sloan Park, where the Chicago Cubs play during spring training. The close proximity and fact that they offer a special “Batter Up” package with a credit to the pool bar made it a top prospect. But then they sold out. So we quickly booked a room at Hyatt Place Phoneix/Mesa, located less than a mile from the park. This hotel actually worked out better because they have suite-like rooms with extra space we needed. They also offered a free hot breakfast every morning, including the best breakfast bowls! Leigh took a cup of Fruit Loops with him every morning.

Breakfast Buffet at Hyatt Place
We filled our plate with something different every morning

One of my favorite parts of this vacation was snuggling in bed with Leigh every night. He’d crawl into the pile of pillows and wait for us to read him books before we turned out the lights. There was not a single night when we stayed up later than he did. The combination of the Arizona sun and waking up at the crack of dawn every day made sure we were ready to sleep by 9pm. I spent most of the nights balancing on the edge of the bed, but that’s the life of co-sleeping. Amiright? We don’t get to do this at home so I savored the mornings when I’d wake up with a tiny hand peeling open my eyelids, looking for a sign of life.

This was the longest stretch of time we’ve spent together since going back to work after Leigh was born. I took a new job last year, so my vacation time was limited. After the one-year mark, I had two weeks of vacation burning a hole in my pocket. When my mom told us she needed a break, we eagerly request five vacation days and took off without looking back. I don’t think we’ll go too long without another stretch of time with our son. While vacation with a baby is certainly not the same as one without him, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tips for Flying with a Toddler

We headed to the airport with low expectations and hoped for the best. I strapped Leigh to my chest in our baby carrier to get through security as quickly as possible. They let us go through an old-schoolmetal detector and then swabbed my hands to check for substances. Leigh got to keep his shoes on and stayed safely put the entire time. We let him wander around the airport afterward to burn off some of his energy.

This was our first time flying with our son. I was terrified he would scream the entire flight. I was scared he would make a scene and I wouldn’t have a place to hide. The risk of having the worst happen on a vessel trapped in the air was worth it when compared to driving for days. We always drive everywhere because it’s easier, but after our experience this trip, I think we’ll fly!

I read a bunch of blog articles with advice on how to quietly entertain a young child on an airplane. I stocked up on Wikki Stix, finger puppets and fruit snacks. But what turned out to be Leigh’s favorite was this magnetic drawing board. I kept them hidden from him until we got on the plane so he was surprised, excited and extra interested in the options I had to offer. The hardest part about getting a kid to be comfortable during a flight is the takeoff and landing when their ears pop – because it’s difficult to adjust to the altitude. The trick is to get them to swallow, so we pumped Leigh full of gummies and water and it kept him from crying. We were a little late on the descent and he shed a few tears but quickly recovered after the discomfort went away.

One other piece of advice that worked well for us: save the iPad for the air. We waited until we were about 30 minutes into our flight to flick on a film. This way, he was practically begging for an opportunity to relax after all the excitement of getting on the plane and taking off. Leigh fell asleep on the way there watching his movie, but he stayed awake the entire time the ride home, much to our dismay.

Flights are a lot more work for parents. Kids have a great time! Leigh got our full attention for 3.5 hours. Kids under 2-years-old can ride free on a passenger’s lap, so he shared our seats. Considering he won’t sit by himself in a chair at the dinner table, there’s no way he’d sit in his own seat on an airplane. I was grateful he qualified as a complimentary lap-rider since he’s one month shy of 2. I didn’t want to waste money on a seat he wasn’t going to use, although I would have welcomed the extra room. Next time we fly on a standard Boeing 737, we’ll spring for the extra seat so we can get a whole row to ourselves. He even got to bring his own personal item, a Puppy Dog Pals backpack, loaded with all his toys. Take the flight crew up on their offer to gate check your carry-on bags. It makes it much easier to slide down the center aisle as you navigate to your seat with a kid who keeps bumping into the person in front of you.

And one last thing: do everything in your power to change your child as close to boarding as possible. We used the family restrooms at both O’Hare and Sky Harbor Phoneix. They are made just for parents like us with extra room for luggage and space for changing clothes. On our way home, we’re waiting for them to call Group 8 and smell something awful coming from our son. They’re on group 5 and I quickly grabbed the diaper bag and ran to the restroom. I’ve never changed a diaper so fast and I was so thankful he pooped moments before boarding. It would have been a different experience if he waited 15 minutes longer. A lot of planes don’t have changing tables in the bathrooms and there’s not a lot of space for changing diapers mid-flight.

Eating in Arizona

We dined at some delicious spots on vacation. But also hit up our regular standbys, including Chick-fil-A, Chili’s and Starbucks. I love to eat like a local when I visit a new place and breweries are an easy target.

Arizona Wilderness Brewing

We ate dinner at Arizona Wilderness Brewing in Gilbert, a town just south of Mesa. This restaurant has great outdoor seating space with heaters for when the temperature drops below 60. We shared a beer flight of their best brews and a few appetizers = the perfect meal. We also stopped by Four Peaks Brewing Pub. It’s located near Arizona State University’s campus in Tempe and loaded with hip college students. We enjoyed watching a game of bags while waiting for our table. Have you ever tried poutine? It’s french fries covered in gravy and fried cheese curds. Four Peaks rendition includes green chili and pork. I highly recommend it!

Jalepeno Buck's BBQ
Pick your poison

Did you know Arizona is known for fresh citrus? I thought that was Florida’s thing. Nevertheless, this desert state has some of the best oranges! We visited a couple of citrus farms and picked up a few oranges to bring back home (smuggled in our checked luggage and probably a big part of the reason why we found an insert saying our bag was inspected by Homeland Security). While their website leaves a lot to the imagination, B B Citrus Farms is the oldest one in Mesa. You can eat at this awesome barbeque stand in the middle of the grove, called Jalapeno Bucks. Order a pulled pork sandwich, add your own sauce at the table and enjoy some “buckin’ good BBQ and burritos.”

Teriyaki Sirloin from The Keg
Served with a side of Bernaise

Eric and I took a road trip out to Niagra Falls the summer after I graduated high school and we ate the most delicious teriyaki sirloin at The Keg in Canada. I saw the restaurant had a chain of locations, including one in Tempe – only 10 minutes from us. We had to go! We ordered cocktails, calamari, caesar salads, steaks, vegetables and chicken fingers but the only thing Leigh ate was the saltine crackers that came with the veggie plate before our meal. 😦 He also ate some of the scoop of ice cream they brought after clearing the table…

Sloan Park serves all the regulars: Chicago dogs, burgers and tamales – but their specialty is garlic fries. They are essentially french fries tossed in this delicious garlic oil, covered in a mixture of minced garlic and parmesan cheese. We enjoyed five baskets of these guys during our three trips to the park – about one too many if you ask me. There’s also a line up of local food trucks behind right field that looked really fun to explore.

Cactus League

I can’t tell you how awesome it was to watch baseball in flip-flops during winter. We’ve attended opening games at Wrigley in March and we’re usually freezing our butts off, so it meant a lot to catch these early games in a warm climate. We watched the Chicago Cubs play three times at Sloan Park. Some people call that excessive, but baseball really was the reason why we made the trek out to Arizona, so we wanted to go to as many games as possible. It was also the perfect excuse to spend time outside in the perfect 65-degree weather. We watched Ian Happ hit a home run against the White Sox in the first inning and Yu Darvish was supposed to make his Cubs debut pitching on Wednesday, but he called in sick – boo! Overall, the Cubs got two wins and a tie. The team looks really promising this year – but I’ll still miss Jake Arrieta from the pitching lineup.

Get there early for batting practice around 10am. The team gets ready in the practice fields just west of the stadium. You can line up along the fence and greet the guys with a “Good morning!” Leigh’s adorable squeals and tiny hands grasping the gate got a few smiles from Anthony Rizzo. While Eric got autographs from Ryne Sandberg, Victor Carantini, Ian Rice and Ryan Court, Leigh and I threw his little foam ball around in the grass. A few dozen fans filled in to watch the pre-game show, catching the ball thrown from Leigh’s wicked right hand. The Cubs proceed down a gravel path connecting the practice field to the stadium, prime spots for high fives and selfies with coaches and players.

Sloan Park is a beautiful ballpark with lots of fan favorites including a grassy outfield reminiscent of Wrigley’s bleachers. There’s a big marquee sign everyone stands in front of for a photo op – except this version offers a personalized welcome (I always end up accidentally taking photos of the strangest ads flashing on the Wrigley marquee). Make sure you stop by the fan services desk to get your first-timers certificate. Leigh collected at least ten stickers from ushers eager to please young fans.

We bought tickets as cheap as $6 per ticket on game day. We scored seats just a few rows behind home plate, next to the dugout and on the grass. The lawn seats were the easiest to do with a toddler because he had extra space to run around, but we were in full sun. Our actual seats were all in the shade, but there was less room for a kid with ants in his pants. Don’t worry! When things get a little hairy, head to the Kid’s Zone in the outfield where kids can run the bases and hit balls again Clark the Cub. Next time we go for spring training, we’ll make a point to visit other fields for games, but we’ll always pay homage to Sloan Park – the Wrigley of the West.

Playtime at the Park

With all the sun you could want, we spent a lot of time outside during our trip to Arizona. Leigh loaded up on sunscreen and wore his Cubbie bucket hat while running around some of the most unique parks we’ve ever been to. Most of the parks have some sort of shade over the playgrounds to protect young skin from easily burning. As the mother of a very fair-skinned little guy, I really appreciated this!

While visiting my Great Aunt Judy and Uncle Richard in Fountain Hills, about 30 minutes north of Mesa, we went to a playground at Fountain Park. Named after the giant world famous fountain that erupts at the top of every hour, this park was loaded with the coolest collection of kid-friendly xylophones. Leigh loved banging on each and every one of them. If your kid enjoys making sounds, they’ll love this place.

Closest to us was Riverview Park. This was seriously the nicest park we visited. It was built up alongside Sloan Park and has a lot of unique features, including a kids zip line, giant mesh rope climbing structures and tons of palm trees. Leigh loved running from one part to another, screaming down the slides and making new friends. The waterpark looked really awesome, but it wasn’t warm enough and we were walking over to the ballgame. We’ll have to come back here when the weather is warmer to take a break from the heat. 

Next up was the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale. We met up with one of my favorite academic friends, Mike Conklin. He’s a retired Arizona snowbird with small grandchildren, so he knows all the good parks to hit up. We walked around the 30-acre park and rode the mini Paradise & Pacific Railroad – for only $2! We couldn’t leave without a spin around a vintage 1950-carousel. Every single park was free to visit. We could have spent our entire vacation chasing Leigh around parks – but we managed to find time to visit another type of park in the desert variety. 

Sonoran Desert

We’ve been to the Grand Canyon for a day-excursion during a trip to Las Vegas, but that doesn’t really count as hiking in the desert. I dug around a site called AllTrails for insight on local trails in Arizona. It recommends hikes with information on length, duration, elevation changes and scenery based on user-generated feedback. I found a few that were perfect for us!

We drove 20 minutes out to Usery Regional Park on the far east side of Mesa. Maricopa County has some of the most beautiful mountains in the area and this park is loaded with a variety of trails. We paid a few dollars to park and had access to all the paths just a short drive into the mountains. Since Leigh’s little legs don’t move very fast, I wore him around a 1-mile hike on Merkle Trail. They have a guided hike called “Meandering the Merkle,” if you’re interested. We saw a wide variety of flora, birds and the most beautiful sunset. 

Did you know cactus are wooden like trees? Yeah, neither did we. 

I wanted to see the Superstition Mountains so we paid a visit to the Lost Dutchman State Park, right off the Apache Trail. Another nominal parking fee and we drove right up to the Treasure Loop Trail. It was already late in the afternoon when we arrived and the park ranger easily identified us as visitors eager to get a good photo. Photographers call the hour before sunset the “golden hour” because natural light looks it’s best just before the sun sets.

We also took a 45-minute drive out to McDowell Sonoran Reserve north of Scottsdale to see one final sunset. Brown’s Ranch Trail has a great view of Cone and Brown’s Mountain. We saw a handful of rabbits and thankfully all the snakes stayed in their holes. 

Did I mention Arizona was lovely? We’ll be back for spring training next year.

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