The kids are waiting impatiently at the front door. Suitcases are packed, travelers' checks and plane tickets safely tucked in the bag. But there's something else, something indispensable to everyone's happiness _ and your sanity _ on this family vacation.
Where's the Survival Pack? Not coloring books and crayons, but necessities for on-the-go families to enjoy what little time they've got to relax.
To help pack yours, here are some suggestions from some well-known moms and dads as well as from the experts. They wouldn't leave home without:
"A good night sleep. That's all," offers Jane Pauley of NBC, the mother of three grade schoolers.
"Your imagination," adds Fred Rogers from his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. "It's the perfect plaything _ it's free, portable, unbreakable and for children of all ages. But it needs the loving care of grown-ups who value it."
That's why one mother I know always brings a length of rope and a flashlight. To rig a tent made from sheets in the hotel room or Grandma's den. (The children can play with the flashlight inside the tent.)
Other kids are just as essential to the success of any family trip, believes travel agent and grandmother Helena Koenig who spurred the trend of grandparents vacationing with grandchildren. "You can leave the toothpaste as long as they have friends to play with," she says. Call Grandtravel at (800) 247-7651.
Chicago pediatrician Diane Holmes, the mother of three, says no parent ought to leave without the doctor's phone number "if they don't have it committed to memory."
"Juice boxes are great, too," she continues. "They take the edge off hunger as well as thirst. A juice box can buy you another half hour of peace and quiet."
So can something as simple as a sharpened pencil, notes Parents magazine editor-in-chief Annie Pleshette Murphy, the mother of two youngsters. "They can write on anything as long as they have a pencil," she explains.
For younger kids, Murphy would stash a puppet in the Survival Pack. "So I could do a show for them in the car," she says.
Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician and author whose books guide millions of parents through their children's development, suggests asking the kids themselves what they absolutely can't live without.
"I'd take the most important thing in the child's world at that moment," he says. "Ask him what he wants to have and be sure to pack it." That might mean a special stuffed animal or "blankey" for a toddler, a collection of Power Rangers for a kindergartener or certain tapes for a preteen's player.
Big Bird, for example, never takes a trip without his teddy bear, Radar. "He'd really miss me," reasons Big Bird, reached at his nest on Sesame Street.
Candice Bergen's daughter knows exactly how he feels. Eight-year-old Chloe Malle takes her dog Lois along with her _ and a stuffed bear named Bob.
An inexpensive camera should absolutely be in the Survival Pack, says Meredith Brokaw, co-author of the Penny Whistle Traveling With Kids Book (Simon & Schuster, $13) and anchorman Tom Brokaw's wife. "It really helps the kids focus on the moment, on what they are seeing," explains Mrs. Brokaw, a Manhattan toy store owner who has three children.
A wet washcloth in a plastic bag is another certain mess-buster for families on the road, suggests veteran nursery school director Candy Reesh. "Even now that my four kids are grown, I feel like I'm missing something if I don't have one with me when I travel," she says.
Books can certainly help when plans go awry. That's why Fred Brown, an elementary school principal and president of the 26,000-member National Association of Elementary School Principals would put "a whole pile" in his pack. "Books for parents to read to the kids and books the kids can read themselves make the time go faster," Brown says. "Even comic books are okay."
Fellow school principal Lucinda Lee Katz, the director of the University of Chicago Laboratory School, never leaves home with her two kids without her deck of cards. "We play spades and hearts or solitaire. It's something we always do when we travel."
Send your idea for the Taking the Kids Survival Pack to "Taking the Kids," Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. We'll use some of them in upcoming columns.