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YOU WENT WHERE? SAN FRANCISCO (With Kids)

During the toddler years, my family’s cranky moods  (mine included) disappeared with some creative distraction and a change of venue – if severe. Now that the tween and teen years dictate the mood in the house, when the bickering levels get intolerable, Mom offers a proportional change up – Roadtrip adventure!

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Photo courtesy of megabus.com

I’ve been dreaming of a trip to San Francisco since the last time we’d been almost 13 years ago. My teen son only remembers riding in a limo at 3 ½ years old (over riding his first cable car) and my tween daughter simply made it through the trip to her due date!  I love the energy of the city with its cool modern minimalistic hotels next to classic historic hotels with warm solid mahogany bars in the lobby. I love that everywhere you turn, distinct neighborhoods welcome you with their distinct charm, as do the piers decorating the waterfront!  So the three of us set out on an adventure blending history, new experiences, old favorites and of course something weird!

32 hrs in San Fran (with kids)!

DA, DA, DA – ANOTHER ONE RIDES THE MEGABUS
Always up for an adventure, the wheels in my head started turning immediately (The wheels on the bus go round and round)!  When you put things out into the universe, the universe responds! Amazingly, we received the opportunity to try Megabus.com for free in exchange for our honest opinion.  I immediately responded, “Yes, Please!” after a great first-hand testimonial from my office mate who used this bus line recently during her East Coast holiday adventure.

Planning a weekend getaway limited our time in San Francisco, so the idea of showing up only 30 min. early, getting on a bus with reclining seats and sleeping my way to San Francisco – then waking up refreshed at my destination – cemented the decision for me! The night we left, California disappeared under the rainstorm that my generation will retell vividly for generations to come. The Megabus travelled securely on the roads, unfazed by the elements. In fact, for both directions of the trip, energetic and helpful employees kept us on track. Their rates remain reasonable, only additional charge should you wish to reserve seats!  Check their site often for their $1 sales! I wish I’d known about this when I was a college kid – weekenders would have educated me! For a full review click here.


YOU ONLY GET ONE CHANCE FOR A FIRST IMPRESSION
As we crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge, the sun shone on the waking city and almost converted me to a morning person (Hah, you know how unlikely that’d be). The bus dropped us at the Caltrain station and Uber picked us up before we even stretched out our rested bodies! Everything feels closeby in San Francisco and in minutes we arrived at the Hilton SF Union Square – a hotel I’m super familiar with thanks to my Team In Training (TNT) years.  Though they aren’t the most hipster or historic place in town to rest your head, they consistently provide a comfortable experience that seems upgraded from the price paid (especially with their renovated rooms). Feels like dropping in for a visit with a long-time friend!  What cinched our future return was letting us check in 8 hours early! Thank you!

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Despite our welcome middle of the night snack from the roadside rest stop, we arrived to San Francisco hungry for adventure …and breakfast!  Wanting to set the tone for the weekend, and to fuel us for the day, we chose another favorite from my TNT days, Sear’s Fine Food

The moment you enter, you step into your grandparents’ era for some unconditional love delivered in a heaping serving of delicious warm food. With our bellies and hearts filled up, we left for our first adventure… except nothing was open yet. So we went to the hotel to plot our course, unpack, watch TV…

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THRILL OF A NEW RIDE
While the kids power napped, I navigated and doubled back cross-checking the Cable Car routes to deliver us to all of our desired locations. We opted for a single-day pass immediately opening up our access to the city. I purchased our tickets while the kids watched the city’s tradition of re-directing the cable car at the turn about.  We hoofed it 2 blocks to the next stop up from there (where 10 people stood in line vs. 100s at the turntable). For the first leg of our trip we jumped onto the outside of a crowded cable car and held on!  My daughter told me later that she got nervous – not that she’d fall off – that other people wouldn’t get out of the way.

One of the most memorable visuals of the city flashed briefly at the change between the Powell-Hyde and California lines as we looked downhill through the city.

Alcatraz is first on our list for next time!

OFF TO EXPLORE – AH, TOUR – EE, YUM!
One parental benefit allows us to run alongside our kids, watching the world through their curious eyes, bright with wonder.  At the Exploratorium, everyone’s minds expanded and repeatedly blew as we flew from exhibit to exhibit, squealing like loudly deflating balloons!  Each new stop offered fascinating exhibits where you learn by interacting with the exhibit! This museum encouraged touching or climbing into and through exhibits!  My daughter’s and my favorite experience deprived us of our sight as we traversed through a maze in complete darkness. As a pair, we relied primarily on touch and sound while traveling through the Tactile Dome (slight additional, but highly recommended fee).  She turned out to be an amazing leader providing step-by-step directions as to what challenge I would find next.  My son’s favorite challenged him to learn Morse Code – harder than it looked considering it’s only dashes and dots! Totally exhausted though only getting a fraction of the experience done, we finally broke for dinner!

PEPPER MEAL WITH HISTORY
As a divorced mom, I haven’t shared a lot of their Dad’s and my history. At first I lacked an age-appropriate answer for their innocent questions, “So if you had fun, why’d you break up?” Later, out of respect for his new wife, and largely because I’d boxed them all away, wrapped in impenetrable box in my self. 11 years later, I realize that the generic statement “Even though we’re no longer together, you were created from love.” doesn’t carry weight if I don’t sometimes share proof.  Their Dad and I enjoyed The Stinking Rose restaurant a few times both here and the one in LA. One thing we actually agreed on was that only the SF one seasons the experience with a mythical bohemian feel – being that it’s the original location.  Also, honestly, this restaurant wouldn’t have teased my palate without his family’s cooking. The first time they opened their door, a rush of garlic took my breath away! The rest is history.


WALK RIGHT DOWN THE STREET
After dinner, though absolutely stuffed, we desired something light but sweet.  We calculated the distance we needed to walk to make enough room for Gelateria Naia (who are we kidding – there’s always room for gelato)! My kids stuck with classic flavors of mango, coffee and chocolate chip (though not all together).  They featured a whiskey flavor I’d never encountered before that blended smoothly with chocolate – the recipe for the perfect evening nightcap. 

I SPY… SOMETHING GOLDEN
The next morning, after we slept in a bit, we hunted for a meal large enough to rush us through the day and sustain us until we got on the bus to relax for the ride home to Los Angeles.  Originally, we went fishing for a fish and chips truck, but, they weren’t open when our stomachs started growling at us. The mist of the heavy fog led us straight to Tarantino’s Restaurant on the pier promising a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the top floor (talk about multi-tasking when on a limited timeframe).  The kids laughed at the names of boats in their slips, communicated telepathically with seagulls begging for the kids’ fries through the scenic glass window, and squinted to find the bridge through the fog. We raved about the crispy golden seafood (lightly battered and fried, without any recognizable fish features).  


LIKE KIDS IN A CANDY STORE
As we exited the restaurant, the bright red logo of Rocket Fizz served as a beacon from across the street.  My son’s sentimental side insisted that we go “support the company” so that they don’t go out of business (I doubt there’s any danger of that, he’s still sore we lost the location in Westchester). Your sweet tooth compels you to stop the next time you pass near this store. It offers many childhood or jumbo-sized favorites and hard-to-find imported candies.

WTF: WEIRD, TOTALLY FUN!
Headed towards the Pier, we pulled inside a doorway to briefly to plot our course …and never left.  We’d stepped through a door into the most fantastically freakish place – Musée Mécanique!  This features the personal collection of Edward Zelinsky’s arcade games, and other mechanical wonders, collected from 1933 on (though some originated from decades earlier).  This collection felt slightly unsettling only because we had no idea what to expect (or was it the large clown at the entrance). Uneasiness immediately yields to exponential levels of excitement as you discover each new relic from a player piano, to old-time picture machines, to Space Invaders and a steam motorcycle.  We completely fell into this parallel universe, lost track of time, and wish we could have stayed longer.
 

MY NEW PERSPECTIVE
After a relaxing and a more spacious ride home (less people on the bus so each person could take a row of seats), we returned home from vacation refreshed, a little exhausted from our adventures, and with new perspective.  Our Three-thumb review is 3 tired thumbs up.  My tween daughter loved the unique challenge of the Tactile Dome and a new appreciation for her vision. My teen son left for San Francisco believing that one beach town resembles the next one. He returned with an appreciation for the history and the varied terrain (and we didn’t even visit the largest or curviest hills) of Northern California.

I caught a glimpse of my children and how they treat each other when mom’s not around thanks to the water fountain experiment in the Exploratorium. It featured back-to-back water fountains and two buttons on each side: SIP or SQUIRT. Each sibling simply pressed one button and if they match, it happens, if it doesn’t match, it cancels each other and nothing happens.  I fully expected to need to buy new dry clothes, or that they’d cancel each other out.  My heart grew when I witnessed my kids gently lowering their heads (and dare I say they were both a little bit surprised) to get a sip of water.

If you want even more detailed reviews on each place we visited, check out the Yelp Reviews. Plus subscribe to check back when we update the list after future roadtrips!

Follow the blog to see where we go next!

What about you?
What is your favorite San Francisco gem?
What do you do to save your sanity on trips?
How do you remain present and not skip ahead to the next destination?
What changes in perspective do you encounter while traveling?
How often do you travel with your kids vs. on your own?
Where are you off to next?
Where should we go next?

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YOU WENT WHERE? VEGAS! (WITH KIDS)

When planning our first family road trip to Viva Las Vegas; my cynical kids (and a few grownups) asked “Are kids allowed?” “What is there to do?”

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We hopped off The Big Bus at the Historic Las Vegas sign!

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED…
The mission we accepted was to find something memorable for each of us that we wouldn’t find back home in Southern California.  …Oh, and swim, people-watch and eat!  Where to start?

NOTE:  This trip was not swayed by sponsors – only my pennies!  I did graduate-level research on “Vegas for kids” and visited Groupon, Goldstar, Yelp LasVegas.com to find details and deals!  Here is my Vegas with Kids thesis – I swear it’s more interesting than my Master’s thesis. (Full extended reviews of each stop found here: Vegas Road Trip)

WE STARTED WITH A SPLASH!
We started by deciding what pool we’d want to play in, the room was secondary. We checked out everything from lazy rivers to sandy beaches but the Shark Tank pool at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino won. You can slide THROUGH the shark tank!

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Shot from the hotel’s website because my phone/camera isn’t waterproof!

THE ITINERARY FELL INTO PLACE…
FREESTYLE FREMONT STREET:
We timed our arrival to coincide with the electric evenings of the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Vegas!  We immediately headed towards SlotZilla ziplines to get a birds-eye view of the fun below under a video screen doubling as a technicolor sky!  I’d checked the weekend music schedule beforehand, reserving our zip time to soar during a rockin’ Bon Jovi song!  

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No really, it’s night!

My daughter and I flew, I screamed while praying that my son (waiting on the ground) wouldn’t get lost for the few seconds apart. He didn’t. He was stunned still by the circus that is the Fremont Street Experience!  It’s an amazing experience to bounce between multiple stages featuring different bands, while soaking in nostalgic old Vegas steaming with brand new, colorful energy!  

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Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise Casino & Hotel (Back to the Future 2) 

DAY STRIPPING:
To really take in the Strip, without wearing out our feet, Groupon sold me on a deal for the Big Bus Tours!  

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They picked up near our hotel and we hopped on and off again at many different locations including the photogenic Las Vegas sign, Circus Circus (also a transition point between two routes), and Everything Coca-Cola store (they’re not lying). Here we treated ourselves to flight of soda floats featuring Coca-Cola drinks from around the world in a variety of cola and fruity flavors!  

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Between us we were really full after sharing 1 flight of 8 mini floats!

TAKE PAUSE:
After dressing for the evening, we chilled at a coffee shop.  I sat on the sidelines sipping my cappuccino while my kids played chess.  When the older challenged the younger on a rule, only then were phones brought out to settle the disagreement. My younger daughter emerged victorious! My older accepted defeat gracefully – even giving her kudos.  That NEVER happens at home – call it vacation magic.

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NIGHT STRIPPING:
The kids were dazzled by casino lights and sounds as we walked through on our way to see the Blue Man Group!  Booking seats through Goldstar provided upgraded floor seats so we felt like part of the action (though not close enough where ponchos were needed)! We embellished ourselves with bright yellow strips of paper which later translated into a fantastic part of the show! As the show really got rocking, my kids’ senses worked overtime!  My 14 year old son felt like this was the closest thing to a rave he’d experienced!

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After pouring out of the theatre and matching the pace with the stream of people walking through the pulsing lights and music on the Strip, we decided late dinner was a must! The Hard Rock Cafe never disappoints and this location had a club pumping while we ate. We all loved our meals and probably even dream about them in between trips.

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THRILL OF DANGER:
Despite a late evening, the kids jumped out of bed the next morning to meet the Humvee chauffeuring us to Battlefield Vegas!  Groupon provided a great first-timer package for my son. Not the first time he’s shot at a range, just the first time he’s shot large guns.  The driver explained that Battlefield is run by ex-military and police officers who all know and respect firearms.  They impressed me with the lengths they go to prepare and protect you before entering the range.  Afterwards, we strolled around the tanks, helicopters and other vehicles in the yard!  We hoped someone would flatten a car with a tank – but we have to save something for next time!

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We returned to the hotel to finally slide through the shark tank!  One little girl had the right idea and slowed herself down in the tunnel so she could actually see the sharks – otherwise it’s a funtastic blur!  We splashed around the pool, and floated with our noses pressed against the glass of the huge shark tank!  We followed the sun as the afternoon progressed. Though tempting, I didn’t do any pool-side gambling.

As darkness took over, we headed to KISS Glow golf!  It totally rocked!  The kids enjoyed the rock-n-glow with the signature KISS obstacles on the course such as platform boots and guitar axes. The music rocked, but their collection of rock and roll memorabilia (from all sorts of rock bands) available for purchase impressed me even more! I really hoped someone would get married so we could witness a Vegas wedding in the chapel of KISS.

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WTF: (Whatever Teen Face) This IS my son’s face when he’s having fun.

 

The next day, we met my folks (who also happened to be in town) for a casual breakfast and then hit the road home.  The kids slept the whole way dreaming of what else to see next time! Not only did we blow the challenge out of the water, but so many things remain for us to return and discover!

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This is their old location, they’ve since relocated to the RIO!

What about you?
Have you had a great adventure in Vegas that you think we ought to try?  Let us know in the comments!
Anything only a local would know about?
Anything for even younger kids?

 

#GoldenNugget #FremontStreetExperience #CocaCola #EverythingCocaCola #Soda #Floats #MiniGolf #Glow #KISS #SharkTank #Pool #BattlefieldVegas #ShootingRange #Humvee #BlueManGroup #BigBus #Tour #RoadTrip #Vegas #LasVegas #TheStrip #Teen #Tween #FamilyFun

YOU WENT WHERE? CALICO GHOST TOWN (WITH KIDS)

When first planning a road trip to Vegas, I wanted to break up the drive with stops along the way.

Such a charming town with so much to discover!

During our July trip, knowing we were hours ahead of my family, we pulled off the freeway just a few minutes before Calico Ghost town to kill some time!

The landscape plucks you from now and transports you

Now this here used to be a bustling silver mining town of 3,000 people  that mined $13-20 million in silver and $9 million in borate minerals between 1881 and 1907 (silver stopped being profitable in 1897). When the mines dried up, the folks headed for the wilderness.

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Because we arrived early, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the Calico House Restaurant. The views from their back porch hinted at other things to do while in town. Their rockers out front and the friendliness of the staff inside slowed our speed from freeways to tumbleweeds.

Town Center is the front porch of the Calico House restaurant.

With stuffed bellies, we moseyed down the road to the gold panning station!

(L) Gold! (R) Swirling slowly to get silt out and gold to stay!

Turns out this was just one of the many adventures in town.

Next time you’ll find us belly up in the town tavern

Thanks to the generosity of their new owner (the Knott’s family), there was a great deal if you planned to visit a few.


While they offer a train trip and a mine tour, we left those for the next time since we had to get back on the road to Vegas (and because my kids are still a bit apprehensive about ghosts)!


Our three thumb review is 3 thumbs waving in the air trying to find our balance in what we unanimously agree was the best surprise: the Mystery House!

Look at the angle of the door frame, kids are walking upright!

My teen son enjoyed repeatedly challenging an optical illusion that gripped our perception! I was totally floored knowing how much your mind could be tricked into believing and my tween daughter loved the extra puns thrown in to really drive that point home.

Wanna see a man eating chicken?

My teen son hinted that he felt like there wasn’t enough to do for kids his age – but I’ll counter that by saying there was a lot that we saved for next time including perusing the graveyard. Plus, I think camping near a ghost town may make teenage hearts pound!


Oh, here’s how hot the World’s largest Thermometer showed it was during our mid-July 6pm drive home.

WTF: Wow, that’s fiery! It was 119 when we arrived!

Elmer you’re next!

#ThreeThumbReviews #Baker #WorldsTallestThermometer #RoadTrip #LasVegas #Calico #Ghosttown #Silver #Mining #LongCut

THESE CREATURES OF HABIT GET CREATIVE!

My family has always loved OREO cookies, the original ones (Double stuff included). When OREO first introduced golden ones, I tried them – once. When the birthday flavor came out, again, we tried them but ran back to the original recipe. When Thins first appeared, we were not even interested. Our cookie logic believed that OREO cookies = good, Double stuff = good2, but this thin cookie (a fraction of the size) = ⅓(good). We weren’t interested in tasting mint because it’d be a poor substitute for real mint cookies sold by real girls.

While applying for this chatterbox and being swept up in OREO-mania, our OREO auras became far more colorful. We learned about Red Velvet – hands down our new favorite. We tried Cinnamon Roll and admired their authentic flavor! We tried OREO Mint Thins and went head-to-head with those other mint cookies. Just know if you’re not finding special limited flavors in the cookie aisle, look for endcaps – my Kroeger Ralphs stores them there.

 

WTF: Wait, Three Flavors?!

When we received our Chatterbox coupons, we went with Red, Mint and (new to us) chocolate filling. We played it safe some with flavors. Red Velvet were made for mixing and matching because the cookies separate easily from the centers – maybe too easily, falling into my milk without a paddle! I loved the consistency of the chocolate filling – much softer. However, it was tougher to separate from the cookie. So we’d usually keep those intact and add the other flavors to it. Thins don’t separate easily but, kept intact, add a great crisp flavor layer between the others.

Our Three-Thumb review is 3-thumbs WAY up! My teenage son didn’t Open Up (it’s a teen thing) and layered cookies together in mouthfuls. My tween daughter remained a purist with her project removing all but the outermost 2 shells. Myself, I made stacked cookie treats in many varieties! Customizeable OREO fun will appear at our next sleepover, team or birthday party! I’m also curious to step beyond our comfort zones with lemon and birthday cake. I hope it tastes like lemon loaf! OREO found a way to take a classic and turn it up a notch into cool, creative, crunchy combinations!

#ThreeThumbReviews #OREOKrogerPack #Sponsored #Chatterbox. #HouseParty

SHARE CAVALIA ODYSSEO WITH THOSE YOU LOVE

For me, one of the best parts of special events comes from sharing it with others. The thrill of experiencing events through their eyes gives me insight to what makes their hearts sing. Plus, shared memories stay with people longer than things, so it’s important to me to build history with those around me.

These days, life happens so fast it’s hard to hold a meaningful conversation with people, but experiences like Cavalia Odysseo allow one to pause while igniting every sense so you connect with the show and those around you on a significantly deeper level.

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Visually, this show is magnificently elegant, strong and intimate! While the feats of horses’ speed matched with humans’ strength astound you, this relies on an unseen trust between them.  The horses represent the most elegant breeds with flowing locks and sharply defined features. The costumes mirror this emanating a regal, ethereal feel. All pictures and videos aside, one cannot experience the full power of Odysseo without witnessing it live.

The music guides your emotions softening the beat of the thundering drums and hooves that drive your pulse.  As each acrobat performed their jaw-dropping stunts, my heart leapt with anticipation. One could smell the gentle perfume of horses, mixed with other fun flavors of a circus show.

Our Three-Thumb Review was actually Four-Thumbs up.   My 5-year old niece added new perspective to our usual tween, teen and mom-review. Though she loves and rides horses, I worried about the length of the show but she sat glued on the edge of her cousin’s lap (and intermission arrived in perfect time)!

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Despite my initial prediction, the trick riders, not just the horses, amazed her. My tween and her teen brother found rare common ground loving the physicality of the acrobats, their drums and the kangaroo stilts!

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I relived the best of my youth days spent horsing around, plus reignited my belief in beautiful fairy tales come true (including mine).

  Couple Odysseo with dinner for an unforgettable date night, or follow Odysseo with the most acrobatic carousel ride at nearby Irvine Spectrum.

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Odysseo extended their stay so get your tickets and please wander back and let me know how it touched you!

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I think it’s safe to say they loved it!

 

#OdysseoOC #ThreeThumbReviews

THE SUPER COOKIE BOWL

The Super Bowl’s over, the puppies and kitties fell asleep in their bowls. Now it’s time to quiet the trash talk, restore familial relations and dive into the most delicious head-to-head competition – The Cookie Bowl! This match brings together a historic franchise against first-year rookies: Girl Scout Thin Mint (GSTM) cookies and Oreo Thins Mint Creme (OTMC)!

Thin Mints fans offer robust sentimental flavor, history, and loyalty. Every year, since 1951, fans line up to celebrate Thin Mints sale season opening day. If rationed properly, they just tossed the last box tucked deep in their freezer from the previous year. If not, true fans wait patiently because the cookies’ scarcity increases its fans’ fervor! Also – no reasonable substitute existed until now.

Oreo, although a 104 year-old brand, developed a thinner cookie with new flavors last year in 2015. Some missed their mark but mint cream hit the bullseye. Though a younger cookie, they came to compete. Change makes some people uncomfortable. How will this translate to their performance today?

TASTE
GSTM – Flavorwise, or as a result of years of conditioning, this mint flavor seems most authentic surrounding the chocolatey tasting cookie.
OTMC – The outside Oreo cookie sandwiches a sweeter mint creme center.

TEXTURE
GSTM – Smooth stiffer chocolate mint surrounds crumbly wafer.
OTMC – Feels like an inside out GSTM with the thin crispy exterior but a soft, smooth center.

VALUE
GSTM – The boxes cost $5 but the sleeves shrank in the last few years
OTMC – The boxes cost $2.50 but their boxes shrank a bit too, from what I recall. However since more of these cookies fit, compared to standard or larger ones, per box, the value feels satisfactory.

True, other chocolate mint cookies exist, though not in the same league. Our three-thumb review actually favors the Oreo Thins Mint Creme on flavor, texture and value!

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Still, when Girl Scout cookie sales are on (like right now!) my sentinental flavor fave remains: Thin Mints. However, now the rest of the year won’t be so bleak.

What cookies should be in the Cookie Bowl next year? Please nominate your favorite brands or copycat recipes to compete for the title. 

For more #ThreeThumbReviews, follow me on yelp (click above)!