ScavengerHunt2It’s not your parents’ trip to Disney World, that’s for sure – or even your older brother or sister’s, for that matter! Just in the past several years there’s been an explosion of social networking sites and tools like smartphones, tablet computers and more that keep families connected in many more ways than ever before.

And all of these can be taken with you on your next family vacation as well – so that you can keep family and friends not only apprised of what you’re up to, but make them feel almost as if they’re there right with you too.

This really stood out to me on the recent TravelingMom retreat at Disney World, when 30 bloggers took to the streets of the Disney parks, armed with cameras and smartphones to participate in a scavenger hunt. Now not only was this truly a fun and unique way to experience the parks (Epcot Center, for my group), and a great way for members of the group to get to know each other better and form a true camaraderie with one another (all in the spirit of competition – go Baby Dumbo group! LOL), but it also let the world outside our retreat in on the fun too.

As we deciphered clues (do you know which pavilion in the World Showcase houses a statue of a camel? Or a replica of a wooden stave church? That would be Morocco and Norway, respectively!), we were also required to add updates to both Twitter and Facebook – both to let the organizers know where we were in the hunt, but also to share the fun experience with others outside of our group too. And it was a lot of fun to read responses that other people were leaving – in real time, while the scavenger hunt was still going on.

The whole experience showed me how well you can use social networking, not just during an organized event like a scavenger hunt – but just during your own family vacation too. Gone are the days of sending a postcard and hoping it’ll make it to its destination before you’re home or having to wait until your photos are developed before being able to share them with family and friends… Today, you can:

  • Take pictures with your smartphone and share them on Facebook,  Flickr or Instagram before you’ve left the park. Or before you’ve even left that particular ride or attraction! If your family at home has a Kodak Pulse (wifi-enabled) digital frame, you can e-mail your pictures right to it from your phone too.
  • Chat via FaceTime or Skype with family members at home, during a lunch break or rest stop – and the kids can show off their princess look or newest souvenir right there and then.
  • Check-in at the parks on Foursquare, Whrrl or Gowalla to see and share tips about what to see and do – and to have a record afterward of where you were and what you were doing when.
  • Immediately search for deals or discounts on events or attractions that you’re interested in seeing.

Need to find the best place for kids to eat at the Magic Kingdom? Or find out what time the Illuminations nighttime show begins at Epcot? Not only can you search and access the web to search for and find answers on your smart phone or tablet, but you can also easily get to the Disney Parks blog and the Disney Moms Panel sites as well – both of which are amazing resources to get answers when you need them.

If you’re active on Twitter already, you can often get answers quickly on there too – I’ve literally gotten faster answers from tweeting questions at times than by using a traditional search engine. And there’s a whole world of Disney experts out there ready and willing to help – no matter what your question, someone’s sure to know the answer.

No matter where you’re traveling, there’s usually ‘an app for that’ too. And don’t forget to use Google maps or other GPS-enabled apps to find your way from Point A to Point B without having to carry or fumble with maps or guidebooks. You can even send directions to your phone ahead of time from your computer at home!

Of course not every technology is perfect, so here are a few tips to remember so that you can make the most of these social networking sites and tools throughout your day:

  • Cell and data reception in the Disney parks can sometimes be spotty, depending on your provider and other variables like the weather and how busy the networks are at the time. If you can’t get online, try walking a little ways or waiting a few minutes and trying again.
  • Don’t forget to make sure your device’s battery is fully charged before you leave in the morning – and think about buying an external battery extender before you leave on vacation so you can ensure that you won’t run out of juice in the middle of the day. You can also carry your charger with you if you think there might be an opportunity to plug in while you’re out and about – and if you’re planning to be in one place for a long enough time.
  • As several of us found out on the Traveling Mom retreat, if your phone is constantly searching for service as you’re moving through the parks, it can drain your battery much faster. Try disabling wi-fi while you’re out and about – and you can also look into a cell phone repeater that will help amplify the signal.

But even with all of this technology at your fingertips – and all of these new ways to keep your family and friends at home up-to-date even to the minute, please don’t forget to put the phone or tablet down or turn it off long enough to have fun and enjoy the time together with your family.

Social networking is constantly evolving – almost daily it seems sometimes. Do you have any other social networking sites that you’ve found to be great resources when traveling? Share in the comments! And if you want to win a Kodak Pulse digital frame, I’m giving one away over here (through 3/31/11).

Deb writes as West Michigan TravelingMom as well as at Mom of 3 Girls and Just a mom’s take on things…. You can also find her on Twitter – she’s @DebMomOf3.