The Gift of Wonder

The Gift of Wonder


The holiday gift-giving season is right around the corner, and if you have children, your attic doors and basement closets have been welded shut to keep curious eyes from spoiling the surprises. Assuming you don’t possess the year-long foresight and planning prowess of a diligent elf, you’re probably scrambling to check off your naughty and nice list with just a few weeks to go, fueled by gingerbread lattes and smartphone coupons.

In the wake of Black Friday and Cyber Monday’s tidal wave of deals, we’re often so concerned with finding things to put under the tree that we fail to look beyond our frosted living room windows to what comes after the holidays. While opening a present on Christmas morning or the last few days of Hanukkah can be a thrill, especially for squealing little ones in their footed pajamas, joyful memories are gifts that will last for years to come.

As experts in experience design, we are most inspired by these moments. We love scripting, sculpting, and crafting occasions of wonder and awe that stick with people long after the initial impact of jaw-dropping surprise. We asked our top attraction designers for some of their favorite experiences from 2019.  Their suggestions should inspire some new ideas for exciting the loved ones in your life this year.


Down on the Farm

The last several decades have seen agri-tourism grow into a booming business across America, as properties open their pastures and fields to guests curious about husbandry, ranching, and farming. Often centered around holidays – with fall being peak season for apple orchards and pumpkin patches – these day-long trips are perfect for the whole family, as Accountant Kim Barberio personally can attest.



Earlier in the year, Architect Dave Myers took his family on a thrilling trip out into the back country. “We went to Utah to find dinosaurs, and everyone’s favorite thing was digging for trilobites. The dig site was in the middle of nowhere. We had a 20-mile drive on a dirt road, which was off a main road, with no town within 40 miles of that turn off. We swam in the Colorado River and found fossilized footprints of meat-eating dinosaurs 60 to 70 feet above the adjacent roadway.”


Theme Parks (of course!)

PGAVers Emily and Brian Pelcak took their son to Philadelphia “to pretend to be Big Bird in his Nest” at Sesame Place.


Architect Ashley Edelbrock followed suit by taking her family to Dollywood. “Visiting Dollywood this summer and introducing my son to theme parks and my daughter to the wonders of roller coasters (which, thankfully, she LOVED).”


Food and Beverage Festivals

Graphic Designer Jess Solomon shares her experience at local St. Louis festival, IndiHop STL. “IndiHop is an annual event that celebrates BEER! It combines two iconic St. Louis streets, The Grove and Cherokee Street, for one major day of fun. You buy a single ticket and are able to walk into dozens of local businesses in The Grove and Cherokee to sample over 50 beers from breweries in the STL region. (There is a shuttle between the two neighborhoods so there’s no irresponsible driving!) The very best part about the day, apart from the copious amounts of frothy beverages, is that you end up visiting SO MANY local businesses that you would otherwise never know about. Last year I discovered an awesome tattoo shop, plant nursery, and art gallery. With ample beer tastings, local business participation, live entertainment and continuous shuttles, IndiHop is STL’s only community-building beer fest. It’s fun, unique, and my favorite event of the year!”


Travel Abroad

Exchanging cold ones for cryptids, Jess Solomon also had an amazing experience far beyond our beloved city. “During one of my PGAV GO! trips, we visited Scotland. One of the best experiences I had there was a high-speed boat ride to “catch Nessie.” Imagine being launched from the south bank of Loch Ness on a rubberized inflatable boat at 40 mph! It felt extremely fast and was a ride like no other. We zipped and glided all across the loch, saw stunning views of the magnificent Urquhart Castle, and received real “insights” on the whereabouts of the Loch Ness Monster from our local guide. Unfortunately, we did not spot Nessie… but the boat ride itself was still well worth the trip!”


Exhibit Designer Melissa Rivera-Torres used her PGAV GO! funds for “the amazing opportunity to go on a kayak at night and experience bioluminescence for the first time ever in Isla Holbox, located in the Yucatan Peninsula. Such a fun experience and such a fantastic trip!”


Road Trip!

Road-tripping is a great way to see a country’s wonderfully obscure charms while not having to purchase much more than gas, snacks, and roadside lodging (unless you’re in an Adventure Van or RV). Executive Assistant Lynn Berg shares two adventures from the road:

  1. “Driving along the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. A friend and I went from Cork to Ballybunion along the southern and western part of Ireland. That’s not the whole Wild Atlantic Way, which goes all the way along the west side of the island, but it offered as many stunning views as we could take in a week. We had a blast driving on the left side of winding seaside roads, hiking up mountains, drawing pictures, staying in B&B’s, talking to locals, and eating delicious seafood.”

(Also on the hunt for mythical beasts in Ireland, Project Manager Adam Stroud did the official “Game of Thrones” tour!)

  1. “Driving along the Grant Wood Scenic Byway (which was a PGAV GO! experience). It’s a drive through beautiful eastern Iowa with rolling hills, beautifully serene parks, old-time Midwest towns, and friendly people in the stomping grounds of one of America’s greatest artists, Grant Wood. One of the Midwest’s (maybe America’s) best-kept secrets.”


Get a New View

Even activities your future gift-recipient has done a hundred times can be re-imagined with a change in perspective. Vice President Emily Howard shares her stories of back-stage tours in Quebec and elevated walks through one of the world’s greatest cities.

.1. “Traveling to Montreal and getting to tour Cirque du Soleil was one of my favorite memories this year. I pursued aerial arts because of my love for Cirque, so that made it extra special.”

2. “I also was lucky enough to spend some time in Manhattan this fall with a friend. One of my favorite places is the High Line. It’s a respite from the city below with plenty of nature to walk among and architecture forming the boundaries of your path.”


Project Manager Adam Stroud took a page out of Emily’s behind-the-scenes book by touring and tasting his way through the Guinness Storehouse.


Attend the Theater

Senior Creative Designer Dave Cooperstein shares his amazing 2019 experience at the theater:

In and Of Itself – Written & Performed by Derek Delgaudio, Directed by Frank Oz (see attached photo of me in front of the theater)


“One of the most compelling, most mysterious, most astonishing and most emotional live theatrical experiences I have ever been part of. For 90+ minutes, Derek Delgaudio, a mesmerizing storyteller and master illusionist, weaved tales from his life, lessons that he’s learned, inexplainable illusions that he’s perfected and philosophical musings into a performance that held a mirror up to the audience and asked, “What is reality? What is identity? And can you ever really know?” I’ve studied magic and magicians since I was a kid, and attended hundreds of theatrical performances, and I’ve never experienced anything like In and Of Itself. It left me slack-jawed, dumb-founded, laughing and crying, sometimes within the same breath. It’s gone now, never to be performed again, which leaves me yearning to see it come back, upset that I can’t share it with anyone else, and still trying to figure out what I experienced that night…which is somehow perfectly fitting and exactly how Delgaudio would want me to feel.”


Get back to Nature

Designer Katherine Conti shared the beauty and impact of her adventures in the wild:

“My favorite experiences from the past year all occurred on trips to Grand Cayman. I observed the mating, feeding, nesting, and hatching behaviors of endangered green sea turtles in the wild, and the experiences were transformative.

In August, I observed the greens’ mating behaviors from the shore and, more closely, while paddle boarding on the sea. I woke up nearly every morning to new tracks and nests on our beach. Most memorably, I encountered a juvenile green while snorkeling and swam with her as she fed, just the two of us riding the same gentle swells, drifting weightlessly in unison. I giggled like a child every time she came up for air (turtles are REALLY cute when they do that). It was the most serene and beautiful twenty minutes in recent memory – absolutely unforgettable.

Members of the Department of Environment’s turtle conservation team came out regularly to monitor the nests and check on the eggs. On two occasions they brought pails of hatchlings from unsafe locations to our beach, and I was able to help guide the baby turtles as they dashed toward the sea under cover of night. In November, I watched as nearly a hundred hatchlings emerged from their nest and made their way to the sea. The fireworks blazing in the sky (from Cayman’s annual Pirate’s Week festival, an altogether different kind of experience!) seemed a fitting sendoff to those tiny but majestic creatures setting forth on one of nature’s most incredible journeys.”


When it comes to gifts, Millennials prefer experiential activities over material objects more than any previous generation. That attitude seems to be growing among people of all ages, though. Drawing inspiration from any of the examples above, you may just have the perfect idea for the adventure seekers in your life. Don’t be surprised if the size of the packages this December shrink down to envelopes that, when opened, simply say, “pack your bags.”

Have a happy holiday, wherever it may take you!


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