Top Ten Family Vacations

By Kyle McCarthy,
Editor Family Travel Forum

Skiing at Arapahoe Basin, Colorado.
Skiing at Arapahoe Basin, Colorado.

After 20 years of sampling family vacations, I can see 2020 may be the year when smart destinations and attractions start giving parents and grandparents what they really want from a family vacation: fun memories, safety, learning experiences, healthy cuisine, and respect.

With that in mind, here are the best of many excellent family vacation options that fulfill all of my needs, and hopefully yours.

U.S. Mountain Resorts

From Keystone’s Kids Ski Free all season deal to couch potato activities like tubing, teen spas, dog sledding, hot tubbing and more, a mountain resort is a great winter and spring destination for ages toddler (slopeside nurseries) through teen (independence and challenge).

Keep in mind that mountain resorts from Smugglers Notch, Vermont to Snowbird, Utah also provide cheap summer and fall getaways including kids camps, guided hiking and biking excursions, and spacious family condos.

Family Cruises

It’s official: more than 1.5 million passengers under age 18 sailed in 2017, encouraging the cruise industry to maintain its cutting edge lead on family fun. Royal Caribbean sails with FlowRider surfing pools and climbing walls, Princess ships show outdoor movies on their smokestacks, and Norwegian’s Splash Academy adds learning to supervised programs for ages 6 months to 17 years.

With 10 new ships launching in 2020, and family-centric lines like Disney turning out mega-ships with an AquaDuck water coaster above the top deck, cruisers will find bargains in each line’s older ships and excess inventory. This is the year to try cruising.

Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Already the single most popular family destination in the United States, Disney World is even better with a re-imagineered Fantasyland that caters to toddlers and grandparents with “Beauty and The Beast” themed attractions and restaurants (vegetarians and the gluten-averse welcome too).

Disneyland's Cars Land.
Disneyland’s Cars Land.

The Limited Time Magic program provides daily surprises for guests, including holiday themes like a Valentine’s Week for lovers (yes, there’s childcare at Disney resorts). New hats and pins, Friday the 13th spooky fun, classic Disney street performers going hiphop, food treats and amazing photo opps to fill your Facebook newsfeed – it’s all part of theme park efforts to surprise and delight visitors to keep them coming back for more.

Disneyland and Anaheim, California

Just as much pixie dust has been lavished on the California Adventure Park at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. This smaller, more manageable theme park is our pick to introduce preschoolers to thrill rides because of the wonderful new Cars Land, an oasis of motor-themed fun for all ages tied into the “Cars” movies.

Anaheim, too, has been refreshed with civic upgrades, a cheap commuter rail line from Los Angeles if you don’t want to drive, and lots of great baseball and hockey promotions with the Anaheim Angels and Anaheim Ducks teams. Food has come a long way too; don’t miss the Tapas Bar at the Carthay Circle Theatre with its fine list of California wines.

Universal Orlando Resort, Florida

The Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington DC.
The Capitol Visitor’s Center in Washington DC.

Now that 5 million butterbeers have been sold, isn’t about time you and your family visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Island of Adventure theme park? The park is nine years old and despite competition from other fantasy worlds, it’s still the best.

The terrifying coaster at Hogwarts is too much for young children, but Hogsmeade Village and its surprising special effects will entrance anyone of any age, even if you’re a muggle. Not to say that the rest of Universal Orlando isn’t great, it is.

Be sure to book one of the Loews on-site hotels (Royal Pacific with kids, Hard Rock with teens) or the budget Cabana Club Resort because room keys guarantee first-in-line admission or wait for the new budget Cabana Bay Beach Resort which will get you into the parks early so you can avoid some lines

Washington DC

New York City water taxi and the famous Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. photo by Kyle McCarthy.
New York City water taxi and the famous Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. photo by Kyle McCarthy.

We love Washington DC because there are hundreds of free educational attractions all year round. Don’t miss programs at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial during African American History month (February) or the Capitol Visitors Center, arguably the most functional entity on Capitol Hill.

If you’re concerned about our environment, catch “Space Junk 3D” showing at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. Free Tours By Foot works for tips from their two-hour guided adventures, and the Washington DC Convention and TourismCorporation has an up to date calendar of events.

Remember that room rates fall off the cliff on weekends and in summer (whenever Congress is not in session), so hotel deals are always available.

New York City

My family’s hometown is always on my Top 10 list, but it’s even more important to visit New York as the city recovers from the damage left behind by Superstorm Sandy. Kid-favorite free attractions like Central Park, the High Line park overlooking the Hudson River and Times Square were barely hit, but the city’s beaches, Coney Island, Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty ($59 million in damages to the island infrastructure but The Lady is okay) and other tourist areas are still suffering.

New Orleans JazzFest, photo c. David Grunfeld
New Orleans JazzFest, photo c. David Grunfeld

New Orleans

The annual Mardi Gras Festival in February may be one of the city’s most popular events, but our family loves the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. JazzFest, an indoor and outdoor celebration of every musical genre, takes place late April to early May and admission for ages 2-10 is only $5.

You’ll discover your kids are into gospel or blues, heavy metal or rap, or just into the delicious gumbo served at the Crawfish Monica stand.

New Orleans is a family-welcoming city any time of year and the big push to rebuild downtown hotels after Hurricane Katrina means there are many top value rooms available in summer and on weekends when conventioneers go home.

Be sure to visit the new wing at the amazing National World War II Museum, plan a swamp tour, and stop in at one of the local plantations to learn about slaves and their family life.

The Great American Road Trip

Here’s a no-brainer for a fascinating, cheap and serendipitous family vacation – a road trip focused on national parks and great places in our country’s history. Because the best ones take time, most families tackle road trips during the summer school holiday, but you wouldn’t be the first one to take a year off, purchase a used RV, and hit the highways in search of great road food and family memories.

Riviera Maya, Mexico at Xcaret Adventure Park Kyle McCarthy photo
Riviera Maya, Mexico at Xcaret Adventure Park Kyle McCarthy photo

Our 10 favorite itineraries (all covered in-depth at Family Travel Forum) are actually shorter on drive time and longer on stops:  an American History Tour through Pennsylvania, Leaf Peeking in New England, Appalachia and the Blue Ridge Parkway, Florida US1 From Jacksonville to Key West, The West from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon from Phoenix to Las Vegas, New Mexico in Depth, Pacific Coast Highway, Around the Big Island Of Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest from Portland to the Olympic Peninsula. Model safe driving and you’ll give your kids a lifelong gift.

Riviera Maya, Mexico

Now that they’ve survived the dire predictions that accompanied the end of the Mayan Calendar, we can reaffirm our affection for Mexico vacations, particularly the unique mix of beach and culture found in the Riviera Maya region of the Yucatan Peninsula. Along with Belize and Guatemala, this region is a center of Mayan culture, with archeological sites at Chichen-Itza and Tulum that are so well preserved that kids pay attention, even if you don’t book guides who explain how Mayan youth was sacrificed to appease the gods.

Of course, there are gorgeous beaches to appeal to every interest, as well as fascinating marine parks such as Garrafon Reef Park on Isla Mujeres, the Parque Chankanaab on Cozumel (with environmentalist-approved swimming with dolphins), and Xcaret near Playa del Carmen. A large variety of airlift and an abundance of kid-welcoming all-inclusive resorts make the region a bargain at any time of year, though summer is cheapest and August to October are prime hurricane months.

Resolve to Take a Big Family Vacation

A recent poll noted 50% of respondents had resolved to spend more time with their families this year. Good idea, especially since family vacations are truly getting better and better. And often cheaper. In an era when moms control US$2.4 trillion in spending and teens dole out US$170 billion in allowance, it’s easy to understand why the travel industry is listening to families, especially via social media.

So, please share where you plan to go and how you think the travel industry can make your family vacation a better one, and we can guarantee that someone will be listening.

kyle mccarthyKyle McCarthy edits the Family Travel Forum website in New York City.

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