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Surfing in Hawaii
Photograph: Shutterstock

The best family vacations in America

For the best family vacations, without tears, these destinations offer activities and attractions to keep everyone happy

By Sally Webb

Family vacations: those precious few weeks of the year when you can switch off from the everyday pressures of life and really connect with your kids. But how can you ward off the dreaded complaint, “I’m bored!” when you’re on the road? With our guide to the best family vacations in America, of course. Avoid tantrums (from both kids and parents) by choosing destinations that appeal to every age bracket—national parks, laid-back resorts, classic amusement parks and cities like NYC that offer a wide range of things to do with kids.

Best family vacations in America

Photograph: Shutterstock/f11photo

1. Yosemite National Park

Famed for its sweeping valleys, towering granite cliffs, giant sequoias, waterfalls and plethora of wildlife, Yosemite, in California’s Sierra Nevada, is simply awesome. Hiking, swimming, rafting and fishing are just some of the many family activities available in the 1,169-square-mile national park.

Tip: Take the two-hour Valley Floor tour, led by a park ranger who will bring the landscape, ecology and history to life.  

Where to stay: Reservations for the 13 campgrounds are fiercely competitive and you need to book months in advance. Alternatively, Curry Village gives you the camping experience without the hassle of set-up in cabins and tented cabins that sleep up to six. 

Surfing in Hawaii
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Hawaii

There’s no better place to learn to surf than the long rolling breaks of Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, but other activities include paddling an authentic outrigger canoe, or learning the graceful movements of hula. Explore the island’s most scenic and historic sights on a Waikiki Trolley tour, and swim with dolphins at Sea Life Park.

Tip: The secret for families to get the best out of Hawaii is to split your time between busy, urban Honolulu on Oahu and another more laid-back island such as family-friendly Maui.

Where to stay: In Honolulu, the large and amenity-packed Sheraton Waikiki towers over the famous beach. Float on beanbags in its infinity pool. On Maui, Kaanapali Beach Hotel is the island’s most authentically Hawaiian resort, with lush grounds and an activities program especially for kids, including lei making, lauhala weaving and ukulele and hula lessons.

National Air & Space Museum
Photograph: Elan Fleisher

3. Washington, D.C.

Care must be taken to avoid museum fatigue, but as an entertaining, hand-on civics lesson, you can’t beat the nation’s capital. Check out the world’s most significant collection of aviation and space artifacts at the National Air and Space Museum, see the original Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History, and watch millions of dollars being made at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Take a break from the monuments with a day at the zoo. The beauty of D.C. is that most of the major attractions are free and the Metro is safe, clean and will get you where you want to go.

Tip: Think (months) ahead and apply for VIP tickets for a White House tour and Capitol visit through your local congressional representative.

Where to stay: Residence Inn Washington, DC/Capitol is perfectly situated in the heart of the action and has one- and two-bedroom suites with full kitchens.

Toroweap point at Grand Canyon National Park
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Grand Canyon

One mile deep, 277 miles long and visible from space, the Grand Canyon is right up there on the cool chart for kids. Explore it from the rim on foot (the guided hikes are perfect for children six and older) or by bike, or ride a mule to the bottom.

Tip: Don’t miss the spectacular Skywalk at Grand Canyon West, which juts out 70 feet from the canyon rim—there’s nothing but glass between you and the Colorado River 4,000 feet below.

Where to stay: As its name suggests, Thunderbird Lodge looks like something out of Tracey Island. Located right on the Rim Trail and close to park shops and restaurants, it has rooms that sleep up to five.

Colonial Williamsburg
Photograph: Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg/David M. Doody

5. Colonial Williamsburg

A visit to this living museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, takes you beyond historical exhibits, immersing you in life as it was during the Revolutionary War. In the artfully recreated “town” of Colonial Williamsburg, kids will love strolling streets lined with old-fashioned bakers, milliners and wig makers, dressing up in period costume and listening to storytellers sharing chilling tales of enslaved African-Americans.

Tip: The nightly ghost walks are not to be missed.

Where to stay: Williamsburg Lodge is steps away from the action so you can easily enjoy evening entertainment too. Further afield, Kingsmill Resort has condominium digs perfect for families.

Walt Disney World
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Jeff Krause

6. Walt Disney World

Can a childhood possibly be deemed complete without a classic Disney experience? Resort complexes don’t come bigger than the 43-square-mile Disney World in Orlando, Florida, comprising four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom), two water parks, golf courses and 36 hotels. For full theme-park immersion, add a day or two at Universal Orlando Resort, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Tip: Allow at least two days (multi-day tickets are the way to go) and stay on-site as it gives you extended hours in the parks and early access to Fast Pass reservations, essential for skipping the lines.

Where to stay: The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort are nestled in the woods, frontier-style, and sleep up to six.

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Jeff Krause
New York skyline

7. New York City

The city’s energy is infectious for kids. While the Empire State Building is still the city’s classic viewpoint, the new One World Observatory is the place to get the lay of the land (buy tickets online in advance). Be dazzled by the crazy giant screens in Times Square, take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, catch a musical on Broadway and explore Central Park, including the zoo.

Tip: If you only do one museum, make it the Met, which has superb themed guides for kids.

Where to stay: On the Upper West Side (near the American Museum of Natural History with its impressive dino halls), the Hotel Belleclaire has two-bedroom, microwave-equipped Manhattan Suites sleeping up to six, plus a media lounge with arcade games.

Photograph: Courtesy California Academy of Sciences

8. San Francisco

When the kids learn how prisoners lived on the island prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, it’ll make even the most draconian parent seem lenient. The creepy night tour is best for teens or kids who don’t scare easily. Ride an antique cable car over Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf, then check out the Rainforest Dome and Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences. Hire bikes and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, then catch the ferry back. And be sure to save time for a scoop at one of many excellent ice cream shopsHumphry Slocombe satisfies kids and grownup palates alike.

Tip: Book well ahead for Alcatraz tours, which tend to sell out.

Where to stay: The Argonaut Hotel in a former fruit-canning factory opposite Fisherman’s Wharf is a bit of nautical themed fun, complete with doormen in sailor suits.

Tanque Verde Ranch
Photograph: Courtesy Tanque Verde Ranch/Graddy Photography

9. Tanque Verde Ranch

A dude ranch vacation is ideal for families and Tanque Verde in Tucson, Arizona, is one of the best, with spectacular trails that wind their way through desert and mountain scenery. This is a great place for kids with a horsey inclination to improve their riding skills, but novice equestrians can learn their stirrups from their saddles here too. The daily kids’ club offers activities from horsemanship to arts and crafts and there’s a spa to soothe aches and pains from too much time spent in the saddle.

Tip: The all-inclusive tariff gives you better access to daily activities.

Where to stay: The ranch’s Roadrunner Ridge Casitas, each with its own fireplace and sitting area, are the best bet for families.

Santa Monica Pier

10. Los Angeles

Celebrity spotting is all in a day’s sightseeing in L.A., especially if you take the Starline Tours Movie Stars’ Homes Tour. Check out the backlot sets on the Universal Studios Tour to learn how movies are made, or head south to Anaheim to visit the original Disneyland. Hire bikes in Santa Monica to explore the beach and the old-school Santa Monica Pier with its carnival games, vintage carousel and aquarium.

Tip: When reserving your rental car (an L.A. essential), make sure it’s equipped with a GPS.

Where to stay: Villa delle Stelle is a boutique hotel with a touch of retro Hollywood glamour. The two-bedroom Art Deco Suite is great for families.


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