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Orlando, FL
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The best family vacations in the US

The best family vacations in the US are chock full of activities and thrills that will satisfy kids and adults.

Written by
Sally Webb
&
Sarah Medina
Contributor
Scott Snowden
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If you haven’t started planning your next family vacation in the US, this list will help you whittle down the options. You may have to put up with an "are we there yet" or two, but that’s just because the kids won’t be able to contain their excitement.

Treating your kids to one of the best family vacations in the US is easier than you think. Unless it’s your first rodeo, you know you have to pick a destination that offers an endless variety of entertainment options so you avoid dreaded meltdowns and tantrums. We’ve done the research to find the best family vacations in the U.S. Among the best places to visit in the country, these destinations on our list will please kids and parents alike.

Florida and California, with ever-popular Disney properties, are obvious choices. Parents can relive their youth while kids can mingle with their favorite characters. If you’re looking for non-stop entertainment but not keen on amusement parks, we suggest towns like Gatlinburg, TN and Branson, MO. Pack in hiking, tram rides, animal encounters, and a show all in one day. Heading for an outdoor adventure, or visiting one of the national parks like Yellowstone or the Smoky Mountains, means reconnecting with nature and a chance for the kids to burn off tons of energy. For good measure, we’ve added a few under-the-radar options, like a lesser-known beach and a dude ranch.

RECOMMENDED: Everyone will love these fun and cheap family vacations in the U.S.

Best family vacations in the US

Grand Canyon, AZ
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1. Grand Canyon, AZ

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. The kiddos might complain when you get out of Wi-Fi range, but they’ll remember hiking these trails forever. Don’t miss the spectacular Skywalk at Grand Canyon West, which juts out 70ft from the canyon rim—there’s nothing but glass between you and the Colorado River 4,000ft below.

Tucson, AZ
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2. Tucson, AZ

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. Venture into the city to discover museums, local coffee roasters and microbrewers and a gorgeous landscape of saguaros, barrel cactus and prickly pear. 

 

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San Diego, CA
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3. San Diego, CA

With sunny beaches, fantastical theme parks, and the world’s largest comic book convention, there's no such thing as bored children in sunny San Diego. Plus, like a good Pixar flick, the best kid-friendly activities won’t leave adults gaping at their phones. We promise parents will love mingling with exotic animals, splashing through waterfront fountains, and marveling at towering Lego sculptures right alongside the kids. Avoid rowdier crowds and embrace calm waves alongside other families at Mission Beach, Coronado Beach or La Jolla Shores.

 

Los Angeles & Anaheim, CA
Photograph: Courtesy Todd Wawrychuk/Disney Parks

4. Los Angeles & Anaheim, CA

You're going to need way more than a weekend for this SoCal vacation filled with attractions from Santa Monica to Anaheim. Want to spot celebs? Take the Starline Tours Movie Stars’ Homes Tour or book a backlot studio tour for behind-the-scenes moviemaking magic. Hire bikes in Santa Monica to explore the beach and the old-school Santa Monica Pier with its carnival games, vintage carousel and aquarium. Then head south to Anaheim for amusement park gold like Disneyland

Looking for a Disney alternative? Knott's Berry Farm is a great option for thrill-seekers (we're taking real roller coasters) and fans of Snoopy and Peanuts (the park's mascots). 

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Orlando, FL
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5. Orlando, FL

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.

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. For a non-traditional hotel experience, The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort are nestled in the woods, frontier-style, and sleep up to six. 

Yosemite, CA
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6. Yosemite, CA

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.

Reservations for the 13 campgrounds are fiercely competitive and you need to book months in advance, but Curry Village (open April to October) gives you the camping experience without the hassle of set-up in cabins and tented cabins that sleep up to six. 

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Oahu, HI
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7. Oahu, HI

There’s no better place to learn to surf than the long rolling breaks of Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, but other family-friendly 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.

The secret for families to get the best out of Hawaii is to try to split your time between busy, urban Honolulu and another more laid-back area, like Oahu's north shore or family-friendly Maui.

Destin, FL
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8. Destin, FL

Known for its fishing spots and sprawling white sand beaches, Destin is full of family fun in the sun. Kids will love the calm shorelines, especially along Henderson Beach State Park and the Shores at Crystal Beach Park, and the amusement parks—head to Big Kahuna's for waterslides and a lazy river and Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park to see dolphins and penguins

A boat tour is a must. Destin offers everything from dolphin-spotting excursions and pirate-themed cruises to glass-bottom boats and high-speed racers. 

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Branson, MO
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9. Branson, MO

You'll find family-friendly fun without the crowds and the soaring price tag in Branson, Missouri. Enjoy classic family fun in the great outdoors, from hiking and biking in Table Rock State Park to kayaking on Lake Taneycomo. Plan to spend some time at Silver Dollar City, too, with offers rides, attractions, shows, and food for families of all ages and interests. 

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake, Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve features a cave and nature trail, a golf course, a natural history museum, four restaurants, a clifftop wedding chapel, and a Civil War-era cabin. It’s considered one of the best entertainment spots in the state.

Gatlinburg, TN
PHOTOGRAPH: David Carillet / Shutterstock.com

10. Gatlinburg, TN

Asheville gets a lot of credit for being the 'gateway city' to the Great Smoky Mountains, but Gatlinburg, a mountain town in eastern Tennessee, is actually the closest city to the national park—and it was practically made for families. When you're not exploring the national park, take a ride on the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway to reach the amusement park of the same name. Or, head to Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies to view a wide variety of marine animals. 

The area has developed a reputation for vacation kitsch and there’s a ton of it in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg’s neighbor to the north, where you'll find no shortage of old-time photo booths and believe-it-or-not attractions. 

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Yellowstone, WY
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11. Yellowstone, WY

No other place on earth is like Yellowstone National Park. The massive, natural sanctuary (3,471 square miles of green!) mesmerizes all visitors with its mountains, canyons, geysers and subalpine forests (and don’t be surprised if you spot buffalo). With challenging hikes into the backcountry as well as handicap-accessible wooden boardwalks, the wonders of Yellowstone are for everyone. Plan a trip to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center to see animals without having to hike for it. 

Bring a tent and get here early to take advantage of the affordable campgrounds (seven are first-come, first-served and five require reservations). Pack the car with a cooler of campfire meals and snacks to get you through the weekend. 

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