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Planning the perfect vacation with children means picking the most family-friendly airlines (both domestic and international) and packing the best gear (for infants and young children), but the most important part might be choosing activities that are fun for the kids, and their parents, so I asked TPG contributor Jason Steele to write up his Top 10 ideas for attractions parents should look for in a prospective family vacation destination.
Let’s face it, most young kids don’t want to tour an art museum, or spend time leaning about a region’s culture and history. At the same time, parents can get bored by theme parks and other attractions designed mostly for children.
This is a relatively recent concept (I don’t remember these when I was a kid) that allows children to explore, learn, and have fun at the same time. A great children’s museum engages parents and their children in unique ways. Our favorites include the Children’s Museum in Denver, the Explora, in Albuquerque New Mexico, and the El Abasto Children’s Museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When my daughter got to crawl through the plumbing of super-sized model of a toilet at El Abasto, it really didn’t matter that the words were all in Spanish.
2. Scenic Train Rides
Sooner or later, every parent learns a universal truth: kids love trains. So whether you are using points to take an Amtrak trip, or just taking a scenic day trip, you can be assured that your family will have a fun outing. For overnight trips, we have taken the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Seattle to L.A. and the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Denver.
In addition, there are a surprising number of scenic train rides operating around the country and across the world. Our favorite scenic train rides include Mount Hood Scenic Railroad, about an hour’s drive east of Portland, Oregon, and the Sugar Can Train in Maui, Hawaii. In Colorado, where I’m based, we have the Royal Gorge Route, Georgetown Loop, Pikes Peak cog railway, and the Durango-Silverton Railroad.
3. Cable Cars and Ski Lifts
Like trains, cable cars and ski lifts offer a tremendous amount of scenery and fun for parents and kids alike. Most ski area operates their lifts in the summer, and many have adventure parks at the top of the lifts. Surprisingly, there are many scenic cable cars situated far from ski areas. These include the Roosevelt Island Tram in New York City, the Portland Oregon Aerial Tram, the tram up Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta Georgia, and the tram up mount Masada in Israel.
4. Indoor Water Parks
These attractions have come a long way since I was kid, and many are now indoor, year round parks. Some of the enormous, indoor water parks in the United States include the Schlitterbahn Indoor Waterpark in Galveston, Texas, and an entire chain of 12 Great Wolf Lodge water parks throughout the U.S., plus one in Niagara Falls Canada.
Two of the most unique ones that I am aware of have a connection to aviation. We recently had a blast visiting the Evergreen Wings and Waves Water Park in McMinneville Oregon, about an hour from Portland. It features an actual Boeing 747 on the roof, with four water slides descending from the cabin. Far larger is the Tropical Islands Resort just outside of Berlin Germany. It is located inside of a massive hangar which was originally constructed to house a new generation of airships which were never built.
5. Bicycle Tours
If you haven’t heard, bicycles are the new thing for tourists and residents alike who are tired of seeing the world through the windows of cars and buses. Travelers can now easily rent bikes in bike share programs in American cities such as New York, Washington D.C., and Denver. Riders pick up their bikes at automated kiosks and return them at one of dozens of other locations
For families with children who aren’t yet ready to rent an adult bike, companies now offer tours that feature trailers, taga-longs, and children’s bikes. We recently took the Historic Downtown Tour of Portland Oregon offered Pedal Bike Tours. My bike was equipped with a trailer that carried our two children on the tour, which included several stops for them to get out and play. In fact, this tour can be booked using Chase Ultimate Rewards points and Citi ThankYou points.
6. Water Tours
There are plenty of water tours that are far more exciting for kids than a standard dinner cruise. For example, we took the Duck Boat ride in Ft. Lauderdale Florida that is both a comedy routine and an amphibious tour of the area, and even my 90 year old grandmother had fun. Duck Boats tours are offered in several cities around the world including Miami, Boston, London, and Singapore.
Another type of water tour is the submarine ride. My wife and I first encountered one of these tourist subs when one sped past us in the depths while SCUBA diving in Cozumel Mexico. It was operated by Atlantis Submarine Adventures, which operates subs at other destinations such as Aruba, St. Martin, and the Cayman Islands. We recently took the tour in Maui that we booked with Citi ThankYou points (it can also be booked with Chase Ultimate Rewards points.) Be aware that the biggest drawback was that kids have to be 36” tall, which excluded our youngest at the time.
7. Agricultural Tourism
For both kids and their foodie parents, there is nothing better than staying on a working farm. This is an especially popular option in Italy, where these guest lodges are known as Agritourismos. We stayed at Il Filare just outside of Parma Italy, and we all had a memorable experience. We toured nearby vineyards, watched 100lb wheels of Parmesan cheese being made, and got to pick fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner. You can search for the perfect farm lodge in Italy at the national agricultural tourism site.
Without staying overnight, families can tour farms that raise cows, chickens, and other livestock. For example, we recently visited the Surfing Goat Dairy farm in Maui, and I once toured one of the ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn, South Africa. In the U.S., you can search for agricultural tourism sites at AgriToursismWorld.com.
8. Zoos and Safari Parks
When we had our first child, our friends joked that we would be spending all of our time at our local zoo. For a while, we did, but then we grew tired of it. Going to a different zoo on the road can be whole new experience. Don’t miss the fantastic San Diego Zoo and the much larger Safari Park outside of the city. We even had the chance to visit the Buenos Aires Zoo in Argentina this year. While it is certainly not as well maintained as most American zoos, it is still fun an interesting for kids and adults.
If you are looking for animal attractions beyond the standard zoo. Try a drive through safari park such as the Natural Bridges Wildlife Ranch outside of San Antonio, Texas, or the Lion Country Safari near West Palm Beach, Florida. At Lion Country, the lions were behind a fence, but got up close and personal with a 5,000lb White Rhinoceros that dwarfed our rental car. I wonder if our collision damage waiver covers rhino damage, but I never found out. Also, consider visiting exotic animal rescue centers such as the Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Denver, Colorado.
On the other end of the spectrum, never discount kid’s interest in bugs. My daughters have tons of fun at The Butterfly Pavilions outside of Denver and at Butterfly World near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Like other animal attractions, aquariums appeal to both children and adults. For a while, it seemed like every city was trying to build their own aquarium so these are now somewhat common. Standouts include the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, one of the largest in the world.
10. Aviation Museums
Aerospace museums are some of the few museums that seem to capture the attention of young children. Many include Imax and other large format theaters. My favorites include:
- The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; both downtown on the mall and at the Udvar-Hazy Center near the Washington Dulles Airport. Highlights include the Apollo 11 space capsule, the Wright Brothers airplane, a Concorde, and the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Both are free.
- Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinneville, Oregon (next to the water park). This museum is dominated by Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, the largest airplane ever built.
- Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, where you can tour a 707 that served as Air Force One.
- The Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City. Located on a retired aircraft carrier in New York Harbor, it boasts the Space Shuttle Enterprise and a Concorde.
- Royal Air Force Museum in London. There are some really unique aircrafts here, and admission is free.
- The Sinsheim Car and Technology museum has an extensive aircraft collection including an Air France Concorde and Soviet knockoff, the TU-144 “Concordski”. It is located between Frankfurt and Stuttgart Germany.
- The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio features an impressive collection of unique military aircraft and spacecraft.
What does your family like to do on vacation? Share your suggestions below!