10 Magical Places to Take Your Family on Vacation (That Aren’t Disney)
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Let’s face it, many families visit Disney and other amusement parks because those destinations make it easy for parents to plan an all-in-one vacation that includes on-site accommodations, tons of rides, entertainment galore and plenty of restaurants with kid-friendly menus. But, there are so many more options out there for family fun. If you’ve been searching for something a bit different than riding a flume for the umpteenth time, consider these 10 places around the world that are magical for adults and kids alike (in a non-Disney sort of way).
Famous for its turquoise waters and dramatic limestone karst formations, Phuket is one of Asia’s most dreamy and exotic locales. In addition to the island’s natural beauty, there are also many cultural attractions, such as Buddhist temples like Wat Chalong, that make it a hot spot for families. The beaches are gorgeous and the locals are warm and welcoming. It’s the kind of place where you and your family can slow down and reconnect with each other.
Families can frolic on gleaming white beaches, partake in exceptional snorkeling and spend seemingly endless hours swimming and sunbathing. And, when the kids are bored with the beach and cultural exploration, there are plenty of pastimes to check out. Your kids can learn to surf in a wave-generating pool at Surf House Phuket FlowRider at the southern end of Kata Beach Road, play mini-golf at Dino Park, visit a go-kart speedway or explore the Phuket Aquarium.
Accommodations and meals are very affordable in Thailand, and if you can avoid peak season, you’re guaranteed an even more favorable rate. With accommodation costs starting around $40 per night, you can take your time on Thailand’s largest island, Phuket.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Mexico is a nation of music and dance, and is another solid travel destination for families. In Puerto Vallarta, there are colorful markets and delicious, flavorful fare you can actually enjoy on a budget — even during the peak summer season.
In Puerto Vallarta, attractions such as horseback riding and ziplining can be quite affordable. My family found a great deal when we vacationed in Puerto Vallarta through Estigo Tours that cost $35 per person, for a total of $175 for our family of five. This is the cheapest zipline tour we’ve ever booked.
Even with a limited budget, you can book a family-friendly resort featuring a pool with waterslides and a children’s club. And if you have an annual Marriott 35,000 point certificate, you can stay at a Marriott resort right on the beach for free. With World of Hyatt points, consider an all-inclusive resort getaway to Hyatt Ziva instead.
Kenya is the epitome of a magical vacation destination — especially for animal lovers. It’s a logical starting point for families interested in Africa vacations. Nairobi is known for sprawling grasslands and the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where you can witness the phenomenal annual wildebeest migration (usually in late November and December). On the other extreme edge of the country, there are unsung beaches along the Mombasa coastline. The culture is diverse, with more than 42 tribes in the area. Visiting Nairobi is the type of adventure your kids will remember for a lifetime.
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When visiting Nairobi with your kids, take them to the David Sheldrick Trust Elephant Orphan Center: a safe space for orphaned baby elephants and rhinos. Here, kids can watch baby animals being cared for, and learn more about them. At the Giraffe Centre, kids can even help feed the resident giraffes. Don’t skip the Village Market, Maasai Ostrich Farm and Nairobi Arboretum.
For a full safari, consider Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara. Nairobi National Park is also an unexpected option, which is located inside the city. Although smaller than the other parks, it’s still a wonderful place to bring kids for a ride in a private or shared vehicle. Just don’t forget to pack safari hats, neutral-hued clothes and binoculars for every member of the family.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Vacationing in Las Vegas may not seem all that magical at first glance, but scattered across the city are a number of rides, games and theme parks that delight families (okay, this one is a little Disney-esque). You can visit Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay to experience marine life in the middle of a desert, or you can take a turn on the new High Roller observation wheel, which gives you an epic view of the city and beyond. You might also take a gondola ride at The Venetian and have your kids entertained by Italian crooning without even having to take a flight to Italy. The Discovery Children’s Museum also gets high marks from parents.
A family can also enjoy a vacation to Las Vegas without ever visiting the Strip. There are plenty of free outdoor activities, such as hiking at Red Rock Canyon and visiting the Hoover Dam (though the official dam tour is neither free nor appropriate for small children). Another free place to visit with a family is the Downtown Container Park, which has a few outdoor areas for kids and restaurants where families can eat and relax while the kids play and make new friends.
Although many shows and attractions in the city have an adult theme, there are family-friendly entertainment options, including the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur, the Fall of Atlantis at Caesars Palace, the Mac King Comedy Magic Show at Harrah’s and the Blue Man Group show at Luxor.
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Hotel prices vary widely in Las Vegas, but you can usually find decent accommodations starting at $100 per night. If you are spending a little more and have The Platinum Card® from American Express, try and make use of the Amex Fine Hotel & Resorts perks such as late check-out, resort credits and free breakfast. Alternatively, there are low-cost timeshare rentals available, so your family can really spread out.
Sweden’s laid-back atmosphere and family-friendly capital should be on your family’s travel radar. Plus, Stockholm has a variety of hotels you can book with points, such as the Hilton Stockholm Slussen, where kids even eat free.
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There are also plenty of free museums to visit in Stockholm, including the Medieval Museum, Moderna Museet, The Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum. And, don’t miss the public parks scattered across the city, such as Rålambshovsparken, Tessinparken, Vasaparken, Stora Blecktornsparken and Bryggartäppan. Your kids will love a chance to run around in these lovely green and very ‘magical’ spaces.
When riding the bus or train in Sweden, kids under the age of 7 can travel for free with an adult — and up to six children between the ages of 7 and 11 can travel for free during weekends with someone older than 18 . If you prefer to be away from the city, Sweden is full of stunning landscapes, including quiet forests and medieval towns such as Visby. The rugged beauty of the country makes for fantastic outdoorsy (and thrifty) activities such as hiking, camping and fishing.
Our neighbor to the north has a lot to offer when it comes to fun and family-friendly vacation destinations. You may decide to take your family hiking or kayaking in Jasper National Park at Banff. If your family loves to ski, consider Vancouver and the world-famous Whistler Blackcomb. And if you want to learn more about the history of Canada (and experience a bit of Europe on this continent), book a flight to French-speaking Quebec City.
My family, however, opted for a vacation to Toronto, which has a number of tourist sites, including the CN Tower, Toronto Zoo, Ontario Science Centre, Hockey Hall of Fame, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Casa Loma historic house museum and Canada’s Wonderland theme park. All of these attractions are offered at a discount with the purchase of a city pass for $59 for kids between the ages of 4 and 12 years old. (The pass is $88 for those 13 and over.)
After exploring Toronto, it’s easy to make the two-hour drive to Niagara Falls, so your family can see water plunge down a 188-foot cliff at nearly 70 miles per hour.
There are roughly 20,000 temples on the island of Bali and the rice-terraced landscape is probably unlike anything your kids have ever seen. Bali’s beaches are ideal for surfing and diving and if spirituality is important to your family, you can easily join others in the practice of meditation and yoga. If you love fresh tropical fruit and Indonesia cuisine, you will be in heaven here.
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There are two seasons in Bali: the wet season, which runs from October to March, and the dry season, which runs from April to September. When visiting with kids, travel during the dry season to maximize your time outdoors. A few fun things that your children may enjoy are the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Bali Bird Park, Tirta Empul temple and Elephant Safari Park. There are also several family-friendly beachfront resorts in Kuta such as Cheeky Monkeys, which offers child care.
Although flying to Chile can be expensive, the country is very affordable once on the ground. The long coastline provides for a land of extremes. From the driest desert in the world to old-growth rainforests and ancient glaciers framed by towering mountain peaks, Chile offers a wealth of experiences for every type of traveler. The Chilean people are very friendly, and the wine is excellent for parents.
There are hotels in Chile but to get the best deal, I recommend booking a home on Airbnb for your stay. In Santiago, we stayed in a property in the heart of downtown, within walking distance to several restaurants and public transportation.
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You can book tours ahead of time, or wait until you arrive to map out your time. Many Airbnb owners have connections with tour operators and can offer a generous discount when booking through them. We booked all our tours while in Chile and, though they were private, we still enjoyed reasonable rates.
You might be surprised to find Cairo on the list, but Egypt is actually an amazing place to visit with your family. Not only is Egypt very inexpensive, but it’s also a breathtaking place to explore. You’ll be able to stay in five-star luxury hotels for a remarkably affordable price using cash or points. For example, there are several Hilton hotels in Egypt available for just 5,000 Hilton Honors points per night. With the coral reefs and striking deserts, Cairo is a destination your children won’t soon forget.
Of course, you can’t fly to Egypt without visiting the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, where you and your children will learn about how the tomb of one of the greatest pharaohs of Egypt, King Tutankhamun, was unearthed.
On your family’s visit, you can also learn about the nation’s livelihood, culture and food as you take a boat cruise along the Nile. The beaches along the Red Sea are wide, and ideal for a family beach day. During our family’s trip to Cairo, we had no safety concerns and roamed the streets without issue. Security guards patrol the perimeters of the hotel and ensure that only hotel guests are allowed in and out.
Yosemite National Park
Camping can help your family break free from the daily grind, de-stress and connect with the magic of nature — and one another. The trick is to find a good campground. Yosemite has options for RVs, camper-vans or tents. Build a campfire to enjoy with the kids in the evening as you take in Yosemite’s unparalleled natural beauty. At night, don’t forget to look skyward to see twinkling stars.
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Yosemite National Park has several popular and family-friendly campgrounds that book up far in advance, so you’ll want to reserve your space as soon as the date becomes available. Campsites range from $8 to $16 on a first come, first served basis, and from $26 to $50 for family or group reservations. Three of the most popular campgrounds at Yosemite National Park for families are Upper Pines, Lower Pines and North Pines.
When booking a campground, call in advance to confirm what amenities are available. Access to showers, bathrooms, a river, pool or a play area go a long way when camping with kids.
The world is big, beautiful and, you guessed it, full of natural magic and wonder. Take that trip to Disney, but don’t stop there. Keep going around the world with your family to experience breath of experiences and destinations waiting to be discovered.
Featured image courtesy of Francisco Goncalves – Getty Images