Everyone knows travel changes once kids come into the picture. Suddenly you have to plan around naps, easily accessible rescue centers for soiled-underpants and whining backseat drivers. What they don’t tell you is how much fun it can be, and that it doesn’t have to be limited to timeshares on beaches and mega-amusement parks.
I know. Traveling with my four-year-old daughter has slowed down the usual pace. But I found myself getting a new appreciation for things I had long ignored – like at a 4th of July parade in Philadelphia, when colorfully dressed Ecuadorian dancers stopped to dance with her.
I can’t wait for her to chip in on planning vacations. Meanwhile here are five super family-friendly places that stray from the predictable.
Whether you’re looking for a beach to sit on, or much more (particularly as kids get past six or seven), Belize is an affordable Caribbean trip that is a boon for families. It’s compact, cheap and nearly everyone speaks English. There’s super wildlife to see – growler monkeys and crocodiles by land, sea turtles and (harmless) nurse sharks by mask and snorkel. First-timers will enjoy nice array of cabanas, often with kitchenette, from US$50 per night at the beach/diving center of Placencia, a couple hours south of the Belize City airport.
But the interior doesn't mean sacrificing fun in the water, with underground rivers to tube, jungle lodges on swimming holes and Mayan ruins reached by boat. If you rent a car, a tad pricey (about US$80 per day), you can connect a few dots at your own leisure. For an unforgettable stay, try the remote and family-friendly Barton Creek Outpost in the Cayo District, with a rope swing on the country’s finest swimming hole. And pull in for Garifuna drum lessons at the laid-back beach of Hopkins.
The eastern half of the Keystone State, in particular, is chock full of activities eyeing little ones. Home to the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia is a more laid-back city experience than New York, with a walkable center, counter breakfasts at the Reading Terminal Market, Betsy Ross' house, folks in tri-cornered hats, and a superb July 4th parade in the city where it all started. Kids over seven or so may enjoy the thrill of touring the Eastern State Penitentiary, a castle-like historic prison will all sorts of cells and nooks to conjure the imagination.
More colorful is Sesame Place, the only Sesame Street amusement park, about a half hour’s drive north. Rides are geared to littler ones, all the furry characters and plenty of activities on and around a Sesame-like set. Under two go free. The regular US$21.99 is less than a fourth the cost of Disney World.
Another option, two hours east in Hershey, is Chocolate World. It’s not quite Willy Wonka, but there’s plenty of merch and activities, along with an amusement park next door. A couple hours north, Williamsport is home each August to the Little League World Series, though most kids prefer sliding down the muddy slope beyond centerfield. Bring an extra set of clothes.
No city better makes parents feel at ease traveling with kids than Portlandia. It’s 90 minutes to the beach, 30 minutes to towering water falls in the Columbia River gorge, and practically everywhere you go in town has areas geared for little ones. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry – everyone just calls it ‘OMSI’ (OM-zee) – is an all-time fave. On the riverfront, with a submarine to see, the museum has a playroom with sand, water games, labs, fun science experiments like suction tubes built to shoot foam balls through hoops. For some reason the (caged) rats are huge with kids too.
Forest Park in the northwest part of the city is the country’s biggest urban park, with plenty of trails and birds to spot. Food is fun too. Microbreweries have huge play areas that absorb kids with tons of toys and playmates. At 5pm Monday head to Mississippi Pizza for some shockingly good pies and a kid-fest during Mr Ben’s sing-along, where kids usually end up dancing on stage.
For a unique place to stay, McMenamin's Kennedy School is a boutique hotel made from an old school built in 1915 with rooms made from former classrooms (sorry kids, no TVs, but chalkboards, yes), plus a theater that shows kid-friendly films and a soaking pool. Rooms are affordable at around US$95/night.
Don't overlook Denmark - compact and not always cheap, but built for kids. Copenhagen is home to Tivoli, a fairy-tale of a central amusement park that dates to 1843. There’s lots of free music, nightly fireworks and surprisingly good food. Outside town, Legoland is outside Billund in central Jutland, with a 20-million piece Miniland of world icons (Statue of Liberty, Star Wars scenes!) made of the plastic bits named for leg godt (Danish for ‘play well’). The rides are mostly geared to preteens. Might as well stay at lego-to-the-limit Hotel Legoland. Time your arrival to get a couple free hours in the park – doors are open a couple hours before closing each day.
Also aim for Odense, a 90-minute train ride from Copenhagen. It’s a thousand-year-old city that was home to Hans Christen Andersen. There’s a good museum and zoo, and nearby castles surrounded by moats. In town, Fyrtøjet is a children’s cultural center with storytelling and music (in English in summer) and plenty of fanciful costumes to don.
Few cultures on earth will fawn over your children like the family-friendly Thai. Locals go gaga over them, and going with kids means ice-breakers from everyone between street food vendors and tuk-tuk drivers. Thailand’s a great choice for an exotic trip, with temples, fun food, monkeys and superb beaches.
Bangkok temples like Wat Phra Kaew with its glittering gold-leaf Buddhas provide memorable experiences, along with water taxis on the canals and flying kites with locals at leafy Lumphini Park. For the beach, Ko Chang is a island with much family potential, including nice beaches with calm waters, easy kayak trips to offshore islands, elephant camps in the mountainous interior, and chipping in to help abandoned animals at Koh Chang Animal Project.
Robert Reid is Lonely Planet's US Travel Editor. He has many fond memories of helping his family plan trips as a young child, and his early trips to Mexico made him the travel lover he is today.