Every summer presents a new dilemma: where to take the kids? Between final projects and the first "What I Did This Summer" paper that inaugurates the school year, kids need a break – but not the kind lounging around in a backyard. Luckily, the United States is replete with family friendly travel destinations that, invariably, are only a few hours by car away. Whether families are looking for huge, glamorous and explosive fun at Disney World, an invigorating raft ride down the white waters of New River Gorge, a pulsating metropolis of lights and action or a quiet camping trip, these safe, family holiday destinations are all a few highways away. For your next trip options, check out these 10 family friendly destinations in the United States.
As the Las Vegas of water parks, this otherwise unassuming and laid-back city in the heart of the Midwest enjoys pride of place on America’s long list of wholesome family friendly tourist destinations. Twisting slides and bubbling pools tease new arrivals with the promise of some of the country’s best water parks (families never miss Noah’s Ark Water Park, one of the largest in the area), while the dramatic limestone gorges of the Wisconsin River offer the perfect natural backdrop for every type of outdoorsy water sport imaginable. Also nearby, a myriad of wildlife parks, golf courses and geological sites make a visit to "The Dells" a truly engrossing experience, while the authentic Midwest charm is an ever-present reminder of this town’s easygoing character and traditional leanings.
There are few destinations in all of North America that could boast the same versatility as New Braunfels, Texas. A small town by most standards, it does well to cater for a real variety of different visiting crowds, from the family holidaymakers on their way through to San Antonio to the hedonistic party goers on break from the colleges of San Marcos. Accordingly it comes complete with wholesome activities like the Schlitterbahn Waterpark and the heritage-laden, downtown historic center – a place that oozes with the colonial charm of New Braunfels’ Germanic 19th century roots, replete with museums and German-style cafés housed in historic brick buildings with wide awnings – along with a variety of more daring escapades like party tubing on the Guadalupe River. Best accessed by car from sprawling San Antonio to the southwest (which is about a 35-minute drive away) or from Austin.
Deep in the southern sub-ranges of the Appalachian Trail, the Smoky Mountains rise to form the famous blue ridges of Tennessee. Here, in the undulating foothills and rugged Cherokee valleys, the town of Pigeon Forge stands as an authentic image of American mountain life and a veritable hub of family fun in the very midst of nature. Once a peaceful hill town of Sevier County, today the clusters of bars and pubs, dance halls and music rooms that pepper the western fork of Little Pigeon River represent one of the best-loved local hot spots of wholesome vacationing in the whole of Dixie, with attractions ranging from a comprehensive and interactive Titanic Museum housed in a giant model of the unsinkable herself, to Dollywood, an amusement park filled with rides, theme park snacks and country music care of Our Lady of the South herself, Miss Dolly Parton.
The great thing about holiday cheer is that no matter what the season, there’s always a seed of it in every girl and boy. This is evidenced by the droves of tourists that make their pilgrimage to Santa Claus, Indiana, all year round. In fact, their single largest attraction isn’t even open around Christmas, a summery theme park full of thrilling water slides that brings life to the town every summer when the kids are out of school, proving once and for all that you can, in fact, celebrate Christmas in July and not feel silly about it if where you’re celebrating is at Holiday World. Or any other place in Santa Claus, IN, for that matter. Throw a stone and the chances are it’ll hit the festively decorated windows of their several year-round Christmas stores. Drop by Santa’s Candy Castle and see where the big man hangs out during the off-season while you put in a request for a shiny new toy. Learn about a town that built its good name and much of its economy on Kris Kringle’s other title and explore this tiny and cheerful slice of classic Americana.
Less than three hours from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York City, Hershey, PA, is a pretty convenient destination for your next family trip. From its humble beginnings as a small farming town called Derry Church to a fragrant, thriving chocolate-making community revitalized by its very own enterprising native son, Hershey has very quickly become the "Sweetest Place on Earth." And what’s the sweetest place on earth like? Imagine lamp posts shaped like Hershey’s Kisses, a huge Hershey theme park, tons of chocolatey cafés and sweet shops, and even luxury spa treatments that use chocolate as an exfoliant. When visitors head to Hershey, they can look forward to discovering the rich and delicious history of Hershey, a full day of rollercoasters at Hersheypark and, best of all, lots of chocolate!
Small-town hospitality, gorgeous historic buildings and all the excitement of the New River Gorge are what makes Fayetteville, West Virginia, one of America’s coolest small towns. Tourists – whether it be fun-seeking first-timers or repeat visitors of all ages – flood the town in droves during peak rafting season along the indomitable New River Gorge, and if white water doesn’t suit your kids’ fancy, there are tons of fun ways to explore nature in the area, like canopy tours, hiking, horseback riding and more. The town is bustling with adventure outfitter companies, local eateries, boutique bed and breakfasts and unique art galleries and impeccably restored Victorian, Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne-style buildings. Their historical district was designated in the National Register in 1990.
Sin City gets a bad rap that primarily stems from its history with the mafia, seedy casinos and hedonistic clubs and everflowing liquor, but in recent decades, Las Vegas has really buffed up its activities for children. Whether your kids are more likely to fall for colorful amusement parks, fast cars, gourmet sweets or eclectic wildlife, you can easily find something to excite and enthrall them – the AdventureDome at Circus Circus is one of the most advanced and thrilling amusement parks of its kind, hotel lobbies with massive aquatic tanks full of exotic marine animals put on shows nearly every hour, there are museums devoted to mob history and some to chocolate, and kids can even ride shotgun in a NASCAR race car. Best of all, most of these activities are pretty fun and fascinating for grown-ups, too – like riding shotgun in a NASCAR race car.
Also see Hopper's picks for the five best kid-friendly attractions in Las Vegas to get some more ideas on what to see and do
Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that all of Florida is built solely for family enjoyment, but then again, it’s a big state. What can be ascertained is that one of the primary economic drivers of the state comes from the big man in the clouds, the creator of all that is Mickey and Minnie; the movie studio in which animated American legends are immortalized. There are a lot of places in Florida that are safe, candy-filled and thrill-inducing, particularly for young tykes, and those places aren’t difficult to find. The obvious one is Disney World, where kids can walk down a pristine brick road and bump into Cinderella. For kids in Orlando who are more into dolphins and real marine animals than fictional princes and princesses (and parents with slightly shallower pockets), SeaWorld offers a ton of rides, interactive exhibits and eateries full of kid-friendly food right next to the world-famous Shamu. Another amusement park in Orlando that will particularly suit budding cinema buffs is Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventures, where visitors find themselves right in Jurassic Park, or Diagon Alley from Harry Potter and other exciting locales.
Glenwood Springs has been dubbed "America’s Most Fun Town." It’s a family friendly destination 2.5 hours west of Denver in the Colorado Rockies. There’s a multitude of attractions to see here, so it’s worth spending a few days at least. Geological wonders are a large part of what draws people to this hot spot – there are natural mineralized hot springs, the vapor caves of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park (complete with a 4D theatre ride, giant canyon swing and more!), two rivers and a canyon, not to mention the great Rocky Mountains themselves. Outdoor activities include hiking, rafting, cycling and fishing. There are also exciting rides at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park for thrill seekers, and spas in town for those looking for downtime.
One of the fastest growing cities in the United States, San Diego is a treasure trove of historical sites, marine life and ever-glowing sunlight. A lot of travelers forego this SoCal city for its flashier older brother, Los Angeles, but make no mistake: this sunsoaked locale is more than just a beachy escape (even if it’s positively riddled with beaches to escape to). Families visiting the area will be thrilled with all of the fun kid-friendly attractions, like the world-famous SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND, a 128-acre dreamscape with museums, water parks and reimagined movie sets and cities made of the iconic colorful blocks. The city even has a San Diego Go Card that allows families discount entry and line priority to 48 attractions in the city, including free admission to SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, Safari Park, the USS Midway Museum and more!