ON THE GO WITH GRADE-SCHOOLERS
Traveling with kids gets much easier by the time they're five or six, but don't pack that fat paperback just yet. This crowd wants action. They also long to be with kids their age, so pick trips—theme parks, beach and mountain resorts, easy adventures—where you're likely to encounter other families. Or consider traveling with another clan—one whose kids you all enjoy being around. And never underestimate the appeal of a hotel pool.
Prevailing wisdom says that age five is about right for that first mega-park outing, but whenever you go, make sure you have a detailed plan of attack. Former Disney World VIP host Michael Hewell of Tour Guide Mike (321/206-3933; www.tourguidemike.com) charges families $21.95 to map out custom itineraries based on answers to a pre-trip online questionnaire. For the ultimate in hand-holding—at $100 an hour—ask for one of Hewell's guides (www.michaelsvips.com), who will wait in lines for you and snag tables at that Holy Grail of the Disney experience, the Character Breakfast. Stay at the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn (866/462-6425; www.nickhotel.com; two-bedroom suites from $161), which has water parks, arcades, and endless opportunities to be slimed—plus SpongeBob on the other end of the wake-up call.
Take a Wild Adventure
America's national parks (202/ 208-4747; www.nps.gov) cater to kids with junior ranger programs, National Park Passports (get 'em stamped as you go), and free guided family outings. Acadia (207/288-3338), on the Maine coast, is a good first park, thanks to 45 miles of traffic-free crushed-stone carriage paths to bike or hike. For more exotic (and expensive) journeys, hook up with a seasoned outfitter. Backroads' new "unpack-once" Costa Rica adventure (800/462-2848; www.backroads.com; six-day trip for family of four from $12,620) bases families at La Paloma Lodge, on a bluff above the Pacific. On Lindblad Expeditions' 10-day cruises to the Galápagos Islands (800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com; family of four from $13,600), naturalists introduce everyone to blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, marine iguanas—and to terms like endemic species.
Find a Resort with a Great Kids' Program
Warm juice boxes and broken crayons don't cut it in the new world of resort child care, where hands-on nature and cultural appreciation activities are de rigueur. Beware: most kids' clubs come at a cost—sometimes as much as $125 a day—and some operate only during peak vacation periods. The all-inclusive Tyler Place Family Resort (802/868-4000; www.tylerplace.com; one-week stay for family of four from $4,500), a summer resort in Highgate Springs, Vermont, has lakeside cottages, a spirited overnight-camp vibe, and eight age-specific kids' groups—each with its own activities and dining area. Atlantis (800/285-2684; www.atlantis.com; doubles from $395), the mega-resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, teamed up with the Discovery Channel to create a kids' program in which participants feed baby sharks, peer through microscopes, and explore a life-sized re-creation of the lost city of Atlantis. Meanwhile, the six- to 12-year-olds staying next door at the One & Only Ocean Club resort (866/552-0001; www.oneandonlyresorts.com; doubles from $750) are in one of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's kitchens, whipping up pizza and guava pudding.
Pony Up for a Dude Ranch
Ranch vacations vary wildly, from spartan to sumptuous. At Dryhead-Schively Ranch (307/548-6688; www.dryheadranch.com; one-week stay for family of four from $4,180), a working cattle farm near Billings, Montana, kids learn roping and roundup techniques. The resort-like Smith Fork Ranch (970/921-3454; www.smithforkranch.com; three-day stay for family of four from $4,600), outside Crawford, Colorado, tutors children in fly- fishing while parents dine by candlelight. Ranchweb.com lists almost 200 locations in the U.S.; greenhorns are welcome most everywhere.
Hunt for Treasure
Give antsy hikers and museumgoers something to search for: buy postcards (of flowers, lizards, works of art), then let your kids lead the quest.