Best Family Spring-Break Trips
Nate Levinson of Katonah, NY, was only seven years old when he came face-to-face with a jaguar. Pacing just inches away, the majestic cat—easily three times his size—eyed him with curiosity. Fortunately, a sturdy fence separated the two at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL. The thrilling experience for Levinson, now 17, is the reason the Gulf Coast family trip still ranks as his all-time favorite.
“I earned a lot of points with my kids by taking them to the Big Cat sanctuary,” says Nate’s father, Bruce Levinson.
Related: Best All-Inclusive Family Resorts
Ten million families took trips with children in April 2010, according to John Packer, vice president of TNS Custom Research, and with improvements in the economy that number is expected to increase in 2011.
Say “spring break,” and most people think sun and sand, but for families looking to get away as winter thaws, there’s a world of options today—many of which have the ingredients to create lifelong memories. Whether heading to beach, desert, city, or the last remnants of snow, parents are ready to seek out new experiences beyond the norm—or just enjoy the great outdoors and some togetherness.
Take the arid red-rock country around Moab, UT, which includes the ultra-scenic Arches and Canyonlands national parks and a wide variety of hiking trails, paved bike paths, and mountain-bike routes over smooth ground called slickrock. Some families crave the fresh desert air so much they want to literally get up into it. Greg Simpson, 45, of Telluride, CO, took his daughter, Izzy, 10, and son, Aiden, 8, for a hot-air-balloon ride over and through crimson canyons.
“The kids were blown away by the amazing rock formations and folded ridges below,” says Simpson, “and by watching birds fly eye-level with us.”
Of course, some families want to continue winter sports fun—but with a warm-weather twist. Kid-friendly Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes, CA, accommodates them; after heavy-snow winters like 2010–2011, lifts are expected to operate through the Fourth of July.
“It just doesn’t get any better than skiing in a T-shirt,” says Joe Marca, 46, of Riverside, CA. Marca’s son, Quintin, 12, agrees—although he likes spring sledding, too.
As tempting as the bathlike warm water and sugar-white sands are, beach-bound families still need creative ways to cool off. Lucy Pritzker, 40, of Scotch Plains, NJ, took her three children to feed dolphins at Clearwater Marine Aquarium—just half a mile from popular Clearwater Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Her six-year-old daughter, Hannah, even got a kiss from one, a kiss she’ll always remember—and one she describes as “Wet!”
Beachesand Big Cats in Clearwater, FL
At Clearwater Marine Aquarium, less than half a mile from family-friendly Clearwater Beach, kids not only see Winter, an inspirational bottlenose dolphin with a prosthetic tail, but they can become a dolphin and river-otter “trainer.” At an underwater observatory in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, 90 miles up the coast, huge elephant-like manatees swim right up to you.
Don’t Miss: Big Cat Rescue, a 55-acre up-close sanctuary that’s home to tigers, lions, leopards, ocelots, lynxes, a snow leopard, and other—often endangered—big cats.
Biking and Ballooning in Moab, UT
Hike the area’s many paved and slickrock (smooth-ground) trails; younger kids love the quarter-mile-long Copper Ridge Sauropod Tracksite trail, where they can see footprints of three kinds of dinosaurs. Or rent bikes at Poison Spider Bicycles, and head out of town on the new 8.5-mile-long paved Moab Canyon pathway, which has longer connections to Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Don’t Miss: Soaring over the red-rock canyons and dunes with Canyonlands Ballooning. Owner-pilot Lou Bartell lets kids “help” fill the balloon and explains the geologic forces at work below.
Snow Sports in Mammoth Lakes, CA
Warm temperatures make spring one of the best times of year to teach small children to ski, and scenic Mammoth Mountain Ski Area has lessons for kids of all ages. Its supervised Small World Kids Program lets kids play Wii games, sled, and ride the gondola to the top of the mountain. Families can also rent snowshoes at Kittredge Sports and explore back roads around the six lakes above the village.
Ziplining and Dogsledding in Northern New Hampshire
Head over to Bretton Woods Canopy Tours or Alpine Adventures with kids ages 10 and over for ziplining through the tree canopy (clipping into a cable and sliding 1,500 feet 200 feet above ground). At Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel, under musher supervision, kids and parents drive a rolling 10-dog dogsled with knobby mountain bike–type tires.
Don’t Miss: Homemade Moose Tracks fudge (chocolate–vanilla–caramel–peanut butter) from Chutters Candy Store in Littleton, where the “world’s longest candy counter”—112 feet—holds more than 600 jars of sweets.
Reliving the Past in Virginia’s Historic Triangle
Live like the first European settlers at the re-created village of Jamestown, where kids can try on 17th-century-style metal armor. At the simulated Powhatan Indian village, children grind corn and use oyster shells to scrape out a dugout canoe, and at the 18th-century brickyard at Colonial Williamsburg, the whole family can stomp clay as part of making authentic-style bricks used in the reconstruction of local historic buildings.
Don’t Miss: The Segway tour of Yorktown’s waterfront and historic downtown with Patriot Tours & Provisions (guides tow little ones in special Segway trailers).
Playing Cowboy in Wickenburg, AZ
At Rancho de los Caballeros, ranch programs for 5- to 12-year-olds include swimming, scavenger hunts, tennis lessons, marshmallow roasts, and, for kids 8 and older, horseback riding with professional wranglers. Parents can ride the range, herd cattle, swim laps in the 60-foot-long pool, play golf, or relax at the spa.
Don’t Miss: The Cowboy Cookout served from a chuck wagon under the star-filled sky. Gourmet “grub” includes ribs slowly roasted over a mesquite fire, plus “cowboy beans” made with a secret chili, homemade cornbread, and cherry turnovers. And for the kids: s’mores.
Cruising the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys
Drive the 126-mile-long Overseas Highway with 42 bridges (get the kids to count them), and stop at the Hungry Tarpon “fish shack” in Robbie’s Marina, where 50–100 tarpon—some three feet long—arrive daily to be fed. At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, ride the glass-bottom boat to see rainbow-colored parrotfish, zebra-striped damselfish, and more than 260 tropical fish species living around coral reefs.
Civil Rights Movement History and Riverboats in Montgomery, AL
Take a seat on the “Cleveland Avenue Time Machine,” a tricked-out 1955-style Montgomery city bus, to experience the drama of the civil rights movement at the Rosa Parks Museum. Let CivilRightsTravel.com’s guide help you navigate the 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery-March Byway. And take a different look at the past by cruising on the riverboat Harriott II along the Alabama River.
Don’t Miss: Montgomery’s quirky cow MOOseum, where children weigh themselves and see how many kids it takes to equal the weight of a 900-pound cow.
Beaches, Bikes, and Boats on Galveston Island, TX
Spring temperatures average 68–79 degrees, and alcohol is banned from one-third of the 32 miles of beach, making the 10.5-mile seawall and popular Stewart Beach officially “family-friendly.” Families can rent a four-person surrey from Island Bikes. Don’t forget “history” that kids love: La King’s Confectionery, housed in a 150-year-old building, features antique arcade games and candy-makers who pull taffy.
RoadTripping on Highway 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco
Drive north through posh Malibu and Santa Barbara, then find goofy science at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum, where kids can encase themselves in a gigantic soap bubble. Look for purple sea stars in tidal pools at Montaña de Oro State Park. During spring, from turnouts along the steep cliffs of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, watch mother California gray whales and their calves migrate north.
Don’t Miss: Doc Bernstein’s Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo Grande, with 70 flavors and new ones, like Tuiti-Fruiti Raspberuiti, created every week.