10 Best Vacation Bets for 2012

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Expecting a tax refund from Uncle Sam this spring? Use it to treat your family to a fabulous vacation at one of this year’s hottest vacation destinations! To compile our list, we read through many of your recommendations, researched, and drew from our own experiences and favorites to put together these family-friendly vacation ideas that are particularly worthy choices for 2012. Some will appeal to the budget-minded, while others are more tantalizingly extravagant. You’ll find something for adventurous thrill-seeking families, as well as for those who prefer to spend lazy days on the beach with a cocktail while the kids are happily entertained.

1. Boston

A topnotch aquarium, a famously cool science museum, as well as a rich history and sophisticated New England charm have long attracted families to Boston, and the city that always tops the travel lists promises not to disappoint in 2012. In the summer, the new and improved Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is scheduled to reopen, 11 years after the original museum was struck by lightning and burned down in 2001. The new museum will have replicas of the three merchant ships: the Beaver, the Eleanor, and the Dartmouth, and new exhibits featuring Samuel Adams and King George III. For families with younger kids, the Boston Children’s Museum is a must. Everyone will love the new “Remember When” exhibit (which runs through February) where you can dress up in vintage clothes and play with toys from the past.

In addition, Fenway Park, America’s oldest ballpark, celebrates its 100th birthday in 2012. There are dozens of cool events planned at the Red Sox stadium, including a free open house on April 18th where you can check out historical artifacts and photographs and meet some of the Red Sox legends.

Consider staying at the Hotel Commonwealth or the Fairmont Battery Wharf.

2. San Francisco

Kids (and grownups) of all ages will get a thrill out of riding the cable cars through the hilly streets of San Francisco, watching performers along touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, chocolate-tasting at Ghirardelli Square, and taking a winding drive down famous Lombard Street. I dare anyone not to be impressed with the stunning vistas across the San Francisco Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. The number of kid-friendly attractions (don’t forget the zoo, museums, Alcatraz and Union Square) are endless.

2012 marks the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge; and the tourist board didn’t pass up the opportunity to commemorate the occasion a variety of family-friendly events planned throughout the year. The highlight will be a two-day celebration at Golden Gate State Park in May, where there will be live music and entertainment, exhibits and bridge memorabilia on display. The celebration will go well beyond the park, where attractions like The Bay Area Discovery Museum and the Exploratorium have related events and exhibits planned, many of which will be free.

For families looking to escape the bustle of the city at the end of the day, consider staying at The Claremont; just 15 minutes outside the city, you’ll get to roam across 22 acres and have access to three pools and a kids’ club.

3. The Mediterranean

Caribbean cruises have grown steadily in popularity amongst families, and with good reason. They offer an affordable, convenient means of getting around the islands, with plenty of organized activities for kids and parents. Until recently, fewer families have opted to venture into Mediterranean waters, perhaps because they assume it’s going to be a budget-buster. In reality, many Mediterranean itineraries are comparably priced; it’s just the airfare that is expensive. But if you travel in shoulder-season and search out bargain airfares, it can be more affordable than you might think.

As more families look to discover this region, the major cruise lines are adding itineraries in record numbers. In 2012, dozens of kid-friendly ships will make their rounds through Mediterranean waters. The colossal Norwegian Epic, which has 21-dining options, Blue Man Group entertainment and a water park, will sail out of Barcelona in 2012 with 7-day western Mediterranean cruises from April 29 to October 14. Royal Caribbean is also sending more ships than ever before, 12, to the region for the 2012 summer season. Not to be outdone, Princess will also make its biggest presence ever in the region, with seven ships sailing on 57 itineraries to 116 destinations between April and December.

4. Belize

Central America’s only English-speaking country is a great destination for adventurous families who enjoy diving and snorkeling, as well as those interested in learning about the archeology and history of this culturally rich (and affordable) country. While probably not ideal for the youngest travelers, Belize has so much to offer older kids. Caving, tubing through the stalagmites of an underground river, or zip lining through the rainforest are memories your children will never forget.

Belize is a relatively young country — in fact it just celebrated its 30th birthday last year. The past 12 months have seen many hotel deals, festivals and activities in celebration. 2012 is an equally important year for the Maya people of Belize, as it’s the year the Maya calendar comes to a close. Some have interpreted this to mean the world will end on December 21, while most are celebrating 2012 as a year for spiritual rebirth and new beginnings. There are related festivals, concerts and cultural events scheduled for every month of the year in 2012.

Looking for kid-friendly accommodations? Try the eco-friendly (and Family Vacation Critic favorite) Inn at Robert’s Grove, where visiting families can stay on a private island while exploring the rainforests and Mayan ruins.

5. Denver

A host of outdoor activities, public parks and incredible vistas in every direction make Denver a great choice for families. In winter, hit the slopes at several nearby mountains, and in summer visit the city’s Botanical Garden and let the kids wander down the Children’s Secret Path. The Children’s Museum of Denver and the World of Wonder Children’s Museum are tons of fun any time of year.

2012 is the perfect time to visit the Mile High City. The new and greatly anticipated Elephant Passage ($50 million in the making) exhibit at the Denver Zoo is set to open in the spring 2012. The Elephant Passage will be a 10-acre complex that will house several animals including Asian elephants, Indian rhinos and leopards. When it’s complete, it will be the largest bull elephant habitat in the world.

Nearby Breckenridge Ski Resort is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this ski season. Families can participate in all kinds of fun activities at Breckenridge, and take a ride on the new Gold Runner Alpine Coaster, a super-speedy, 2,500-foot mountain roller coaster that’s open in summer and winter. Cool!

6. London

Set to host the 2012 summer games from July 27 to August 12 2012, London is an excitingly glitzy destination for families this year. Although most of the major events have already sold out, there are loads of free events and festivals scheduled around the city, including the triathlon and marathon races. If you’re determined to get event tickets, the 2012 ticket resale program starts on January 6. People who have already bought tickets that they are unable to use can sell them at face value. London promises to be teeming with excitement, celebrities and fun, but don’t expect any bargains. Hotels and flights will be expensive and hard to come by; if you haven’t started planning already, get going!

Outside of the Olympics, London has an amazing array of family-friendly sights. Take the kids for a ride on the London Eye — they’ll be able to see Big Ben and Parliament as they rotate 135 meters into the sky — awesome! (For great views of the London Eye, The Savoy hotel offers plenty, in a luxurious setting.) Older kids will enjoy a visit to the famous Madame Tusuad’s Wax Museum, and all ages will get a kick out of the double-decker bus tour and the changing of the guard. Hyde Park is an excellent place to spend a warm day with the family; there’s a great playground, ponds with paddle boats, and even a carousel.

7. Orlando

Think you’ve been there done that and seen it all in Orlando, think again, 2012 will bring several new attractions and events to the theme park capital of the world. Universal Studios, which has grown enormously in popularity amongst families since the addition of Harry Potter, will open a cool new attraction in 2012: Despicable Me. Despicable-Me riders will be transformed into the movie’s famous little minions and take a 3-D ride featuring Gru and his lair, the adorable orphans, and an interactive dance party.

LEGOLAND Florida is expanding in 2012, with the addition of a new water park adjacent to the current attraction, scheduled to open by summer. It will have a wave pool, a LEGO-themed raft ride, water slides, and an interactive water-play area for younger children.

In the Magic Kingdom, the massive expansion of Fantasyland continues. Over the course of the next two years, this area of the park will more than double in size. Several new attractions are scheduled to open in 2012, including Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid, Storybook Circus and the Great Goofini.

8. Nova Scotia

Having spent several childhood summers exploring the salty tide pools of Peggy’s Cove, I highly recommend sea-loving families visit this region of Canada. While you won’t find the shiny resorts and pre-packaged activities you will find in other popular family destinations, sometimes making your own fun is the way to go. Greater Halifax is a must; there’s a beautiful harbor, shops and cafes, as well as outdoor activities galore, including swimming, camping, hiking, sailing, and whale watching.

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking off the east coast of Canada. There is a long list of events planned in and around Halifax as part of Titanic 100, a project to commemorate the occasion. The goal, according to its creators, is to create a legacy in Halifax. As part of the program, there will be a marine-art festival, several concerts, a monument memorial on the waterfront, and a film festival with showings of Titanic movies. In March, The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic will host “Built in Belfast — Remembered in Halifax,” a guided tour which takes visitors through a history of events, and pays a visit to the graves of some of the 150 victims who are buried in Halifax cemeteries. The museum is also expanding its permanent Titanic exhibit this year. There’s another Titanic exhibit at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, which shows a model of what the wreck site looks like now.

9. Oahu

Hawaii’s third-largest island, Oahu, isn’t new to family “Best Of” lists, so seeing it here should be no surprise. But a recent arrival to the island makes it an even hotter destination for 2012. Last April, the kid-friendly Mecca welcomed the master of all things family: Disney! Aulani Resort is located on the west coast of Oahu, and is Disney’s first and only resort not connected to one of its theme parks. Since it’s been open for several months now, they’ve had a chance to work out many of the kinks, making 2012 the perfect time to visit. Young families will love this beautiful 21-acre oceanfront resort, which has an awesome water park, complete with zero-entry pool and lazy river, as well as a super-cool snorkeling pool right on the property called Rainbow Reef. There’s also a kids’ club and a variety of family-centric activities scheduled day and night.

Of course, Disney is by no means the only reason to visit Oahu. This island offers so much above and beyond Aulani. Try snorkeling in the world-famous Hanauma Bay, lounging on the beautiful beaches, or visiting attractions like the Waikiki Aquarium and the USS Arizona Memorial.

10. The Grand Canyon

The southwestern United States is home to one of the most awesome landscapes in the world: The Grand Canyon. For those who have yet to visit this spectacular national park, it’s located in the northwest corner of Arizona, close to the borders of Utah and Nevada. It’s an area of the country you must see at least once in your lifetime, and it’s super family friendly. Like many of the country’s national parks, the Grand Canyon offers the Junior Ranger program for kids 4 to 14. Children can pick up an activity booklet at the visitor center and complete a series of activities and assignments to receive their very own Junior Ranger Badge at the end of their visit.

For 17 days in 2012, admission to Grand Canyon National Park (along with more than 100 of the country’s other national parks) will be free. The free days are: Jan. 14 to 16 (Martin Luther King Jr. weekend); April 21 to 29 (National Park Week); June 9 (Get Outdoors Day); Sept. 29 (National Public Lands Day) and Nov. 10 to 12 (Veterans Day weekend).

Looking to make an affordable vacation even more budget-friendly? Stay at Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and kids 16 and under are free.

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