Archive for the ‘Family-Friendly Destinations’ category

Exploring Nature Beyond the Sands of Daytona Beach

February 22nd, 2016

Each year thousands of visitors flock to Daytona Beach, where they enjoy playing in the sand, surf and sun along the Atlantic Ocean. However, this Florida city offers more natural experiences than just those found along its oceanfront property, many that are just minutes from the beach, yet feel like a world away. Here is a closer look at three such sites: Spruce Creek Park & Campground, Tuscawilla Preserve and De Leon Springs State Park. As a bonus, these natural beauties are either free to the public or simply require a low entrance fee per car.

Spruce Creek

Spruce Creek Park & Campground
Just a 15-minute drive south on U.S. Highway 1 from Daytona Beach, Spruce Creek Park & Campground in Port Orange spreads out across 1,637 acres that include more than 3 miles of hiking trails around the marshes of Spruce Creek. During my visit, we headed out on the 536-foot boardwalk out over the marshland, where we took in the scenic views. A family occupied one of the seating areas, trying their luck at fishing. After a hushed conversation to see how the fishing was going, I turned my attention to my surroundings, soaking up the quiet sounds of birds flying overhead and the occasional fish jumping in the water. Although I was unable to do so, visitors to Spruce Creek Park can spend the entire day here, making the most of the picnic area, playground and canoe launch. It’s a different, yet equally enjoyable way to enjoy fun in the sun in Daytona Beach.

Tuscawilla Preserve

Tuscawilla Preserve
Located at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, Tuscawilla Preserve is a 90-acre virgin Florida coastal hydric hammock; in other words, it’s a wet forest similar to a swamp, but it’s drier because it has standing water for shorter periods. Ready to explore, I set out on the boardwalk, which travels more than half a mile through the trees and fauna. Along the way, I passed a number of interactive learning stations that provided more information on the wildlife and fauna found throughout the preserve. There also were a number of benches where I could sit and absorb the sights and sounds surrounding me. In fact, there were a couple of “overlook” areas next to small ponds. I hoped to spot an alligator or two, but luck was not on my side. Nonetheless, I loved seeing another side of Daytona Beach’s natural side, one that was wholly unexpected, yet surprisingly delightful.

De Leon Springs State Park
A little farther from Daytona Beach than the others, a visit to De Leon Springs State Park is totally worth the 40-minute drive. First, this park overflows with activities: boating, fishing, hiking, swimming, birding, canoeing, picnicking — the list goes on and on. You can even snorkel in the swimming area here! I especially like the two hiking trails. The first is a half-mile paved trail that takes visitors into a flood plain forest where you can see a cypress tree that is more than 600 years old! To catch a glimpse of the wildlife, set out on the 4-mile Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail and see if you can spot a deer, turkey or even a Florida black bear. As much as I love the natural offerings at De Leon Springs State Park, I must admit that my favorite activity was breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugarmill Pancake House, a 100-year-old replica of the original 1830s sugar mill. Here, I made my own pancakes right at my table, which included a griddle in the center. With a la carte toppings including blueberries, chopped pecans and chocolate chips, I made my own culinary creations.

Daytona Beach offers much more in the great outdoors than just sand and surf, so don’t be afraid to get out and experience it with your family. When you do, let us know what your favorite nature spot is in Daytona Beach.

––Karon Warren

The mother of two children, Karon enjoys bringing her kids along for the adventure, and seeing and experiencing new sites and cultures through their eyes. When she is not traveling, Karon resides in the quiet tranquility of the North Georgia Mountains with her family.

More From Family Vacation Critic:
10 Best Treetop Adventures
12 Resorts That Get You Close to Animals

It’s Not All on the Mall: Washington, D.C.’s Hidden Highlights

February 15th, 2016

According to the National Park Service, more than 25 million people visit Washington, D.C.’s National Mall each year — that’s more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks combined. While a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian museums, the memorials, the White House and the Capitol is a rite of passage for most American families, if they limit themselves to the Mall, they miss out on the many fascinating, enriching sites the D.C. area has to offer. For it’s not all on the Mall: Those willing to venture off the beaten path will have an even deeper appreciation of the history and culture of the nation’s capital.

Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C.

President Lincoln’s Cottage
For an indelible lesson on the 16th president, plan a visit to President Lincoln’s Cottage, a summer retreat located at the Soldier’s Home (known today as the Armed Forces Retirement Home) near the Petworth and Parkview neighborhoods in D.C. Abraham Lincoln spent about a quarter of his presidency here, escaping Washington’s oppressive heat with his family from June to November, holding important meetings, making significant military decisions, commuting back and forth to the White House daily and developing the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition to temporary exhibits, the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center houses four permanent galleries, which provide an introduction to the site: Wartime Washington, Lincoln the Commander-in-Chief, the Lincoln Family at the Soldiers’ Home and History of the Soldiers’ Home. An interactive exhibit gallery, Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions, allows visitors to read digital primary sources in order to get a better sense of the issues Lincoln and his cabinet wrestled with during the war. The guided tour of the cottage, given in a relaxed, conversational style and using multimedia technology, including oral history recordings and video, takes about an hour. The house is mostly unfurnished, so the emphasis is on stories of the Lincoln family and their experiences in the cottage.

President Lincoln’s Cottage is located at 140 Rock Creek Church Road, NW, Washington, D.C. Admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 12, $12 for active duty military and veterans with ID, $12 for National Trust for Historic Preservation members and $7.50 for President Lincoln’s Cottage Members. Advance online ticket purchase is strongly recommended. The site is open Monday through Saturday, from 9:30 to 4:30 p.m — the first tour is at 10 a.m. and the last tour at 3 p.m. — and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; the first tour starts at 11 a.m. and the last one begins at 3 p.m.

Mount Vernon
George Washington’s historic estate is much, much more than a restored house and grounds. Visits begin at the Ford Orientation Center, where a short action-adventure film about Washington’s defining moments vividly brings the legend to life (some battle scenes may be too scary for young children). Head next to the Education Center, where advanced media technology and electronics create a highly interactive experience that will engage children ages 6 or 7 and up, as well as teens and adults. Visitors can sit on a reproduction of the Washington family box pew from Pohick Church in nearby Lorton, Virginia, and watch a History Channel film about the role religion played in Washington’s life and his views on religious freedom. They can learn more about the 316 slaves who lived on the plantation during Washington’s time through interactive texts and period tools, and check out a replica of a cabin at Valley Forge, complete with a groaning animatronic soldier. And there is a “4-D” movie: When cannons fire, the seats rumble and “smoke” drifts through the room and when Washington crosses the Delaware, “snow” falls on the audience. Fog wafts through the theater at three key moments to help dramatize how the Americans used bad weather to their advantage in several battles.

The Museum houses both permanent and temporary exhibits, including fine and decorative arts, books and manuscripts, and the Mansion itself has been meticulously restored to its appearance in 1799. Lines to get inside can be long at busy times of year. Don’t forget to check out the outbuildings, gardens and grounds, slave quarters, slave memorial and of course, George Washington’s tomb.

Mount Vernon, located 16 miles from Washington, is open every day of the year, including holidays. Admission is $17 for ages 12 to 61, $9 for ages 6 to 11, and $16 for seniors. Children ages 5 and under are free to enter. To avoid lines, purchase your tickets online in advance (you’ll save $1 on adult and youth tickets if you do so.) The estate is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through February.

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Cedar Hill, in Anacostia, is the home of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery and became an internationally renowned activist. The house sits on top of a 51-foot hill and has commanding views of the city. It takes about 1.5 hours to look at the exhibits, walk the grounds, take the guided tour of the historic home, and watch the film. The home has been restored to its 1895 appearance and is furnished with original objects that belonged to Douglass.

Cedar Hill is located at 1411 W Street SE, Washington, D.C. There is no entrance fee to the grounds. There is a fee of $1.50 for each reserved ticket to tour the home. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Tours of the home are available at 9 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 1:15 p.m., 3 p.m., 3:30 p.m. (available for walk-ins only; cannot reserve), and 4 p.m. (April through October only). The visitor center and grounds are open daily, except for January 1, Thanksgiving and December 25. Hours vary by season: April through October – 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., November through March – 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Island
Visitors who’ve had their fill of marble hallways and hallowed historic homes will find the perfect antidote on Teddy Roosevelt’s Island, an 88.5 acre island and national memorial located in the Potomac River. Visitors access the island via a pedestrian footbridge, and can choose from the 2.5 miles of hiking trails that loop through swamps and woods and/or pay respects to the “Great Conservationist” in the memorial plaza, which features a 17-foot statue of Roosevelt, large pools of water, huge stone fountains and four enormous stone monoliths bearing some of Roosevelt’s famous quotations. It’s a peaceful, mostly shady respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Island, which is located 16 miles from Washington, is open every day of the year, including holidays, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is no fee.

The United States National Arboretum
Another great place to blow off some steam — or just hug a tree — is the National Arboretum, a living museum and research and education facility run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Arboretum is a 444-acre of tranquility and natural beauty. Grab a map at the Administration Building, check out the National Herb Garden, visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum and picnic in the National Grove of State Trees area. No matter what, visitors will want to take Instagram pictures of the National Capitol Columns, 22 Corinthian columns that formed the East Portico of the Capitol building from 1826 to 1957.

The National Arboretum is located in the northeast section of Washington, D.C, approximately 10 minutes from the Capitol Building. There are two entrances: one at 3501 New York Avenue, N.E., and the other at 24th & R Streets, N.E., off of Bladensburg Road. The grounds are open every day of the year except December 25 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except for federal holidays November through February. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except for federal holidays November through February. The Arbor House Gift Shop is open daily Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

— Maura Mahoney

Maura Mahoney lives with her husband, three teenagers and two indifferent cats in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is a longtime magazine editor and writer who has worked or written for Reader’s Digest, Mother Jones, Congressional Quarterly, the Baffler, Bethesda Magazine and Grown and Flown. You can check out her writing on parenthood and travel with kids at MauraMahoney.PressFolios.com, and follow her on Twitter @mauramahoney.

More From Family Vacation Critic:
Washington, D.C. Family Vacations
15 Historic Sites Every Kid Should See

See Philly From the Top

February 8th, 2016

One Liberty Observation Deck, Philadelphia’s newest and tallest attraction, is located inside the One Liberty Place skyscraper (which happens to be the first Philadelphia building to be built taller than the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, constructed in 1987).

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the view from 883 feet high is spectacular, even on a cloudy day, so a camera is a must!

One Liberty Observation Deck

Entrances to the Observation Deck can be found at street level from the 16th Street entrance of One Liberty Place or inside the building near the Food Court. Once inside and after tickets are purchased ($14 for children ages 3 to 11 and $19 for adults), giant greenish blue shoes and legs that reach into the ceiling will greet families. If you look up, a red tail from a kite string can be seen weaving through the ceiling and around those giant legs that may be attached to a certain someone. But watch out because a thunderstorm is rolling in and there may be some thunder and lightning. Young children may be slightly scared of the virtual thunderstorm, but the flashing light and loud rumble only last a few seconds and kids who are told “it’s just pretend” don’t seem to mind.

Stop at the green screen for a family photo op, which virtually sets you within a Philadelphia scene; the photo can be purchased later. Then it’s time to ascend to the top of Philly.

A 75-second, spacious and entertaining elevator ride (24 people can fit inside) whisks guests to the top while watching a video of Ben Franklin’s kite flying over the sights of Philadelphia. When the elevator doors open, finally you see the face attached to those legs downstairs! Ben Franklin’s giant greenish blue head sits proudly atop Philadelphia, observing the city and those who visit his Observation Deck, through his silver spectacles. Mr. Franklin offers some great photo opportunities.

One Liberty Observation Deck

Once you turn your attention beyond giant Ben, a “sea” of Philadelphia is before you. Even on a cloudy day, there are 360-degree views as far as the eye can see. To give an idea, the Limerick Power Plant, which is 37 miles away, can easily be seen in the distance. So imagine the views of the Ben Franklin Bridge, City Hall, PSFS and Comcast buildings, 30th Street Station and the Schuylkill River.

Families will enjoy interacting with the touchscreen displays that can pinpoint different attractions and neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia and beyond to the suburbs and New Jersey. Kids will also love to spot Philadelphia landmarks through the glass windows and of course try to see their own house (if you’re a local, of course).

One Liberty Observation Deck

Philadelphia-centric music and sports or history clips can be heard throughout your stay and there is plenty of room to run if looking out the windows begins to bore the kids. A few chairs and a Flyers hockey penalty box with a bench allow for some sitting. Inside the Flyers Penalty Box, more Philly sports clips can be heard.

Once you’ve had your bird’s eye view of Philadelphia, take the elevator back down and visit the gift shop, where you can purchase the green screen photo that was taken before you headed to the top.

Best Time to Visit
Weekends bring big crowds to this new attraction that opened in November, 2015. But during the week and especially in the middle of the day, you could almost have the whole place to yourself.

The Essentials
Bathrooms can be found on both the bottom level, as well as at the top of the observation deck. No outside food or drink is permitted, but vending machines can be found at the top. A souvenir shop, filled with Philadelphia T-shirts, magnets, hats, games and mugs, can be found at the bottom level.

Cost
Tickets can be purchased at the door for $14 for youth (ages 3 to 11) and $19 for adults. For a few dollars more, tickets can be purchased online with a specified entrance time. Group tour rates are also available at a discounted rate.

–Courtney Elko

More From Family Vacation Critic:
Philadelphia Family Vacations
10 Best Cities for Family Trips

Activities at Hunter Mountain

December 16th, 2015

Hunter Mountain, located in the Catskills of New York and offering 57 trails, is home to an abundance of family-friendly activities for the whole family. From skiing and snowboarding in the winter to hiking and zip-lining in the spring, summer and fall (and even in the winter if you dare), there is something to ignite everyone’s inner thrill-seeker.

Ziplining in the Catskills


Mid-Mountain Tour

On a recent trip, our tour guides, Mike and Dabo, suited us up and walked us to a little stopping point about halfway up the mountain to inform us of the necessary safety precautions. From there, we climbed a swinging bridge and took off down our first zip-line! Before we zoomed down every zip-line and journeyed across every swinging bridge after that, they thoroughly checked us to make sure we were secure in our harnesses and completely safe, all the while cracking jokes and making sure we were having a good time. At the end of the tour, feeling like experts at that point, we traversed down a pole to the ground.

SkyRide
Another, more relaxing, activity families are sure to enjoy is the Skyride. This six-person Kaatskill Flyer detachable chairlift takes guests to the 3,200-foot summit of Hunter Mountain. Along the way, take in the magnificent views of the northern Catskills, plus the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts and Green Mountains of Vermont on a clear day. The ride takes about 11 minutes each way. Admission is $12 for adults ages 13 and up, $8 for juniors ages 7 to 12, $10 for seniors ages 65 and up, and free for children ages 6 and under (with a paying adult). Hours vary depending on the season. Note: The Skyride is available weather permitting.

Hiking
The Hunter Mountain area provides the perfect starting point for families looking to hike the northern Catskills, which also offers cozy accommodations.. There are trails and terrain for all skill levels. Elevations range from 600 to 4,200 feet, and trails are marked with red, blue, or yellow circular markers to help keep you on your desired course. Note: Come equipped with comfortable shoes, water, and bug spray.

Skiing and Snowboarding
Skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels flock to Hunter Mountain every year for some good old-fashioned outdoor fun. Lessons are available, and include the Beginner Try-Pak ($119) for those ages 13 and up, with three non-holiday visits to the mountain, Lower Mountain lift tickets, group lessons, and equipment rentals. The Beginner Single-Pak ($79) includes one visit to the mountain, a Lower Mountain lift ticket, group lesson, and equipment rental. And finally, the Beginner Private Lesson Package ($125) includes one visit to the mountain, a one-hour private lesson, a Lower Mountain lift ticket, and equipment rental. Look for other deals during Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month in January. Childcare services are provided for little ones who aren’t ready for the slopes.

Restaurants, Shopping & Spa
After or in between all of the fun, relax and unwind at one of the onsite restaurants. The Island Bar at The Copper Tree features spectacular views of the mountain, while Andre’s Slopeside Barbecue will fill your tummy with burgers, hot dogs, or chicken (summer only). There is also some serious shopping available at Hunter Mountain Expeditions & Sports Center, where families will find well-known brands such as Obermyer, Helly Hansen, and Nordica. Last but not least, there’s also a spa at the Katskill Mountain Club, which also offers cozy accommodations.

–Morgan Agesen

More From Family Vacation Critic:
10 Best Ski Resorts for Families
8 Essentials for Your Ski Trip