We've got the best resorts for infants, toddlers, and teens, but we won't leave families with kids of all ages in the lurch! Large families often have a wide age range of children, and even small families can have kids that are spread out in age. What's a family with a 4-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 15-year-old to do? Families with kids in multiple age groups know how hard it can be when a teen is giving you the silent treatment, sulking with their headphones on as a cranky, whining toddler who needed a nap hours ago is throwing a fit. Is it possible to have a great family vacation for everyone in the family? Of course it is!
According to Leslie Overton, Conde Nast Traveler's Top Specialist for Family Travel in Asia and Managing Director of luxury travel tour company Absolute Travel, "the key to making everyone happy is finding a place that can offer great relaxation, physical activities and cultural interest." She recommends getting a great indoor pool at a city hotel and going on stimulating area tours that feature walking, rowing, climbing... anything that gets your kids moving! Families sometimes shy away from cultural experiences, thinking that they will be too daunting, overwhelming or boring for kids, but oftentimes children enjoy being around different people, learning unfamiliar customs and exploring new territories. So go ahead and try immersing your family in another culture. Overton also notes that a strong support system for younger kids and plenty of activities for older kids will go far in satisfying everyone in the family.
What to Look For at a Resort
Kids' Programs & Childcare
Nothing can top good programs for kids and teens at a hotel. You're looking for a wide array of children's and teens' clubs at one hotel -- preferably clubs that cater to multiple age groups. Notice how kids are split into age groups per program. For instance, a hotel can say that they have kids' activities for children ages 4 to 17. What you need to find out is if they are divided into two groups or assembled into one, which can be stressful for little ones or dull for older teens. Typically, the most enjoyable kids' programs are those that run different clubs for at least three separate groups of kids, in clusters of four-year (or less) age differences. If your children are outgoing, this is less of an issue, as they will probably fall in with many ages of peers easily.
Try to book all your kids in clubs that take place at the same time, if possible, that way when they are done for the day, the entire family can be together in the evening. Fun experiences with new friends can promote congenial times with siblings when back together again.
Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman is a fantastic example of a resort that offers programs for all ages. The Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ambassadors of the Environment allows children to explore the Caribbean ecological surroundings -- wildlife and native foliage -- of the Cayman Islands. Kids gain an appreciation for nature, and learn how to live more environmentally friendly upon returning home. Six three-hour eco-tour programs are offered each day (seven days a week), so there's no excuse for kids to not be interested in at least one adventure during your stay. Kids are grouped into programs of ages 4 to 7 and 8 to 18. Teens from 14 to 17 can also receive massages at the spa with a parent present. For kids younger than age 4, the resort offers babysitting on request, and there is a children's pool onsite.
Smugglers' Notch in Vermont is another family favorite, known for its diverse kids' programs for toddlers up to teens. While the resort's outstanding summer programs will entice kids of all ages, we especially love its winter activities. Kids can learn to ski at the early age of just 2.5 years, and the trainers are some of the best in the nation. Group lessons and one-on-one sessions are available for kids of any age and skill-level. For children who would rather avoid the slopes, there's ice skating and dog sledding. Swimming lessons, building sand castles, biking and hiking are also available in the summer months. Teens will enjoy climbing, kayaking, zip lining or mastering the rope obstacle courses onsite. Infants as young as 6 weeks can participate in the Treasures All-Day Childcare.
See our favorite kids' programs in our 10 Best Kids' Programs article.
Theresa Jorgensen, owner of Six Suitcase Travel, a Web site that details hotels especially for large families, says the trick to pleasing all the kids is finding a resort with a water park. "The bigger the better! These hotels can be a vacation destination in themselves," says Jorgensen. Typically, water parks have enough features to keep kids of just about any age busy, wet and having fun. Little ones can hang out in supervised splash pads while older kids can go zooming down the water slides or running beneath 1,000-gallon dumping buckets.
Great Wolf Lodge offers year-round indoor water parks with lazy rivers to float down on connecting tubes for two, super-slick slides, sprinkling buckets, zero-entry pools and activity clubs. Rent a cabana for the day and use it as a meeting point for the family to rejoin in between water adventures. Great Wolf usually offers nightly story time, morning educational walks, crafts and club activities, too. Select properties provide spa treatments for young girls, like mini-facials and toe-nail painting. The water park resort chain has properties all across the U.S. and Canada, including the Poconos, Williamsburg and Niagara Falls.
Another amazing resort water park, Wilderness Hotel & Resort in Wisconsin Dells offers five-story tube slides accented by fog machines, expansive bumper boat areas, horse-drawn wagon rides and family raft rides. Spray mats and mini slides are for the little ones. An indoor water park is beneath a 70,000-square-foot glass dome, covering the largest wave pool in the region. Outdoor water parks are also at the resort, featuring dinosaur themes, lazy rivers, racing slides and evening miniature golf. A children's club hosts rubber duck races, scavenger hunts and movies, too.
Want to take your family to a water park resort? Check out our 10 Best Indoor Water Park Resorts. Also, read about what makes Wisconsin the Water Park Capital of the World.
Get Enough Space
Though not directly related to the amount of fun you'll have, getting enough space for everyone in the family is important. It may not be able to drastically improve a sleepy town with nothing to do, but without it, the family vacation can be irritating and filled with unnecessary bickering about sides of the bed or television programs. Getting enough space is especially important for families with teenagers. Everyone knows that teens like a bit more privacy than younger kids, not to mention the difference in sleep schedules can be difficult to address in small hotel rooms. Units with multiple rooms promote a good night's sleep and minimize grumpiness in the mornings, so you can start the day off right.
Publisher of the family travel site Travel Savvy Mom, Jamie Pearson, sticks with family-friendly chains like Homewood Suites. Though there are no kid-friendly gimmicks, often found at brands like Kimpton Hotels (another favorite chain), Homewood's all-suite properties offer separate bedrooms, full kitchens, complimentary breakfasts and free dinners on weeknights. Most locations have a pool and/or hot tub, which typically appeal to all ages on some level. Some of our favorite Homewood Suites properties are in Orlando, Washington, D.C., Williamsburg and San Diego.
For more information on spacious hotel options, check out Accommodations for Large Families.
Choose Your Destination Wisely
Head to the Beach
The downside to kids' clubs is that families are split up. Most families want to at least see each other on vacation, if not spend the entire time together. Choose your destination wisely. Beach vacations are a great place for the whole family to spend time together, yet have some alone time when needed. Families do not need to split up to have fun, and as Overton mentions, there are physical outlets and cultural touring possibilities. Sure, teens may want to spend most of the time in the water, while small children may take the day to build a sand castle, but both parties are in each others' view. Lunch breaks can be spent together and family walks along the coastline are a must. Essentially, you are all enjoying the same attraction at the same time.
Find the best family-friendly beaches 10 Best Beaches for Families and 11 Best Beach Boardwalks for Families.
Head to a Dude Ranch
Teens may not like it at first, due to the lack of Wi-Fi and video games, but soon they're sure to get infected with the cowboy style, campfires and outdoor activities. Dude ranches are places where families can escape the real world in both place and time. Ranches create an enclosed environment that fosters family togetherness. Oftentimes, dude ranches have activities for children as young as age 2, such as pony rides and campfire songs. Teens are also typically provided with junior wrangling programs, rodeos, horseback riding or overnight trips. Usually, ranches are built in some of the most scenic parts of the country, like Yellowstone National Park. Some of our favorite dude ranches are Triangle C Dude Ranch of Dubois, Wyoming, and the Drowsy Water Ranch in Granby, CO.
For more information on dude ranch family vacations, see the 10 Best Dude Ranches for Families.
Visit Area Attractions
Wherever you go, your hotel's surroundings do matter, yet they need not be complicated or overly impressive to satisfy kids. Zoos, aquariums, grassy parks, movie theaters, candy stores... there are many things to explore in a new destination that will bring new light to a familiar attraction also found in your own hometown. Even something as commonplace as a nearby mall may intrigue a teenager, while younger kids may consider the resort itself enough of an attraction. Debbie Dubrow, mother of three and creator of kid-friendly travel site Delicious Baby, enjoys The Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. Besides the outdoor pools and waterslides, the hotel is located across the street from a huge shopping mall where teenagers can hang out with friends. A teen's club also runs games and an onsite spa offers relaxing services to younger guests. Toddlers can enjoy a shallow wading pool with spraying fountains or participate in activities at the children's club. The resort even offers one- and two-bedroom Casita Suites. In a sense, the resort has just about all the pieces of the puzzle!
Family Vacation Critic fan and mother of three children, Kelly Fraser Longo tries to take her family to places that will have "something for everyone." Orlando is a family favorite, as the area offers attractions for all ages and isn't far from her hometown. She admits to often "suffering through" what one child wants to do and then moving on to the next kids' wishes, occasionally splitting up for short periods. Like so many things, balance is the key, and each child must be able to do something fun for them. Looking forward to his or her own special activity will make it slightly easier to be patient with a brother's or sister's choice of activity.
Finally, Accept Compromise
It's important to remember that the family vacation, like any family time, may require some compromise. And there's nothing wrong with that. As mothers have said to their children time and time again, it builds character! Accepting compromise shows kids how to consider others' feelings and to be selfless.
Family Vacation Critic Forum Member Host, Lisa, has two daughters who are seven years apart. Taking into consideration the age gap when planning a vacation, she recognizes that there will be some compromise, as families want to stay together but "are only as fast as the one with the shortest legs." Her family only splits up when absolutely necessary, like at theme parks when rides are grouped by age in different sections of the park. While in London, smartly taking advantage of the world-class theater, she and her oldest daughter saw "Les Miserables" while her husband and younger daughter went to the "Lion King." Though not ideal, these experiences can be fun for the kids and coming together afterwards can be fun for mom and dad.
This article has been updated as of January 6, 2014.
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