10 Best Family Vacation Bets for 2014

See recent posts by Christine Koubek

Island, beaches, coastal coves, ski-town, U.S. cities, European gems, national park, amusement parks–our 2014 list has them all. We’ve considered your favorite destinations and sleuthed around for the best of what’s new next year. The result? Family friendly places that offer something for toddlers to teens (and the parents who love them). Here are a few clues about what you can do at our top ten: meet Charlie Brown, zip-line over a historic fort, ride a snowcat pulled sleigh to a mountainside restaurant, take a fjord safari, and explore a national park made possible by President Lincoln 150 years ago.

1. Aruba

This self-proclaimed “One happy island” has plenty to keep kids and parents happy, from shell hunting tours and windsurfing, to Papiamento language classes, merengue dancing, and exploring limestone caves at Arikok National Park. In addition, the Aruba government is currently investing $1 billion in infrastructure and beautification improvements that include a revitalized Oranjestad, a new trolley system throughout the historical and commercial centers, and the development of the Caribbean’s largest linear park, which features a playground and bike paths. Consider staying at Radisson Aruba Resort Casino & Spa (a Family Vacation Critic favorite), set on 1,500 feet of beautiful beachfront, and home to 355 recently renovated guest rooms. Or, check out the swanky new 320-room Ritz-Carlton, which opened November 2013 on prime Palm Beach real estate. The resort’s Ritz Kids program includes movie nights as well as nature and culture activities inspired by Jean-Michel Cousteau. 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of Aruba’s “Carnival,” the island’s biggest annual party chock full of events, including a daytime Children’s Parade with mini-marchers in creative costumes. Getting to Aruba is easier than ever thanks to direct flights from 10 major U.S. cities, some of which on affordable JetBlue.
2. Orlando, Florida

This central-Florida city is a family vacation mecca for good reason and 2014 will be an exceptionally good year of new reasons to visit. Preschoolers can play at farm-themed DUPLO Valley, opening this spring at LEGOLAND Florida. Come summer, Harry Potter fans can hop aboard Hogwarts Express and travel to ‘London’ and Diagon Alley–two new areas full of shops and a Gringotts at Universal Orlando’s expanded Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Nearby, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is about to complete it’s largest expansion ever with the debut of little-kid-friendly coaster, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Older thrill-seekers can careen down Orlando’s soon to be tallest water slide at SeaWorld’s Aquatica Waterpark, or speed around a half-mile track in a go-kart at the new I-Drive Indoor Kart Racing. And if that’s not enough, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, will become Orlando’s new home for Broadway productions and the Orlando Ballet when it opens in the fall. For a rest between activities, book a family suite at the 1800-room, retro-styled Cabana Bay Beach Resort (set to open this spring), complete with bowling alley and sandy beaches. The posh new 444-room Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World is set to open in the summer with a five-acre “Explorer Island” where families can climb a rock wall, cruise down a lazy river, and watch movies under the stars.

3. Cruise the Mediterranean

Mediterranean cruises offer kids a great sense of history and culture as they visit Barcelona, Rome, Athens, and many more places that played a pivotal role in world history, as well as settings for several beloved stories. While many ships sail the Mediterranean each summer, Royal Caribbean’s renovated Liberty of The Seas is one of our favorites, offering seven-night cruises from Barcelona, Spain, to must-see Med cities such as Nice, La Spezia (Florence/Pisa), Rome and Naples. In between ports of call, see Broadway musical Saturday Night Fever, try surfing the FlowRider simulator, ice-skate, or join Shrek and Kung Fu Panda at many a Dreamworks inspired activity. Disney Cruise Line’s Magic is another excellent option. Not only does the Magic offer a wide-variety of itineraries–including one with an overnight in (and departure from) Venice, Italy–Disney also has sailings that vary in length from 4, 5, 7, 9 and 12 nights, including a new Greek Isles voyage that includes Kusadasi (Ephesus) Turkey, home to notable archeological sites and some of Europe’s largest water parks. Better still, as of October 2013, the re-imagined Magic has a boatload of new features, from a new nursery and three-story water slide, to a new Marvel’s Adventure Academy for young super heroes in training.

4. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
More than $200 million in improvements have recently been made to this South Carolina Lowcountry area of dune-swept beaches, world-class golf courses, and miles of bike paths that meander alongside trees dripping with Spanish moss. Much of those dollars have gone to significant renovations at three of our favorite family resorts. Once the Crowne Plaza at Shipyard Plantation, the new Sonesta Resort Hilton Head is set on 11 beautifully landscaped beachfront acres. New features include a zero-entry heated pool, 340 spacious guest rooms and suites, and a Just Us Kids program where children ages 3-12 can make kites and feed turtles. Once complete in 2014, the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort, will have 323 refurbished studio suites, and a new kid-friendly “splash pad” to compliment their nearby 11-miles of lagoons for kayaking and three award-winning golf courses. Lastly, Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa reopened in April, 2013 with a lobby that features a vertical garden, 416 renovated guest rooms, and three refinished outdoor pools that include private cabanas, fire pits, fountains and outdoor lounge chairs almost as heavenly as their beds. In the heart of the island, Shelter Cove Towne Centre is currently being redeveloped into a creekside village of shops, restaurants, and a 5-acre park that will feature festivals and a playground.

5. Beaver Creek, Colorado
Postcard pretty Beaver Creek consists of three alpine villages (Beaver Creek Village, Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead) and 1800 acres of terrain, all accessible via complimentary shuttles and a unique village-to-village ski system that includes numerous ski-in/ski-out resorts with top notch family amenities. Besides tubing and ice skating, families can ski some of the nicest runs in the West, coast through faux gold mines and ride a kid-friendly gondola called the Buckaroo Express. Beaver Creek’s family private lessons are a great way for family members with differing skill levels to ski together. During peak winter and school break times, the “Beaver Creek Loves Kids” offerings include a Winterfest of parades and ice-sculptures, a twilight snowshoe and pizza party for teens complete with trampoline ski tricks, and a New Year’s Eve celebration that includes a torchlight parade and fireworks. Make time for a gourmet dinner at Beano’s Cabin where you arrive by snowcat pulled sleigh. And no matter which activities you choose, don’t miss Cookie Time, when heaping trays of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies are served in Beaver Creek village each afternoon at 3. The Osprey at Beaver Creek and the Westin Riverfront Resort consistently receive high marks from family travelers.

6. Norway
Disney’s new animated hit movie Frozen took its inspiration from Norway’s dramatic landsapes and storybook-like village Bergen. Now families are taking vacation inspiration from the film. In Norway, you can go river rafting in Voss (considered the adventure capital of Norway), see the majestic Seven Sisters Waterfall which overlooks Geirangerfjord (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and take in that colorful hillside village Bergen via the Fl?ibanen Funicular where you’ll have sweeping views of mountains, fjords and sea. You can see Norway’s sites on your own or consider a guided tour with Adventures by Disney. Disney added Norway to their 2014 destination list, offering five 7-night tour dates (in July and August) that cater to families with kids older than five. These escorted adventues (each for up to roughly 40 guests) offer the chance to fish in Lake Loen’s glacial waters, visit medieval wooden stave churches, and take a Fjord Safari on a RIB boat (rigid inflatable boat). Disney has a knack for making historical and cultural attractions palatable for children, and their Norwegian adventure is no exception. Kid-specific highlights include lunch in a local cafe with a storyteller who tells tales of trolls, quality time spent with a working farm’s goats and llamas, and an opportunity to make a traditional Norwegian dessert: svele (also known as pancakes).

7. Kansas City
Thanks to a decade-long $9 billion renaissance, this bi-state metro area that straddles the Missouri-Kansas line has morphed into a vibrant metropolis. There’s an expanded zoo now home to polar bears and penguins, a new performing arts center whose architecture changed the city’s skyline, World of Fun’s Planet Snoopy where you can meet Charlie Brown and play at 20 Peanuts attractions, and Sporting KC’s new state-of-the-art soccer stadium. Kansas City also hosts more college basketball tournament games than anywhere else in the country each March. 2014’s basketball lineup includes the NCAA Men’s Big 12 Championship and the NAIA Men’s Div. 1 National Championships. For athletic thrills of a different sort, ride Verr?ckt–the tallest, steepest, fastest waterslide in the world–once it opens at Schlitterbahn Kansas City Waterpark this spring. Verr?ckt–the German word for “crazy”–might be an apt requirement to ride something steeper than a ski slope. Kansas City’s Crown Center area is home to Sea Life Aquarium, LEGOLAND Discovery Center, Kaleidoscope (an interactive children’s art creation center), Science City, and kid-friendly restaurants like Crayola Caf?. Family favorites, Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center and Westin Kansas City at Crown Center, both recently underwent major renovations. After all that activity savor two things KC is known for: their more than 200 fountains (second only to Rome) and good ‘ol barbecue food.

8. Yosemite Park, California
Take your young wilderness explorers and budding naturalists on an exploration mission to discover Yosemite’s wild wonders: tall cliffs, verdant meadows, giant sequoia trees, jagged mountains, and cascading waterfalls. Parents who spend too much time in cars might especially appreciate Bald Mountain north to Yosemite’s Tioga. It’s the only place in the United States with a straight line of 150 roadless miles–thanks initially to President Lincoln, who signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864, setting aside the land now known as Yosemite National Park for federal protection. In 2014, the Yosemite Grant celebrates its 150 th anniversary with a year’s worth of special events and programs, including photography workshops, art classes, history talks and much more (AMANDA: note schedules and additional info at: http://www.nps.gov/featurecontent/yose/anniversary/). Kid-friendly Curry Village is home to family scavenger hunts, an outdoor ice rink with an oversized fire pit for s’mores making, and Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure, an interactive play for kids. The Yosemite “.gov” site (http://www.nps.gov/yose/forkids/index.htm.) is the place to find important park FAQ’s and Yosemite’s Junior Ranger and Little Cub program information. Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts is the contracted concessioner for Yosemite, providing lodging (from tents to a AAA 4-diamond hotel), 25 dining options, shops, and additional family activities, all detailed on YosemitePark.com. Two options worth considering are Victorian era lodge, Wawona Hotel, located near the Park’s south entrance and majestic Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, or affordable Curry Village’s Yosemite Cabins.

9. Coastal Rhode Island
Our smallest state is not called the Ocean State for nothing. Rhode Island’s 384 miles of coast has a wide array of sites, from Newport’s mansions and Cliff Walk, to rock-rimmed peninsulas and numerous coves and harbors. Take a 90-minute ride along Narragansett Bay aboard the new Newport Ice Cream train–a moving ice cream parlour with a Candyman conductor. Come summer 2013, you can launch yourself from the ramparts of North America’s largest coastal fortress: Newport’s Fort Adams. Their new 430-foot zip line will allow solo or tandem zip liners to sail across the fort’s complex land defenses. The Block Island Ferry will introduce high-speed service between Newport and Block Island beginning in June, allowing riders to enjoy a full day in either place and return in the evening. Three unique waterfront home bases to consider are: Block Island’s The Darius Inn on Dodge Street (www.dariusblockisland.com), which has six family-friendly guest rooms (some with kitchenettes) and is walking distance to the ferry landing and beach. Coming spring 2014, Narragansett’s The Break Hotel
www.thebreakhotel.com will debut with four suites that can fit a family of four. On a grander scale, the fairly new seaside resort Ocean House (http://www.oceanhouseri.com/)–located In southern Rhode Island near Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport–has a Sandcastles program for kids that includes sailing, scavenger hunts and croquet. For an affordable home base two miles from downtown Newport, consider the pet-friendly Homewood Suites by Hilton (opened summer 2013).

10. New York City
New York City is full of family adventures, from world class museums in art, history, and even the world’s only math museum (MoMath), to Broadway shows, parks, toy stores, and pizza tours. NYC’s notable spring 2014 openings include the new One World Trade Center, and the National September 11 Museum (www.911memorial.org/museum)–the latter home to exhibits, film screenings, and performances. Also new in 2014, kids can ride fiberglass fish at The SeaGlass Carousel in Battery Park. New York City’s excellent Family Ambassador program website (http://www.nycgo.com/waldo) makes it easy to plan your visit, with information on family-friendly hotels and age-specific details on many cultural institutions and attractions across the five boroughs. Where’s Waldo serves as the program’s new ambassador (former ambassadors included The Muppets and Sesame Street) and you just might find Waldo–and his buddies Wenda, Woof and Wizard Whitebeard–popping up at any of the attractions. Suggestions for energetic kids include a Bike the Big Apple tour, class at Trapeze School New York and Cali-style skateboarding at a waterfront park. Theatre lovers can attend a Broadway show or take in other family crowd-pleasers including Blue Man Group, Stomp, and The Quantum Eye, an entertaining show where mentalist Sam Eaton reads kids minds (and hopefully teaches parents how to do the same). Student-athletes can attend the NFL Prep Sports Career Expo and learn about sports careers from industry professionals (Jan 30) or watch the Celebrity Flag Football Challenge, let by former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie and hip-hop artist Nelly (Feb 1). Both are just two of oodles of events taking place as New York City hosts Superbowl XLVIII.

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