For a child, there’s nothing quite like a first-time trip to Disney World or a hike through the natural wonder that is the Grand Canyon—they just see things differently. Your children will be amazed by these sites, and will look back and appreciate the opportunity to have seen them at such a young age. Perhaps they’ll even be inspired to take their own kids to these destinations one day. These are the iconic U.S. attractions every kid should see before they grow up.
1. Disney World – Orlando, FL
Every kid deserves to see the “Happiest Place on Earth” at least once during his or her childhood. However, a Disney World or Disneyland vacation is just more magical when children believe in enchanting princesses and light up with joy when meeting Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
During your trip, be sure to enjoy a character breakfast experience, garner a photo with Cinderella in front of her castle, watch the parades and fireworks spectacular, ride all-time favorites like Splash Mountain and take home a pair of mouse ears as a souvenir. Another must—Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom!
Recommended Hotel: Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
2. NASA Kennedy Space Center – Cape Canaveral, FL
After your visit to Disney World (about an hour away), head to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Here, families can tour the Astronaut Hall of Fame, climb inside actual spacecraft, and—if you’re lucky—even see a rocket launch! The Kennedy Space Center also features the Astronaut Training Experience, where kids age 10 and up can experience a full-scale space shuttle mission simulation!
Recommended Hotel: Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Port Canaveral
3. Mount Rushmore – Keystone, SD
After seeing Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, kids will never forget the inspiring faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, all chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum as the presidents best representing the first 150 years of American history. But in addition to learning about these important figures in our nation’s history, kids will be impressed with the physical creation of this iconic landmark carved into a mountain of Harney Peak granite.
While visiting Mount Rushmore, take the 30-minute guided daytime tour along the beautiful Presidential Trail, learning more about the natural and cultural history, the American Indians and the Black Hills. There is also a stirring patriotic evening program in the park’s outdoor amphitheater, a short Sculptor’s Studio Talk and an audio tour available for a fee. Older kids can earn their Junior Ranger badge, learning why the four presidents were chosen. While in this remote area, don’t miss the nearby Crazy Horse Monument and Badlands National Park. Head 2 miles from Mount Rushmore to also see the National Presidential Wax Museum.
Recommended Hotel: Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Mt Rushmore/Keystone
4. The National Mall – Washington, D.C.
There’s no question that Washington D.C.’s National Mall, the 2-mile strip of wide-open green stretching between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol, is a must-see destination for kids. The Mall is chock full of history and offers no shortage of free learning opportunities. Family-favorites include the Smithsonian Museums, such as the Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum, as well as the Washington Monument. Also be sure to stop by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, dedicated in 2011.
For tweens and teens, don’t miss a free, guided tour of the U.S. Capitol. Younger children will enjoy whirling around on the 60-horse vintage carousel on the green, too. Once your children have visited the National Mall, they’ll remember the history they learned and various historic buildings that make up our nation’s capital. Before heading home, be sure to stop at the National Zoo and the International Spy Museum—both a nice change of pace and a favorite for kids of all ages.
Recommended Hotel: JW Marriott Washington DC
5. Niagara Falls – Niagara Falls, NY
No matter how kids see Niagara Falls—from behind, below, above or beside—they’ll be taken aback by the dramatic view (and noise!) of the thundering falls that are 13 stories high. By foot, you can get closest to the falls on the American side, but from the Observation Tower in Canada, you’ll take in the grander view of the combined Horseshoe, Bridal Veil and American Falls. However, with a passport in hand, you can easily walk over Rainbow Bridge, from one side to the other, enjoying the best of both.
To fully experience the falls, take the Cave of the Winds tour, where you’ll ride an elevator down 175 feet to the Hurricane Deck and get within 20 feet of the Bridal Falls, or take a ride on the double-decker ferry boat, the Maid of the Mist, for a wild excursion deep into the waters right below the falls. On either tour, you’ll don cloaks for protection from the spraying waters, but still expect to get soaked!
For an even more memorable experience, take an evening tour when the falls are spectacularly illuminated by colorful neon lights. After taking in the falls through all of your senses, head for more family fun at the kitschy museums in Clifton Hill, visit the nearby Buffalo Zoo, and get wet again at the Fallsview Indoor Waterpark.
Recommended Hotel: Sheraton at the Falls
6. Grand Canyon – Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
One of the most remarkable natural wonders in the world and most popular national parks for families is the Grand Canyon. Kids will be awe-struck not only by the size of the canyon (277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep), but also the sense of time conveyed by the layers of colored rock. Most visit the more accessible South Rim, where you can walk or bicycle along Desert View Drive, learning about the geology and history of the canyon on two-minute smartphone tours along the trail. Or take a free shuttle or private bus tour, stopping at scenic overlooks including the 75-foot-high Desert View Watchtower offering outstanding panoramic views of the canyon.
For a different perspective, take a hike into the canyon—even if only for a short distance. Even better, for older children, take a classic mule-ride deeper into the canyon (for several hours or staying overnight at Phantom Ranch); reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance and fill up quickly. Or go all out with a helicopter tour and hold your breath as you fly over the canyon and the ground drops out from beneath you! If you have an extra day, head to the western end of the canyon (250 miles from the South Rim) and walk on the glass floor of the Skywalk, 4,000 feet above the canyon floor; kids won’t forget the experience! And if that’s not enough for teens, take a whitewater-rafting trip through the Canyon on the Colorado River.
Recommended Hotel: Phantom Ranch
7. Statue of Liberty – New York, NY
Kids may enjoy the ferry ride in New York Harbor more than climbing the steps to the top, but it’s a rite of passage for kids to visit Lady Liberty, standing tall as a symbol of freedom and democracy in America. Many cruises will take you close to the statue, but to actually sail to Liberty Island and climb the steps, book a tour through Statue Cruises.
On Statue Cruises, your tour also includes a stop at Ellis Island, the entry point of our nation’s ancestors. At Ellis Island, kids can take an audio tour of the immigration museum and search on an interactive database for information on their relatives. At the end of the tour, take older children to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
While in New York, kids may also particularly enjoy the dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, the Central Park Zoo, Dylan’s Candy Bar and even sitting still at a family-friendly Broadway show such as “The Lion King.”
Recommended Hotel: Casablanca Hotel
8. Gateway Arch – St. Louis, MO
Kids will love stepping back in time with a riverboat ride on the mighty Mississippi, where the East, West, North and South all come together in the heart of our country. History comes alive in St. Louis aboard a 19th-century paddlewheel boat replica as kids learn about the Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch and the country’s westward expansion. A National Park Service ranger also joins the cruise to explain how the river currently impacts the surrounding city. Just visit the Gateway Arch to purchase tickets for the riverboat tours.
Better yet, purchase a money-saving combo ticket and also take a ride up the 630-foot Gateway Arch, the nation’s tallest monument offering 10-mile panoramic views at the top. Below the Arch, visit the Museum of Westward Expansion, where kids will learn about the shaping of the American West and the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as see an authentic American-Indian tepee. When hunger strikes, fuel up at the Arch View Cafe, located on the Gateway Arch Riverboats dock.
Recommended Hotel: Drury Plaza Hotel at the Arch
9. Boston Freedom Trail – Boston, MA
Bring American history to life with a walk along the 2.5-mile, red brick Boston Freedom Trail, showcasing 16 national treasures spanning more than 250 years. Most school-aged kids will particularly enjoy the Old Granary Burial Ground where John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine and Paul Revere are buried; the First Public School; the site of the Boston Tea Party or the Boston Massacre; Faneuil Hall; the Paul Revere House; and, if you can make it over to Charlestown, the USS Constitution. You can walk the trail and read the descriptions on your own or take a guided tour. Trolley tours are also available and allow you to disembark at selected sites.
You can pick up a map and guide at the visitor center on Tremont Street at Boston Common or at the Bostix Booth at Faneuil Hall; it’s fine to start the trail at any point. Try to plan so you can stop for lunch at Quincy Market, the largest food hall in New England, and for a relaxed pace, allow three or more hours for your exploration. Admission to the sites on the trail is free except for the Paul Revere House, the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House. Guided tours are offered by the National Park Service from mid-April to early September, and private tours are available year-round, many with guides in costume.
Recommended Hotel: Hotel Commonwealth
10. Carlsbad Caverns – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a giant system of more than 117 underground caves and tunnels under the Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico, is an altogether different and impressive site for kids. Offering an underground twist on a national park, the main attraction, the Big Room, is a 14-acre chamber of pale limestone located 750 feet underground. Younger kids can take the elevator in the visitor center down to the Big Room for a wide-eyed look around before taking a kids’ audio tour. Older kids may enjoy trekking down the steep 1-mile path that begins at the historic natural entrance and goes through additional underground rooms, or taking one of the more demanding guided tours; tickets may be reserved ahead for ages 3 and up.
Whichever you choose, all kids should leave knowing the meaning of the words “stalactites” and “stalagmites”—the stone formations they’ll see and learn about; the Junior Ranger program will ensure it. And if visiting during the summer, don’t leave the caverns without seeing nearly a half-million Mexican free-tail bats soar out over the desert at sunset to dine on tons of insects; it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Then enjoy the evening darkness at a Star Party where kids can view the wonders of the night sky. Note that while the outside temperature may be 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the average temperature in the cave is a cool 56 degrees.
Recommended Hotel: Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad New Mexico
11. San Diego Zoo – San Diego, CA
There are several stand-out zoos in the United States, but what sets the San Diego Zoo apart is its enormous size and location within Balboa Park, the largest cultural park in the country. Within Balboa Park, the 100-acre San Diego Zoo, known for its stellar efforts in conservation, education and animal protection, awaits with more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals for kids to meet and learn about their species. It can become arduous walking around the zoo and is not always easy with strollers, so plan on taking the relaxing 35-minute, double-decker bus tour that winds through the park. Along the way, knowledgeable bus guides share humorous stories about the zoo’s animals, peaking kids’ interest.
Alternatively, take the Skyfari aerial tram and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the animal exhibits. Whichever way you choose to tour, don’t leave the zoo without seeing the famous panda family and taking in a show featuring the natural behaviors of animals like sea lions at the Wegeforth Bowl. The zoo and Balboa Park can easily keep you busy for several days (there are 15 museums and more to see in the park), but if you’re on a longer vacation, you’re in the perfect spot for even more family fun nearby at the zoo’s Safari Park, Disneyland, SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, gorgeous beaches, cultural sites and more!
Recommended Hotel: Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club and Bungalows
12. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI
Kids will feel the heat and the extraordinary power of nature to create and destroy the earth when they get up close to the active volcano, Kilauea, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park on the Big Island was created to preserve the natural setting of live volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, as well as to serve as a refuge for native plants and animals; it is also the only national park with a tropical rain forest. Still today, rising molten rock fuels “quiet” eruptions from Kilauea, affording kids the rare opportunity to see oozing lava.
Start at the visitor’s center where you can pick up Junior Ranger badge materials, watch a short film and inquire on guided tours. To explore the summit of Kilauea on your own, head to Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile road with scenic stops, short walks and additional sites for kids including the massive pit, Kilauea Caldera; superb views from the interesting Jaggar Museum; and a 20-minute walk through the forest and underground Thurston Lava Tube. For older children, stay for a nighttime hike when Kilauea’s oozing lava turns a brilliant red and casts an eerie glow to the sky.
Recommended Hotel: Volcano Village Lodge