From pirate cruises, complete with limbo contests and treasure hunts, to hands-on tours devoted to kid-friendly interests like dolphins and manatees, consider these family boat rides, all accessible without a multi-day commitment.
Written by Jackie Perrin
Boston Ducks Tours - Boston
Spirited "ConDUCKtours," with tongue-in-cheek personas like "Paul Reverse" and "Dr. Quackenstein," lead expeditions by land and water. Tours take place aboard WWII-style amphibious vehicles. Kids will have a blast "quacking" at passersby and taking a turn, if they're lucky, at taking the helm once vehicles "splash" into the Charles River. Passengers get a great, yet light-hearted lesson in local history and area landmarks. Familiar sites of interest include Boston Public Garden (the final destination for the famous family of ducks from Robert McCloskey's "Make Way for Ducklings"), The Old North Church (mentioned in Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride") and the U.S.S. Constitution battleship ("Old Ironsides").
Departures leave from the Museum of Science, Prudential Center and New England Aquarium. Tickets are required for all passengers. If you're traveling with young children, be sure to bring a snack and visit the restroom beforehand, as there are no facilities onboard. Souvenir photos are available. Kids under 3, students with a valid ID, and military personnel and their spouses receive a discount.
Recommended Boston Hotel: Royal Sonesta Boston
Ride the Ducks of Seattle - Seattle
Knowledgeable captains dish out corny humor with plenty of interesting facts during the 90-minute tour, 30 minutes of which take place on the water in Lake Union. A shortened seasonal land-only tour features spirited musical selections. Holiday Duck Tours, a.k.a. "sleigh rides on wheels," are also available during the winter holidays.
Recommended Seattle Hotel: Fairmont Olympic Seattle
Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise - Clearwater, Fla.
Kids get decked out like real pirates and "walk the plank." On most trips, the whole family will experience the thrill of dolphin sighting. Cruises last two hours, and boats are equipped with well-maintained bathrooms. Choose from two daytime departures or an evening sunset cruise. Complimentary beverages (including Champagne for adults on the sunset cruise) are served. Photos with the captain are available for purchase. For best results, reserve tickets in advance. Bring extra cash for souvenirs and tips.
Recommended Clearwater Hotel: Sheraton Sand Key Resort
Orange Beach Pirate Adventure - Orange Beach, Ala.
Located in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the two-hour seasonal pirate-themed cruises include a brief review of nautical terms and pirate lingo, along with a history of treasure in the area. But don't worry if your kids miss some relevant facts because they're busy having tons of fun!
Soft drinks and a treasure hunt are included in the cost. Bathrooms are on board. Tours depart from Hudson Marina at Skull Harbor. Children 1 years old and under sail free.
Recommended Gulf Shores Hotel: The Beach Club
Whirlpool Jet Tours - Niagara Falls
Children 44 inches tall (around 6 years old) and up can take the wet jet ride. Children 40 inches tall and up can ride the "Dry Jet," a domed boat that operates only on the Canadian side. Riders on both tours get to experience the thrill of Niagara's whitewater, as boats travel up to 65 miles per hour through the Niagara Gorge and into the Whirlpool. On the dry domed boat ride, the water crashes over you, while on the wet jet boat ride, you'll get a thorough soaking.
Ponchos and full-body rain suits are provided to protect you from the elements. Lockers, key boxes and changing rooms are also available. Bring a change of clothes and a towel.
Recommended Niagara Falls, New York Hotel: The Giacomo
Captain Ron's Original Dells Jet Boats - Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
Captain Ron's Original Dells Boat Tours operates in summer, weather permitting. Dress the kids in bathing suits and bring towels and a change of clothes. Souvenir photos are available.
Recommended Wisconsin Dells Hotel: Great Wolf Lodge Wisconsin Dells
Mid-Lakes Navigation Company Mailboat Tour - Skaneateles, N.Y.
Three-hour U.S. Mailboat cruises aboard the 36-passenger Barbara S. Wiles are offered from mid-May through October, and include an overview of the lake's famous residents and regulars, from the Roosevelts to the Clintons.
Box lunches are available, or you can bring your own (try Skaneateles Bakery on Jordan Street). Bring playing cards or other travel games to help occupy the kids. This senior-friendly trip is a good option for multigenerational families, and is best for kids ages 8 and up.
Recommended Skaneateles Hotel: Mirbeau Inn and Spa Skaneateles
Jerry's Rogue Jets Mailboat Route Excursion - Gold Beach, Ore.
The boat travels up to 35 mph on the journey, during which you'll pick up some spray and experience some spins and nose dives. In mid-summer, temperatures average 5 to 20 degrees cooler on the coast. Bring a snack and dress in layers. Note that there are no restrooms onboard. The tour departs from Gold Beach, located 45 minutes north of the California border.
Recommended Gold Beach Hotel: Pacific Reef Hotel - Gold Beach
Dolphin Explorer Eco-Adventure - Marco Island, Fla.
Family boat rides include a stop at a barrier island for shell collecting. A prime shelling site, the Marco Island area is known for specimens ranging from coquina and lightning whelks to lions paws and moon shells.
Tours depart from the Rose Marco Marina. Kids younger than 2 years old are free, but a ticket is required for all ages.
Recommended Marco Island Hotel: Marco Island Marriott Resort Golf Club & Spa
Manatee Snorkel Tour - Crystal River, Fla.
In the dive shop, as well as onboard and in the water, captains give guests plenty of hands-on instruction in manatee manners and general behavior, habitat, and tips for animal interaction. You'll be amazed at how sweet-natured and enormous the gentle creatures are. Manatees can grow up to 13 feet and weigh more than 3,000 pounds when fully grown!
There is no minimum age for the tour -- participation is up to parental discretion. For peak enjoyment, it's best to wait until your kids are strong swimmers and can easily manage the tasks of using snorkel gear and fins, as well as swimming against the current. Towels and warm drinks are included in the fee for a 3.5-hour experience. Scuba suits and snorkel gear are available for an additional fee.
Recommended Crystal River Hotel: BEST WESTERN Crystal River Resort
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