Oh, the places you can go in America! These epic destinations come with bragging rights, from epic natural wonders to big city adventures, and legendary theme parks to bucket-list beaches. These are the best summer vacations in the U.S. for families.
1. Disney World, FL
It really is worth caving in and planning a Disney vacation while the kids are still young. You’ll never forget the look on their faces when they see the Cinderella Castle for the first time or get to hug their favorite Disney character. And the fully immersive worlds of Star Wars, Avatar, and Toy Story feel truly magical, even to adults. Professional-calibre stage shows and fun parades give you a break from walking and help ward off the inevitable midday meltdowns at the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Every enchanting activity—from roller coasters to animal encounters or character dining at restaurants where, thankfully, you can get a beer—is a dream come true.
Recommended Hotel: Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort
2. Outer Banks, NC
If your ultimate family vacation is one spent wearing flip flops every day, then head for North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Nearly entirely free of big box stores and fast food, Highway 12 links a stretch of barrier islands where you’re never far from a beautiful sandy beach. Kids can walk up the hill to the windy spot where the Wright Brothers first flew. Ocean breezes power kite boarding and keep kids cool as they play on the East Coast’s largest sand dune or climb lighthouse staircases along the coast. Discover maritime history listening to stories of shipwrecks, rescues, and Blackbeard the pirate at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
Recommended Hotel: Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk
3. The Florida Keys
Rent a jeep, crank up some Jimmy Buffett tunes, and take the kids on a tropical road trip. With its 42 bridges, the 113-mile Overseas Highway suspends drivers in paradise for much of the route through the Florida Keys to Key West. Snorkel with dolphins at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. Book a reef fishing charter or hand-feed tarpon from the dock in Islamorada at Robbie’s Marina. Once you reach Key West, visit the 40-some cats (many with six toes!) at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. Don’t miss sunset celebrations at Mallory Square and selfies at Mile Marker Zero.
Recommended Hotel: Sheraton Suites Key West
4. Branson, MO
This wholesome “Vegas of the Ozarks” dazzles families with more than 100 different shows. But the live music, comedy, magic shows, and stampede show are only the beginning of the entertainment along “The Strip” and beyond. For thrills, you can hit Branson’s water parks, go karts, and a simulated skydiving wind tunnel. Silver Dollar City is an 1880s-themed amusement park with great rollercoasters. See the half-scale replica of the ship at the Titanic Museum or ride the Showboat Branson Belle on Table Rock Lake. About a 15-minute drive from Branson, the lake offers ziplining through the trees and quiet coves perfect for doing cannonballs off the dock.
Recommended Hotel: Thousand Hills Resort and Golf Club
5. Yellowstone National Park, WY
For family bonding, it doesn’t get any better than a night at America’s first national park sitting around the campfire, telling stories, roasting marshmallows, and stargazing in a dark sky. Pitch a tent at one of the park campgrounds or get a cowboy campfire experience at the park’s covered wagon cookout. Yellowstone’s Junior Ranger program teaches kids about the Old Faithful geyser and the park’s other geothermal features including the mud pots and hot springs. Early risers can pack a thermos of hot chocolate and head to Lamar Valley at sunrise for the best chance of seeing wildlife. Yellowstone is home to grazing bison, foraging bears, bugling elk, and wolves on the hunt.
Recommended Hotel: Canyon Lodge & Cabins
6. Florida’s Space Coast
This is one family vacation that budding scientists will never forget, especially if you can plan your visit to coincide with a live rocket launch. Less than an hour east of Orlando, Florida’s Space Coast is a 40-mile stretch of barrier islands including Cape Canaveral and its legendary launch pads. Visit one of many space museums or NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where kids can climb inside a spacecraft or try the Astronaut Training Experience simulation of launching, landing, and walking with microgravity technology. Spend lazy days on undeveloped white sand beaches or book a surfing lesson at the legendary Cocoa Beach. This area is also home to one of the state’s largest manatee and sea turtle habitats.
Recommended Hotel: Residence Inn Cape Canaveral Cocoa Beach
7. Niagara Falls, NY
You’ll need oversized ponchos for this classic U.S. family vacation. The most memorable way for kids to see the whoosh, hear the pounding, and feel the Niagara Falls spray on their faces is onboard the Maid of the Mist. It cruises right to the base of the 13-story falls. Plan to return during the evening, when each night of the year you can see the falls illuminated in color. If you don’t mind getting wet, load up the kids for a white water jet boat ride through the Niagara Gorge or go to the Fallsview Indoor Waterpark (on the Canadian side). Learn how the falls generate power at the Niagara Power Vista and find out who lived here 300 years ago at Old Fort Niagara.
Recommended Hotel: Country Inn & Suites Niagara Falls
8. Grand Canyon, AZ
If ever there was an iconic American summer vacation destination for families, the Grand Canyon is it. Like Clark Griswold in the 1980s movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, many parents are moved almost by a sense of duty to take their children to see this mind-blowing natural wonder. Arrive on the Grand Canyon Railway, a kid-friendly historical experience with a theatrical train robbery, cowboy characters, and Western musicians. Within walking distance of the station is the easy Rim Trail and, in summer, there are free American Indian dance performances outside of the Hopi House. At the western end of the canyon, you can walk out onto the glass floor of the Skywalk, 4,000 feet above the canyon floor.
Recommended Hotel: Maswik Lodge
9. Southern California
Teens and tweens can be hard to please (insert dramatic eye rolling here), but a quintessential SoCal trip is practically a family vacation rite of passage. No more sandcastles and mini-golf. Hello Hollywood and beach bods. Star-struck teens love the Universal Studios Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie set tour and driving past the homes of their fave celebrities in Beverly Hills. Soak in the vibe with a day on the beach sun tanning and watching the locals surf or play beach volleyball. At sunset, the Santa Monica Pier is the perfect place for an Instagram pic. If you’ve got enough time, catch the train down the coast to see the historic missions and the San Diego Zoo, so legendary that even older kids can’t resist.
Recommended Hotel: Su Casa Venice Beach
10. Cape Cod, MA
Cape Cod is an ideal destination for multi-generational summer gatherings. In “The Cape,” you can easily find the perfect balance between being active and relaxing. It’s rife with old-fashioned fun: beaches for sandcastles, quaint towns with brick walkways for strolling, and green lawns for open-air band concerts. After a day of whale watching, kayaking, or pedaling on the 10-mile Shining Sea Bikeway, snuggle up under a blanket for a movie at the Wellfleet drive-in theater. This wouldn’t be a family-favorite destination without its share of mini-golf spots, batting cages, bumper boats, and ice cream shops.
Recommended Hotel: Bayside Resort Hotel
11. Washington, D.C.
The go-to for a patriotic family vacation, Washington, D.C., might surprise you with its heaps of interesting activities for kids in and around the landmarks. First stop: the National Mall to ride the carousel on the 2-mile grassy stretch between the Lincoln Memorial and U.S. Capitol. Then tour the Capitol building or see the pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Kids can also take part in an undercover mission at the International Spy Museum and climb inside the nose of an airplane at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. For an after-dark adventure with older kids, hop on the trolley tour that takes you past famous monuments, all beautifully lit. At night they seem even more striking, especially the enormous statue of Lincoln. (If he were standing, he would be 28-feet tall!)
Recommended Hotel: JW Marriott Washington DC
12. West Michigan’s Lakeshore
When the warm sun sparkles across Lake Michigan as far as the eye can see, it’s easy to imagine you’re vacationing by the ocean—but at a fraction of the price. The beach towns along the west Michigan lakeshore are a Midwesterner’s dream come true. Spend lazy days on sandy beaches, take boat cruises, or explore maritime museums and lighthouses. Your family can hop from one beach town to another along US 31’s West Michigan Pike or stay put. At Silver Lake, race dune buggies around the mountainous sand dunes. South Haven is known for its homemade ice cream and U-pick berry farms. Visiting the town of Holland, with rows upon rows of tulips and a wooden shoe factory, is like a mini European vacation.
Recommended Hotel: Lake Shore Resort
13. Williamsburg, VA
No place in America beats Williamsburg for a family vacation that’s all about time travel. Several interactive attractions in the city take your kids back to America’s colonial roots. Explore the 17th-century ships and colonial fort at the Jamestown Settlement. The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown has a Continental Army tent to walk through and an artillery demonstration. Older kids can fire 18th-century firearms and try to hit a target at the Colonial Williamsburg musket range. For younger children, costumed interpreters in the Colonial Williamsburg engage kids in horse-drawn carriage rides, colonial games, and chores like soap making and candle dipping. Break from history for roller coasters at Busch Gardens and waterslides at Water Country USA.
Recommended Hotel: Kingsmill Resort & Spa
14. Chicago, IL
Less intimidating than New York or Los Angeles for a family vacation, Chicago is a great place to introduce the kids to the big city experience. Start by riding the “L” elevated train, which stops in front of many family-friendly attractions. Kids of all ages love posing with the new two-story-tall dinosaur at the Field Museum, creating a whirling tornado at the Museum of Science and Industry, and imitating the penguins at Shedd Aquarium. In summer, play together on the sandy beaches or let little ones splash in the shallow pool of Crown Fountain. Sightseeing boat cruises leave from Navy Pier or stay and ride the 150-foot pier Ferris wheel and musical carousel. If you dare, walk on the glass floor balcony 1,000 feet above ground in the Willis Tower.
Recommended Hotel: Embassy Suites by Hilton Chicago Downtown
15. Maui, HI
America’s bucket-list beach destination, Maui is family vacation heaven. Its perfect palm-fringed beaches consistently rank at the top of critic lists, but there’s so much more for families to do here. Experience local culture at the Old Lahaina Luau, where you eat from a Polynesian buffet and watch fire dancers in traditional dress. Behind the scenes at the Maui Ocean Center, kids can feed sharks and sea turtles. Several local snorkeling tours and surf lessons are designed for kids and families. Want to go below the surface? Atlantis Submarine takes your family 100 feet deep to show you the underwater world. Take your teen to watch locals cliff diving or wake up early to hike to the top of Haleakala volcano at sunrise. Don’t leave Maui without sampling a few of the 45 flavors of Hawaiian shave ice at Ululani’s.
Recommended Hotel: Kaanapali Alii
Jamie Moore is a Vancouver Island-based freelance travel writer. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Yahoo News, WestJet magazine, SmarterTravel, WhattoPack.com, and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter, @jmemoore.