Snorkeling at XCaret park on the Mayan Riviera; Courtesy Kamira/Shutterstock
All Ages

13 Family Vacations That Are Better Than Disney World

See recent posts by Amanda Norcross

We love Disney Worlddon’t get us wrong. But there are so many other destinations worthy of your family vacation time. Choose one of these vacations for something new, and don’t worry—The Mouse will always be waiting.

Tourists ride sea kayaks in Bar Harbor; Courtesy of Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

1. Bar Harbor, Maine

Head north along the coast of Maine and you’ll find some of the world’s loveliest beaches and seaside villages. One of our favorite Maine family vacations is Bar Harbor, located just outside of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Enjoy outdoor excursions by day—take in the views atop Cadillac Mountain; relax on Sand Beach or Echo Lake Beach; listen to the waves imitate a storm at Thunder Hole—before heading back into town for a puffin-spotting cruise and dinner (followed by ice cream at Udder Heaven Ice Cream Retreat, of course).

Recommended Hotel: Bluenose Inn – A Bar Harbor Hotel

A view of Dollywood; Photo Courtesy of Ritu Manoj Jethani/Shutterstock.com

2. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

 

There is so much to do in and around Pigeon Forge, Tennessee—not to mention how beautiful the surrounding area is. Activities include zip-lining through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, shredding powder at Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area, and of course, a day (or several) at famous Dollywood! Dolly Parton’s namesake amusement park entertains families with rides and shows for all ages, as well as a beautiful amusement park hotel.

Recommended Hotel: Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa

Sunset over Disney's Aulani Resort; Photo Courtesy of Disney's Aulani Resort

3. Disney’s Aulani Resort – Oahu, HI

You won’t find the characters and theming available at Disney resort hotels, but Disney’s Aulani Resort amuses families with a luxury experience on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The oceanfront property features sparkling pools, family activities, delicious restaurants and superb accommodations. If you can manage to pull the kids (and yourselves) away from the resort, head to the famous North Shore, Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor or the Dole Plantation for delicious DoleWhips.

mom plays at waterpark with daughter; Courtesy of Great Wolf Lodge Wisconsin Dells

4. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin 

Did you know Wisconsin Dells is the Water Park Capital of the World? It touts 20 water parks! Many of the water parks are full water park resorts (Great Wolf Lodge, Kalahari), with water park admission (and tons of other amenities) included in nightly rates. But that’s not all this Midwest town offers. You can also check out the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater, Wisconsin Deer Park, and when you’re hungry, MACs for macaroni and cheese served in a dozen variations.

Recommended Hotel: Great Wolf Lodge Wisconsin Dells

view of lake tahoe; Courtesy of topseller/Shutterstock.com

5. Lake Tahoe, California

 

The cobalt-blue waters will attract you; the outdoor activities will captivate you; and the ability to disconnect will have your family returning to Lake Tahoe again and again. Lakeside activities include hiking, biking, water sports and of course, simply relaxing on the beaches. Year-round, you can also visit Squaw Valley Ski Area or Heavenly Mountain Resort for more fun.

While the lake borders California and Nevada, we recommend Lake Tahoe, California, for its wide range of accommodations, from budget motels to vacation rentals.

Recommended Hotel: The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe

 

 

panorama of Best Western Plus Hood River Inn; Courtesy of Best Western Plus Hood River Inn

6. Hood River, Oregon

The Pacific Northwest steals the show from Disney World… especially in the Columbia River Gorge. This is a driving vacation for families who want to explore, and highlights include the Historic Columbia River Highway (the main highway through the area); the “Fruit Loop” for fresh produce, wine and more at the area’s farms; and drives to Multnomah Falls and Mount Hood. Plan to stay in Hood River, where you’ll find a nice range of hotels, restaurants and in the summer, amazing wind surfing. Or, combine your visit with a trip to Portland, Oregon, about an hour outside of this National Scenic Area.

Recommended Hotel: BEST WESTERN PLUS Hood River Inn

 

The aviary at XCaret park; Courtesy of Kamira/Shutterstock

7. Xcaret Park – Playa del Carmen, Mexico

 

Try something different this year—go to an amusement park in Mexico! Xcaret Park, located in Playa del Carmen, offers something for everyone in your family. Your youngest set will enjoy the Butterfly Pavilion and Coral Reef Aquarium while teens will beg to swim with sharks or get up close with stingrays. Together, the whole family can go scuba diving, watch a fantastical show or historic reenactment, and enjoy the flavors of Mexico at six onsite dining venues. Plan to spend several days at this adventure park!

Recommended Hotel: Hotel Xcaret 

Iceland; Courtesy of Boyloso/Shutterstock.com

8. Iceland

Only a five-hour flight from New York City, Iceland is exotic, yet close to home for those who live on the East Coast. Your whole family will enjoy the scenery as you make your way around the famous Ring Road, where you’ll spot breathtaking waterfalls, glaciers and volcanos. In the capital city of Reykjavik, the geothermal pools with slides—including the popular Blue Lagoon—are another highlight for kids. Bonus: Iceland can be explored in less than a week’s time, making it optimal for family “microcations” year-round.

Recommended Hotel: Alda Hotel

Related: Iceland With a Twist: What It’s Like to Explore the Land of Fire and Ice With Adventures by Disney

horse sticking head over fence at wildcatter ranch

9. Dude Ranches – Multiple Locations

Dude ranches are so much fun for families, and they’re all-inclusive, too! The focus at dude ranches (also known as guest ranches) is on spending quality time together and enjoying the great outdoors. Families can expect to saddle up for horseback riding, archery, line dancing, bonfires, hiking, biking, swimming and more—all in some of the most beautiful parts of the U.S. Many dude ranches offer special activities for specific age groups, as well, from tots to teens. For adults, there are even spas and happy hours at some of the resorts! Not sure if a dude ranch is right for your cowboys and cowgirls?

Recommended Hotel: Wildcatter Ranch Resort & Spa

aerial view of Costa Rica; Courtesy of PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock.com

10. Costa Rica

Costa Rica is essentially an outdoor amusement park in the rainforest. The fun includes hikes to active volcanoes; zip-lining through the treetops; spotting sloths and other wildlife; and stays at beautiful eco-centric resorts. The fruit is some of the freshest and sweetest you’ll ever eat, too! We highly recommend Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos and/or Sarapiqui for your itinerary.

Recommended Hotel: Si Como No

Family Hiking with Kids Mount Rainier National Park; Courtesy of Iuliia Sheliepova/Shutterstock

11. National Parks – Multiple Locations

Our national parks are family vacation treasures. Plus, they’re easy on the wallet! Let the kids join in on a Junior Ranger program; they’ll complete tasks as you make your way through the park, earning a badge of honor upon completion. The programs are a fantastic way to see the park. Visit National Park Family Vacations to start planning your trip.

boats on a dock in Lake Champlain, Vermont; Courtesy of Albert Pego/Shutterstock.com

12. Lake Champlain, Vermont

There’s something so magical about Lake Champlain, Vermont, and the tiny towns that line its shores. Take a boat ride from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes; build a toy bear at the Vermont Teddy Bear Company in Shelburne; go for a hike at Mt. Philo State Park in Charlotte; visit Lake Champlain’s inhabitants at the ECHO Leahy Center in Burlington; and indulge in fresh maple creemees at Allenholm Farm in South Hero.

Perhaps the best highlight of a visit to Lake Champlain is the area’s lakeside resorts that harken to the vacations of yesteryear, with inclusive packages that cover family meals and activities—including plenty of water sports.

Recommended Hotel: Tyler Place Family Resort

During Mickey’s Sail-a-Wave Party aboard the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, guests join Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto and Donald; Courtesy of Disney

13. Disney Cruise

The best part about a vacation with Disney Cruise Line is that kids can meet and interact with all of their favorite characters sans long theme park lines. And that’s truly just the beginning. Disney’s ships offer amazing kids’ programming (re: Andy’s Room from Toy Story), interactive dining experiences, professional shows and family-friendly accommodations and amenities—from spacious suites to baby bathtubs. Its excursions, which include the line’s private island, Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas, are top-notch too.

Related: What to Pack for a Disney Cruise: The Ultimate Packing List

What to Pack for Your Next Trip

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