IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Packing in fun at these top 10 family resorts in the U.S.

Water slides are great, but today's family resorts are going above and beyond when it comes to entertaining kids.
/ Source: Sherman's Travel

Long gone are the days when a Griswold-esque family vacation was anyone’s idea of fun.

Today, modern families require a particular set of leisurely pursuits — and family resorts across the country are pulling out all the stops to offer such fine recreation. On top of the typical smorgasbord of family amenities — day camps, cool pools, kids’ meals — our 10 favorite family resorts offer something different: pioneering learning programs. Yes, we’ve said it. Learning really is fun at these family resorts, where kids can hone in on their latest obsession be it tennis or sailing, learn a new craft like surfing or waterskiing, pick up a few pointers in the kitchen at a cooking school, or star gaze with skill after an intriguing 101 in astronomy.

Formulated to engage and inspire, these innovative resort programs span the U.S., from Florida to Vermont, Texas to Minnesota, San Diego to Maui, and provide the winning formula (instruction, encouragement and rewarding hands-on activities) for a satisfying summer vacation. Plus, the experience and know-how will last long after your family heads home.

1. Astronomy at Hyatt Regency Maui
Sneak a peek at the solar system’s outer limits with the Tour of the Stars astronomy program at the Hyatt Regency Maui. Located atop the ninth floor observatory and overlooking the resort’s gorgeous Ka’anapali Beach landscape, the unique family activity is hosted by the hotel’s very own Director of Astronomy, Eddie Mahoney (a Solar System Ambassador for NASA) and gives guests — both kids and adults — hands-on access to the only recreational deep space telescope in Hawaii. (The state itself is a star-surveying hotbed, boasting crystal-clear night skies and the ability to spot over 80 percent of all the stars viewable from Earth.)

Mahoney’s new 14-inch Celestron telescope allows participants to locate and identify up to 1,000 cosmic objects — from double stars to nearby planets and galaxies to brilliant supernovas. The nightly, hour-long sessions ($25/adult, $15/child 12 and under; nightly at 8pm, 9pm and 10pm) are extraordinarily kid friendly, laid out like a beginner’s course in Astronomy 101.

You and your kids will learn how to interpret the sky three ways: with your naked eye, through pair of giant astronomy binoculars and by using the telescope itself. You’ll also take a close-up photo of the moon and view the sun’s refracted light on the lunar surface through special “rainbow” glasses, while being regaled by stories about the constellations and how the Polynesians used the stars for “wayfinding” when voyaging to the islands over 1,000 years ago. Plus, at the end of the show, kiddos can look forward to a take-home kit with instructions on solo star-spotting, their own star charts, and a Milky Way or Starburst bar.

The resort also features an on-site water park with a 3,000-square-foot, sand-surrounded swimming pool, super-long lava tube slide, soaring water fountains and secret underwater swim-up cave. With 40 acres worth of lush, tropic splendor all around, you’ll be spending so much time beneath the sun and stars, who cares if the 800+ rooms are a tad bit outdated? Summer rates start from $277/night.

2. Cook at The Essex ResortMost kids don’t truly appreciate the value of a hearty, home-cooked supper until college (forget being able to prepare such a satisfying meal on their own) but you can start them off on the right foodie foot with some invaluable, not to mention fun, time in the kitchen.

At The Essex Resort, just minutes from Burlington, Vermont, cooking is a key part of the vacation experience — just as popular, if not more popular, than other onsite activities like spa pampering and hot air ballooning. The resort’s 8-year-old Cook Academy is the area’s premier non-degree culinary school (partnered in education with the New England Culinary Institute) and during the summer, the academy offers plenty of classes ideal for kids and families. The Cook Academy also offers weeklong Kid Camp Cook programs, which include daily cooking classes, lunch and snacks, a trip to the local farm and a book of recipes to take home (June–August; 9am–4pm; ages 10–14; $375).

Due to the academy’s wild popularity, the Essex opened a second, bigger kitchen, the J.K. Adams Kitchen, last summer where Camp Cook and Scents of Summer classes focusing on fresh, local ingredients are held. The four-diamond family resort also comes with colorful guest rooms and suites, some with a gas fireplace and kitchenette, ideal for families; a full-service spa with an indoor lap pool; New England’s only Championship Executive Golf Course; six tennis courts; fly-fishing; bike rentals; and an outdoor adventure center featuring a four-story zip line. Summer room rates start from $239/night.

3. Dolphin encounter at Hawks CayFamily is the focus at this Florida Keys’ island retreat, set on some 60 rambling acres brimming with kid-friendly diversions that far surpass the predictable Florida family resort trimmings. (More on those later.)

What truly sets Hawks Cay apart, however, are the terrifically tailored programs for kids ages 5 to 17 (half- to multi-day camp programs include marine- and ecology-inspired activities that run the gamut from scavenger hunts to sailing), coupled with the property’s coup de grace: the only onsite resort dolphin program in the country. The Dolphin Connection — a research, breeding, and public outreach facility intent on providing education on marine mammals and ecosystem conservation — offers guests the opportunity to interact with a playful pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. With the dolphins' habitat set in an ocean-fed saltwater lagoon bordering the property, guests can book encounters on an à la carte basis (ranging from a casual 30-minute dockside observation to a 3-hour, hands-on dolphin training program; $60–$315) or opt for the Dockside Dolphin Package (from $169/night), which includes overnight accommodations and a 30-minute dolphin program for up to four people.

For those wanting wildlife beyond the dolphins, the appellation of Hawks Cay — set on Duck Key — is a sure giveaway to the superlative bird-watching it offers, while snorkeling, “snuba” and scuba diving just offshore promise encounters with any of some 1,200 marine creatures (including sea turtles and the only living coral reef system in the continental U.S.).

As for the rest of the very family-friendly resort, expect copious Caribbean-styled guest units (counting 402 in all, parents delight in the full-kitchen equipped, multi-bedroom villas); six swimming pools (one touts a pirate ship theme); lagoon-fronted beach; major menu of water sports (from kiteboarding and parasailing to sailing and diving schools); topnotch marina (a launching point for fishing and boating excursions); full-service spa; sports facilities (including eight tennis courts and a basketball court); and handful of seafood-centric restaurants (with plates geared towards tiny palates). Summer rates typically go for $149/night.

4. Golf at Kiawah Island Golf ResortSo you and your kids want to play like Tiger Woods — play golf, that is?

Get your family on par at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina. Located on a barrier island just a few miles from Charleston, this award-winning golf resort (home to five championship courses , including the challenging Ocean Course, the site of the 2007 Senior PGA and 2012 PGA Championships) is our top pick for family golfing.

We love its PGA-instructed junior golf clinics and camps, and its Family Tee program which allows kids and parents to learn the game together (kids, 17 and under, play for free while adults pay $45). Then again, if you’d prefer some alone time on the greens, opt for one of the daily golf programs for your kids. The Junior Golf Clinic at the Tommy Cuthbert Golf Learning Center (Monday–Friday, June–August; ages 8–17; $35 per child) offers once-daily, 1-hour classes for both beginners practicing on the driving range and more advanced players looking to whittle down their handicap on the greens.

The Junior Golf Camps provide 2-hour afternoon sessions in which instructors help kids work on their full swing, short game, and learn the rules of play (Monday–Friday, June–August; ages 12–17; $60/child). Best of all, designated tee times and constant supervision means you won’t have to worry about your kid mucking up the turf with willy-nilly swings or yelling in someone else’s backswing.

And aside from the lovely links, Kiawah is a great all-around family resort with a noteworthy tennis program and plentiful family-friendly activities like nature walks, kayaking, fishing, and biking. Accommodations run the gamut from sizeable guest rooms at the beachfront Sanctuary Hotel to elegant villas for bigger groups to multi-bedroom private homes for even bigger groups. Summer rates start from $205/night for villas and $460/night for rooms at the Sanctuary.

5. Horseback ride at Vista Verde RanchVista Verde’s dedicated kids and teens programs ensure guests of all ages get the most out of their dude ranch experience. Upon arrival at the ranch-style resort — nestled amid green pastures, tall pines and duck ponds in Colorado’s lush Elk River Valley — each kid, teen and adult is paired with a horse that is theirs for the week.

Once in the saddle, kids spend the first day in the corral with the “kid wranglers” learning how to ride before heading out onto the trails, while teens have separate trail rides and a weekly campout. Half-day rides for all guests leave most mornings and afternoons with groups divided by age and ability. Back at the ranch, little cowboys and gals enjoy boat races, treasure hunts and hayrides. The key word at this family resort is flexibility and kids always have the option of doing their own thing (under ranch staff supervision) or joining their parents for family rides and other activities like guided hikes, mountain biking, river rafting, outdoor yoga, rock climbing, or shopping in nearby Steamboat Springs.

Everything is included and nothing is mandatory; the staff comes around each evening to find out what guests want to do the following day. Rustic-luxe accommodations comprise rooms in the main lodge and 1- to 3-bedroom private cabins, all of which are furnished with western art and handmade furniture; cabins each have a patio with hot tub. Summer all-inclusive weekly rates start at $2,700 for adults and $2,100 for kids (ages 6–11) for June 5–25 and August 14–September 25, and $3,200 for adults and $2,600 for kids June 26–August 13; shorter stays are available at lower rates. Note that ranch is adults-only from August 28–September 25. 6. Nature adventure at Enchantment ResortNature lovers would be hard-pressed to find a setting as sublime as Sedona, Ariz., where radiant red rocks carved out by canyons and creeks, green forests and desert vegetation, and brilliant blue skies come together for one of Mother Nature's most magnificent geological creations.

While the town’s main drags have become somewhat clogged with new age souvenir shops, art galleries and eateries, the luxury Enchantment Resort remains blissfully tucked away from the diversions, surrounded by nothing but the American Southwest wilderness that Sedona is so renowned for. Granted, some of the resort offerings, like the fine on-site restaurants and world-class Mii amo Spa, might feel too sophisticated for the pitter-patter of little feet, but youngsters can find themselves gloriously at home in the playground that is the great outdoors.

The resort-led Camp Coyote (full day $70; summer evenings $45) caters to children from 4 to 12 years old, with daily themed activities (“Earth Friendly Tuesdays” or “Solar System Saturdays”) geared toward immersing kids in the natural environment (nature walks, star gazing) and Native American culture (weaving dream catchers, sculpting pottery). Families looking to play together have plenty of options, too, with an assortment of family enrichment programs (photography, organic gardening) scheduled and abundant outdoor activities like hiking, tennis, swimming, mountain biking, and golfing.

Set on a scenic 70-acre tract at the mouth of Boynton Canyon (the site of a purported “vortex” — an energy field that some spiritualists believe has healing and energizing powers), the resort’s pueblo-style suites and casitas come with private balconies or decks overlooking the red-rock cliffs; many have two-bedroom configurations to accommodate families (children under 12 stay free). Summer rack rates start from $350/night.7. Sail at Pink Shell Beach Resort & SpaHas "Pirates of the Caribbean" spurred an affinity for ships, treasure, and all things sea in your little adventurers? Even without booty onboard, there’s something magical about taking to the sea, using only the wind in your sails to power your ship towards the horizon.

A great summer activity for kids and families, guests at the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Spa in Fort Myers, Fla., can learn how to tack, jibe and eventually man their own sailboat. The popular family resort partners with reputable Offshore Sailing School to offer a variety of sailing courses which leave right from the resort’s own docks. Instruction ranges from a 2-hour introductory lesson ($150 per person with a 2-person minimum) to intensive 7-day programs spent almost entirely at sea.

The best option for families is the Learn to Sail course which includes five half days of instruction that culminates in a half-day family sailing trip sans instructors (who’s the captain and skipper in your crew?). Lessons are reserved for those 12 and up, but if the whole family sails together kids as young as 7 are welcome aboard. Best of all, the school’s Kids and Teens Learn Free program allows up to three kids (ages 7–17) to take the Learn to Sail course for free when accompanied by two paying adults (from $3,700 for five nights in a 2-bedroom villa with 5-day sailing instruction).

When the kids are not spending the day out on the water, Sparky’s Kids Kampp for 4- to 12-year-olds features activities like beach games and educational nature walks ($35 for the first child and $19.50 for each additional sibling). For teens, there’s a weekly Murder Mystery and glow-in-the-dark capture the flag. Regular summer rates start from $159/night.

8. Surf at Hotel del CoronadoSurf’s up at SoCal’s famous beachfront resort, the historic Hotel del Coronado (aka “The Del”) in San Diego.

From late May through September, kids ages 8 to 16 can catch righteous waves under the tutelage of the resort’s acclaimed Summer Surf Camp, led on-site by resident guru “Gnarly Neal.” During the 4-hour sessions (each limited to just 10 participants), the camp’s team of CPR-certified, skilled instructors hash out the basics per Neal’s “5 L’s” philosophy: “Learn to surf, learn about the ocean, learn about other people, learn safety, and learn to have fun!”

Aleeda wetsuits and BZ soft boards are provided, as is lunch, a T-shirt upon completion and the chance to win a brand new surfboard at the end of the summer (Summer Surf Camp; Monday–Friday; 9am–1pm; $145 for the first day and $30–$90 more each additional day). Year-round, 90-minute lessons are also available Tuesdays through Sundays for ages 6 and up, in groups ($90) or privately ($120). Other family-friendly activities include s’mores bonfires on the beach, scavenger hunts, sandcastle contests, luaus and teen-tailored spa treatments. Kidtopia — a playtime facility for children ages 4 to 12 — opened in June 2009 and houses a performance space for talent shows, while a separate lounge offers video games, foosball, music, and computers for teens and tweens. Summer rates start from $299/night.9. Tennis at Horseshoe Bay ResortEvery now and then tennis pro Andy Roddick shows up at Texas Hill Country’s Horseshoe Bay Resort, a 7,000-acre luxury golf resort located an hour northwest of Austin. But that’s not why you bring your little ones to the Andy Roddick Kids’ Tennis Courts, specially designed by the United States Tennis Association.

It’s all about scale here: Larger, depressurized balls and smaller rackets and courts mean children 4 to 10 can get their tennis game up to speed faster. Kids can serve and swing for a mere 26 bucks a day: the $16 nightly resort fee you’d be paying anyway plus a $10 racquet rental, good for a full day. Kids 4 to 17 can partake in a daily junior tennis camp during June and July ($85-$290/session) and private lessons ($85/hour) are also available.

If you’re not a tennis family, Horseshoe Bay also has a kids’ club for the 4 to 12 set ($80 full day, $45 half day, $60 Wednesday and Saturday dinner sessions) and scheduled activities such as Hula-Hoop contests, glow-in-the-dark putting and “dive-in” movies (set amid the pool) for the entire brood.

Adult diversions include a full-service spa (though even this has a variety of “Just for Kids” treatments on tap), three championship golf courses, and a lake with watercraft and boat rentals. The Marriott-operated resort has 385 guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, many with lake views and lakefront 1- to 3-bedroom condominiums at The Waters complex on property. Summer rates go for around $188/night.

10. Water sports at Madden’s on Gull LakeThis sprawling family resort set amidst 1,000 acres of Minnesota lake country (17 miles from the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport) boasts 293 rooms, 63 holes of golf and more outdoor pursuits than you can shake a stick at.

For kids, though, the real draw is Madden’s Waterski and Wakeboarding School. Tykes as young as 4 gradually learn proper technique, first on a boom attached to the side of a boat, then on a short line off the boom, and finally on a long line behind the boat. With just three kids taking turns in the water plus two qualified instructors, first-timers are sure to be up on their feet in no time. The waterski school runs every day from 10am to 6pm ($40 for 30 minutes; $80 for an hour) from July 1 through Labor Day; sign-up is required.

When they’re not out on the lake, send the little ones over to the Adventure Cove daycare program (free for those on Madden’s inclusive plan, otherwise $40/day with option for half day). With two groups divided by age (4–8 and 9–12), the all-day activities include things like scavenger hunts, water fights and Friday pizza night. Outside Adventure Cove, there are also special kids’ rates for tennis and golf lessons. Though there are no teen-specific activities, the slightly older set are sure to find plenty to do between biking, beach volleyball and boating — not to mention the five swimming pools. Summer room-only rates start from $249/night; all-inclusive rates from $189/person, including breakfast and dinner, golf on the resort courses and the Adventure Cove program.

This story, , originally appeared on