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Road trip! Best family getaways for spring break

From animal encounters to ziplining, family vacations are redefining fun.
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Nate Levinson of Katonah, N.Y., was only seven years old when he came face-to-face with a jaguar. Pacing just inches away, the majestic cat — easily three times his size — eyed him with curiosity. Fortunately, a sturdy fence separated the two at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla. The thrilling experience for Levinson, now 17, is the reason the Gulf Coast family trip still ranks as his all-time favorite.

“I earned a lot of points with my kids by taking them to the Big Cat sanctuary,” says Nate’s father, Bruce Levinson.

Ten million families took trips with children in April 2010, according to John Packer, vice president of TNS Custom Research, and with improvements in the economy that number is expected to increase in 2011.

Say “spring break,” and most people think sun and sand, but for families looking to get away as winter thaws, there’s a world of options today — many of which have the ingredients to create lifelong memories. Whether heading to beach, desert, city, or the last remnants of snow, parents are ready to seek out new experiences beyond the norm — or just enjoy the great outdoors and some togetherness.

Take the arid red-rock country around Moab, Utah, which includes the ultra-scenic Arches and Canyonlands national parks and a wide variety of hiking trails, paved bike paths, and mountain-bike routes over smooth ground called slickrock. Some families crave the fresh desert air so much they want to literally get up into it. Greg Simpson, 45, of Telluride, Colo., took his daughter, Izzy, 10, and son, Aiden, 8, for a hot-air-balloon ride over and through crimson canyons.

“The kids were blown away by the amazing rock formations and folded ridges below,” says Simpson, “and by watching birds fly eye-level with us.”

Of course, some families want to continue winter sports fun — but with a warm-weather twist. Kid-friendly Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., accommodates them; after heavy-snow winters like 2010–2011, lifts are expected to operate through the Fourth of July.

“It just doesn’t get any better than skiing in a T-shirt,” says Joe Marca, 46, of Riverside, Calif. Marca’s son, Quintin, 12, agrees — although he likes spring sledding, too.

As tempting as the bathlike warm water and sugar-white sands are, beach-bound families still need creative ways to cool off. Lucy Pritzker, 40, of Scotch Plains, N.J., took her three children to feed dolphins at Clearwater Marine Aquarium — just a mile from popular St. Pete’s Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Her six-year-old daughter, Hannah, even got a kiss from one, a kiss she’ll always remember — and one she describes as “Wet!”