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Life is short, take the vacation: 40 best destinations, including my family’s favorite

Check these off your bucket list before the kids are grown up.
A mother and her son out hiking
Whether you want to experience nature firsthand or have an adrenaline rush at an amusement park, there's a family vacation idea for anyone here.Jordan Siemens / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Remember what a typical day in your childhood looked like? Probably not, but we bet you can vividly recall a family trip that blew your young mind. I [Wise] have fond memories of building sandcastles at the beach and walking piers with my parents.

While many of us are contemplating our big travel plans for the next year, now might be an excellent time to let those long-dreamt-about family vacation ideas come to fruition.

If you want your child or teenager to experience the same magic on vacation as I [Wise] had, take them to any of these family vacation destinations. From glaciers to beachfronts, dinosaurs to Disney characters, there's something here for everyone — even the kid that's hard to please.

Theme parks and activity centers | Beaches | Outdoorsy adventures | Major cities | Historical outings

Best family-friendly vacation spots of 2024

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Theme parks and activity centers

Cedar Point Amusement Park

Cedar Point Amusement Park
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"Cedar Point has gorgeous views of the Lake Erie shore, especially from the top of some of the best roller coasters around. There’s also a water park that’s fun for everyone." — Laura Millar, an NBC Page at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 6-18

Why go? It’s the roller coaster capital of the world with more than 10 miles of track!

What to do: Ride the Blue Streak — a historic wooden roller coaster dating back to 1964. Or, opt for more modern thrills like the Millennium Force (rated one of the best steel coasters around), suspension coasters (your feet dangle from the floorless Raptor) and — new for 2024 — Top Thrill 2, the world’s tallest and fastest triple-launch strata coaster. Younger kids will find fun at Snoopy’s Space Race and the Kite Eating Tree.

Where to stay: Cedar Point’s Hotel Breakers, located on Lake Erie beach, offers early entry into the park. Five miles inland, Great Wolf Lodge has an indoor water park.

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Disney World

Courtesy Rebecca Brown

"Of all the places to take kids, Disney probably requires the most amount of planning. The two biggest things that helped make the trip enjoyable for us was using a free (!) Disney concierge planner — they have intimate knowledge of everything from restaurants to lesser-known gems hiding in the park, like a great place to sit to watch fireworks — and designating someone in the group to become a pro at understanding and executing the Fast Pass, Lightning Lane-type offerings. Disney World is massive; we took it slow to prevent meltdowns, and even baked in days to just recover at the hotel in between park visits." — Rebecca Brown, a deals editor at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 2-14

Why go? You’ll never forget the first time your princess-loving child catches their first glimpse of the real Ariel or Belle or watches fireworks explode over Cinderella’s Castle. Disney is fun for parents, too!

What to do: Check the Magic Kingdom classics off your list first, then head over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. At Disney Springs, experience the Vintage Amphicar and Aerophile.

Where to stay: Good times at Disney’s properties — including Disney’s Beach Club Villas — are always a given, or try the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld for rooms at half the price.

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Florida’s Space Coast

Astronaut hall of fame at Kennedy Space Center
Kennedy Space Center

"If your kid is into space and planets, this corner of Florida is a must-visit. There are several cities that compiles Florida’s Space Coast, including Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral, but Cocoa Beach is probably my favorite. They have the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier, where locals meet to watch the spaceship launches and the Kennedy Center is also nearby. It’s a wonderful place for all ages and kids will definitely enjoy the space tours, the beach and the sightseeing." — Jannely Espinal, a commerce writer at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 5-15

Why go? Where else do you get to be an astronaut for a day?

What to do: You can feel what it’s like to rocket into the stratosphere on the Shuttle Launch Experience flight simulator. Take mission control tours, have lunch with an astronaut and even train with one in a family Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) program.

Where to stay: Both the Homewood Suites by Hilton Cape Canaveral and the waterfront Hampton Inn Cocoa Beach have pools and breakfast. The Radisson Resort at the Port isn’t oceanfront, but there’s a pool with a built-in playground!

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Legoland, New York

Best for ages: 2-12

Why go? Kids (and kids-at-heart) won’t be able to resist the colorful attractions and hands-on exhibitions, all revolving around the iconic playset series.

What to do: Play all day! The theme park destination is currently open for their festive Holiday Bricktacular through Dec. 31, but their newest — and wettest — attraction, the Water Playground, allowing kids to splash, slide, build and get doused with a gigantic 318-gallon water bucket, is well worth another trip. The park has also become a Certified Autism Center, partnering with The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) to train employees and providing low-sensory guidance and accommodations to children with cognitive disabilities.

Where to stay: The park’s namesake resort — Legoland Hotel — extends the family fun everyone is having, from offering nightly entertainment to crafting the perfect build in the Creative Workshop. For something a little more low-key and affordable, Sleep Inn & Suites Monroe provides free breakfast every morning and is in close proximity to sites like Bear Mountain and Woodbury Commons.

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San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo sign
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"The San Diego Zoo ended up being much bigger than I’d imagined. One thing we did that really stood out to me was making a lunch reservation ahead of time. We sat outside near a waterfall and honestly it felt like a vacation in it of itself. It was great to have a place to plop down and just recharge." — Rebecca Brown, a deals editor at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 1-11

Why go? It’s one of the world’s best zoos — and one of the few places in the U.S. to see the world’s smallest bear.

What to do: Don’t miss Elephant Odyssey and Northern Frontier to see polar bears and arctic foxes. Also noteworthy is the Africa Rocks exhibit (baboons, leopards, blue-eyed lemurs, etc.).

Where to stay: In October, “Kids Free San Diego” features dozens of hotel deals. Year-round, Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa has great water sports rentals and Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego is practically next door to The New Children’s Museum.

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Sesame Place

Ernie and Burt at Sesame Place
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"I grew up going to Sesame Place about once every summer and have fond memories of lounging on the lazy river! I have two young nephews now who had a blast on a day trip there last year." — Francesca Cocchi Zabloudil, a senior editor of partnerships at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 2-5

Why go? The world’s best park for toddlers and preschoolers is scaled to young fans of Elmo and the gang.

What to do: Spend your time on water attractions like The Count’s Splash Castle, Big Bird’s Rambling River and Bert & Ernie’s Splashy Shores during the summer. Then dry off and do the rest: Take a dizzying ride in Flying Cookie Jars, ride Flyin’ Fish and Peek-A-Bug (in Elmo’s World) and explore Sesame Neighborhood via Oscar’s Wacky Taxi Rollercoaster. Plus, new for 2024: the imaginative and interactive 123 Playground!

Where to stay: The pet-friendly Red Roof Inn Philadelphia Oxford Valley is affordable, or get a little more space at Langhorne’s top-rated hotel, SpringHill Suites Philadelphia Langhorne.

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The Strong National Museum of Play, New York

Courtesy Allie Wise

My [Wise| niece and I visited the Strong National Museum of Play over spring break and had an absolute blast! This place is a kid’s (and adult’s) paradise. You and the family can spend all day here and still not scratch the service. From the Barbie exhibit to the slew of nostalgic pinball games, guests will be in their glory. There is even a mini Wegmans where kids can (pretend) shop and play cashier.

Best for ages: 4-12

Why go? It’s devoted to every kid’s favorite thing to do!

What to do: Celebrate superheroes at the museum’s American Comic Book Heroes exhibit or walk through the world’s largest pop-up book in Reading Adventureland. Visit the Toy Halls of Fame and play your way through the history of video games at eGameRevolution.

Where to stay: Book a room at the Hyatt Regency Rochester, which is a five-minute drive or short walk to the museum. Other family-favorite hotels include the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Rochester, which features a large indoor pool, and the Hilton Garden Inn Rochester University & Medical Center which is connected to the College Town shopping complex.

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Courtesy Jess Bender

“I practically grew up with the Harry Potter movies, so a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was pretty high on my bucket list. My mom and I finally went a few years ago and my youthful heart grew five sizes bigger the moment we stepped into iconic scenes like Diagon Alley — the level of detail they put into every last inch is a monumental feat in itself. P.S. If you’re able to go during Halloween Horror Nights and can handle some magical frights, you absolutely should.”— Jess Bender, senior editor at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 8-13

Why go? Your Potter lovers will go Hog(warts) wild to see Hogsmeade and Hogwarts recreated in amazing detail.

What to do: Get there first thing in the morning. Ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey first: Muggles meet Dumbledore, join a Quidditch match and encounter a Whomping Willow. Next, conquer the ultra-fast Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure coaster and the tamer Flight of the Hippogriff; then go wand shopping at Ollivanders (if you’re lucky, the wand will choose you).

Where to stay: On-site properties like Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel offer guests free Universal Express Unlimited passes to skip lines. Or, for about half, you can stay at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes — the kids’ club has a 500-acre scavenger hunt.

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Wisconsin Dells

Scenic view of Wisconsin
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Best for ages: 2-14

Why go? It’s the water park capital of the world, year-round!

What to do: Get a day pass for Noah’s Ark Water Park (America’s largest) and race down the Raja, which ends in the mouth of a king cobra. Or book one of the wet and wild resorts, like the African-themed Kalahari (the Sahara Sidewinders looping slides literally drop you through the roof) or Mt. Olympus (the Lost City of Atlantis water fortress has slides, geysers and monster dump buckets). Afterwards, kids won’t get enough of the robust (and cheesy) offerings at Macs.

Where to stay: In addition to the resorts with indoor water parks, there are quieter options like Black Hawk Motel, Wingate by Wyndham and Hilton Garden Inn.

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Beach vacations

Miami Beach, Florida

Courtesy Jannely Espinal

"I grew up in Miami for 20 years and going to the beach every weekend was a ritual. There are many family-friendly spots including 17th street and Collins avenue, or you can stroll around Lincoln Road Mall and stop for a coffee break. The Botanical Garden is also a nice escape from the party scene, and if you want a more bohemian experience, take your family to Nikki Beach during lunch time. The food at this restaurant is exquisite (try the pistachio affogato dessert if it’s still on their menu) and the beach is just a few steps away." — Jannely Espinal, a commerce writer at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 8-12

Why go? Although it’s often associated with a party crowd or retirees, Miami Beach also has plenty of kid-friendly activities.

What to do: Miami Beach has the most tropical beaches in the continental United States. As you drive to Miami Beach from Miami, you hit must-see attractions like Wynwood Walls and the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Indoors, the Miami Children’s Museum shares an island with Jungle Island.

Where to stay: At the north end of the island, Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour has the best kids’ beach club. At the south end, Hilton Bentley Miami/South Beach has direct beach access and sits between two public parks.

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Woman kayaking on river
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Best for ages: 12-17

Why go? Hailed as “the next Costa Rica,” this Central American country is enjoying a transformation.

What to do: Fly into Managua, and from there, head to the Spanish colonial town of Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua — the 19th largest lake in the world and home to two island volcanoes you can hike. In Cerro Negro near Leon, kids can sandboard (basically snowboard) down the volcanic ash sides. End your trip at One Love Surf School in the Pacific coastal town of San Juan Del Sur or head to the Caribbean side to explore the Corn Islands.

Where to stay: With its private beach, private farm and resident monkeys and sloth, there’s no place on earth quite like Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge. At Jicaro Island Ecolodge Granada, you feel like you have the island to yourself — until the birds wake you up in the morning.

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Riviera Maya, Mexico

Image of the Riviera Maya
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Best for ages: 4-14

Why go? Snorkel in freshwater cenotes (natural pools), swim with manatees and climb ancient Mayan ruins all before the sun sets.

What to do: Fly into Cancun and then head to Playa del Carmen, the perfect launching point for all of Quintana Roo’s adventures. Float the underwater river at Xcaret Eco Theme Park and stay late for the musical show, “Xcaret Mexico Espectacular.” Then, taxi or bus to Dolphin Discovery in Puertos Aventuras where the kids can splash and play with dolphins, manatees and even sea lions! Finally, explore the clifftop ruins in Tulum. Further inland, take a day trip to Chichen Itza. For beach time, check out Aloha Paddle Club’s water sport rentals in Playa del Carmen or take the ferry to nearby Cozumel.

Where to stay: Outside of town, Barcelo has everything from its impressive all-inclusive Barceló Maya Tropical (five family-friendly hotels in one, plus an adults-only one for a parents’ weekend away) to its more intimate Allegro Playacar where babysitting is always available. In Cozumel, Allegro Cozumel has a pirate-themed water park on site.

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St. Lucia

Mother and Son running on beach in St. Lucia
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Best for ages: 10-18

Why go? This Caribbean Island has the world’s only “drive-in” volcano.

What to do: Rent a car and head for the crater! After hiking around La Soufriere Volcano’s hot springs, let the kids throw mud at each other in a mud bath. (You can relax in the mineral waters beneath a waterfall.)

Where to stay: Zoëtry Marigot Bay St. Lucia has a kids’ activity program and a tween-driven mani-pedi spa. Bay Gardens also ranks well for its activity-loaded water park and beach access.

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Virginia Beach

Mother and daughter walking on beach holding surfboard
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Best for ages: 5-17

Why go? It’s got beaches, boardwalks, American history and a military aviation museum.

What to do: First, take a ride in an open cockpit biplane at the Military Aviation Museum. Then, hit the beach and Neptune’s Park where the kids could compete in a sandcastle building contest if your timing is right. Finally, drive to Fredericksburg to walk in the footsteps of our first president at his boyhood home, Ferry Farm.

Where to stay: The top-rated hotel choice is the oceanfront Hyatt Place, which is within walking distance of boardwalk attractions. Barclay Towers Resort Hotel is a bit farther, but every room is a suite.

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Waikiki Beach

Courtesy Anita Chomenko

"Waikiki Beach looks exactly like how you would imagine Hawaii to be! On the beach, you can rent surfboards and try out surfing for a few hours. Waikiki is actually perfect for learning how to surf since the water is pretty shallow for what feels like ages. You look out into the water and surfers are everywhere trying to catch the perfect wave. The neighborhood is incredibly walkable with stores, hotels and shops dotting the entire road. Pick a direction to walk and I guarantee you’ll stumble upon the classic ABC convenience stores filled with everything from snacks to souveniers and even spam musubi! Major bonus is that Waikiki is under 30 minutes from the hotel, making it convenient to get to." — Anita Chomenko, a social media video producer at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 11-16

Why go? Thanks to warm, shallow and relatively calm waters, there’s no better place to take your first surf lesson.

What to do: Sign up for a lesson at one of the Star Beach Boys stands, located on the sand in front of the statue of Duke Kahanamoku. (This Hawaiian hero is considered the father of modern surfing.) Or try one of the local surf schools, like Big Wave Dave and Surfer Girl Academy. While on Oahu, visit the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites including the USS Arizona Memorial.

Where to stay: With its airport transportation, on-site pool and free breakfast, Hyatt Place Waikiki Beach could not be more convenient. Further inland, the Oasis Hotel offers boutique vibes.

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Outdoorsy adventures

An Alaskan Cruise

View of Alaskan City
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Best for ages: 9-16

Why go? Besides heli-tours, cruising is the closest you can get to Alaska’s calving glaciers.

What to do: Crystal Cruises, the first cruise company to complete the entire Northwest Passage, has several options. For example, its Glacier & Gold Cruise visits the Inside Passage where it parallels the tallest coastal mountains in the world. On port days, kids can learn about the historic Gold Rush in the frontier town of Skagway or go dogsledding or take a floatplane to fish in a remote inlet.

Where to stay: Book a stateroom on the luxurious, all-inclusive Crystal Serenity or Crystal Symphony. If you extend your trip and check out Denali National Park where you can see Mt. McKinley, consider Aurora Denali Lodge.

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Aspen Snowmass, Colorado

Apsen Snowmass
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"I just went on a trip to Aspen and it’s no secret it’s a huge ski town, however, it’s also kid friendly! If you’re looking for a family ski trip, Buttermilk Mountain offers group or individual ski lessons, and Panda Peak is so cute. The kids can hold little stuffed animals on the ski lift! I was tempted to ask for one on my first run down on the bunny slopes." — Shannon Garlin, an associate commerce editor at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 4-18

Why go? Between its four different mountains, Aspen Snowmass has something for all skiers and snowboarders.

What to do: First, check out the resort’s daily child-friendly programming and packages. Then, drop the 2-4-year-olds at The Treehouse Kids Adventure Center for their lessons and then head to Camp Aspen with the older kids and preteens. In the afternoon, meet up to ski together, go tubing or take a free naturalist tour. End the day with schnitzel and burgers on the mountain or family dogsledding and dinner at a remote cabin.

Where to stay: If you don’t want to rent a car, stay at Stonebridge Inn, a Destination by Hyatt Hotel where everything Snowmass-related is within walking distance. Or reserve a room at the town’s only ski-in, ski-out property, The Little Nell. Sometimes you can get two complimentary ski passes for each night you stay!

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Canada’s Rockies by Rail

View of the Canada Rockies by rail
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Best for ages: 8-15

Why go? If your kids haven’t outgrown their fascination with trains, you’ll be parent of the year in their eyes.

What to do: Book Fresh Tracks Canada’s Vancouver to Toronto train trip. It’s an 11-day itinerary stretching across the Canadian Rockies. Begin in Vancouver on a drive along the Sea-to-Sky Highway. Then, travel by rail across the country, watching the glaciers turn into cowboy country, wheat fields and finally, the city of Toronto. Older kids will demand extra time to see the Stanley Cup at the Hockey Hall of Fame and get their hearts rate up at the Stingray Experience at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada.

Where to stay: Spend all 14 nights in a Prestige cabin on VIA Rail’s flagship transcontinental train, The Canadian. If you just want to explore Western Canada, Rocky Mountaineer makes a great home away from home.

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Colorado Springs

Father and Son Looking out in Colorado Springs
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Best for ages: 7-13

Why go? Nestled at the base of America’s peak, this town showcases Colorado for kids.

What to do: Watch athletes train for upcoming events at the Olympic Training Center. Then, hand-feed the giraffes at the country’s only mountain-top zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Older kids can hike to the summit of Pikes Peak — the mountain that inspired the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” — and cross North America’s highest suspension bridge at The Royal Gorge. Finally, explore the geological wonders of Garden of the Gods.

Where to stay: Ride mules up to your cabin or fire tower accommodations at Cloud Camp, part of The Broadmoor Resort. Down in Colorado Springs, the Great Wolf Lodge boasts the state’s first indoor water park.

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Dinosaur Valley State Park, Texas

Best for ages: 5-11

Why go? This state park just 75 miles southwest of Dallas boasts some of the best preserved dinosaur tracks in the world.

What to do: In addition to walking in the humongous footprints left in the Paluxy River, take a covered wagon tour, mountain bike the trails, borrow a fishing pole from the park’s Tackle Loaner Program and visit the museums in downtown Glen Rose, the Dinosaur Capital of Texas.

Where to stay: Pitch your tent or park your RV at Dinosaur Valley State Park, or consider Best Western Dinosaur Valley Inn & Suites.

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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Mother and Son on volcano rocks at Hawaii National Park
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"Volcanoes is not the easiest to get to, but the views are worth the journey! Located on the island of Kona, you could truly spend days exploring this national park. You can drive to overlooks, explore flat pathways, hike down into a crater, explore lava tubes and maybe even see an active volcano! If you’re prioritizing the park, you should stay on the eastern side of the island. You can drive from the west but it is more of a trek. Either way, you should also make a stop at Punalu’u Bake Shop, the southernmost bakery in the United States for sweet breads!" — Anita Chomenko, a social media video producer at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 11-16

Why go? Two massive volcanoes are here, including Kilauea — one of the world’s most active. Trails take you past smoking steam vents, black lava rock and enormous craters.

What to do? Stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center to pick up maps, check current conditions and learn how the volcano came to be. Ask if rangers are leading walks or set out on your own hike. The Earthquake Trail (Waldron Ledge) is an easy hike with great views of the Kilauea Caldera. Don’t miss the Thurston Lava Tube, an underground tunnel where the hot stuff once flowed. (Drive there, then hike in, through a mossy fern forest.) Return to the park at night to see the gorgeous glow from the Halema’uma’u Crater.

Where to stay: For a dramatic crater view from your room, stay across the street from the Visitor Center at the Volcano House. If you don’t mind staying 29 miles outside of the park and want to be closer to town, one of Hilo’s top properties is SCP Hilo Hotel.

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Glacier National Park, Montana

Mother and Son walking in Glacier National Park
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Best for ages: 8-18

Why go? Thanks to climate change, North America’s few remaining glaciers are disappearing.

What to do: Hike! The Going-to-the-Sun Road— one of the most scenic in the world — is also fun to bike, but it's best ridden early or late in the season when car traffic is minimal. The open-top Glacier Park Red Bus Tours (open seasonally) allow kids to see wildlife from a safe distance. To get out on the glacial lakes, rent canoes or kayaks or book a boat tour with Glacier Park Boat Co.

Where to stay: Spend a few nights in a cabin at the no-frills Apgar Village Lodge. Then, splurge at the luxurious, all-inclusive and dog-friendly The Resort at Paws Up located on the edge of the scenic Flathead National Forest.

Grand Canyon National Park

Family sitting on the edge of cliff in Grand Canyon National Park
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Best for ages: 8-13

Why go? This great gorge is 277 miles long and 6,000 feet deep in some spots, with rocks that are millions of years old.

What to do: Don’t just stand there! Bike along the South Rim (rent from Bright Angel at the visitor center) or hike into the canyon on free ranger-led tours. To explore by mule with Xanterra, reserve at least a year in advance.

Where to stay: The Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon is only one mile from the popular South Rim entrance. At the bottom of the canyon, check into a cabin at the historic Phantom Ranch.

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Courtesy Jannely Espinal

"Jackson, Wyoming is for the outdoorsy kid who loves skiing, snowboarding or simply building a snowman. I’ve only visited during winter time and is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. They have the National Elk Refuge and is an iconic place to take pics and watch wildlife up and close. My favorite activity was riding on a fat bike and just enjoying the scenic views with the Teton Mountain Range as the backdrop." — Jannely Espinal, a commerce writer at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 6-16

Why go? Jackson Hole is home to Grand Teton National Park and a world-class ski resort.

What to do: Jackson Hole boasts more outdoor activities than there are hours in the day. You can raft the scenic Snake River, tube down the runs at Snow King Resort or explore the magical ice castle and ice skate in Teton Village.

Where to stay: Hotel Terra Jackson Hole and Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa are within walking distance of the chairlifts. Both properties have ski packages in the winter and national park packages in the summer.

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Niagara Falls, New York

Child looking at Niagra Falls
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"Niagara Falls is breathtaking, especially the first time you see it. The backdrop offers unbeatable photo opportunities for the whole family, too." — Laura Millar, an NBC Page at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 5-12

Why go? Six million cubic feet of water thunders over the massive falls every minute.

What to do: Bring your passport so you can view them from the Canadian and American sides; to visit both, cross Rainbow Bridge. Kids who aren’t afraid of heights will love the view from Skylon Tower.

Where to stay: The most exciting option is the Sheraton Fallsview with its family suites complete with bunk beds! Its Reef Beach Club has a shark tank and a coral reef lagoon, and is attached to the Rainforest Café.

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Pacific Coast Highway Drive

Overhead view of the Pacific Coast Highway in California
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Best for ages: 5-12

Why go? Curvy Highway 1 winds along California’s craggy coastal cliffs, high above the ocean.

What to do: Take it slow and make lots of stops — whether you conquer the whole thing (about four days) or just tackle small portions. Kids will be wowed by the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (ride the wooden coaster!); Monterey (go kayaking and see the Aquarium); Carmel’s Pt. Lobos State Natural Reserve (otters, seal lions and whales hang here); Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (great hiking and camping); Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, and the elephant seals on the beach just north.

Where to stay: The pet-friendly boutique Laurel Inn is in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. In Southern California, stay within walking distance of Disneyland at the Courtyard by Marriott Anaheim, which has a waterpark and rooms with bunk beds.

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Redwood National & State Parks

Children in the Redwood Forrest in California
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Best for ages: 5-12

Why go? The California parks are home to the tallest, most majestic trees on earth.

What to do: Stroll through the mile-long Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a mossy jungle of sky-high sequoias — some of them 2,000 years old (kids can crawl through the hollow ones). See if Roosevelt elk are grazing in Elk Meadow, then pick up the path to Trillium Falls. On coastal trails, take guided tide pool walks. You may spot whales from December through April.

Where to stay: The Best Western Plus Northwoods Inn is located right off of Redwood Highway and includes breakfast. View Crest Lodge has cozy cottages for less than $200 per night.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Family in tubes floating down Sleeping Bear Dunes National

Best for ages: 5-12

Why go? You’ll never see sand dunes like these! Some are nearly 500 feet high, with views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands from the top.

What to do: Climb the dunes, of course! Run (or roll) down these majestic sand mountains. Cool off with a swim at Esch Road Beach where the pristine Lake Michigan water is brisk but refreshing. There’s great kayaking and tubing on the warmer Platte River (gear up with Riverside Canoe Trips). Or, sign the kids up for a freshwater surf lesson from Sleeping Bear Surf.

Where to stay: Duneswood Resort is a short walk to the Dune Climb, and they rent bikes, buggies and strollers. If you’re based in Traverse City, stay at Great Wolf Lodge for its indoor water park.

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The Black Hills, South Dakota

Little girl in Black Hills looking at Mount Rushmore
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Best for kids ages: 5-15

Why go? Mount Rushmore! Plus, these mountains and badlands are some of the most underrated destinations in the country.

What to do: The kids will love the hands-on American history lessons offered at Mount Rushmore. (Stay for the evening flag ceremony during the summer.) There’s also buffalo to be seen, ghost towns to be explored and the world’s largest collection of reptiles.

Where to stay: Stay at the KOA camping resorts in Rapid City, Mount Rushmore or Badlands/White River. Or, find modern rooms at the Hampton Inn Deadwood at Tin Lizzie Gaming Resort.

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Father and Son looking out at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park
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Best for ages: 6-12

Why go? North Dakota just may be the most underrated and understated state!

What to do: Sleep under the stars in the national park named for Theodore Roosevelt, who once lived here. These dramatic badlands are home to the Painted Canyon; see who can spot the most bison or elk. Prairie dog barking is audible and just outside of the park is Medora, a town where horses are still a form of transportation.

Where to stay: Lodging is pretty limited, but it’s got character! The Rough Riders Hotel in Medora has a pool and a two-story rock fireplace. Badlands Hotel, also in Medora, is further from downtown but the rooms are slightly bigger and it’s only two blocks from Medora Children’s Park.

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Yellowstone National Park

Family Smiling at Yellowstone National Park
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Best for ages: 6-16

Why go? It’s America’s very first national park and has the highest concentration of geysers in the world!

What to do: See Old Faithful, which shoots steam sky-high every 90 minutes, and then move on to the other geysers, stinky mud pots and multicolored hot springs within walking distance. Bison, elk, bears, wolves and Bighorn sheep all hang out here. In winter (when it’s easiest to spot wildlife), take the kids on their first snowcoach tour. In summer, fly high at Yellowstone Aerial Adventures.

Where to stay: The Summit at Big Sky puts you just outside the park. A more rustic option is Chico Hot Springs.

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Yosemite National Park

Courtesy Emma Stessman

"I’ve been to Yosemite a handful of times, both on family trips and with friends. It’s such a beautiful and fun place to visit, no matter the season. If you are someone who likes an active vacation, there are endless opportunities for hikes and while some of them are hard, the views always pay off. I’ve also had just as much exploring the area at a lower elevation, casually strolling the paths in the valley." Emma Stessman, a commerce writer at Shop TODAY

for ages: 6-12

Why go? This national park is a scenic superstar: Think thundering waterfalls in spring and early summer and seriously steep granite cliffs.

What to do: Get your bearings on the free park shuttle around Yosemite Valley — home to famous sights like the Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls; hopping on and off as you please. Set aside a half day to hike the Mist Trail alongside majestic Vernal Falls, climbing 600 granite steps to the top. (Pack a waterproof poncho!) Raft the rivers around the area with Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions.

Where to stay: The charming mountain town of Mammoth Lakes makes a great home base, or check out the highly-rated Juniper Springs Resort or The Village Lodge. Both properties have a pool!

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Major cities

Denver, Colorado

Family Walking in Downtown Denver
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"Denver is definitely for the adventure-friendly family. There’s so much to see and explore in this city, and the food is A plus. Denver Biscuit Co. is my go-to spot when I visit for juicy biscuits smothered in gravy. Also, you can make it a half day of outdoor activities and take a drive through Guanella Pass — one of the most scenic byways in United States." — Jannely Espinal, a commerce writer at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 8-16

Why go? The Mile High City has tons of experiences for the 48-inches-and-under crowd.

What to do: One of Denver’s top attraction is the Denver Zoo. It’s more than 100 years old! At the Children’s Museum of Denver, younger kids can experiment in a test kitchen, cool off in an outdoor splash zone and dance in a room of bubbles. Older kids will appreciate the exhibits and the Phipps IMAX 3D Theater at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. When they get tired, ride in the free open-air Denver Trolley.

Where to stay: The Limelight Hotel is in the heart of downtown (and a stone’s throw from Union Station). The Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center is just one block from the 16th Street pedestrian mall and has an indoor pool.

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Millennium Park, Chicago

Image of people sitting at Millennium Park
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Best for ages: 2-12

Why go? It's an amazing green gathering place.

What to do: Strike a pose in the reflective Cloud Gate sculpture (affectionately known as The Bean). Splash around in the animated Crown Fountain, which literally makes faces at you. Join one of the free activities (family yoga, anyone?) on the big lawn or rent bikes from Bike and Roll Chicago or Divvy Bikes Millennium Park to ride to nearby Navy Pier.

Where to stay: Both the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel and the Swissotel Chicago on the Riverwalk are within three blocks of Millennium Park.

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New Orleans’ French Quarter

Statue at the French Quarter in New Orleans
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Best for ages: 3-17

Why go? The Mardi Gras spirit lasts all year long in this family-friendly city.

What to do: There’s lots of free PG-rated fun in Jackson Square, where magicians, jugglers, mimes and jazz bands make the street their stage. Grab an outside table at Café du Monde, famous for its sugar-covered beignets. A stroll along the Mississippi River leads to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Butterfly Insectarium. Hop the St. Charles streetcar to the lovely Garden District and the Audubon Zoo where kids can feed giraffes.

Where to stay: The Homewood Suites by Hilton in the heart of the French Quarter has free buffet breakfast. The pet-friendly Quarter House rents suites with fully equipped kitchens.

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Tenerife, Spain

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Best for ages: 6-16

Why go? This Canary Island is home to Europe’s No. 1 water park, its most visited national park and world-class beaches featuring sand imported from the Sahara!

What to do: Head to Siam Park, voted the best water park in Europe. Ride the water slide that travels through a shark tank or relax at the world’s biggest wave pool. Drive a rental car across the island to paddle board, kayak and snorkel with Teno Activo at Los Gigantes. Also check out Loro Parque and visit the volcano in Teide National Park.

Where to stay: In between Siam Park and the beach, Iberostar Selection Anthelia has a free breakfast buffet and a kids club. Or, rent a poolside apartment from Apartamentos Casablanca.

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Historical outings

Buckingham Palace

Kids at Buckingham Palace
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Best for ages: 6-12

Why go? When you tell kids a real king lives here, their ears will perk up!

What to do? Start monitoring flights months in advance and consider European airlines. (Low-cost carrier Norwegian Air often has round-trip, nonstop London flights from several major U.S. cities for less than $500.) On your first full morning in London, check out the Changing of the Guard where the soldiers march out in their trademark red coats and fuzzy black hats. It starts at 11 a.m. (10 a.m. on Sundays) but get there at least a half-hour early so the little ones can see. If the royal flag is flying, the King is in residence. St. James Park is a stone’s throw away and has a lovely playground.

Where to stay: Located opposite the Royal Mews, The Rubens at The Palace could be to London what the Plaza Hotel was for Eloise. The Resident Victoria is just steps from Buckingham Palace.

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Cooperstown, New York

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"If you’re a baseball family, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is a can’t miss destination. The Hall of Fame is interactive, informative, and perfect for the young all-star in your family to dream big about making their mark in the MLB. As the little sister in the family I got dragged to too many baseball games to count, but this museum remains one of my favorite family trips to date." — Kate McCarthy, the senior social media editor at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 8-17

Why go? It’s home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

What to do: Practice those swings at Barnyard Swing Miniature Golf. Climb aboard the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad or cruise Otsego Lake on the Glimmerglass Queen.

Where to stay: Stay on the water at Lake ‘N Pines Motel where guests have an outdoor pool, an indoor pool and a video arcade room. Downtown, The Railroad Inn has lofts that comfortably sleep families of six.

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The National Mall

National Mall in DC
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Best for ages: 5-12

Why go? If there’s ever a place to instill a sense of American pride in your young one, it’s here.

What to do: In spring during the famous Cherry Blossom festival, The National Mall is where most of the action and colors are. Hit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. There are also several art museums — ideal for older kids — and the International Spy Museum.

Where to stay: With a No. 2 ranking on TripAdvisor, The River Inn near Foggy Bottom metro station is a great affordable option. Closer to the National Mall, you a comfortable room at Sofitel Washington, D.C.

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Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts

Woman dressed up at the Plimoth Plantation
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“As a Massachusetts native, Plimoth Plantation was a hot field trip destination during my school years, and for good reason. The outdoor recreation of a 17th-century village makes kids (and adults) feel like they’re stepping back into time. The best part is that there are actors who fully stay in character like it’s the year 1627, so while there are plenty of moments to learn about what life was like then, kids will also get a kick out of asking them questions about modern life and seeing the confusion on the actor’s faces.” — Kate McCarthy, the senior social media editor at Shop TODAY

Best for ages: 8-12

Why go? It’s like stepping back in time to the 17th century, when the pilgrims arrived here from England.

What to do: Get a look at Plymouth Rock, where colonists first set foot on American soil. You won’t believe how tiny it is. Costumed actors recreate what it was like on the crossing and in the settlement. Learn about Native American cooking, crafts and culture at the Wampanoag Homesite. Visit the nearby Plimoth Grist Mill where you can see how they grind corn and even buy it to take home!

Where to stay: Pilgrim Sands on Long Beach has a waterfront view of Warren Cove. In colder months, consider the Hilton Garden Inn Plymouth, which has a great indoor pool.

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