10 Superlative Family Vacation Destination Ideas
Scariest Roller Coaster: Kingda Ka, Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari
Located in: Jackson, New Jersey
Why you should go: Currently the record-holder as the country’s fastest coaster (about 120 mph) with the most precipitous drop (456 feet, or roughly 45 stories high, at a 90-degree angle), Kingda Ka has inspired two fan groups on Facebook, plus a third for folks too scared to board it. No question the coaster offers serious thrills. But most who have survived it have only one complaint: The 59-second ride just isn’t long enough. (Daily general admission tickets are $40 when bought online; sixflags.com.)
Where to stay: Laurel Pond Affordable Luxury Wilderness Lodges, in Cream Ridge, New Jersey (from $145 per night for a lodge that sleeps up to four; laurelpond.com).
Most Rockin’ Mini Golf: Hawaiian Rumble
Located in: North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Why you should go: King’s Highway (aka Business 17) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is lined with dozens of themed miniature golf courses—dinosaurs! pirate ships!—but only Hawaiian Rumble boasts a 40-foot volcano that “erupts” every 20 minutes. The tremors might wreak havoc with your hole in one, but the kids will love the smoking, flaming spectacle, not to mention the six chatty parrots that greet visitors upon arrival. The course is HQ for the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association and the site of the sport’s annual Masters tournament, so owner Bob Detwiler keeps it in tip-top shape. In fact, the greens have been newly re-covered with the same top-of-the-line carpet that Ernie Els and other pros use for their own practice greens. ($9 per round, cash only; prominigolf.com.)
Where to stay: Courtyard by Marriott Myrtle Beach Barefoot Landing, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (from about $120 per night; marriott.com).
Oldest Drive-in Movie Theater: Shankweiler’s Drive-in
Located in: Orefield, Pennsylvania
Why you should go: Why take the kids to see that summer blockbuster at a stuffy run-of-the-mall theater when you can treat them to a breath of fresh air—literally? Shankweiler’s is the oldest continuously operating drive-in theater in the U.S.A., in business since 1934 and still family-owned and -operated. Its many retro charms include $8 tickets (for a double feature!) and a snack bar stocked with fun fare like hot dogs, funnel cake, cotton candy, and popcorn topped with real melted butter. (Tickets are $9 per adult, $5 per child ages 3 to 12; shankweilers.com.)
Where to stay: Homewood Suites by Hilton, in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania (from $183 per night for a two-bedroom, two-bath suite equipped with a full kitchen; homewoodsuites1.hilton.com).
Largest Indoor Playground: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Located in: Indianapolis
Why you should go: Yes, the summer is made for playing outdoors, unless playing indoors means digging for bones in a massive “Dinosphere,” conducting kooky science experiments in a lab, or stargazing in a planetarium. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis offers all this—and lots more. At almost 473,000 square feet, this “learning playground” is the largest facility of its kind in the country. This summer the museum will debut “National Geographic Treasures of the Earth,” a permanent exhibit that allows kiddies to crawl through tunnels in a re-created Egyptian tomb...and get up close and personal with a real cannon from Captain Kidd’s shipwreck. (Admission for adults is $18.50; $13.50 for children ages 2 to 17; childrensmuseum.org/.)
Where to stay: The Omni Severin Hotel, in downtown Indianapolis (from $208 per night, including breakfast for two adults and two children, tickets to the museum for two adults and two children, bedtime milk and cookies, and a free welcome gift for kids at check-in; omnihotels.com).
Juiciest Festival: Hope Watermelon Festival
Located in: Hope, Arkansas
Why you should go: You could say that Hope, Arkansas, is hallowed ground for watermelon lovers. Local farmers have grown world-record melons in the past, the most recent being a 268.8-pounder that sprung up in 2005. So it makes sense that residents have honored the sweet fruit with a festival whose roots go back to the 1920s. This year the event takes place August 8 to 10 and promises to offer a real slice of summer fun: You can sample deep-fried alligator, go the distance in the seed-spitting event, or catch government officials—even Arkansas governor Mike Beebe—competing in the Politically Correct Watermelon Eating Contest. (No admission fee, but parking is $3; check the website for daily hours; hopemelonfest.com.)
Where to stay: Holiday Inn Express, in Hope (from $120 per night, including breakfast; hiexpress.com).
Biggest “Alligator” Attraction: Swampy, Jungle Adventures Nature Animal Park
Located in: Christmas, Florida
Why you should go: You’d hardly expect to find the world’s largest “alligator” in a town called Christmas, but there he is—200-foot-long Swampy. Visitors to the beast (actually a radically remade house) can pose in his ferocious teeth for a photo-op, but the kitschy fun doesn’t end there—nor do the alligators. Swampy doubles as the gateway to Jungle Adventures, a 10-acre animal park that features three daily alligator feedings and a swamp cruise through a man-made lagoon with gators galore. Many other species are on hand, too, from black bears to boa constrictors, skunks to monkeys. (Admission is $22 for adults, $15 for children ages 3 to 11, for the wildlife show, a Native American–themed expedition, the gator feeding, and a swamp cruise; jungleadventures.com.)
Where to stay: Fairfield Inn & Suites, in Titusville, Florida (from about $134 per night for a studio, including breakfast; marriott.com).
Coolest Boarding: Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
Located in: Stretches from Florence (north) to Coos Bay (south), Oregon
Why you should go: Even at the height of summer, the ocean waters along the Oregon coast are too chilly for all but the bravest surfers, but the terrain offers a different kind of adventurous ride: sandboarding. It’s like snowboarding, only much more forgiving when you wipe out, and the best place to try it is the vast Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, running some 40 miles north to south and measuring five miles across at its widest point. Start at Sand Master Park in Florence, which offers board rentals and lessons—often taught by world champion sandboarders—then hit the “slopes” at the DNRA. Not ready to board a board? Opt for a guided dune buggy ride. At Sandland Adventures in Florence, you can choose between a one-hour scenic tour that covers eight miles of dunes, or a half-hour, higher-speed ride that covers 10 miles. (Sandboarding: $16 for a 24-hour board rental, $5 each for helmet and goggles; sandmasterpark.com. Scenic buggy tours: $15 per person, and open to all ages; higher-speed tours: $55 per person, open to adults and children over age 3; sandland.com.)
Where to stay: Driftwood Shores Resort and Conference Center, in Florence, Oregon (from $119.50 per night for a package that includes two board rentals; driftwoodshores.com).
Buggiest Museum: Montréal Insectarium
Located in: Montreal
Why you should go: The Montréal Insectarium—the largest bug museum in North America—offers much more than creepy-crawlies mounted in shadowboxes. There’s plenty of hands-on fun here: Kids can handle some bugs with the help of a staff member, and there’s a station that allows visitors to play composer by setting various insect sounds to music. The Insectarium is part of a complex that includes a botanical garden and a biodome, which re-creates four ecosystems (from a tropical rain forest where monkeys roam cage-free to an arctic island that houses—what else?—penguins). (A 31-day ticket to all three attractions is $47 for adults, $23.50 for children ages 5 to 17; admission to the Insectarium alone is $29.50 for adults and $15 for kids 5 to 17; montrealspaceforlife.ca.)
Where to stay: Hotel de l’Institut, in Plateau, near downtown Montreal (from about $272 per night for a suite with a dining table and a kitchenette, www.ithq.qc.ca).
Wildest Water Slide: Sliding Rock
Located in: Pisgah National Forest, near Brevard, North Carolina
Why you should go: Call it the Mother Nature of all water slides. Sliding Rock, in western North Carolina, is a 50-foot sloping boulder fed by 11,000 gallons of water every minute, and it offers one major advantage over molded plastic water parks: It’s nestled in a national forest, which makes for a beautiful setting and plenty of shade. (Plus, it’s a cheap thrill: Admission is just $1 per person.) Visitors wait their turn on a wooden staircase before slip-’n-sliding (one at a time, please) down the falls, ending with a plunge into seven feet of water. The ride is mostly a smooth one, but forest officials still recommend wearing shorts–rather than a bathing suit—and water shoes. Lines can get long, so come early in the day for the best crowd-free rides. (Kids under 7 must slide with an adult. Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day to mid-August, and life jackets are the only flotation devices allowed; fs.usda.gov.)
Where to stay: The Renaissance Asheville, in Asheville, North Carolina (from $169 per night; bring your dog for an extra $75; renhotels.com).
Sweetest Spot (With a Cherry on Top): Berners’ Ice Cream Parlor
Located in: The Washington House Museum and Visitor Center, Two Rivers, Wisconsin
Why you should go: July is national ice cream month, and what better way to celebrate than with a visit to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, which claims to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae? It’s here that Ed Berners, owner of a local ice cream parlor, supposedly created the frosty treat on a Sunday in 1881. Berners’ original ice cream parlor is long gone, but 20-something years ago a working replica was built inside the Washington House Museum and Visitor Center. Sundaes start at $2.25 for a basic two-scooper. The Washington House Special, a deluxe red-white-and-blue-themed confection, goes for $4. (Open daily; tworiverseconomicdevelopment.org.)
Where to stay: AmericInn Lodge & Suites of Manitowoc, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin (from $130 for a two-room suite, breakfast included; americinn.com).