The following travel destinations have been awarded the prestigious Seal of Approval from The National Parenting Center. Judged by independent family testers, these sites were evaluated on criteria including programming, family services, price, physical plant, food, amenities and more.
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Family Services: includes understanding family needs and a flexibility to respond to different requirements, alterations etc.
Programs: includes scores for babies, children, teens and adults. Judged on variety, programming, creativity and originality
Staff: includes availability, attitude and helpfulness
Physical Plant: includes rooms, grounds and level of cleanliness
Food Service: includes variety of food, quality and service
When the oppressive heat and humidity of the summer settles over the east coast of this country where can your family turn for relief? We discovered a haven of cool, wet fun just northeast of Philadelphia, Sesame Place. Now that two generations have grown up with the gang at Sesame Street, we’re talking about a place that feels right at home for both parents and kids. The whole gang is here too, Big Bird, Ernie & Bert, Oscar, Cookie Monster, The Count and more. But what makes this theme park a mid-summer must-see destination is the water play. There are water slides like Slimy Chute, Teeny Tiny Tidal Wave Pool, Big Bird’s Rambling River and lots more to fill your family’s day with a refreshing summer alternative.
Our review teams ranged in age from 4 to 18 and everyone had a super day. The park is clean and well maintained. The characters are always around and available for great photo opportunities. The emphasis on the rides is more gentle fun than the rip-roaring scream rides found at other theme parks. There are rides that will get your heart pumping, to be sure, but the idea is family fun and lots of it. The Rubber Ducky slide, a big raft that twists and turns down a wide shoot to a waiting final drop, is a ride that the whole family can experience together. The piped in music of favorite Sesame Street songs helped add a nostalgic touch that brought a smile.
Our testers had no problem exploring the entire expanse of the park, managing to “do” the entire park in a whole day. The food also got high marks, special notes for the freshly carved turkey sandwiches. Come prepared with your own bathing suits, towels, water shoes and sunscreen.
When we send our evaluation teams out on the road we want them to explore every part of any travel experience, but we don’t expect them to go to extremes. This team did manage to do it all though. We’ll spare you the sordid details but we can report that the nurse’s station was well staffed with friendly professionals who did a superb job.
The $30 admission fee for each member of the family is steep but quite in line with comparative theme park prices. Sesame Place is open from Mid-May through Mid-October.
When it’s hot and the family is wilting there’s no better destination than a water park. Just thinking about it is enough to drop the temperature a few degrees. Our family review team, sweltering under the Florida sun, found one of the country’s finest family water parks right in the heart of America’s entertainment mecca, otherwise known as Orlando. Water Mania has everything you are looking for in its 36-acre location. With ride names like Wipe-Out, The Abyss, or The Screamer, you can be sure that you will get good and wet and have a wonderful time. There are plenty of rides and activities to suit any age or thrill-seeking level all day long.Cruisin’ Creek, an 850-foot river has its own current that carries rafts and swimmers around the park, was a real favorite. The large sized rafts in The Anaconda shoot down a twisting water maze for a thrilling, exciting ride that the whole family can enjoy together. If you and yours enjoy living on the edge then you’ll have to take a turn in The Abyss, a 300 foot black-out tunnel, or The Screamer, which will reaffirm your belief in gravity, trust us.
The Rain Forest and Squirt Pond’s shallow waters are perfect for younger water babies with its giant pirate ship and small sized water slides.
But there is more to Water Mania than the rides. There are volleyball and basketball courts and a large shady picnic area that make Water Mania a great idea for group outings or even family reunions.
The food options were a pleasant surprise to our testers, who found the quality and service to be quite good. There are a sufficient number of lockers available and the staff appeared to be everywhere, ready to help.
Next time you are visiting Orlando, and need a break from the heat, consider the wet alternative of Water Mania.
Price for family of four (2 adults, 2 children): \$83.80 plus tax
- Family Services-94
- Physical Plant-84
- Food Service-88
OVERALL SCORE: 92
Lake Buena Vista, FL
When it comes to family travel Disney World has established itself as more of an institution than a destination. We were eager to send our review team, a family of five with children aged 10, 7 and 2, who in turn were admittedly anxious to see Mickey and the gang. What they discovered was one of the most impressive achievements the travel world has ever seen. The magic touch of Disney has transformed central Florida into an oasis for family fun.Almost as soon as you enter the sprawling complex you are under the Disney spell. Our reviewers stayed in the new Boardwalk Villa Resort which curves around a lake with a planked boardwalk designed to reproduce the aura of the early 1900’s. The hotel’s suites are nicely furnished and come complete with a full kitchen. The suites can sleep four comfortably when using the fold out couch. Upon check-in each family member receives a personalized credit card which serves as room key and credit card for use anywhere in the entire complex. EPCOT is just a five minute stroll from the hotel, while Disney/MGM is a short ferry boat trip away, the ferry docks right at the hotel. Getting to the Magic Kingdom was a little more complex and involved a ferry and two monorails.
Everywhere you look, everywhere you go there is the sense that everything has been thought of for you. Every fine detail has been examined, designed and built to allow you to just enjoy the magic. The attempt to control every facet of the experience can strike the cynical traveler as overly manipulative, but there is little point in that since, as our testers found, if you let yourself enjoy what the folks at Disney have worked so hard to build, you will return home awash in the aura they project.
That is, if you aren’t exhausted from exploring all that Disney World has to offer. There is so much to do within the complex that unless you allow at least seven full nights you will miss something. Our reviewers were on-site for only four nights and reported to us that they struggled valiently but ultimately failed in trying to cram everything in. You don’t want to miss EPCOT, which is a brilliant monument to Walt Disney’s vision of a global community and forward thinking ideas. Disney/MGM is a tribute to Hollywood that will shed some light on the mysteries of the movies. The Magic Kingdom is still going strong and even if you’ve been many times before either in California, Florida, Japan or France its a blast each time. But wait there’s more! From Blizzard Beach and River Country to Discovery Island and Pleasure Island, not to mention the fun you can have just staying in your hotel, you could really spend two full weeks in Disney World before you felt that you had done it all.
There is no denying that you will spend money and lots of it during your stay. From the food to the souvenirs, there is little escaping the elevated fees. To find a low cost food alternative you’ll have to work hard since it is a trek to exit the park into town for more reasonably priced fare.
Disney World is a destination that should be considered whenever you are traveling with your children. It is the kind of experience that will create long lasting memories that you will cherish forever.
Additional Notes: Certain times of year the parks, despite their size, can become very overcrowded. The lines can ruin your day so try to book alternative dates if possible. Restaurant reservations should also be made well in advance as you can find yourself shut out of the better eating establishments.
Price for family of four (2 adults, 2 children), seven nights: $5,168 One bedroom preferred view suite with kitchen. Food & Fun package includes unlimited park admissions and up to $55 food allowance per day for adults, $25 for children.
- Family Services-100
- Physical Plant-100
- Food Service-80
- OVERALL SCORE: 93
UPDATE: To find out what is new and upcoming at Walt Disney World visit: www.DisneyParksBlog.com
If your family craves more than just the run-of-the-mill beach vacation and if tennis is your sport, then The Colony should be high on your list when making travel plans. This tennis resort is located right on the Gulf of Mexico just minutes from Sarasota. Our reviewing family stayed in a two bedroom loft apartment that was well appointed and comfortable. You won’t find The Colony to be a fancy or exclusive club. There is an informal appeal to the property which is dotted with two story buildings and 21 tennis courts. Between all the courts, buildings and driveways there is little room for much else in the way of greenery and that does detract slightly from the ambiance. What the main grounds lack is more than made up for when you hit the beach. The white, soft sand beachfront is beautiful to behold and the first sunset you watch over the Gulf will leave its mark on your soul.But what The Colony is really all about is the tennis. There are lessons, clinics, match play, tournaments and more making this THE resort if your family loves tennis. There are so many regularly scheduled events with a host of pros that you could conceivably play from dawn to dusk if your body would let you. The Colony is prepared for your body’s meltdown, with a well appointed spa and gym. There are fitness classes throughout the day and the club’s masseuse’s really worked magic on aching, too-long-dormant tennis muscles.
While the grown-ups were busy working on their tennis elbows, the kids were enjoying all that The Colony’s children’s program had to offer. The camp program is staffed by enthusiastic counselors who work hard to entertain and involve children with games and activities throughout the day. There is a concerted effort here to make the kids feel right at home and they succeed quite well. The camp’s space is a little crowded and during peak season, when our team was there it was bursting at the seams. Daily events include games, nature hunts, crafts, water play and of course, tennis.
There are two restaurants on the grounds offering informal and formal dining options, and another outdoor cafe for afternoon meals. The food was very good and the children’s meals while not exceptionally varied were good sized and tasty. The staff were attentive and determined to make everyone in the family feel welcome.
Our review team reported that they met many families who were returning to The Colony for the third, sixth and one family told them, the 13th straight year. You can determine for yourself what that says about the property.
If at least two members of your family are into tennis then The Colony should be on your list of places to explore for a warm weather vacation destination that everyone can enjoy. If tennis isn’t your thing or if your not sure about your commitment to the sport, then you might prefer a property with more diverse offerings. Additional Notes: The rooms all come with balconies but when children are about there should always be an adult supervising. There are limited wheelchair and stroller access points.
Price for family of four, seven night, Fun & Sun package: $3,150 Two Bedroom Suite, package includes 2 tennis clinics, Daily Children’s Program, Continental Breakfasts, Dinner Certificate and more.
- Family Services-92
- Physical Plant -81
- Food Service-88
- OVERALL SCORE: 89
Franklyn D. Resort
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
FDR features all of the amenities of a large resort in an intimate setting where families can enjoy each other while playing in the warm Jamaican sun. Attentive, friendly staff are everywhere to ensure that you are having the best vacation ever. This is all highlighted by FDR’s exclusive Girl Friday Program, featuring your own nanny who comes to your room at 9am ready to make your day run smoothly. Whether it’s supervising the children in the Kids Activity Center, making up your room or restocking your in-room refrigerator, these well-trained specialists make FDR a premier family travel spot. The entertainment staff are friendly, enthusiastic and fun. Don’t be surprised to find yourself caught up in a variety of playful pursuits including crab and goat racing. There are three small beaches, not the wide expanse of white sand you might expect, but the cozy coves are safe and gentle. This all-inclusive resort features good food and plenty of it in a beautiful sea-side setting. There are plenty of dining options for the kids and enough variety to please parents. The open bar was a pleasure, and the kids loved ordering their own alcohol-free versions of island Daiquiris. The rooms (actually they are all suites), regardless of the size, were spacious, clean and comfortable. Full kitchens, while almost superfluous due to the generous amounts of food, featured sinks and full sized refrigerators.
The pool is small and often crowded. The water sports shack was undermanned and poorly outfitted. FDR is a long drive from the Montego Bay airport, nearly and hour and a half. Kids who have just sat through a plane ride can get very antsy.
Price for family of four, seven days: $3,500
One bedroom suite. (All Food beverages, activities, transfers and taxes included)
Family Services: 98
Physical Plant: 90
Food Service: 85
OVERALL SCORE: 91
Marriott’s Marco Island Resort
Marco Island, FL
Hidden away on one of the best kept secrets in Florida, Marco Island, the Marriott is everything a traveling family is looking for in a resort vacation. While this property is not exclusively geared to families, in fact it hosts many conventions, honeymooners and more, they have taken steps to make everyone feel welcome, comfortable and relaxed. Located on the serene Gulf Coast of Florida, the Marriott is a superb facility featuring three pools plus a kiddie pool, two playgrounds and miniature golf. The beach is expansive and filled with sea shells that will stop you in your tracks with their variety and beauty. There are five restaurants on the grounds of the hotel offering a range of prices and each featuring great food and inexpensive child menus. The rooms all have refrigerators and oceanview balconies, and they are all slightly larger than normal. There is a Beach Bandits program for kids aged 5 to 12 which is staffed by friendly and enthusiastic counselors armed with a six hour schedule of activities. There is a charge of \$29 per day which includes lunch. There are also nannies available, the hotel screens them all, for \$7 per hour. The Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent 10,000 islands make the surrounding environment of this resort one of it’s finest features. The beachside watersports shack is filled with great diversions such as parasailing, kayaking, and waverunners. Our testers took a guided tour on waverunners into the everglades to see egrets, ibis’ and other wildlife that was a breathtaking thrill. A catamaran excursion to a sea shell strewn shoal netted a magnificent assortment of bounty from the sea.
Summer makes for a real bargain vacation here as rates tumble to half their high season numbers and family packages including a day at Beach Bandits, breakfast each morning and more make it the way to go.
The Beach Bandits program was poorly attended which resulted in only two or three participants. This did not affect the fun the kids had or the enthusiasm of the counselors. The beach while large is not a soft sand beach. It is full of shells and you’ll want to wear beach shoes.
Price for family of five, seven days: \$1,064
Deluxe Room Family Package (includes breakfast, one pizza dinner, one picnic lunch, one round miniature golf, one day Beach Bandits, one sailboat trip, one tennis clinic)
Family Services: 88
Physical Plant: 93
Food Service: 94
OVERALL SCORE: 90
Sail with the Stars
This unique cruising program operates twice each year taking a chartered group of travelers to exotic locations with some of the hottest young stars in Hollywood. This is an opportunity to get up-close and personal with stars from television and movies while being together as a family on a top flight cruise. Our testing family cruised for one week from Vancouver to Alaska on board Holland America’s Westerdam. They found the program’s staff to be warm, sincere and dedicated to their appointed task of making everyone feel included and welcome. The celebrities were open and approachable and fit in comfortably with the regular folk. This is a program that is marketed to families of teens of all ages. Our testers felt that the ideal range would be 10 to 15, provided that the kids had a real interest in meeting and traveling with these celebrities since their inclusion is a contributing factor to a rather substantial price tag. Part of each cruises fee is donated to various charitable causes. The Starlight Foundation from this cruise received over \$30,000.
The cruise itself was an eye opening experience as the magnificent Alaskan coast provided the backdrop for seven days filled with exploration. On board the food was superb as was the entertainment including great music and dancing. This is a program that is clearly aimed at the kids meaning that the adults had to frequently find their own diversions. Depending on your point of view this can be a positive or a negative.
It is hard to lump the entire range of teenage years in one group. A split on teens 10-14 and then 15-18 would have created a better group interaction and increased participation.
Price for family of four, seven days:
Alaskan Cruise, \$4,800 Outside cabin
Caribbean Cruise, \$4,000 Outside cabin
(both cruises include meals, port charges & taxes)
Family Services: 84
Physical Plant: 84
Food Service: 88
OVERALL SCORE: 85
Grand Flamenco Xcaret
Riviera Maya, Mexico
The Grand Flamenco Xcaret, one of the Occidental Hotel chain’s newest resorts in the recently developed Riviera Maya section of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, is a standout destination for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is its size. The immense, sprawling property has nearly 800 rooms with buildings no higher than three stories. There are huge pools and river-like waterways that connect them. Visitors will also find 11 restaurants, a large outdoor theater, shops, tennis courts, a spa, a children’s camp and everything else you might expect from a modern beachfront all-inclusive resort. However, what sets the Grand Flamenco Xcaret apart is the fact that it was designed and built with a minimal amount of impact to the lush jungle surroundings of the region. The resort features walkways and bridges that cut through areas of undisturbed natural beauty which are respectfully maintained by an attentive staff. Lizards, deer and spectacular butterflies are abundant and each calls the resort home. And then, to top off what can only be described as an embarrassment of riches, the hotel is adjacent to the magnificent Xcaret Theme park (see more below).
From the moment our review team entered the property it was easy to see that no expense had been spared in designing this spectacular destination. The soaring thatched roofs above belied the beauty of the shining marble floors below (more on that later). Waterfalls and staff were everywhere cleaning, polishing and ready to lend a helping hand. There is a definite European flair to the style and feel of the resort, slightly more formal, slightly more cosmopolitan. This made sense since this is not a resort that is regularly overrun with Americans. In fact our reviewers met visitors from every continent during their visit. The “deluxe” rooms which our review families stayed in were standard sized hotel rooms, but they were appointed nicely, especially the bathrooms which extended the marble theme throughout. Our team had two adjoining rooms, nice for a family of five, though we would recommend booking one of the corner suite options of a Junior Suite and adjoining regular room.
Bringing a family to an all-inclusive resort is a real pleasure, especially when traveling out of the country. The Grand Flamenco is a great place for you and your children to indulge in as much or as little food as you want. (It’s vacation, who would opt for the latter?) The three buffet restaurants, spread throughout the property, featured a varied assortment of dishes both local and American. The food is plentiful and the children enjoyed trying some of everything, especially the desserts. Dinners offer a wider assortment of choices as the resort’s themed restaurants open for business. You will need to make reservations, although that was a mystery since the restaurants were barely half full each night. Everyone must wear shoes in the restaurants and men must wear long pants, part of that European flair again. The Hacienda (Mexican theme) and D’Oriental were standouts, while the Sonora Grill and Los Olivos disappointed.
The pools are wonderfully clean and ingeniously designed with a variety of depths so that you can easily sit on a chaise lounge half submerged in the water if you like, or you can slip into a sunken Jacuzzi.
There are plenty of rope hammocks and other ways to relax and unwind, such as an outdoor bar where you sit on swings and hundreds of available chaise lounges.
The number of employees is truly remarkable. There are over 600, which means that you will be hard pressed to look anywhere without finding a uniformed staff member, most of whom were exceptionally friendly and upbeat.
The most significant drawing card of the Grand Flamenco Xcaret, is Xcaret itself. This unique theme park is part zoo, part beach, part historical preserve and so much more. Imagine Sea World, Epcot and the San Diego Zoo all rolled into one. Are you getting the picture now? Included in your stay at the Grand Flamenco are tickets (a $49 per person value) to this remarkable, one-of-a-kind experience. Our reviewers strolled into the park from the resort’s private entrance which is less than 100 yards from the lobby. There is so much to see and do that you will want to plan a full day at the park. From climbing over and through Mayan ruins to seeing monkeys, jaguars and pumas up close your camera will be working overtime. The butterfly pavilion is magnificent as is the Sea Turtle exhibit, both are must sees. There is a nice swimming beach but if you want to cool off you must float down one of the two rivers that meander through and under the park, through limestone canyons, lush jungles and underground caves. (We recommend renting the snorkeling flippers, but the facemask is unnecessary.) And while quite expensive, swimming with the dolphins is an experience that really must be had. The park is situated just south of the resort and has been created in much the same way the resort has, with minimal impact to the environment, meaning you will be walking through lush landscape that is really quite beautiful.
1) There are enthusiastic, well meaning activities counselors, who do their best to drum up participants in a variety of activities, but it feels forced and the enthusiasm often waned.
2) There is a drop-off Kids Center that despite its best intentions was staffed by lackluster counselors and a setup that puts too much emphasis on video games.
3) If you are looking for miles of white sandy Caribbean beaches, this is not your resort. The beach is a cramped affair that is really a cove, making the beach more of a salt-water pool.
4) There is a very nice disco that is open late but attempts to open the club up to teens early each night could not draw even a single participant.
5) The resort is all-inclusive but more often than expected, you can get caught in need of money when you are least expecting it. For instance, if you make the trek (either on foot or with the nicely provided shuttles) to the beach and want to snorkel, you’ll need to find a waterproof place for your money or credit card in your bathing suit since you’ll need to leave a deposit. Want to pick something up in one of the resort shops and charge it to your room? No dice. The result is people walking around with very soggy money.
6) Part of the appealing design of the resort is also part of a problem that needs to be addressed. The man-made river that flows from the lobby, past the shops and into Xcaret Park, is a more of stagnant pool, which quite often was unpleasantly malodorous.
7) This brings us to our final, yet very critical shortcoming. The attractive marble tile that is used everywhere in strikingly beautiful fashion is nothing short of a disaster on the floors of this resort. When wet, either from rain or from dripping bathing suits, the marble turns into a slippery nightmare, our reviewers watched as visitors slipped or fell morning, noon and night. Hotel managers are obviously aware of the condition since they frequently dispatch employees to dry the floors. Regardless, Occidental must address this dangerous situation immediately.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
The Grand Flamenco Xcaret is not the ideal “Family” resort if you are planning to have a separate yet together vacation. By which we mean, a place you can drop the kids and have loads of grown-up alone time. Also, with the paucity of included ocean activities, leaving the resort and Xcaret as your best activity options you probably won’t want to spend a full week either. However, for a five night stay, this can be destination that will serve up a very memorable vacation. Our suggestion is that if you have to spend more than 4 hours flying to Cancun you should probably look elsewhere. That said, we are quite confident that the Grand Flamenco can play host to a trip that you will enjoy as a family, creating terrific and lasting memories, which is really what great family vacations are all about. –Audrey Kennedy
Price for family of five for a five nights: One Jr. Suite, One Deluxe Room $2,615 USD
- Family Services – 60
- Programs – 82
- Staff – 90
- Physical Plant – 92
- Food Service – 88
OVERALL SCORE: 82
St. Ann, Jamaica
Many family resorts are now featuring kids “camps” or “centers” where children can be entertained while under the supervision of counselors. The finest example our testers have seen to date is managed by the Boscobel Beach Resort. Boscobel features separate Kiddie Centres including the Tiny Town Nursery (infants) and Tiny Town (2-3), Bears Bungalow (4-7), Boscobel Bunch (8-12) and the Teen Program. Each Centre is fully staffed and features a brightly decorated environment that is inviting and appealing. There are age appropriate toys and games, as well as a strong and varied program that changes each day. Children are engaged all day with events such as Lawn Olympics, Beach Games, Face Painting, Treasure Hunts, Dance Classes, Glass Bottom Boat Rides, Sandcastle Building, and much more.
Parents can sign their children in and out whenever they wish and the program is open until 10pm for kids over 4.
Resorts looking to create or update their existing children’s programming need look no further than Boscobel.