I have never understood the hoopla over Disney World.
To me, teaching moments and travel go hand in hand. So our family vacations are designed to incorporate elements of enrichment: exposure to foreign culture, a brush with history, interaction with nature, discovery of new foods, engaging in activities that make us step outside our comfort zones. Sure, Disney is fun. But school breaks are few and handled with extreme care.
Spending precious vacation time in a manufactured kingdom bent on bringing fantasy story lines to life through relentless entertainment feels like a waste of time. And money. So it’s not surprising that I have avoided the Mousetrap for decades, opting instead for getaways that inspire me and ignite curiosity in my two daughters, ages 10 and 14. Have I denied them some sacred rite of passage? Hardly. They have never even asked to go.
So, why do I diss Disney? Foremost, I can’t stand princess culture. The implicit message to young girls that beauty equals a busty blonde in a gown is a stereotype that I refuse to perpetuate. Case in point: the Frozen Makeover, a $164.95 package involving a fairy godmother transforming your daughter (with makeup and a braided hairpiece) into a princess that feels more Honey Boo Boo than royal. Ditto for the myth that a prince will sweep deserving girls off to a life of happiness. The theme park environment with its endless lines, awful food (mammoth turkey leg, anyone?) and stimulation overload inevitably invites tantrums in children and anxiety in parents.
And then you have the financial element. Disney is expensive. Between flights, food, hotel, souvenirs and four-day passes to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and water parks, a family of four (with two children under 10) will easily spend $5,000 (base park entry price plus a “park hopper” add-on to visit another park is $436.13 for adults and $414.83 for children 3 to 9 per person; water park entry is a one-time fee).The all-inclusive four-day package I put together came in at $4,271, for the park passes, water park and dining plan including popular character experiences and other perks, in one room at a moderately priced Disney Resort hotel.
With that in mind, here are five vacation alternatives that deliver hefty doses of fun while broadening your child’s cultural playbook through real-world experiences. Even better, all are based on a budget similar to a four-night stay at Disney World.
There are fancy-pants beach vacations. And there are plop-down-in-the-sand holidays where an easy “Leave It to Beaver”-era charm is the main attraction. Virginia Beach is the latter, and its lack of grandeur is precisely why I love it. Oceanfront hotels are affordable. As are the mom-and-pop restaurants where locals flock for shrimp boils, steamed blue crab and tangy Lynnhaven oysters plucked straight from Chesapeake Bay. Entertainment plays out on a three-mile-long boardwalk, with street performers, shaved ice and salt water taffy vendors and a small amusement park.
But beaches are the real selling point. Choose from Resort Beach, a surfer’s paradise; the smaller, dune-speckled Sandbridge (which butts up to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a great spot for eco-adventures); or Chesapeake Bay Beach, which woos families with gentle waters and access to First Landing State Park, which commemorates the first Jamestown colonists in 1607. Other activities? Ifly is an indoor sky diving experience where free-fall conditions are simulated with a wind tunnel. Zip-lining through the trees at Virginia Aquarium’s “aerial forest park” is another.
Ocean Breeze Waterpark has slides with the requisite 35-foot drop, and a giant wave pool. At the Military Aviation Museum, you can view Super Hornet fighter jets, Spitfires and other wartime aircraft. For a fee, you can blow the kids’ minds with a ride on an authentic open-cockpit 1941 Boeing Stearman PT-17 Kaydet.
The oceanfront Hilton Garden Inn (rooms from $230) has a pool, a sand play area, cabana service, a playground and discounted tickets to many attractions.
Lake Geneva, Wis.
If the Midwest had a version of the Hamptons, it would be the coastal resort town of Lake Geneva. Celebrity sightings are nil. But sun-drenched afternoons lazing on the water are guaranteed. Another attraction is estate ogling. For over a century, the rich and famous (Wrigley, Schwinn, Maytag, Rockefeller and Sears) have been vacationing in Lake Geneva.
Tourists can get ridiculously close to these mansions by simply hiking and biking around the lake. Thanks to an Indian treaty signed in 1833, the 26.2-mile Shore Path (originally used by the indigenous Potawatomi tribe) provides public access in perpetuity. Translation? You can meander through the grounds of historic estates without the risk of a stalking violation.
You should stay at Grand Geneva Resort and Spa (deluxe rooms start at $159). The property has its own 50,000-square-foot water park, stables (riding lessons, carriage rides) and a new adventure center equipped with mountain bikes, six slack lines (tightrope walking a few feet off the ground between trees) and archery. Canopy zip-lining is also available nearby. But whizzing across the lake is what families really want out of this type of vacation. The concierge can arrange all water sport rentals and book an organized cruise. There are two standout nonwater-related outings. Yerkes Observatory (now a branch of the University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy) is deemed the birthplace of modern astrophysics. It houses what’s billed as the world’s largest refracting telescope and 170,000 photographic plates. A tour of the lavish 13-bedroom Victorian Black Point Estate, with the original plumbing and furniture, is a thrill.
There is an art to not depleting your child’s college fund while visiting London. Step one is finding a budget-friendly hotel situated near major attractions and a Tube station. The Marriott Kensington fits the bill. (The Family Time package, which includes breakfast, is £245, about $360, for a room that comfortably fits four.)
To get oriented, take a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour, a perfect first-day outing when battling jet lag. It stops at most landmark attractions (Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace). Definitely make a stop for a ride on the London Eye. To some children, parading past endless paintings is like eating a platter of fish roe: pure torture. However, according to my 10-year-old, certain museums are “actually fun.” The Natural History Museum and the British Museum (all national museums are free) fall into the cool category. Both are gigantic. Some advice: Identify what you want to see before arriving. Trying to tackle it all is a recipe for meltdowns.
The Wallace Collection is equally cool owing to its “Game of Thrones” appeal. Art is displayed in a stunning Victorian mansion. Downstairs, there is a war chest of arms and armor plus a reproduction chain-mail ensemble that the children can try on.
For a whiff of elegant Britain, wander through the neighborhood of St. James’s. Sample artisanal cheeses at “cheesemonger to the crown” Paxton & Whitfield and pop into Prestat, said to be the queen’s favorite chocolatier. Then have afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, the department store that has served as Royal Grocer for 150 years. If the children are well behaved, reward them with a souvenir from Hamleys, among the oldest and largest toy stores in the world.
Royal parks are essential sightseeing. Organize a picnic in Hyde Park followed by pedal boating around Serpentine Lake. You can also book a guided horseback ride with Hyde Park Stables (no experience necessary). Not to be missed are the rose gardens in Regent’s Park. The manicured display of 12,000 roses (85 varieties) is a paean to England’s gardening heritage. On the northeast corner of this park is the London Zoo.
If your children are die-hard Harry Potter fans, do the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. Unlike a theme park, this provides interaction with the actual props, sets (think of Diagon Alley and Dumbledore’s office) and costumes from the Harry Potter films. You will even partake in a quidditch match, if only on a green screen. It’s a time commitment. The studio is close to Watford, about one hour from London by train.