The USA is one of the most exciting countries in the world – and that goes double or perhaps even more for kids, for whom America is loaded with associations with popular culture. But it’s not all Disney and donuts – the United States have some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on Earth, from the ice-fields of Alaska to the sizzling Arizona desert with its ghost town Goldfield. The States is one place that literally does offer every kind of family holiday, from breaks in vast metropolises to quaint little towns, from national parks to soaring skyscrapers, and from world-class museums to great beaches and unrivalled theme-parks – plus a mix of cultures and traditions that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
Best of all, wherever you go in America and whatever you decide to do, be it skiing in Colorado or flaking on the beach in Florida, you’ll find that hotels, resorts, restaurants and sights are well geared up for families with babies, small children and teenagers. No country comes more family friendly than the States.
Things to do with kids in the USA
Head for the truly great outdoors in one of the USA’s National Parks, of which there are more than 50. Among the most famous are Arizona’s Grand Canyon, California’s Yosemite, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain, and Idaho/Montana/Wyoming’s Yellowstone.
Enjoy the truly unique New York experience – especially at Christmas, when ice-skating at the Rockefeller Center is a must. But wrap up warm – temperatures can sink below freezing. For an iconic day out in NYC at any time of year, we suggest a jaunt to Central Park, a boat-ride around the Statue of Liberty, a trip up the Empire State Building, and a visit to the Natural History Museum. And take a trip 20km east out of town, to New York's Garden City, where the Long Island Children's Museum has loads of hands-on exhibits for children, including the chance to get creative with bubbles, patterns and kaleidoscopes.
Experience the US (New York State) side of Niagara Falls and the surrounding Niagara Falls State Park, taking the famous ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat-ride or following the ‘Cave of the Winds’ walkway through North America’s most powerful waterfall, then visiting the observation tower, discovery centre and aquarium, and riding the Niagara Scenic Trolley through the State Park.
Travel 300km from New York to reach Boston, capital of Massachusetts, largest city in New England and the region’s cultural centre, as well as one of the oldest cities in the USA. Then go whale-watching on nearby Cape Cod, as well as biking, kayaking and fishing.
South of New York, the US capital and seat of government, Washington DC, is more fun than you might imagine, with seemingly endless free museums, including the Smithsonian.
Further south still, head for Florida, where sunny days are almost guaranteed for most of the year. Everyone knows about Orlando, home to Disney World, Epcot and Disney's Animal Kingdom, where children can take a fun-filled safari ride. It also has water-parks such as Wet & Wild, famous adventure-film rides at Universal Studios and MGM Studios, plus the Kennedy Space Center, home to the US Space Program, where you can experience the past, present and future of space travel. For an altogether different kind of Florida holiday, check out our guide to the Florida Keys.
Discover Chicago in the Midwest – the third-largest US city, best viewed from the sky-deck on the 103rd floor of its Sears Tower. Kids love the elevator, equipped with flat-screen monitors that make you feel like you’re blasting off into Space, while the sky-deck itself has interactive exhibits for children. Get back down to earth at the Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, which every hour on the hour (Apr–Nov) produces a 20-minute display, with water being shot up to 46m in the air. And there’s always something going on for families at the downtown Chicago Millennium Park, a hub of activity for performing arts, music concerts, ice-skating and alfresco dining.
West of Chicago, venture into South Dakota and its Black Hills National Forest, where two of the looming granite peaks are carved with historic monuments: Mount Rushmore, depicting four iconic US presidents, and Crazy Horse Memorial, which pays tribute to the Native American tribal leader.
Roam around southern California including Los Angeles. Provided you have a car, exploring LA - home to Disneyland Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood with kids - will provide endless hours of fun, as will heading down to San Diego with its world-famous zoo.
Visit northern California including San Francisco for the exhilarating feel of travelling up and down the latter's steep hills on its famous cable-cars with their stunning views. A cruise around San Francisco Bay is also great fun; famous sights include the Golden Gate Bridge. Within the Golden Gate Park is the California Academy of Sciences, a museum with a planetarium, aquarium, live rainforest and great 3D cinema.
Be surprised by the number of activities available for kids in gambling mecca Las Vegas, in California’s neighbouring state of Nevada. At the DISCOVERY Children's Museum kids can learn to make music, build sand dunes and play at being scientists, while just down the road the Las Vegas Natural History Museum showcases animated dinosaurs. And only in Vegas could you find America's largest indoor theme-park, encased beneath a vast glass dome – the Adventuredome features hundreds of rides for all the family, a 4D special effects theatre and a great miniature golf course. Just 15 minutes from the Strip is the Ethel M Chocolate Factory & Botanical Cactus Gardens, where you can see chocolates being made and walk the maze of paths in the gardens. And the Las Vegas Planetarium & Observatory offers the chance to see a projection of the treasures the night sky has on the evening of your visit. Lastly, those who love zipwires with love Las Vegas with its epic ziplines between various buildings.
Discover the vast and mesmerising landscapes of Utah, including Dinosaur National Monument (where lots of feathered reptiles once died), Monument Valley with its 27km loop of geologic wonders, and Bryce Canyon National Park.
Explore the north-west city of Seattle in Washington State, most famous as the birthplace of grunge and Starbucks, but with a lovely setting in the midst of water and mountains. The best things to do in Seattle with kids include browsing the long-established Pike Place farmers’ market and fish market, catching the views of Puget Sound, the Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier from the Seattle Waterfront, touring the award-winning Woodland Park Zoo, and exploring the old Scandinavian community of Ballard with its great restaurants, cafés, pubs and shops, and then quirky, artistic Fremont. Don’t miss the views from the top of the Seattle Space Needle or the interactive offerings of the Pacific Science Center with its planetarium and IMAX cinema.
After Seattle, head for hip and eco-friendly Portland, Oregon, with its cycle paths, parks, bridges, coffeehouses and microbreweries, and its busy cultural scene.
Get a family perspective on New Orleans, the party-loving, jazz-centric city straddling the Mississippi in Louisiana. It’s an unusual place to come with kids, with some unique attractions, including the atmospheric French Quarter, which you can tour by horse and carriage, off at the Presbytère to learn all about the history of Mardi Gras. From there head to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, a year-round showcase of the floats, sculptured props and giant figures used in the world-famous carnival, with visitors encouraged to dress up in authentic carnival costumes. For animal-lovers, the city comes up trumps with the Audubon Nature Institute, home to a zoo, an aquarium, an IMAX cinema and an insectarium. Don’t miss a visit to City Park, where the Hines’ Carousel Gardens has one of the US’s last surviving antique carved wooden merry-go-rounds plus other rides, and where the Storyland playground has more than 25 storybook/fairytale themed attractions. And at the Louisiana Children's Museum, kids can pilot a towboat down the Mississippi, trap their shadow and more.
Head north of Louisiana, to Tennessee, for more music - this time country music – in the city of Nashville, as well as plenty of other indoor and outdoor attractions for families.
Bordering Tennessee, Alabama is famous for its American Civil Rights Movement history, with its capital Montgomery housing the Rosa Parks Museum telling the story of the famous activist. There’s also outdoors fun in the form of the Alabama State Lands Canoe Trails, one of which offers the option of camping on floating platforms or on sandbars.
Seek adventure and thrills in Alaska, another place that may not seem an obvious choice for a family holiday but is worth considering for those with adventurous children – you can cruise in search of glaciers and humpback whales, ride a paddleboat along the Yukon River, spot dolphins and sea otters, explore the Indian fishing village of Ketchikan, go white-water rafting and pan for gold. The wild landscapes of Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve are an important habitat for thousands of brown bears as well as salmon.
Lastly, and about as far removed from the ice-fields of Alaska as you can imagine, is Hawaii, America’s 50th state, far from the mainland in the central Pacific. In addition to its big draws (beaches and surfing), it has plenty of family attractions, most of them water-based or themed. On Big Island, Dolphin Quest is a simulated marine environment where dolphins and other aquatic mammals can reproduce free from the threats they face in the wild. On Maui, you can visit the Maui Ocean Center aquarium and join a Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventure to see whales, dolphins and sea-turtles amidst coral reefs. On Oahu, the Atlantis Submarine Tour takes you down to see two sunken ships, the remains of two aircraft, the Atlantis Reef project and masses of marine life. Also on Oahu is the Polynesian Cultural Center, featuring seven ‘villages’ showcasing the culture, traditions and daily life of people from the Hawaiian and other southern Pacific islands.
Alabama Canoe Trail.
There is an almost ridiculous variety of restaurants in the USA, most of them extremely child-friendly. This is the home of fast food, but you won’t have to look far for a place serving good pizza and pasta, Chinese, Mexican and other child-friendly fare, or a 'diner' – a typically American family-friendly restaurant with a wide range of meals served in huge portions. Read Dea Birkett’s feature on New York tea in Bemelmans Bar.
Rafting in Idaho.
When to go to the USA
USA spans six time zones and numerous climates, so your decision on when to travel really depends on what part of America you intend to visit. For instance, if you’re travelling with young children to New York and Boston, be aware that it can be absolutely freezing in the winter months. At the other end of the scale, places such as southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, which are in predominately desert terrain, can be extremely hot and dry. Some parts of the country are surprisingly variable – Alaska, for example, can be very hot in summer but extremely cold the rest of the year. For enjoyable heat, head to California, and even Hawaii and Florida – except at the height of the summer, when they’re pretty unbearable.
Surfing in California.
Flights to major US cities from the UK continue to be competitively priced, accommodation, especially self-catering, can be reasonable, and eating out remains affordable, especially when you take the massive portions and hence potential for sharing dishes, into account.
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Monument Valley, Utah.
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