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For all its faults, 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 ‘Ben 10’ – the United States have some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on Earth, from the ice-fields of Alaska to the sizzling Arizona desert. 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.
America boasts an overload of family-friendly activities and sights – so much so that parents could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed when it comes to choosing what to do or see first. As well as the well-known tourist spots, we’ve included some other places worth a visit, depending on what part of the country you choose to holiday in.
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. Try Nature’s Web (library.thinkquest.org/3627/), a site about the 15 best national parks for kids, created by kids.
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, 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.
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. The Boston Children's Museum is one of the best interactive museums in the world, with a three-storey climbing sculpture, a construction zone, a kids' performing arts building and more. In warm weather it’s fun to hop aboard a Duck Tour of all the famous landmarks by land and sea (in an amphibious landing vehicle). On a rainy day, get close to penguins, seals and jellyfish at the New England Aquarium, where children can touch small marine life, take a whale-watching tour and catch a movie at the IMAX cinema.
There’s more whale-watching on nearby Cape Cod, a popular summer beach destination with, at the north, an arts colony and gay mecca, Provincetown, from which lots of boats head out into the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, most of them guaranteeing sightings of humpbacks, fin, minke, sei or endangered North Atlantic Right whales. Cape Cod is also popular for biking, kayaking and other outdoor pursuits, including specialistkids’ fishing trips.
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 museums. Guided tours of Capitol Hill are a great way to get older kids educated in the business of Congress and even see history in the making. The White House also offers family tours, though you’ll need to book well in advance of your visit.
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 skydeck 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 skydeck 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.
Roam around California. Provided you have a car, exploring Los Angeles with the family will provide endless hours of fun. Most famous of all of course is the Disneyland Resort, though it doesn’t rate as highly as its Florida counterpart (see above). Universal Studios is a real, functioning movie studio with a theme-park attached (book online for summer or face massive queues). Less well-known but a real treasure is El Capitan Theatre, a historic ‘movie palace’ that shows all the latest Disney blockbusters, preceded by a show by Disney characters, and has a walk of fame on which kids love spotting the bronze stars marking spots where Snow White, Mickey Mouse and Co. have stepped.
Up from LA in Northern California, San Francisco is worth visiting for the exhilarating feel of travelling up and down the 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.
Down in southern California, the very child-friendly city of San Diego is well known for its famous zoo, where you could easily spend a whole day or more without getting bored. It’s massive – so a good option is to take a bus tour, making sure you stop off to see the shaggy polar bears playing in the water. Or take the 1hr monorail ride through San Diego Wild Animal Park (part of the zoo), where you will see herds of elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras and antelopes roaming around. For yet more animals, the Seaworld Adventure Park at Mission Bay has some amazing water shows – make sure to book online at least a week before your visit.
Be surprised by the number of activities available for kids in gambling mecca Las Vegas, in California’s neighbouring state of Nevada. At the Lied 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. Lastly, 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.
Get a family perspective on New Orleans, the party-loving 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, stopping of 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.
Seek adventure and thrills in Alaska, another place that mau 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, sea otters and bears, explore the Indian fishing village of Ketchikan, go white-water rafting and pan for gold. Our accommodation recommendations in Alaska include Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge and the Golden North Hotel in Scagway.
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, while Sea Life Park is a place to swim with and even ‘ride’ dolphins, hug sea-lions and more. 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.
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.
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.
There are hundreds of scheduled flights from the UK to America, by major airlines including British Airways, American Airlines, Virgin, Continental Airlines and Delta Air. The main international airports are in Boston, New York, Washington, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with hundreds of smaller airports dotted all over the country. With most visitors arriving by air, heavy competition on popular routes means that relatively inexpensive flights are often available. Check flight deals with Expedia.
There are also a huge number of cruise liners that sail to the USA; for instance, Cunard sails from Southampton to New York roughly once a month.
At the time of writing, the USA was no longer a bargain destination, with the dollar strong against the pound. However, flights to major cities 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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