12 Best Kid-Friendly Destinations
When traveling with toddlers, tweens, and teens, the trick is picking the right destination. Somewhere that offers hands-on activities, inspiring history, and even an animal or two can turn the dreaded “When will we be there” into “Where will we go next?”
NEW YORK CITY
Between 1892 and 1924, more than 17 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island; today, their descendants account for 40 percent of Americans. Go on a hunt for your ancestors at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, where for $5 you can search through millions of records to find the exact date your relatives sailed into the Port of New York, as well as which ship they were on and whether they traveled with other family members. (Bonus: copies of the documents are yours to keep.) And don't miss the construction of the Peopling of America Center, which cost $20 million to build and is slated to open in 2012. The new space focuses on U.S. immigration from 1955 (when Ellis Island closed) to the present, and houses interactive multimedia exhibits, like a touch screen that reflects demographic changes in American cities over time (ellisisland.org, adults $17, children $9, children under 5 free). The American Museum of Natural History is a magnet for kids of all ages, with its iconic "dinosaurs in the attic"—featuring some of the world's best reconstructed dinosaur skeletons—and colossal blue whale model suspended from the ceiling of its hall of marine life (amnh.org, $19).
With more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing 800-plus species and subspecies, the San Diego Zoo is one of the most diverse in America. But its coolest attraction—literally—is the Polar Bear Plunge, which has reopened after a $1 million makeover. Aside from permanent polar residents Kalluk, Chinook, and Tatqiq, new features include a snow den you can burrow into (the snug space mimics where female bears birth their cubs); a helicopter used on actual Arctic explorations that invites climbers into the cockpit; and the Experience Wall, where zookeepers open the glass panels surrounding the bears' habitat, letting them sniff at visitors through wire mesh (sandiegozoo.org, ages 12 and up $40, ages 3-11 $30). SeaWorld San Diego continues the wild theme of this Southern California city, allowing kids to have a Dolphin Interaction, Shark Encounter, splash along one of its many thrill rides, and of course take in one of the park's legendary sea mammal shows (seaworldparks.com, adults $78, children $70).
Families visiting Barcelona for the first time often report that the city has a fairytale, made-for-children quality about it. That, no doubt, is thanks to the imaginative artists who have helped make the extraordinary place that it is. La Sagrada Família, architect Antoni Gaudí's famous basilica, is as stunning as people say, but it's one of Barcelona's most popular attractions, so you'll want to arrive when it opens, at 9 a.m. (sagradafamilia.org, $11). Then wander the alleys and hidden squares in the Barri Gòtic, or Gothic quarter. Xocolateria La Xicra, on the Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol, makes a decadent chocolate con churros (hot chocolate with doughnut-like sticks for dipping). Next, head to Museu Picasso, in the La Ribera neighborhood, to learn how the master's famous Blue Period came about during his stay in Barcelona in the early 1900s (museupicasso.bcn.cat/en, $8).
NIAGARA FALLS, NY
Sure, your grandparents honeymooned there, but the majestic waterfalls straddling the U.S.-Canada border are worth a 21st-century trip. Ever wonder what it's like to be a rubber ducky in a massive bathtub? Sign up for the Cave of the Winds tour, which begins after you change into a complimentary yellow poncho and sandals (trust us, you'll need 'em). After riding an elevator 175 feet down into the Niagara Gorge, you'll stand on the Hurricane Deck, where you'll be drenched by the tropical-storm-like spray from the 181-foot Bridal Veil Falls, where the water falls at a rate of up to 68 mph (niagarafallsstatepark.com, Cave of the Winds operates May 1-Oct. 25, adults $11, kids 6-12 $8, 5 and under free).
ST. AUGUSTINE, FL
Swashbucklers, hoist your sails and head for the artifact-packed St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. This is the only place in the world to display an authentic pirate's treasure chest (property of Captain Thomas Tew roughly 400 years ago), plus a 19th-century Jolly Roger flag and an original "Wanted" poster with a 500-pound sterling reward for the capture of pirate Henry Every, dated 1696 (thepiratemuseum.com, adults $12, children under 5 free). St. Augustine's historic district, founded in 1565, is a mecca for history buffs and window-shoppers alike, built around a central plaza that is the oldest public park in the U.S., the district includes St. George Street, a pedestrian walkway with museums, restaurants, and shops. Cannon-firing demonstrations take place Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at the Castillo de San Marcos fort (nps.gov/casa, adults $6, children under 16 free).