Archives for Great Family Vacations

Get free admission to national parks on Monday

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 3:25 p.m. January 17, 2014

Assateague Island National Seashore.

Photo: National Park Service

Some of the best views in the U.S. look even better when they’re free. Take advantage of nine days of complimentary admission to America’s national parks—the first is Jan. 20—so you can savor the spectacular scenery and discover the history of these unique places.

“The entrance fees aren’t that expensive, but the National Park Service wants to eliminate any barrier to enjoying the parks,” says spokesperson Kathy Kupper. Typically, children younger than 16 enter without cost and adult fees range from $3 per person to $25 per vehicle for everyone in the car. The get-in-gratis days eliminate those charges at 133 facilities; the remaining 268 parks and monuments of the 401 in the national system never charge entrance fees.

“Most Americans live within an hour or two of a national park,” says Kupper. “Yosemite is not too far from San Francisco, Olympic National Park is reasonably close to Seattle, Joshua Tree is near Los Angeles and the Everglades are easy to reach from Miami,” says Kupper.

The National Parks Trolley, which debuted Jan.4, makes it even easier to access both the Everglades and Biscayne National parks from the Miami area. The shuttle departs from Homestead’s Losner Park every Saturday and Sunday through April. As part of a partnership between Homestead and the parks (separate from the National Parks free days initiative), trolley riders always receive complimentary transportation and admission to the Everglades and Biscayne National parks.

Along with making access more affordable, another goal of the National Parks free days is to remind people of the dramatic views, history and engaging activities available in the parks. (Although free days waive entrance fees, activity fees may apply).

At Florida’s Everglades National Park, a 1.5 million acre subtropical wilderness, for example, you can paddle through mangrove – lined creeks and look for alligators as well as view manatees, bald eagles and dolphins on a naturalist led boat trip through the 10,000 islands.Admire river- carved canyons, desert vistas and keep an eye out for black bears in Big Bend National Park, Texas; learn about the ancestors of the Puebloan people as you view 700-year-old cliff caves at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, N.M.; and admire the wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore, Va. and Md.

The free entrance days for the National Parks are:

*Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day

*Feb. 15-17, Presidents Day Weekend

*April 19-20, opening weekend of National Park Week

*Aug. 25, National Park Service Birthday

*Sept. 27, National Public Lands Days

*Nov. 11, Veterans Day


10 memorable museum sleepovers for kids of all ages

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 12:48 p.m. January 7, 2014

Museum Sleepovers, Field Museum, Chicago

Photo: Field Museum

Bond with your kids — or grandkids — on a real night at the museum. You can go undercover on spy missions, learn the secrets of caves, discover the science of igloos, meet live baby bears and beluga whales and take flashlight tours through exhibits filled with fierce dinosaurs, huge walruses, mysterious mummies and much more.

Many sleepovers include big-screen movies or planetarium shows plus the chance to sleep near a T-rex, robot, coral reef or a real tiger. Budget-friendly, exciting, and easy to do, these overnights make great parent/child and grandparent/grandkids getaways. Just remember to reserve these popular programs way in advance as they sell out quickly. Here are 10 top museum overnights.

American Museum of Natural History, New York City, AMNH Sleepovers.

On a flashlight tour of the dinosaur exhibits, wend your way among such glowering creatures as the fierce-looking Tyrannosaurus rex with its 4-foot long jaw edged by 6-inch teeth. Get up close to live bats, wolves or even baby bears, depending on the evening’s Audubon Society presentation. Crafts may include creating a totem pole or making moon scratchings. Afterwards, watch the 3-D movie, Mysteries of the Unseen World, before bedding down beneath the iconic big blue whale.

Ages: 6 to 13. One adult required for every three children.

Cost: $145 per person, $135 for members.

Dates: Jan. 10; March 7, 15; April 5, 11; May 2, 17, 41; June 13, 21.

Contact: American Museum of Natural History.

Busch Gardens Tampa, Summer Nights Family Sleepovers, Jack Hanna Family Fun Sleepover

Close encounters with animals and guided hikes at night, a time when the critters tend to be more active, are signature elements of both the Summer Nights and the Jack Hanna Experience. On each you sleep in Tiger World, an indoor area with floor-to-ceiling window views of the tiger habitat. Owls, flamingos and alligators are some of the wildlife showcased by handlers on the Summer Nights Sleepovers, which also give you access to SheiKra, a gut-wrenching coaster with a 200-foot drop. Hanna, for his once a year event, has brought creatures as diverse as aardvarks and zebras to ogle. Listen to the famous animal ambassador’s tales and in the morning, learn about training and feeding tigers from the tiger team.

Ages: Kids in grade 3 or higher. One adult required for every two children.

Cost: 2014 prices are not yet firm. About $80. The fee does not include park admission, 10% pass member discount.

Dates: Summer Nights Family Sleepovers take place in June, July and August. Date to be determined for these and the Jack Hanna Family Fun overnight.

Contact: Busch Gardens Tampa.

Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Science Sleepovers

Build structures from marshmallows and Dixie cups, then test your item’s durability on an earthquake table during engineering overnights. Create snow dough igloos and figure out the essentials of electric currents, fog and bubbles on Polar Express sleepovers. General overnights cover the science — and importance — of sleep. Get a sense of how exhaustion impedes tasks by donning blurry goggles before completing a challenge and investigate ultraviolet light in a glow room. All programs include an OMNIMAX movie. Sleep near the space station, the robots, the coral reef or anywhere there’s carpet.

Ages: 4-10. One adult required for every eight children.

Cost: $35 per person.

Dates: Feb. 14 Engineering; March 15, 21, 28; Apr. 11,18; May 2; Oct. 24 Spooky Science; Nov. 21 Light Up Night; Dec. 13 Polar Express.

Contact: Carnegie Science Center,

Cincinnati Museum Center, Cincinnati, Caves!, Explore!

Choose from two overnight programs at this complex of museums. With Caves! learn about bats, beetles and other nocturnal life at the limestone caves in the Museum of Natural History & Science. Meet turtles, snakes or tarantulas at the docent-led talks. In the morning, watch the OMNIMAX film A Journey into Amazing Caves. With Explore!, you and your kids browse both the natural history facility as well as the Cincinnati History Museum on your own, pausing to talk to a steamboat captain, set type at the print shop, practice weaving with a pioneer woman and get hands-on at more work stations. In the morning view Tornado Alley, an OMNIMAX movie.

Ages: 8-12. One adult required for every four children.

Cost: $28 per person.

Dates: Caves! Jan. 10, Feb. 8, March 21, May 9. Explore! Jan. 25, March 22, April 18.

Contact: Cincinnati Museum Center.

Field Museum, Chicago, Dozin’ with the Dinos

Walk through an Egyptian tomb, past the sarcophagi and mummies on a flashlight tour of Inside Ancient Egypt and go on a night-time safari past mounted giraffes, hippos and lions in the African savannah exhibit. Depending on the worshop, touch monster-size bugs or uncover fossils. With a premium package and tour ticket, you also get a behind-the-scenes look at fossils, fish or other specimens with a museum scientist. Sleep on the main level with a standard pass, or bed down next to the dinosaurs with a premium pass.

Ages: 6 to 12. One adult required for every three children.

Cost: Standard $63 per person, $55 Field members; Premium package, $75, $65; Premium packages with tour ticket, $87, $77.

Dates: Jan. 10, 31; Feb. 7, 21, 28; March 14, 28; May 9, 30.

Contact: The Field Museum.

International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C., KidSpy Overnight: Operation Secret Slumber.

Morph into a secret agent to complete a clandestine mission. After you and your budding spies choose aliases, create disguises and memorize your new identities, the adults go undercover in one group while the kids work together in another. See which team does better at decoding messages, locating dead drops (where spies hide things in plain sight) and unmasking the mole in your midst.

Ages: 9 to 13. One adult required for every two children.

Cost: $115 per person, $105 for members.

Dates: Nov. 8-9, 2014. (The March session sold out months ago).

Contact: The International Spy Museum.

Milwaukee Public Museum, Overnights

By flashlight, trek past a Masai lion hunt in Africa, walrus and polar bears in the Arctic, fierce masks made by natives in New Guinea and other exhibits. Each overnight also includes a planetarium show or a giant screen movie plus themed hands-on activities. On the Mummies sleepover, make a mummy wrap or learn to fashion a figure according to the ancient Egyptian canon of proportions. Sleep near the forests in the Wisconsin Woodlands or the colorful figures in a modern powwow that’s part of A Tribute to Survival.

Ages: 6 to 12. One adult required for every five children.

Cost: $47 per person, $37 for members.

Dates: April 11 Safari; May 16 Raiders of the Lost Artifact; June 20 Wildlife Adventures; July 25 Mummies; August 15 Streets of Old Milwaukee.

Contact: Milwaukee Public Museum.

National Aquarium, Baltimore, Sleepover with the Sharks, Sleepover with the Dolphins.

Both the shark and the dolphin overnights feature hands-on labs and the chance to venture onto the Shark Alley catwalk so you’re inches above the toothy predators. On a shark sleepover, listen to the squawks and screeches of the nocturnal animals during a no-lights tour of the aquarium’s rain forest and touch real shark jaws, teeth, skin and egg cases in the Shark Discovery Lab. On a dolphin overnight, watch the clever mammals speed swim, jump and splash with their flukes in the dolphin amphitheater; and handle dolphin, seal and sea otter skulls in the Dolphin Discovery Lab. In the morning watch a trainer teach a dolphin to play ball and learn how to signal the intelligent creatures for a blowhole whistle or a fluke presentation.

Ages: 8 and older. One adult required for every 10 children.

Cost: $114.95, $102.95 members

Dates: Sharks: Feb. 14, 28; Mar 14; Dolphins: Jan. 3, 17, 31; Feb. 7, 21; Mar 7, 21, 28

Contact: National Aquarium.

Saint Louis Science Center, Camp Ins

Geared to a theme, the family camp ins feature science demonstrations, an OMNIMAX film or a planetarium show, free time to explore the museum and activities targeted to both older and younger kids. Teens construct an animatronic dinosaur while younger kids fashion the big critter’s teeth out of resin during Dinosaurs in Motion. Build rockets and use simulators to fly a plane as part of the Planetarium camp in. Learn about fingerprints, analyze germs in the Life Sciences Lab and solve a crime as part of the Sherlock Holmes sleepover.

Ages: Kids in grades K through 12 for Dinosaurs; K through 8th grade for Planetarium; 3rd grade through 12th for Sherlock Holmes. One adult required for every five children.

Cost: $50 per person; $45 members.

Dates: April 25 Dinosaurs in Motion; Sept. 19 Planetarium; Oct. 24 Sherlock Holmes.

Contact: Saint Louis Science Center.

SeaWorld San Diego, Father’s Day and Halloween Sleepovers

Polar bears, beluga whales and big walruses star in the Wild Arctic, Father’s Day overnight. Find out how these animals fit their environment, learning about their food, fat and, for the bears, their thick fur and powerful paws. Then roll out your sleeping bag near the viewing window to the polar bears’ habitat. On the Halloween Spooktacular, tour a special Animal Connections open house to find out how trainers care for the park’s turtles, lizards and birds and view snakes, spiders and other “spooky” creatures. Last year’s Halloween event, included breakfast with Shamu.

Ages: 4-14

Cost: June, $145, $115 for Premium Pass members; Oct. $165, $135 for Premium Pass members. Fees include park admission after breakfast.

Dates: June 14, Father’s Day; Oct. 25th, Halloween Spooktacular

Contact: SeaWorld San


The best gifts for family travel

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:48 p.m. December 17, 2013

Polaroid 2 tablet

The Polaroid 2 tablet keeps kids happily occupied with games, videos and drawing apps.

Families on the go have special needs. These products either cleverly engage kids, making travel time fly by, or the items offer simple solutions to big worries.


Polaroid Kids Tablet 2 For the product’s second generation, kid critics pointed Polaroid toward such improvements as increased speed, two cameras—front and rear facing—and more games. Bumpers add durability and the 1024 x 600 resolution for the 7-inch display makes the content look good. The tablet comes loaded with more than 70 books, apps, games and videos from the Cartoon Network, Marvel and Disney. Our kid testers, ages 6 and 8, especially liked the games and the art app, Drawing Pad, an award-winning app created by Darren Murtha Design. Ages 4-9. Polaroid, $150, sold exclusively through Toys R Us.

ALSO ONLINE: Coolest travel gifts for Christmas

Nabi Jr. At about 6.5 inches by 4 inches, the Nabi Jr. by Fuhu, fits into pre-schooler’s hands. The 5 inch display with 800 x 480 resolution, while not as crystal clear as other tablets, is fine for little ones. The home screen’s six squares represent six main options, making it easy for kids to choose. Along with a camera and a photo gallery, kids can pick sing-along ditties under Music, storybooks to read or hear aloud with MeeGenius, or complete basic math, reading and writing exercises with the Wings Challenge. Parents can add tasks to a chore list and reward kids with points. Tap the home screen’s row of dots to select from 30 simple games and apps. Kids can color, match animals, solve dinosaur-shaped puzzles and more. (We noticed some misspelled words in the Car, Ship & Rocket game). Despite that, the Nabi Jr. is a good basic tablet. More apps can be downloaded through Wi-Fi. Although Fuhu pitches Nabi Jr. for ages 3-6, the sweet spot is more likely ages 3-5. Fuhu, $100; $140 Nick Jr. version has games and videos with Nick Jr. characters.

Sensu Brush

Photo: Sensu Inc.

Fingers are often too fat for fine line creation and a regular stylus can create drag. The Sensu brush prevents these problems.


Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus This digital brush feels, looks and moves across a tablet or smartphone screen like something Monet might have used for his plein-air paintings. Fingers are often too fat for fine line creation and a regular stylus can create drag. The Sensu brush prevents these problems. Pair the easy- to-take-along tool with a kid-friendly artist’s app such as Drawing Carl, Finger Painter, or Fresh Paint and your children can create magical drawings to document your trip. The Sensu Solo has only a brush tip. The compact Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus has a brush on one end and a stylus for sketching, writing and erasing on the other end. Both Sensu products, definitely not just for kids, will delight painters, drawers, doodlers and dabblers of all ages. Sensubrush, $25 Sensu Solo brush; $40 Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus.

Light My Way Nightlight

Kids can carry the Light My Way Nightlight by Munchkin with them.(Photo: Matthew Fried)


Light My Way Nightlight Tots unaccustomed to sleeping in hotel rooms or even in grandma’s big house might worry about monsters that lurk in dark corners. But not with the Munchkin nightlight standing watch. The owl-shaped light, 6.25 inches high from base to top, looks like a friend and uses batteries. So instead of being stationary in an electric outlet, the big-eyed critter functions like a lantern, complete with easy to grasp handle. Your child can place the Light My Way on a night stand or take the owl with her to the bathroom. A timer turns the nightlight off after 20 minutes, but kids—or parents—can switch it back on for more sessions., $16.99 at Toys R Us, Walmart, Target and other retailers.


SafetyTat It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child too young to talk or to remember your phone number, goes missing at the amusement park, the airport, the museum or the shopping mall. Created by a mom, SafetyTats are temporary tattoos with your cell phone number that you can place on your tot’s arm. That way the kindly stranger who finds him will know whom to call. Online you can order the customized versions, applied with water, that come printed with your information (these last one to three days). The Quick Stick Write-on version, applied like a band-aid, comes with a marking pen, lasts longer and is available online and in stores. Safetytat, $6.99-$16.99.

More: Tips for stress-free family holiday travel


The best gift for families? A trip together!

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 3:02 p.m. December 15,2013

Best gift for families

A family on a guided safari outing from Davison’s Camp, Zimbabwe, view a herd of Cape buffalo.

Forget flat-screen TVs, robotic toys and even tablets. The trendy gift this season is a trip together, especially for families.

“Materialism is taking a backseat to experiences, ” says Darren Humphreys, owner Travel Sommelier, a safari and gastronomic travel company.  “The giver — the grandparent or the baby boomer — realizes that what’s important is spending time in a special environment with people who are important to you.”

That’s why trips trump other gifts for families. “Our busiest travel week is now Christmas week, “says Dan Austin, Austin Adventures president. “A big and increasing segment of our business is multigenerational travel.  Our multigenerational travel over the holidays has doubled,” says Austin.

Austin credits the bump to several things.  “We first started seeing an increase in gifts of multigenerational trips and grandparent/grandchild vacations in 2008-2009 when the economy was struggling. Adults were looking hard at what they were gifting. Giving time together is much more valuable than anything else. And we’ve seen double-digit growth for these trips every year since 2008/2009.”

Wilderness Safaris‘ North American manager Craig Glatthaar notes that the company’s family travel business has increased 20%-25% in the last five years. “With the technological revolution, we’ve become more and more detached from nature,” says Glatthaar. “The older generation wants to give the younger ones an appreciation for nature. We see more and more families with young children age 6 and older as well as more multi-generational trips with grandparents, their children and grandchildren.”

After all, think about what’s remembered fondly at family gatherings.  Last year’s big TV purchase may not even be mentioned. “You’re more likely to relive the adventure trip you took together,” says Austin, who sees Yellowstone as a stepping stone for a grandparent/ grandchild trip.

“Maybe the grandparents went there as kids and now want to show their grandchildren, “says Austin. “The next year that family is adding going further away so they might do the Canadian Rockies or Costa Rica and then the Galapagos or cycling trips in Europe.”

REI Adventures has also experienced a rise in holiday family trips. “A lot of times grandparents will take the whole family as a holiday gift, “says manager Cynthia Dunbar. ” The Galapagos and Costa Rica are popular over the holidays,” says Dunbar.  “We launched our family trips seven years ago and the number of departures has increased an incredible amount.”

Not only does adventure add fun, but it encourages interaction. “Out of your home environment, out of your comfort zone, you converse, you interact, “says Humphreys. ” On a safari a family is in a vehicle a couple of yards away from a lion.”

That gets families talking to each other.   Nancy Ozizmir, Greenwich, Conn., calls the South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe safari Travel Sommelier arranged last year for herself, her husband Dan, and children Daniel, 16, Annika, 13, and Charlotte, 9, “the best family vacation we have ever taken.”

Says Ozizmir, “On a ski trip, we ski at different levels so we’re apart a lot. A safari is very much about togetherness. We were together in the jeep with our guide. We were excited seeing the zebra, leopard, lions and rhinos. The kids learned so much.”

And not just about the animals. Humphreys arranged for the Ozizmirs to visit a small village in Zambia.

“The people were so happy to see us because they were curious and excited. We were too, ” says Ozizmir. “The villagers lived in mud or straw huts. There was one well for the whole village. Some kids didn’t have shoes, but the kids were smiling and laughing. My kids gave them piggyback rides. My kids were impressed by the villagers’ warmth. The people were lit from within. My kids realized that you do not need things to be happy.”

And that’s a timeless gift that can come from traveling together.

Best Caribbean resorts for families

by Candyce Stapen

The Caribbean has some of the best sands and the friendliest family resorts. At these six diverse properties, you and your children can encounter dolphins, ride horses in the surf, snorkel through schools of tropical fish, learn sailing and simply sit and chat.

The Bahamas: Atlantis Paradise Island

Atlantis in the Bahamas

Atlantis in the Bahamas is comprised of six resorts (three shown) and a water park.

This mega-resort has 3,414 rooms spread out in six locations on its sprawling property. Not just for families, Atlantis attracts gamblers to its casino and foodies to fine dining at Nobu and Mesa Grill. These items also play well for parent date nights and for multi-generational families with twentysomethings who want nightlife.

Atlantis’ show-stoppers are the marine life and habitats (among the largest open-air aquariums in the world), and the 141-acre waterpark. Both are free. More than 250 species and 50,000 critters live in the 14 lagoons and the 8 million gallons of salt-water tanks. View spiny lobsters, spotted eagle rays and schools of tropical fish in the Ruins Lagoon or dive (for an extra fee) the habitat with scuba-certified family members. Hammerhead, blacknose and reef tip sharks zig zag above you as you walk through an acrylic tunnel in Predator Lagoon. At The Dig indoors, ogle lionfish, 6-foot-long Moray eels, iridescent jellyfish, tiny seahorse and groupers weighing hundreds of pounds. Special experiences (get out the wallets) include petting stingrays, interacting with dolphins or sea lions and becoming a trainer for the day. Kids won’t get bored at the water park — home to 11 pools and 20 swimming areas. Young kids like the tube slides and water cannons at just-for-them Splashers and the mini-slides at Ripples. The Mayan Temple pool attracts families with its waterfalls and the Baths pool has a large deck. Don’t bother saving a lounge chair for your tweens and teens as they’re likely to be too busy plunging down the slides: Leap of Faith is a 60-foot nearly vertical drop, and the Serpent Slide is a twisting ride of dark moments and descent through a clear tunnel cut into the shark lagoon. At the Atlantis Kids Adventures Club, ages 3-12 engage in a variety of activities that include cooking classes, creating virtual postcards and directing and acting in their own movies. The caveats for this Bahama behemoth: cheap eats are hard to find and some of the wished-for experiences can be costly.

Dominican Republic: Club Med Punta Cana

Club Med Punta Cana

Club Med Punta Cana, winner of Trip Advisor’s 2013 “Top Family Hotels in the Caribbean” award, offers both ocean fun and a lagoon pool on the resort.

Club Med was there in the beginning, both as a pioneer of the all-inclusive concept and as an early devotee of the Dominican Republic. That accounts for the well-executed concept and for the Punta Cana resort’s ample setting on 75 beachfront acres along the eastern tip of the country. As the chain’s flagship in the Caribbean, the Punta Cana resort draws praise for its wide and long stretch of sandy beach, its reasonably good food, its comprehensive children’s program and its family suites. In August 2013, Punta Cana enhanced the Mini Club (ages 4 to 10) with three new themed rooms. At the Music Academy kids dance using Wii video games and play Dominican-inspired instruments. The Art Studio is the place for crafts and paintings and the Game Factory adds a digital and creative play space. Younger kids romp through the splash park’s fountains and slides. Ages 4 and older try the trapeze, play tennis, learn Zumba moves and — at week’s end — put on a show for parents. For an extra fee, nannies care for tots 4 months to 23 months at the Baby Club. With Club Med Passworld for teens, this hard-to-please group has its own hang-out. They can try island dancing, learn video editing and find out how to be a scratch DJ. Teens also keep busy sailing, windsurfing and playing tennis. All of Punta Cana’s 553 rooms can accommodate two adults and two kids under age 15. Some offer a separate bedroom off the main bedroom for the kids. For more space and service, consider one of the Tiara rooms — a two-bedroom, beachfront unit with 753 square feet. Guests have their own check-in area and a separate pool.

Jamaica: Half Moon

Half Moon Resort

Half Moon, owned by RockResorts, lines a two-mile-long beach. Families can enjoy water activities like kayaking, snorkeling, pedal boating and even interacting with dolphins.

In 2014, Half Moon, a 400-acre upscale property in Montego Bay, celebrates 60 years of operation — a testament to its combination of charm, service and setting. Managed by RockResorts since 2011, the resort exudes a British jewel-in-the-crown feel. The staff is welcoming, pools anchor the low-rise buildings, and the lush grounds bloom with bougainvillea and hibiscus; palm and seagrape trees shade the beach. Half Moon offers much to do without going off-property, an advantage for work-weary parents. You and your tweens and teens can swing through a round of golf on the 18-hole course and horseback ride along the beach — an outing highlighted by heading your mount into the surf for a swim. Young kids can go on pony rides (not in the water). For more animal interactions, get to know the resident dolphins at a beach encounter, best for little kids, or swim with the friendly critters at group or private sessions. Half Moon’s beach, although not wide, stretches for 2 miles. Kayaks and pedal boats are free; windsurfing and sailing on a Sunfish cost extra. At the grassy and gated Anancy Children’s Village, 3- to 6-year-olds go on crab hunts, have their faces painted, do gardening and get kissed by the dolphins. Seven- to 12-year-olds snorkel, make s’mores and learn reggae dancing. At the Hype Zone, teens sing karaoke and dance at the disco. Activities outside include mini-golf, water polo and tennis. After busy days, parents and college-age progeny can relax at the Fern Tree Spa, a 68,000-square-foot oasis with indoor and outdoor pools and treatments that employ coffee, herbs and other Jamaican elements. For families wanting more space and privacy, ask for the villas along the beach or the two-bedroom, oceanfront Hibiscus suites. Only some of the Royal Villas at the far end of the property have been recently renovated. Half Moon’s food is good and the service attentive at its several restaurants. Meal plans and packages are available. Families looking for a bit of luxury in a gracious setting with plenty of activities will enjoy Half Moon.

Mexico: Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Mexico

Grand Velas Resort

The Ambassador Class Pool is one of three separate infinity pools at the AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Maya

The Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort is for those who like all-inclusive resorts and, especially, for those who don’t. Situated on more than 80 acres in the Riviera Maya — not far from Playa del Carmen — Grand Velas is a rarity: an all-inclusive property that’s earned AAA’s highest rating of Five Diamonds. The accommodations, located in three areas called “ambiances,” rank as suites, not for their multiple rooms but because of their size. At 1,000 to 1,200 square feet, the rooms are larger than some city apartments. The adults-only Grand Class is beachfront. Of the two family options, the Zen units, set amid the tropical trees and mangrove thickets near the spa, require a shuttle ride to the beach and main buffet. The oceanfront Ambassador section is much more convenient. At the supervised children’s program, ages 4 to 12 make piñatas, fly kites, fashion jewelry and pair up for Wii tennis and bowling. Outdoors, teens play beach volleyball, swim and sunbathe. The new teen hangout features air hockey, foosball, billiards, Xbox and other games. During holidays and summer, the resort ramps up the teen program. Grand Velas works well not just for families with grade-schoolers, but for those with college-age and adult children and for grandparents accustomed to luxury resorts with upmarket amenities. At the 89,000-square-foot spa, among the Caribbean’s top-rated facilities, you and your family members age 16 and older relax first with a water journey. Soak aching shoulders under waterfall jets and soothe tight muscles with water sprays. Inhale calming herbal mixes in the steam room, slather on medicinal clay in another area, then shower and cool down in the ice room. Afterwards, indulge with a healing massage or treatment. Unlike at many all-inclusives, the food is not only abundant, it’s also good. Cocina de Autor, the resort’s signature restaurant won a AAA Five Diamond award. Serving Spanish fare, the chef’s inspiration for flavors and sauces comes from the items’ chemical composition. Other good choices are Frida, the Mexican restaurant, and Sen Lin, the Asian restaurant. Grand Velas isn’t perfect. While the umbrella-shaded beach stretches for 1,000 feet, the swimming area is relatively small. Most families congregate around the large Ambassador pool with its ocean view. Those wanting luxury and an all-inclusive price in Mexico’s Riviera Maya will like Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

St. Lucia: Coconut Bay Resort

Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa

Spanning across 85 acres, St. Lucia’s Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa reopened in 2005 after it took a serious hit post-9/11. Now it’s back and has a family-friendly side — Splash, which includes adventures such as paintball and water slides.

Not all noteworthy family resorts are costly. Moderately-priced Coconut Bay Resort, an all-inclusive strung along 85 acres of green lawns and palm tree-lined sands on St. Lucia’s south coast, features all the components for a child-friendly beach getaway. Those vacationing without kids stay in Harmony, the adults-only area fronted with a quiet pool. Families lodge and lounge on the resort’s Splash side, whose crowning jewel is the water park — a wetscape of twisting slides and a lazy river that’s great for floating via an inner tube. In Cocoland, home to the Coco Kidz Klub, youngsters cool off by dancing through spouting fountains and getting drenched by a bucket dump. For dry play, there’s a kid-sized zipline. The resort offers programs for wee ones to those 12 years old. Nannies watch infants to tots (up to 23 months old) in an air-conditioned nursery. Two- and 3-year-olds paint coconuts, bake cookies and watch puppet shows. Four- to 7-year-olds and 8- to 12-year-olds, careen down the water slides, go on nature hikes and play tennis. Teens have targeted activities during holidays and summer. The Coco Kidz Klub staff chronicles your kid’s activities in photographs so that your child can gift you with an album of these special moments at the vacation’s end. Renovations in 2011 and 2013 freshened the décor, upped the number of Splash premium rooms to 64, as well as rehabbed the pools. Kids can now swim up to their own pool bar to order fruit smoothies and other kid-friendly, non-alcoholic drinks. What don’t you get? Marble bathrooms, turn-down service, luxury furnishings and memorable meals. Although the food is reasonably good, recycled entrees do appear. Nevertheless, Coconut Bay Resort delivers a fun family vacation, especially for those on a budget.

Turks & Caicos: Beaches, Providenciales (Provo)

Beaches Resort

Beaches in Turks and Caicos offers enough family activities to have earned the Travel and Leisure’s award for #1 Hotel for Families in the Caribbean.

The three Beaches resorts lure families with all-inclusive prices, engaging children’s programs and meet-and-greets with favorite Sesame Street characters. At the 223-room Ocho Rios, Jamaica, resort kids can practice putts and swings at the chain’s only children’s golf program. However, the beach is relatively small. The 220-room Beaches Negril, also on Jamaica, features Pirates Island, an 18,000-square-foot water park, and stretches out on a long swath of Negril’s Seven Mile Beach. Although both Jamaica resorts deliver family fun, the 614-room Beaches Turks & Caicos is best for both its location on a swath of 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach and for the choices. At the 45,000-square-foot Pirates Island Waterpark, tots can play in their own pool, preschoolers climb a pirate ship and jump through water jets, and older kids zoom down water slides, body surf and catch their breath by floating along a lazy river. If you can get your kids off the sand and out of the waterpark, they’ll have plenty of things to do at the supervised children’s program that offers care for infants to 2-year-olds, as well as activities for ages 3 years through teens. Preschoolers and grade-schoolers delight in digging for seashells with Zoe, turning trash into treasures with Oscar the Grouch, learning about feathered friends with Big Bird and baking cookies with Cookie Monster. Tuck-ins, tea time and other special one-on-ones with a favorite Muppet cost extra. Teens learn to spin discs at the Scratch DJ Academy and meet and mingle at Liquid, the under-21 nightclub. Turks also offers more lodging options: 30 categories as opposed to the Jamaica resorts’ 11-12. When the Key West Village debuted May 2013, it upped the luxury by offering butler-serviced suites and villas, just in case you want additional space, privacy and pampering amid the happy family madness of this mega-resort.

Click here to see a lot more resort pictures.


What’s Florida’s best family beach?

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 12:52 p.m. November 7,2013

Families enjoy swimming, canoeing and kayaking at Florida’s Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne.


Florida’s beaches are famous. They lure the cold weather weary and put the sparkle in the Sunshine State. But the sands that edge the Atlantic from Amelia Island in the northeast south to Miami and beyond differ from those that stretch along the Gulf Coast from Fort Walton Beach in the northwest’s panhandle to Marco Island on the southwest.

USA TODAY celebrates Florida’s beaches with an east coast-west coast smackdown. Like all classic choices — tea or coffee, dogs or cats — each pick has its ardent proponents.

Dr. Beach,” a.k.a. Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Miami, assisted us in selecting contenders in five categories.

This week’s rivalry: family beaches. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the east coast faces off against Fort De Soto County Park on the west coast. To cheer for your favorite beach by turning it into a champ, vote below.

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park comes to the ring with a full mile of sandy white beach, killer views plus a knockout punch of family activities.

“The surf is gentle because there’s a big sandbar off-shore,” says Leatherman.  “Families can canoe, kayak, fish, bike and also tour the lighthouse.” Tackle the stairs and you and your kids win panoramic views of Miami from the Cape Florida Lighthouse. Dating to 1825 and rebuilt in 1845, the lighthouse is the oldest structure in Florida. The park is located in Key Biscayne near Miami.

Fort De Soto Park

Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park, Florida

Tall pine trees shade the shore at Pinellas County’s Fort De Soto Park.

Situated in Pinellas County, Fort De Soto weighs in with a walloping 1,136 acres on five interconnected islands that include nearly three miles of sandy beaches. “North Beach is the best beach for families,” says Leatherman. “It’s on the Gulf and has good swimming. The water is clear and calm. Families can also kayak through the mangroves, fish and boat.”

Kids like climbing the fort, built in 1898-1900 for the Spanish-American War. Tall pines shade the shore and covered picnic areas come with grills.  Four-pawed family members can romp in the dog park. Located in Tierra Verde at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fort De Soto Park is south of St. Petersburg.

So which beach is best for families? Cast your vote at this link. Voting ends Nov. 14 when we roll out a new Florida beach smackdown.

What’s the most tranquil beach in Florida?

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:01 p.m. October 31,2013

Don Pedro Island State Park

Don Pedro Island State Park off Florida’s Gulf Coast offers a respite for birds and beach lovers.


Florida’s beaches are famous. They lure the cold weather weary and put the sparkle in the Sunshine State. But the sands that edge the Atlantic from Amelia Island in the northeast south to Miami and beyond differ from those that stretch along the Gulf Coast from Fort Walton Beach in the northwest’s panhandle to Marco Island on the southwest.

USA TODAY celebrates Florida’s beaches with an east coast- west coast smackdown. Like all classic choices — tea or coffee, dogs or cats — each pick has its ardent proponents.

“Dr. Beach,” aka Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Miami, assisted us in selecting contenders in five categories.

This week’s rivalry: tranquil beaches. Anastasia State Park on the east coast faces off against Don Pedro State Park on the west coast. To cheer for your favorite beach by turning it into a champ, vote below.

Anastasia State Park's 1600 acres near St. Augustine, Fl

Anastasia State Park’s 1600 acres near St. Augustine, Fl., give beach lovers plenty of space to enjoy the sand and surf.

East coast: Anastasia State Park

With 1,600 acres, more than four miles of beach, plus a tidal salt marsh, Anastasia State Park is a heavyweight contender. “It’s a laid-back beach, a quiet, low-key place to visit,” says Leatherman, one that’s an easy five-mile drive from St. Augustine. The distinctive reddish color of the sand “comes from the Anastasia formation, a mix of coquina shells, limestone and coral,” says Leatherman.

Non-motorized watersports keep the peace. Bicyclists can pedal on the coarse, hardpacked sand and the “wide beach gives visitors plenty of room to spread out” says Martha Robinson, spokesperson for the Florida Department of State Parks. Kayakers paddle on Salt Run, a tidal marsh, and fishermen cast for flounder or snook in the surf.

Anastasia’s campgrounds are popular. The formation of the beach with its offshore ledge, notes Robinson, “is why you hear the waves breaking more loudly than at some other beaches. People find it very relaxing to listen to the tide at this beach.”

West coast: Don Pedro Island State Park

At 230 acres Don Pedro Island State Park, part of a chain of barrier islands off the Gulf Coast, has the charms of an off-the-beaten-path challenger. Situated between Knight Island and Little Gasparilla Island, Don Pedro can be reached only by the year-round ferry, Pirates Water Taxi, or by private boat. That lessens the number of visitors, making sunning and walking more solitary and serene than on easily reached shores.

Leatherman gives points to Don Pedro and its one mile of sand for beachcombing. “Don Pedro is one of the best places in Florida to find shark’s teeth. These black petrified teeth belonged to sharks millions of years ago.”

The park offers a respite for day-trippers; no overnight camping is allowed. You can fish as well as canoe and kayak in Lemon Bay and the island offers good wildlife watching. “You can spot southern bald eagles, royal terns, American oystercatchers and other birds,” says Robinson. “Between November to April you can see endangered manatees from the shore. In summer loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach.” For more quiet, take a gentle hike on trails laced with ferns that cut through the park’s interior.

So which beach lures you for its tranquility? Cast your vote at this link. Voting ends Nov. 7 at noon when we roll out a new Florida beach smackdown.


Arthur Frommer: ‘We believe in guidebooks’

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:26 p.m. October 29, 2013

Arthur Frommer and his daughter Pauline Frommer relaunch Frommer guidebooks with 30 titles.

Arthur Frommer and his daughter Pauline Frommer relaunch Frommer guidebooks with 30 titles.

Arthur Frommer, the guru of travel guides, together with his daughter and travel expert Pauline Frommer are relaunching Frommer guidebooks. With 30 titles in two formats, the books reach stores Nov. 1.

Why did the Frommers reacquire the rights to publish their books?

“We believe in the future of guidebooks, “says Arthur Frommer. “We do not accept the conventional wisdom that print guides are dead. A significant percentage of the public wants to carry a book with them.”

Forget about the 500-page behemoth books of the past Frommer series. The new guides are quick, easy to carry reads. The EasyGuides at 252 pages and the Day by Day volumes at 184 pages fit into pockets and purses.

Frommer’s 20 EasyGuides, priced at $10.95 each, cover top destinations such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami and Key West, London and Paris. The 10 Day by Day Guides, $13.95 each, are organized around neighborhood itineraries and shopping, arts, the outdoors and other interests. Titles include Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Prague and Rome.

We had the opportunity to talk with the Frommers about their guides and travel tips.

What makes your guides standout in a crowded marketplace that includes websites, apps and print products?

Pauline: We don’t think the “medium” — print vs. electronic — is what’s important. We understand that some readers will prefer paper, while others will want the information on their devices, and we’ll have our guides in both forms. What’s important is how these books are prepared, which is: by actual travel journalists, most of whom live in the destination. What we’re offering, therefore, is true expertise rather than disguised marketing, which is a huge problem for much of the content on user-generated websites and finely curated information.

Arthur: We are cost conscious to an extent you do not find elsewhere. We stress value. That’s what has made the Frommer series the leading series for 50 years. One out of every four guidebooks sold in the USA were Frommer’s guides.

What are five tips for getting the most out of travel in the 21st century?

Arthur: Visit off-season to avoid the crowds. That is the absolute key to having a better experience.

Pack light. Do not weigh yourself down with the burden of heavy luggage.

Use local transportation facilities to experience the city as a local does.

Pauline: Nobody has unlimited money. Figure out what’s important to you. If you really want to do scuba diving, then consider a less expensive lodging so that you have the money to do more scuba diving.

Take advantage of the power of the Internet to connect with locals. There are all kinds of meet-ups and clubs where you can have conversations with locals. Call all of your friends ahead of time to see if they know anyone in Prague or Taipei or wherever you are going. Offer to take friends of friends out to dinner.

Arthur: That dinner will be the most memorable evening of your trip.

What are some travel trends?

Arthur: The single strongest trend in recent years that people are substituting apartment rentals and vacation home rentals for hotel rooms. Travelers are contacting local rental agencies, and sites like FlipKey and Airbnb.

Pauline: Staying in a home instead of a hotel gives you a more authentic experience and it’s often cheaper than a hotel stay.

What are the most surprising new destinations on the horizon and why?

Arthur: Central America is becoming popular. Costa Rica and Panama and even Nicaragua is starting to receive visitors. Some of that has to do with airfare. With airfare is remarkably low even from distant regions like Maine.

What are some places on your personal bucket lists?

Arthur: There are very few places we haven’t been. I have never been to Tibet and I regret that. A tragedy in travel in recent years is the elimination of many countries in the Middle East as safe destinations. Everyone should see Egypt.

Pauline: I have been traveling since I was 4 months old with my parents and then on my own, but the world is vast. I have not yet been to New Zealand.


Discover underwater wonders at Toronto’s new aquarium

by Candyce Stapen @familyiTrips, USA TODAY 3:20 p.m. October 17, 2013

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada located in Toronto

Sharks zigzag overhead as you move through the 315-foot-long, clear tunnel in Dangerous Lagoon, a highlight of the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada located in Toronto.

Where can you see a 100-year-old lobster with claws the size of footballs, a 396-pound grouper and a three-inch seahorse?

They inhabit Toronto’s new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. The largest such facility in Canada debuted Oct. 16. Its 135,000 square feet showcases 16,000 marine animals from around the world and more than 450 species in 1.5 million gallons of water.

In the Canadian Waters Gallery, view mega-lobsters, as well as largemouth bass and a giant Pacific octopus. A moving sidewalk takes you through the Dangerous Lagoon, a 315-foot clear tunnel, the largest in North America. Look up to see sandbar sharks zigzag above your head and come eye-ball to eye-ball with barracudas and sawfish.

In Planet Jellies, admire moon, spotted and upside-down jellies as they pulsate and float. In the Gallery learn about fragile ecosystems and delicate critters such as red lionfish, leafy sea dragons and seahorses as tiny as three inches. At the touch tanks and pools, pet bamboo sharks, Atlantic stingrays and horseshoe crabs.

Limit your wait at the popular facility by obtaining timed-entry tickets online. Tickets from $29.15 adults, $19.43 Youths and Seniors, $9.70 children ages three to five. Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada.


Orlando for Halloween: Frightful or delightful

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY, 3:03 pm EDT September 23,2013

The Walking Dead haunted house at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 23.

The Walking Dead haunted house at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 23.

The scariest part of Halloween for parents may be what to do with the kids. Little ones clamor for costumes and candy, but often meltdown way before evening’s end. Teens crave prowling, but the sight of your masked 16-year-old and his buddies banging on strangers’ doors may make the mistress of the house more likely to reach for Mace than Mars bars.

What to do? Get over your family’s Halloween horrors by planning a getaway to Orlando. America’s theme park capital offers 13 weeks of Frightful Fun tailored to both teenagers and adults as well as to youngsters.

READ MORE: Orlando’s scariest attractions

Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights 23, named the nation’s best Halloween event for the sixth year in a row by Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards, stages its 23rd season of shriek-worthy events on select nights through Nov. 2. For those seeking more giggles than ghouls, several of Orlando’s attractions offer tame trick-or- tricks targeted to youngsters. More for your goodie bag: Fall is also the best time to visit Orlando’s theme parks, bringing pleasant, not steamy, days plus doable, not endless, lines.

Teens, 20-somethings and adults

Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights 23

On select evenings the park morphs into a masterfully eerie mix of eight haunted houses and streets prowled by cleverly made-up “scareactors.” Bond with your teens and 20-somethings as you try to make it through these terrifying dwellings and suburban neighborhoods based on scary pop culture television shows, video games and movies.

Walk through An American Werewolf in London, a take on the classic film of the same name, and witness the blood-curdling transformation of a college student into a creepy night prowler. Drop into Resident Evil, based on the horror video game series, and battle Zombies, Cerberuses and the dastardly Nemesis.

You can double-down on scream-worthy moments from Walking Dead, the popular AMC television series. In the show’s haunted house, “walkers”—zombies—pursue you as you push through prison halls, parking lots and other places in fictional Woodbury. The show’s relentless un-dead also take over this season’s Street Experience, an outdoor recreation of Walking Dead’s world. Trailing blood and bad manners, the zombies stalk the woods, survivor’s camp, and the farm, popping out at you when you least expect it.

During Halloween Horror Nights, you can also watch two edgy live shows and catch some rides. Among those remaining open is Universal Orlando’s newest, Transformers: The Ride-3D. Because the after-dark chills pack a wallop, Universal Orlando recommends Horror Nights for ages 13-years and older.

Details: Select nights Sept. 20-Nov. 2. Purchase a separate ticket for Horror Nights or add on the evening with a Stay & Scream ticket.

Orlando Halloween for youngsters

Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Park

Watch costumed Disney characters parade and listen to Cruella de Vil, Oogie Boogie sing and other not-so-mean villains sing. Select nights through Nov. 1

SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular

Grab sweets at Trick or Treat stations, meet fanciful critters such as Gummy Worm Wanda and Salt Water Taffy, and end the day at a dance party with Princess Penelope. Weekends in Oct.

LEGOLAND Florida’s Brick-or-Treat,

Ogle the world’s largest LEGO Jack-O-Lantern, build a spooky LEGO creation, follow the brick-or-treat-trail to find goodies, and greet friendly ghosts and Mr. Potato Head. Saturdays and Sundays in Oct.


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