Washington, D.C., Orlando, and Chicago
3. Washington, D.C.
Hit the Streets Most of the family-friendly attractions in D.C. are free, so there's no pressure to stay all day to get your money's worth. While the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (dinosaurs galore) and National Air and Space Museum (lunar rockets) are obvious stops on the National Mall, don't miss the National Museum of American History. Kids can see Dorothy's ruby slippers and Harry Potter's Hogwarts robe. "Take breaks by riding the carousel or flying a kite on the mall," suggests Eileen Ogintz, author of The Kid's Guide to Washington, DC. While not near the other main attractions (you'll have to hop on the Metro), the free National Zoo -- with its 2,000 animals, including pandas -- is well worth the hike. Another favorite: The National Portrait Gallery in Chinatown. "We love the big, bright atrium where we can take the kids to see portraits of the presidents," says resident Tricia Bowman Pietravalle, a mom of three. "And if you have a crawler, you'll appreciate that the gallery is mostly carpeted." For a fun meal, try Jaleo, in Penn Quarter, which serves up tapas on a glass-covered foosball table so you can play between courses. Or go celeb-watching at Carmine's Italian restaurant across the street.
Hit the Sheets Just six blocks from the White House, the Hotel Rouge entices kids with animal-themed bathrobes and a goldfish bowl in the room. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $149 per night and bunk-bed rooms that sleep up to six start at $219. Use the promo code PARENT for a 10 percent discount; rougehotel.com.) Or stay in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, at The Residence Inn Alexandria Old Town/Duke Street and catch the Metro to D.C. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $109 per night; marriott.com.)
Hit the Streets "Pick three or four theme parks to visit on a weeklong trip -- fewer if your kids are under age 5," says Ogintz, the founder of TakingtheKids.com. Disney's Animal Kingdom offers a new Wilderness Explorers program with sticker badges and field guides for kids ages 7 to 10, while SeaWorld Orlando opened the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin exhibit in May ($89 for 12 and up, $81 for kids 3 to 11, free for younger kids). The highlight: a chilly ride through the South Pole. Princesses will delight in the Magic Kingdom's made-over Fantasyland (with a new castle for Belle) while kids obsessed with superheroes, Transformers, or Harry Potter may prefer the two theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort ($140 for 10 and up, $130 for kids 3 to 9, free for kids under 3, for a two-day ticket to both parks). Universal's new attraction Transformers: The Ride -- 3D opened in June. On very hot days, head to a water park; Wet 'n Wild Orlando ($55 for 10 and up, $50 for kids 3 to 9, free for younger kids) and Disney's Typhoon Lagoon ($52 for 10 and up, $44 for kids 3 to 9, free for younger kids) have fun sections for younger kids. Balance the rest of your trip with lower-key stops like the Orlando Science Center ($19 for 12 and up, $13 for kids 3 to 11, free for younger kids) or Lake Eola. "My kids like riding the swan boats and feeding the ducks there," says Orlando resident Melanie Edwards, who blogs at modernmami.com.
Hit the Sheets To be near Walt Disney World, stay at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek; 84 of its 400 rooms have bunk beds and two sinks -- one is kid-size. (Rooms with two double beds start at $159 per night and bunk-bed rooms start at $239 per night. Get 15 percent off a two-night stay and a $50 resort credit with the promo code PARENTS; wyndham.com.) Have a large family, or bringing the grandparents? Book a two- bedroom suite, which sleeps eight, at Sonesta ES Suites Orlando. A kitchen, pool, and free breakfast are perks. (Rates for a two-bedroom suite start at $149 per night; sonesta.com/orlando.)
Hit the Streets Three of the city's must-do attractions are happily right next to each other. While Sue, the largest, best-preserved T-Rex on the planet, is the star of The Field Museum, the new Creatures of Light exhibit, with interactive features like iPad games and a glow-worm cave, will wow kids too ($23 for 12 and up, $16 for kids 3 to 11, free for younger kids). The Shedd Aquarium's aquatic show, featuring dolphins, whales, and sea otters, is breathtaking, especially with views of Lake Michigan ($35 for 12 and up, $26 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for younger kids, with advance online purchase of the "total experience pass.") The Adler Planetarium offers eight different shows, including One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure ($22 for 12 and up, $18 for kids 3 to 11 for admission and one show). In another part of town, take a break from the bustle at the North Park Village Nature Center. "It has a forest preserve with a waterfall, ponds, and wildlife you wouldn't expect to see in Chicago," says resident Karen Harmon Curin, a mom of two. Other ideas for your to-do list: American Girl Place, the Lego Store Chicago next door, and Navy Pier, which has fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday through Labor Day.
Hit the Sheets An easy walk to attractions, the newly renovated Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile woos kids with an indoor pool. (Rooms start at $179 per night. Get a 10 percent discount with promo code PARENTS; hyatt.com.) In the Lincoln Park neighborhood near the free zoo, Hotel Lincoln has family suites with bunk beds, a kids' table and chairs, and a step stool. (Family suites start at $309 per night. For a 10 percent discount, call the hotel at 855-514-8112 and mention Parents; jdvhotels.com.)