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The Best Hotels for Families

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The number of family vacations jumped 25% from 2000 to 2001, and the kid-friendly service now found at hotel chains nationwide is certainly supporting that trend. In fact, given the wealth of amenities and activities that hotels are offering in order to cater to children, there has probably never been a better time to travel as a family.

But vacation days are precious and trips are pricey, so Child surveyed hotel chains across the country as part of a comprehensive six-month investigation, the first of its kind. Our goal: to determine which are the most family-friendly and most likely to offer you a relaxing time away from home. We started with a list of hotel chains from Smith Travel Research and the American Hotel Lodging Association, narrowing the field to those that offer at least 10 locations in the U.S. and have, at all properties, an on-site restaurant that welcomes children.

Each of the 45 chains that met this initial criteria received a detailed 66-question survey developed in conjunction with our expert advisory board consisting of travel professionals -- all of whom are parents too. The criteria examined included the extent and uniqueness of the children's program, staff training, safety concerns such as window locks and childproofing kits, kids' menus, child-size furniture, family discounts, amenities like welcome gifts and free diapers, and more.

Although we didn't factor room rates into the rankings because they vary widely even within chains, kids stay free at each of the top 10 hotels.

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Courtesy of Portofino Bay Hotel at
Universal Orlando, A Loews Hotel

Number of U.S. properties: 16 in 9 states plus the District of Columbia

  • Offers the Loews Loves Kids program, which gives children under 10 a free gift bag at check-in and allows parents access to a Kids Kloset with books, toys, baby supplies, and childproofing kits
  • Features kids' suites -- rooms with cute decorations and kid-size furniture inside main suites -- at some locations
  • Permits the family pet to stay at the hotel -- it's welcomed with a personal note from the hotel's general manager
  • Will soon update its kids' menus with recipes such as 1-2-3 Lasagne from Emeril Lagasse's children's cookbook

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 4 to 12 at seven locations. Babysitting can be arranged at all locations.

A sunken Royal Bali Sea steamship, a gondola ride, and interactive water-play areas are just a few of the imaginative concepts that make Loews properties attractions in themselves. Each location capitalizes on its surroundings to create innovative programs for kids.

For instance, the Ventana Canyon Resort, nestled on 93 acres in the foothills of the Catalina mountains in Tucson, offers a package in which kids ages 6 to 13 can "camp out" one night in sleeping bags or tents on the resort's upper terrace while they hear ghost stories, eat s'mores, and watch the stars with an astronomer. The next morning kids meet up with their parents for a pancake and waffle breakfast. The Regency in New York City, which fills dishes in its common areas with M&Ms, often teams up with nearby FAO Schwarz to schedule children's activities. At Loews Miami Beach, a pool concierge distributes free Italian ice to children and invites them to play Twister bingo, build sandcastles, or take salsa lessons with Mom and Dad.

The chain also acknowledges the growing number of grandparents traveling with kids. Through its Generation G program, it offers discounts on adjoining rooms and hands out amenities like a photo album and a disposable camera.

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Number of U.S. properties: 23 in 12 states and the District of Columbia

  • Dedicates facilities just for children at all resort properties, with spacious play areas, games, and stuffed animals either within public areas of the hotel or in a separate building on-property
  • Offers free kids' movies and seasonally discounts adjoining rooms
  • Greets children upon arrival with a snack
  • Gives kids bathroom amenities at most locations, including shampoo, sponge toys, and a stepstool to reach the sink

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 5 to 12 at 15 locations. Babysitting can be arranged at all locations.

The Four Seasons proves that "upscale" and "family-friendly" are not mutually exclusive. Sand sculpture contests, pastry kitchen extravaganzas, hula dancing, photo safaris, and bocce ball games are among the unique supervised activities at the Kids for All Seasons program. Even gourmet dining has been made kid-friendly with fun Sunday buffets featuring jungle and beach displays.

"Four Seasons started as a hotel geared primarily to business travelers," says Wolf Hengst, president of worldwide hotel operations. As those guests began to travel with their families, and the company opened its first destination resorts, it started offering kid-friendly versions of its hallmark items, like mini bathrobes.

Eventually, this evolved into Kids For All Seasons, which is designed to take advantage of each resort's natural surroundings. "Activities such as learning about local crafts, folklore, and cooking allow children to have great vacation experiences that resonate as much as Mom's two-hour spa treatment or Dad's hole-in-one on the greens," Hengst says.

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Number of U.S. properties: 115 in 31 states and the District of Columbia

  • Offers family suites with brightly colored bunk beds, art tables, and child-size chairs at some locations
  • Drops price of second room or second night by 50% on weekends
  • Shuttles families to nearby attractions and shopping areas at no cost
  • Satisfies young appetites with such fun and nutritious food as fruit pizza and ants on a log (celery sticks filled with peanut butter and raisins)

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 5 to 12 at eight locations. Babysitting can be arranged at all locations.

Two years ago, Wyndham launched Family Retreat Programs so that rather than just take advantage of drop-off children's activities, parents and their kids can book joint options such as cooking classes, campfire stories, and even spa treatments. The selection varies by resort.

Another hotel program, Wyndham ByRequest, allows parents to register favorite activities, toys, and snacks, which will be waiting for families upon arrival. ByRequest tracks these preferences so that every time parents notify the resort that they're traveling with children, the extras will be in place.

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Courtesy of Six Continents
Hotels, Inc.

Number of U.S. properties: 1,013 in 50 states and the District of Columbia

  • Designates at least 75% of its guest rooms as non-smoking, among the highest percentages in our survey
  • Serves applesauce with p.m. meals and substitutes carrots for french fries
  • Offers a Children's Activity Room at all Holiday Inn Sunspree Resorts and Family Suites Resort properties
  • Gives a rubber-frog bath toy to kids as a welcome amenity

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 7 to 11 at 25-plus locations. Babysitting is also offered at some locations.

More recent innovations include KidSuites, a room within a room where children can play video games, watch their own TV programs, and sleep in bunk beds. The suites, which debuted in 1996, now number 1,100 and are scattered among 40 locations.

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Number of U.S. properties: 65 in 24 states and the District of Columbia

  • Pampers children under 3 with Molton Brown holistic skincare items
  • Cradles infants in custom-designed Heavenly Cribs with four-inch-thick mattresses and linens with a cloud motif, both of which are certified by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
  • Offers a second room at a single rate, even if multiple family members use it
  • Allows parents to pre-order kids' meals

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 3 to 12 at 19 locations. Babysitting is available at some locations.

"The Sad Shoelaces," "An Angel Beside Me," and "Broccoli, Beets, and Baseball" are a few of the bedtime stories available through the speakerphone in Westin guest rooms. Plus, parents are presented upon arrival with a bag containing a safety kit (consisting of a night-light, socket protectors, and bandages), various kids' amenities such as a sports bottle, and a list of additional items like a bottle warmer and stroller that are available upon request.

"We conducted focus groups with our associates who have young children and asked them to walk us through family trip planning, arrival at the hotel, and the hotel stay itself," says Sue Brush, senior vice president. "When we researched the competition, we discovered that all the programs started with children ages 3 or older. That's why we decided to include elements that are just for infants."

Regarding the supervised children's programs: "Each one is tailored to the destination," Brush says. "In Hawaii, kids might go on a catamaran ride, while at Hilton Head, they can ride bikes on the beach, and at the Westin Mission Hills Resort near Palm Springs, they can explore the desert."

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Number of U.S. properties: 180 in 43 states

  • Weaves cultural and active elements, such as lei-making, horseback-riding, and canoeing, into kids' programming
  • Provides evening activities for kids, such as movies and s'mores around a bonfire
  • Shuttles families at some properties to neighboring attractions at no cost
  • Presents children with such healthy menu items as smoothies and yogurt

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 4 to 12 at six locations. Private babysitting can be requested at all locations.

As part of a major renovation to appeal to families, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts now offers Sweet Sleeper Cribs, which boast upgraded safety features and brightly colored linens with car motifs. An added safeguard: The hotel staff is schooled in proper crib installation.

Another new feature is Sheraton's Service Promise, which gives families a credit toward their stay or a certificate for a future stay should they be disgruntled, according to Norman MacLeod, executive vice president. "The Sheraton team is developing a brand-wide children's program, which we hope to launch in the near future," MacLeod says.

Programs currently include a Keiki Adventure at the Sheraton Molokai Lodge and Beach Village in Maunaloa, HI, where kids can learn the hula and ukulele. At the Sheraton Bal Harbour in Miami, activities include beach and pool fun along with arts and crafts.

Number of U.S. properties: 218 in 39 states and the District of Columbia

  • Gives kids a red or blue Vacation Station bag for storing small toys
  • Presents families with an information packet highlighting kid-friendly activities and discounts for local attractions
  • Offers free shuttle service to nearby attractions at most locations
  • Uses guest feedback to adapt its family-friendly offerings

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 4 to 12 at 12 locations. Babysitting is available at some locations.

What better way to enjoy the Wild West than to pan for gold, make and eat salsa, and play in a tepee? Hilton's children's programs are designed to take advantage of each destination's unique flavor, according to Joanie Flynn, vice president of leisure marketing. The Western theme is available at the Coyote Camp at Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix, while the Hilton Hawaiian Village boasts Keiki (kids) programs with fun field trips to the Waikiki Aquarium and the Honolulu Zoo. The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa in Florida offers a Kids Krew program with a different activity daily.

Even some properties that don't have supervised kids' programs offer games, toys, and advice on where to go for family fun at the Vacation Station desk, an idea supported by customer research.

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Number of U.S. properties: 112 in 30 states and the District of Columbia

  • Greets children with a welcome activity book and a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee
  • Rewards children who visit four Hyatt Hotels or Resorts with a fun passport program, redeemable for gifts
  • Incorporates nature walks and language classes into its kids' programs
  • Discounts a second room, based on availability, for kids 18 and under

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 3 to 12 at 18 locations. Babysitting is available at some locations.

"We abandoned putting kids in a room with Nintendo years ago," says Victor Lopez, a divisional vice president. Instead, the chain's children's program keeps kids active with scavenger and sea-shell hunts, pool fun, and nature hikes. Plus, it routinely schedules programming that parents and children can enjoy together. A favorite: dive-in movies, where a film is projected onto a wall by the pool so families can watch the flick while they swim or float.

Because the programs have become so complex, the staff members are chosen very carefully, Lopez says. "We tend to hire sophisticated camp counselors, so someone who is very knowledgeable about Puerto Rico wouldn't necessarily be suitable for Hawaii."

Taking advantage of the boom in intergenerational travel, Hyatt offers the new Srai-Wi (Native American for "gathering children together") program at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort Spa on the Santa Ana Pueblo. There, parents, children, and grandparents can take advantage of such educational and enjoyable experiences as horseback-riding, yoga, and breadmaking classes.

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Number of U.S. properties: 32 in 15 states and the District of Columbia

  • Hosts themed children's teas such as teddy bear, Halloween, and Nutcracker
  • Enhances holidays with sleigh rides on the beach and Santa tuck-ins
  • Provides families with childproofing packets upon arrival; they include safety plugs, diaper cream, and bandages
  • Offers kids' Concierge Floor lounges in select properties on busy weekends

Supervised Children's Program:

For kids ages 3 to 10 at 16 locations. Private babysitting is available at all locations.

At The Ritz-Carlton, kids receive the same impeccable service as adults. A butler will draw a bath for small fry and hand out treats -- usually a rubber duck and milk and cookies. Some Ritz spas give children their first manicure or pedicure. "We determined, with a committee of working mothers, what kinds of programs and amenities we should offer families," says Vivian Deuschl, vice president of public relations. "Then we tailored the services to each hotel."

The Ritz-Carlton, New York-Battery Park provides teddy bear tuck-ins, a toy and game menu from FAO Schwarz, telescopes in harbor-front rooms for a close-up look at the Statue of Liberty, and bike rides along the scenic Esplanade of lower Manhattan. At the new Bachelor Gulch ski property in Avon, CO, kids can borrow the resort's friendly Labrador retriever for extra fun on their vacation. And The Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes Orlando, which is scheduled to open sometime this summer, will feature kids' suites with children's furniture and decor as well as a separate check-in and lobby area for little ones.

Number of U.S. properties: 37 in 18 states and the District of Columbia

  • Presents children with an Omni Kids Bag -- packed with a fun activity book, crayons, slap bracelet, and a deck of cards they can color -- at check-in
  • Entertains children with Oliver the Omni Cat, a mascot that appears on menus, cups, and playing cards
  • Stocks guest-room minibars with such kid-friendly items as cookies, gummy bears, and fruit juice
  • Guides families to local fun with a Top 10 Kid-Friendly Attractions List, customized for each property

Supervised Children's Program:

Though Omni lacks a supervised children's program, it offers family-friendly activities and babysitting can be arranged.

The chain rolls out the red carpet for children, featuring indoor arcades, outdoor playgrounds, and even smiley-face pancakes at select locations. "We began offering numerous activities for children in response to the growing trend of business travelers' extending business trips into family vacations," says Caryn Kboudi, vice president of marketing.

So families can make the most of their stay, the hotel concierge will arrange outings -- including giving discounted or free tickets to local attractions -- and call before you arrive to brainstorm ideas.

The chain also offers a kids-only Web page, www.omnikidsrule.com, where children can submit ideas, play with a coloring book, keep vacation journals, and participate in contests (that's how Oliver the Omni Cat got his name). Staff members also track the site -- for example, a poll asks children what they most often forget when traveling -- with an eye to updating kids' amenities.

The Five Runners-Up

11. Doubletree Hotels
12. Embassy Suites
13. Hilton Garden Inn
14. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
15. Marriott Hotels & Resorts

Child's Panel of Expert Advisers

The following travel professionals served on the advisory board for this story: Lauren Goldenberg, a New York City-based travel agent specializing in family vacations; Dennis Marzella, an executive vice president-partner of research at Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, a leading travel-industry marketing agency based in Orlando; Kyle McCarthy, a New York City-based editor of FamilyTravelForum.com; Kirby Payne, 2002 chair of the American Hotel & Lodging Association in Washington, DC; William Travis, an editor at Fodor's in New York City; and Pat VandenHeuvEl, a freelance travel writer in Leesburg, VA.

To determine the most family-friendly hotel chains, we started with a list of chains from Smith Travel Research and the American Hotel Lodging Association. Then we narrowed the field to those that offer at least 10 locations in the U.S. and have, at all properties, an on-site restaurant that welcomes children. Each of the chains that met this initial criteria received a 66-question survey developed by an expert advisory board covering the following topics:

  • The accommodations such as the availability of family suites, adjoining rooms, smoke-free rooms, children's furniture, cribs, and childproofing kits
  • The in-room amenities such as in-room refrigerators, electronic entertainment, children's movies
  • The discounts offered such as whether children stay or eat free
  • The children's facilities such as playgrounds, arcades, swimming pools, baby pools
  • The extent and availability of children's programs and private babysitting
  • Welcome amenities for children

The surveys were then graded, and the winners featured in the May issue of Child magazine.

1. Loews Hotels:
 
2. Four Seasons Hotels And Resorts:
 
3. Wyndham Hotels & Resorts:
 
4. Holiday Inn Hotels and Resorts:
 
5. Westin Hotels and Resorts:
 
6. Sheraton Hotels and Resorts:
 
7. Hilton Hotels:
 
8. Hyatt Hotels and Resorts:
 
9. The Ritz-Carlton:
 
10. Omni Hotels:
 

If you're planning on taking a family vacation this summer, be sure to ask the following questions before you make reservations at a hotel or resort.

  • What's the cancellation policy? You may want to opt for a hotel that will at least allow you to re-schedule your stay without penalty in case your child gets sick at the last minute.
  • Can I sign up for the children's program now? You may want to make arrangements in advance so your child is guaranteed a spot.
  • Can you fax me a list of family-friendly activities in the area? That way you can determine if there's enough to keep your family happy. Another advantage: You can develop an itinerary and order tickets before you leave home.
  • Will you guarantee me a non-smoking room? Make sure that you let the reservation agent know that this is not a preference -- it's a necessity.
  • Can you arrange for a crib to be ready in the room when I arrive? Your baby may be ready for a nap when you get there --and you don't want to wait for one to be set up.

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