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The 10 Best Family-Friendly Resorts

A children's program and a few swimming pools are no longer enough to make a resort a top pick for families. Vying for your travel dollars, resorts are offering services virtually unheard of a few years ago, like automatic childproofing of guest rooms, fine dining for kids and parents, and complimentary use of child necessities such as stepstools and baby bathtubs. They're giving tennis lessons to toddlers, acrobat training to preschoolers, and facials to kindergartners.

How do we know all this? For six months, Child studied the family features at U.S. resorts that focus on warm-weather travel. We sent a questionnaire to 341 properties culled from a list of resorts from Smith Travel Research and our advisory board of travel experts to see what they offered. About 170 semi-finalists received a 129-question follow-up survey about the activities, staffing, and cost for kids' programs; the activities families can do together; the range of dining options; the range of water activities for young kids; safety issues like the presence of lifeguards and security patrols; room design and size; and value, such as lower rates on second rooms for large families.

In the end, our winners emerged because they offered a perfect package -- ideal locations, great programming, and first-rate accommodations. The 50 runners-up were so impressive, though, that we listed them at the end of this article.

Few resorts are as opulent as The Breakers, with its Italian Renaissance-style architecture and magnificent landscaping. Yet the luxe design hasn't stopped the staff -- particularly general manager Trish Taylor, herself the mother of a 10-month-old -- from scheduling charming parent-and-child activities such as Friday night bonfires at the beach and weekend family kickball contests on the croquet lawn. A kids' camp, with groups for 3- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 12-year-olds, mixes indoor arts and crafts and outdoor fun like sandcastle building and scavenger hunts. Though parents are permitted (but not obligated) to stay, the camp assigns one counselor to every five kids.

At dinnertime, the most popular option with families is the Italian Restaurant, featuring brick-oven pizzas and fresh pastas. Servers deliver kids their entrees while adults enjoy appetizers. Then children can explore the attached 6,160-sq.-ft. Family Entertainment Center, which has blocks, train sets, tumbling mats, arts and crafts stations, a computer, and a small movie theater. All activities are supervised by the resort's staff. Says Taylor: "We created this space for parents whose kids eat dinner in a minute and a half and want to finish their meal at leisure, knowing their children are safe and having fun."

Accommodations:

On 140 acres of oceanfront, the luxury resort offers 560 rooms and 38 suites, all nonsmoking and renovated within the last two to four years; a room with two double beds ranges from 360 to 400 sq. ft.; suites start at 500 sq. ft.

Family Features:

Year-round kids' camp all day and some evenings; private babysitting with screened sitters; playground; free use of bottle warmers, mini refrigerators, stepstools, strollers, infant bathtubs, and childproofing items

Parents' Perks:

Five-diamond restaurant; two championship golf courses; 20,000-sq.-ft. spa; three fitness centers; designer boutiques

  • Boasts five swimming pools -- including a baby pool and a heated family pool, the most in our 10-best list; organized games such as ring toss and underwater checkers take place often, and lifeguards monitor all water activities
  • Has a summer Junior Golf Academy for kids 6 and up and a Tennis Academy for kids 3 and up
  • Commissioned Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, to design mascots for the kids' camp; the result: parrots Lulu, Loco, and Louie

The Winnetu Oceanside Resort aims to bring the simplicity and old-fashioned appeal of Martha's Vineyard to families. Preregistration isn't required for the kids' program, and parents can pick up and drop off their 3- to 12-year-olds anytime during operating hours. Counselors (one for every four to five kids) coordinate activities like treasure hunts, swimming, and group games, while the family program features remote-control boat races ? la Stuart Little and clambakes with magicians and s'mores.

This spring, owner Mark Snider is debuting another family component: The "Farmer for a Day" program will run every Saturday morning at the Farm Institute, which is across the street from the resort. Families will take a hayride to the farm to learn how to shear sheep, make goat cheese, and perhaps watch a live birth.

Accommodations:

Six studios and 48 one- to four-bedroom suites with kitchenettes make up this nonsmoking property on 51 grassy acres overlooking Martha's Vineyard South Beach, three miles from Edgartown; studios are 265 sq. ft. (they fit two adults and one young child), and suites start at 450 sq. ft.

Family Features:

Free children's morning program during the summer; evening program for 3- to 12-year-olds three nights weekly from June to late September; private babysitting with screened sitters; two outdoor heated pools plus baby pool; dive-in movies (family films shown poolside); walking path to the beach

Parents' Perks:

Adventure & Wellness Center with personal trainers, state-of-the-art gym, and free Pilates and yoga classes, opening May 19

  • Offers outdoor activities such as a peewee tennis club, life-size chess set, and playground
  • Operates the Osprey family dining room, where parents can order gourmet food while kids enjoy a buffet; there's also an entertainment area with toys
  • Drives guests around the property and local area in a 1929 Ford Model A Woody wagon, a 1931 Model A open-air bus, and a 1945 firetruck

On sunny days, an abundance of activities -- from soccer to swimming, craft-making to fishing -- engages 5- to 12-year-olds in Kingsmill Resort & Spa's Kids Kamp. But when the weather doesn't cooperate, the creativity of the camp's counselors -- one for every four kids -- really shines, says Kate Mearns, director of sports and spa. "Recently, we had each child make a building out of a big box and put them all together to form a city street for a movie set," recalls Mearns. "Then we invited the parents for a performance." Another forward-thinking activity that takes place indoors: a 90-minute evening spa camp for girls ages 5 to 12. The camp includes plush spa robes, nail-painting, and a mini footbath.

Accommodations:

Three-floor condos in villa-like clusters along the banks of the James River feature 375-sq.-ft. guest rooms and one- to three-bedroom suites, starting at 820 sq. ft., with kitchens and laundry facilities; all 425 rooms were renovated in 2004 and offer a patio or balcony

Family Features:

Seasonal kids' camp all day; evening kids' programs; private babysitting with screened sitters; indoor and outdoor pools plus baby pool with fountain, all staffed by lifeguards; dive-in movies; playground; kids' menu at all eateries; free shuttles to Busch Gardens, Water Country, and Colonial Williamsburg, all nearby

Parents' Perks:

Championship golf courses; spa with "Sampler Massage," combining classic Swedish, hot stone, aromatherapy, and other techniques; fitness center with 30 cardio stations

  • Features a marina with fishing equipment, kayaks, and paddle boats available to rent; a small, sandy beach along the marina is a perfect spot for picnics and shell-collecting
  • Offers golf for families with kids as young as 5 on the nine-hole, par-3 Bray Link; at night, families can play with glow-in-the-dark balls
  • Allows kids to roll dough for their own pizzas, either in the Kids' Evening Out program or at Regatta's restaurant, one of six on-site eateries

Child ranked Loews the best hotel chain for families in 2003, and its Coronado Bay Resort & Spa offers all the brand's kid-friendly features and more in a relaxed beach setting. Last summer, Loews piloted parent-attended playgroups for children ages 6 to 18 months and 19 to 36 months at the resort before launching them chainwide. During the 45-minute sessions, toddlers spend "A Day at the Castle," hearing fairy tales and trying on dress-up clothes. Infant sessions focus on movement and creative play with baby toys.

For children ages 4 to 12, the resort offers 50-minute kickboxing and yoga classes at the on-site spa and a camp, with one counselor for every four kids, during the summer and on school holidays. Campers decorate and fly kites, swim, and learn origami. Family activities include a baking class with the resort's pastry chef, poolside workshops on creating healthy kids' drinks, and family bingo. All programs reflect the resort's philosophy about its young guests: "In traveling with my family, I've been struck by how many resorts aim to keep kids quiet and out of sight," says Kathleen Cochran, general manager. "Here, we want kids to be seen and heard."

Accommodations:

Nestled on a private 15-acre peninsula bordered by the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay, 408 guest rooms (at 450 sq. ft. each) and 32 suites (starting at 700 sq. ft.) are nonsmoking and were renovated in 2005

Family Features:

Seasonal kids' camp all day and some evenings; private babysitting with screened sitters; private pedestrian underpass to the beach; families' and kids' heated pools; dive-in movies; toddler beds; childproofing upon request; free meals for children under age 5 at all restaurants; discounted second rooms

Parents' Perks:

One of the few spas in the country offering Watsu (water-based massage); farmers' market trips with the resort's head chef

  • Offers innumerable family conveniences -- from for-keeps items like sunscreen and baby shampoo to loaner baby swings, cameras, toys, and rain gear -- at no charge through its kids' programs and Did-You-Forget? Closet
  • Serves healthy, three-course meals for kids at its gourmet restaurant; nutritious options -- including a free appetizer of veggies and dipping sauces -- are offered at all on-site eateries
  • Greets children with a welcome gift bag, which includes an inflatable beach ball, a rubber bracelet entitling them to free beverages during their vacation, an age-appropriate toy, and a scavenger hunt game

Tennis is the name of the game at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. For 20 years, it has been introducing 3- to 6-year-olds to the sport through half-hour complimentary group sessions using smaller and lighter racquets. "Our professional instructors make sure the ball hits the kids' racquets," says president Katie Klauber Moulton. "Connecting with the ball is the fun part, not so much getting it over the net." Families can play free on any of the resort's 21 courts.

Even though tennis professionals practice on the courts and the resort has hosted national tournaments, the property still has a casual style. Says Moulton: "Kids don't have to cover up their swimsuits when they go inside, and guests often leave their racquets outside their front doors."

Accommodations:

This suite-only property, situated on 18 acres of uncrowded beachfront off the coast of Sarasota, offers 208 one- to two- bedroom accommodations with kitchens plus 26 specialty suites, including beachhouses; suites start at 780 sq. ft. and all are nonsmoking

Family Features:

Year-round complimentary kids' camp all day and some evenings; private babysitting with screened sitters; 800 feet of private beach; heated outdoor pool staffed by lifeguards; on-site gourmet market

Parents' Perks:

Spa with treatments such as salt glow rub; organized morning power walks; restaurant with award-winning wine list

  • Doesn't require preregistration for its camp, which is broken into groups for kids ages 3 to 6 and 7 to 12; it permits parents to drop off and pick up their children anytime during operating hours and has one counselor for every four campers
  • Boasts a beachfront playground with a slide, walking bridge, and several climbing features
  • Promotes family togetherness with sailing clinics, an Olympic challenge, and DeSoto's Gold Hunt for treasure on the beach

The flexible -- and ever-evolving -- family activities at The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island in northeast Florida benefit from the resort's beachfront location and mystique. "This used to be a bustling harbor with pirate ships, and galleons sank off the coast," says hotel manager Steven Schaefer. So in addition to water sports like fly-fishing, kayaking, and family sailing as well as beach games such as horseshoe-toss and croquet, the resort plays up the pirate theme.

On many weekends, counselors (one for every six children) dress like pirates or their princess companions for sing-alongs and storytime by a bonfire. Costumed staff may roam the lobby and are usually available for tuck-ins that include a pirate story and a treasure chest of trinkets. The theme continues with pirate hayrides around the property, puppet shows, and, new this year, a real parrot mascot.

Accommodations:

A majestic U-shaped building with 397 rooms (400 sq. ft. each) and 47 suites (starting at 1,073 sq. ft.) features ocean views from all rooms

Family Features:

Year-round kids' program for 5- to 12-year-olds with daytime and evening sessions; private babysitting with screened nannies; outdoor pool with shallow play area; childproofing kits; kid-size furniture; cribs with custom linens; playground

Parents' Perks:

Championship golf course; romantic chiminea (clay portable fireplace) bonfires for two with a gourmet food basket; sunrise tai chi on the beach; 32,500-sq.-ft. indoor/outdoor spa expected to open in December

  • Schedules professional 8" by 10" family portraits taken on the beach; one photo is free
  • Sets up a check-in desk in the lobby where kids learn about fun activities at the property and enjoy a cookie, which can be personalized with a child's name if requested in advance
  • Gives families a five-mile boat ride to Cumberland Island National Seashore, where wild horses run free in the marshes

Picture summer camp with children and grown-ups each doing their own thing most of the time and you've grasped the concept for the all-inclusive Tyler Place Family Resort. Operated by the Tyler family since its inception in 1933, the resort automatically enrolls kids in camp with activities targeted to their ages. Toddlers, for instance, may look for radishes in the garden while preschoolers explore the meadow for feathers and pine cones. While their kids are in camp, parents can take painting classes, learn archery, practice yoga, and much more. Parents and children meet up after lunch for organized activities, such as nature walks and pontoon boat rides, or on-their-own family fun, such as mini golf and basketball.

At night, parents dine alone or as part of a group in the adults-only restaurant. While Tyler Place's structure of separate meals and activities doesn't work for every family, Tasney Tyler Otis, director of children's programs, says, "Parents who return year after year tell us the independence their kids have at the resort reminds them of their own childhood summers."

Accommodations:

Set on 165 acres on Lake Champlain, the accommodations are charming, as long as you like rustic; 36 family suites and 30 family cottages, featuring two or more bedrooms, offer microwaves and refrigerators

Family Features:

Kids' camp in the mornings and evenings from late May to early September; private babysitting with screened sitters; indoor and outdoor pools, both staffed by lifeguards and featuring slides; craft studio

Parents' Perks:

After-dinner entertainment such as a jazz band and dancing; healthy buffet-style meals; champagne cruises

  • Breaks down its camp for infants to 15-year-olds into nine age groups, the most in our survey, and hires only counselors who have completed at least two years of college; the ratio of counselors to kids ranges from one for every two infants to one for every 10 teens
  • Has a table with snacks and toys in the lobby area to occupy children while their parents check in; during peak season, guests are generally required to arrive and check out on Saturdays
  • Allows families to bring one of their children's friends, between ages 6 and 15, for free from September 2 to 9, provided the friend is in the same age group as one of the kids in the family

Many of the activities at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa's camp for kids ages 5 to 12 draw on the traditions of the Chumash Indians, who flourished on the central California coast before the European settlers arrived. Counselors -- one for every five campers -- lead nature hikes to the Chumash Indian Hunt, where kids hear stories, sing, and create talking rain sticks and rock art.

The property also boasts an 800-acre Ranch & Stables, featuring a big red barn, an active silo, a petting farm, and 36 horses. Wranglers take kids on pony rides, emphasizing safety while teaching riding techniques. "Horses are haltered with a lead rope, and kids are educated in how to approach a horse," says Peter Bowen, director of revenue. All kids come home with a photo of themselves, framed with the name of the horse they rode, a bandanna, and a horseshoe.

Accommodations:

On 220 acres surrounded by mountains, 19 buildings with courtyards, walkways, or fountains house 236 rooms (starting at 460 sq. ft.) and 72 suites (starting at 625 sq. ft.), all nonsmoking; in 2005, the resort, located 35 miles south of Santa Barbara, was restored to its original Spanish colonial style with red tiles, carved wood, and designer fabrics

Family Features:

Year-round kids' camp with daytime and evening sessions; private babysitting with screened sitters; outdoor heated pool and baby pool; playground; baby toiletries; family golf and tennis lessons; free use of bikes, including ones with training wheels

Parents' Perks:

Championship golf course; 31,000-sq.-ft. spa; art studio; gourmet restaurant; apothecary-blending lab where guests can create their own lotions expected to open by summer

  • Serves as a retreat for many celebrity parents, like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas
  • Entertains family groups of 20 or more with a Western hoedown, including a chuck wagon barbecue dinner and dancing in the barn
  • Gives kids a wooden nickel to exchange for old-fashioned candy in the property's general store

Overlooking a waterfall, the 1,800-sq.-ft. facility that houses the Four Seasons children's camp is stunning, with jungle murals, butterfly lights, and an outdoor play area. "We tied the program to Hawaii rather than offer a mainland experience that just happens to be in Hawaii," says Mark Hellrung, general manager. To that end, 5- to 12-year-old campers can take hula lessons, learn how the Hawaiian Islands were formed, make leis, play Hawaiian games, and build their own erupting volcano.

Preregistration isn't required for the camp, parents can drop off and pick up their kids anytime during operating hours, and there is one counselor for every six children.

Accommodations:

This new resort, formerly the Manele Bay Hotel, boasts 215 guest rooms (starting at 576 sq. ft.) and 21 suites (starting at 1,056 sq. ft.), all nonsmoking; they're built on 30 acres of tropical gardens in Lana'i, 45 minutes from Maui via ferry

Family Features:

Year-round, complimentary kids' camp all day; white-sand beach; pool with dive-in movies, complimentary Evian spritzers and chilled towels; playground; toddler beds; free childproofing upon request; refrigerator, bike, and stroller rentals; kids' menus at all restaurants and free meals for children ages 4 and under; DVD players in all rooms

Parents' Perks:

Challenging golf course built on lava outcroppings; spa with treatments like Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage; free scuba-diving introductory course

  • Delivers, at no charge, milk and cookies to a child's room on the first night of his stay; kids also receive a bag with playing cards, bubbles, a note pad, and more at check-in
  • Takes advantage of the natural habitat with activities such as searching for butterflies and feeding sea creatures with bamboo fishing poles
  • Makes bathtime fun with sponges spelling out a child's name, child-size kimono robes and slippers, and kid-friendly toiletries

The philosophy of Club Med Sandpiper is that the quality of a family's experience hinges on the staff. "Our international employees don't just work here, they live here," says John Vanderslice, president & CEO of Club Med America.

The staff is selected for a background in childcare and sports skills appropriate for the age-divided camp for kids 4 months to 13 years. Counselors -- one for every three infants and one for every eight to 12 school-age kids -- have to be at least 21 years old. At the end of a family's visit, the staff asks for feedback. Implemented suggestions include a tennis program for 3- to 7-year-olds and the flexibility of allowing parents to check their kids into and out of the camp anytime during operating hours.

Accommodations:

Two- and three-story bungalows throughout the property on the St. Lucie River house 310 rooms and 27 suites, all nonsmoking; a room with two double beds averages 344 sq. ft., while a two-bedroom family suite is 720 sq. ft.

Family Features:

Year-round kids' camp with daytime and evening sessions; late-night group childcare; four swimming pools, all staffed by lifeguards; dive-in movies; playground; loaner strollers; Baby Welcome program with infant bathtubs, childproofing kits, and baby food; complimentary shuttle to nearby beach

Parents' Perks:

Deep-sea fishing; riverboat cruises; international buffet dining; golf course

  • Offers a Circus School, where kids ages 4 and up can learn -- while safely harnessed -- to walk the tightrope and fly through the air on a trapeze
  • Promotes cultural awareness for kids through a program allowing them to make masks, play instruments, and listen to international music
  • Boasts a hip-hop dance program for kids ages 4 and up and a Happy Gym for toddlers

The Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn offers many opportunities -- interactive teas, breakfasts, and meet-and-greets -- for resort guests to mingle with characters. But that may not be what kids remember most fondly. Two admission-worthy water parks that are free for all guests feature seven slides or flumes, a four-story interactive water tower, and a 400-gallon dump tank. Toddlers will enjoy a sandy area with a slide and a shaded play space with a splash zone. The parks are both staffed by lifeguards, and life jackets, offered at no charge, are required for kids less than 4' tall when using certain water slides.

Accommodations:

On 26 acres a mile from Walt Disney World, this all-suite resort has semi-private Nickelodeon-character-themed kids' bedrooms that can only be accessed via the common living room; most of the 777 suites are 485 sq. ft., and all are nonsmoking and equipped with a refrigerator and microwave

Family Features:

Camp for kids 5 to 12 four evenings per week; two swimming pools, one with a shallow entry, both staffed by lifeguards; dive-in movies; playground; free meals for kids 12 and under at certain eateries

Parents' Perks:

Nick@Night Adult Lounge; lap pool; free shuttle buses to area theme parks

  • Will host Nick Jr. month in September with activities and characters from TV shows for preschoolers; last year's programming included storytime with Joe and Blue from Blue's Clues and a Dora the Explorer fiesta with arts and crafts
  • Offers spa treatments, such as hair-braiding and manicures, for kids as young as 2
  • Schedules live shows nightly during which families compete against each other in Nick-style games; if desired -- and most kids are eager -- the child of the winning family gets slimed at the end of the show with much fanfare

Hawaii

  • Four Seasons, Hualalai
  • Four Seasons, Maui
  • Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa
  • Hilton Hawaiian Village
  • Hilton Waikoloa Village
  • Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa
  • Sheraton Maui Resort
  • Westin Maui Resort & Spa

New England & Mid-Atlantic

  • The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, VA
  • The Hotel Hershey, Hershey, PA
  • Lansdowne Resort, Leesburg, VA
  • Point Sebago Resort, Casco, ME
  • The Sagamore, Green Island, NY
  • Sebasco Harbor Resort, Sebasco Estates, ME

South

  • Amelia Island Plantation, FL
  • Cheeca Lodge & Spa, Islamorada, FL
  • Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, FL
  • Hawks Cay Resort, FL
  • High Hampton Inn & Country Club, Cashiers, NC
  • Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa, Bonita Springs, FL
  • Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa, San Antonio, TX
  • Kiawah Island Resort, Charleston, SC
  • Loews Hard Rock Hotel, Orlando
  • Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Orlando
  • Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Orlando
  • Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate
  • Pinehurst Golf & Spa Resort, NC
  • The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation, GA
  • The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, FL
  • Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, Destin, FL
  • Sea Pines Resort, Hilton Head, SC
  • South Seas Island Resort, Captiva Island, FL
  • Trump International Sonesta Beach Resort, Key Biscayne, FL
  • Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, FL
  • Wild Dunes Resort, Charleston, SC

West

  • Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, Anaheim, CA
  • Enchantment Resort, Sedona, AZ
  • Four Seasons, Scottsdale, AZ
  • Four Seasons Biltmore, Santa Barbara, CA
  • Hyatt Grand Champions Resort & Spa, Indian Wells, CA
  • Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, CA
  • Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch, AZ
  • Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa, Pueblo, NM
  • La Quinta Resort & Club, CA
  • Los Abrigados Resort & Spa, Sedona, AZ
  • Montage Resort & Spa, Laguna Beach, CA
  • Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, Phoenix
  • Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs, Phoenix
  • Pointe South Mountain Resort, Phoenix
  • St. Regis Resort, Dana Point, CA

Thank you to the following travel professionals for helping us develop the questions for Child's survey: Fran Falkin, editor of TinyTravelers.net; Eileen Ogintz, syndicated travel columnist and founder of takingthekids.com; Lydia Westbrook, research director of the American Hotel & Lodging Association Information Center; and Bari Ziegel, family travel specialist for Tara World Travel, West Port Washington, NY.

Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the May 2006 issue of Child magazine.