I don't remember all the specifics of the places my family visited on our summer vacations, but what I do recall are games of Marco Polo in motel pools; the crackle of tiny speakers at drive-in movies; and daily helpings of soft-serve ice cream. And while I never understood my father's passion for Civil War landmarks, it was on a battlefield in Virginia that I first saw the twinkling lights of what seemed like a million tiny fireflies dancing on the horizon. It was a magical moment that helped my young mind comprehend that there was a lot more to the world than my South Florida hometown.
When I became a parent, I wanted to create the same kind of memories for my own kids. But it wasn't so easy for me and my husband to carve out the time for long vacations with our daughters. And I know I'm not alone: According to a survey conducted by Project: Time Off, a U.S. Travel Association initiative, Americans took nearly a full workweek less of vacation in 2013 than they had just 13 years prior. It's a sobering statistic, which translates into less time with our kids—and fewer opportunities to create the kind of firefly memories that are the building blocks of childhood.
Luckily, the "quality over quantity" maxim holds true for vacations too. In fact, other research has found that shorter trips may give people just as many health benefits as longer ones. To get you started, we chose six destinations that are manageable enough to explore in a few days but still offer opportunities for lots of new adventures, from kayaking on a lake in Idaho to having lunch with a real-life astronaut in Florida. Best of all, each location lies within an hour's drive of an airport with plenty of daily nonstop arrivals and departures. So get packing—and start putting all that vacation time to good use!
WHY GO Not long after landing at Orlando International, one of America's busiest airports, your family can be on Florida's Space Coast, building castles in the sand or floating in the Atlantic. (visitcocoabeach.com)
WHAT TO DO Hit the waves for a surfing lesson with the pros at the Ron Jon Surf School, then let the kids pick out a souvenir at the 52,000-square-foot flagship store (ronjonsurfshop.com). Later, schedule a two-hour nature cruise with Captain Quinn's Coastal Lagoon Tours for a close-up look at dolphins, manatees, and great blue herons (coastallagoontours.com). Need a treat? Queue up at Oasis Shaved Ice, a local hot spot for fluffy snow cones in flavors like Birthday Cake and Butterbeer (321-591-6822).
WHERE TO STAY The Resort on Cocoa Beach offers roomy two-bedroom, two-bath condos, plus there's pool volleyball, a movie theater, and a game room. Rates start at $180 a night. (theresortoncocoabeach.com)
CHECK IT OUT Tour the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where kids can see the largest rocket ever flown, touch a moon rock, and man the simulators of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Bonus: Sign up to have lunch with a real NASA astronaut. (kennedyspacecenter.com)
WHY GO Just 62 miles southeast of bustling Port Columbus International Airport, Hocking Hills State Park boasts everything a nature-loving family could want: kid-friendly hiking, caves and waterfalls, and gorgeous wildflower displays. (thehockinghills.org)
WHAT TO DO Pack a picnic and hike one of the woodsy trails to popular Old Man's Cave. If you have younger kids, meander the flat Gorge Trail to see the sandstone Ash Cave and its waterfall. Then take in the countryside from up above at DragonFly Zipline Adventure. The state-of-the-art zip-line center features eight courses, adventure bridges, and a sky tunnel designed specifically with kids' safety in mind (hockinghillscanopytours.com). Later, head to Movies 10-Fun Barn for a $4 first-run flick, then hit the arcade or try your skills at mini-bowling (moviesten.com).
WHERE TO STAY Wake up to birdsong at one of 38 twobedroom, one-bath cottages in Hocking Hills State Park. The simply furnished units, which start at $110 per night, sleep six and include gas fireplaces, full kitchens, screened porches, and charcoal grills. (ohiostateparks.reserveamerica.com)
SQUEEZE THIS IN Visit the world's largest (and only) Pencil Sharpener Museum. The work of a local pastor, the collection has more than 3,400 utilitarian devices—shaped like globes, robots, race cars, windmills—on permanent display at the Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center. (740-385-9706)
WHY GO Thanks to 60 nonstop flights a day from cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City, adventuresome families can roll into the lakeside resort town of Coeur d'Alene (pop.: 47,000) after arriving at Spokane International Airport, 30 miles to the west. (coeurdalene.org)
WHAT TO DO The city is rightly known for its rugged northwestern scenery and spectacular waterways. To get a feel for the area, book passage on Lake Coeur d'Alene Cruises' 90-minute narrated boat tours to learn the history of the area and enjoy the views (cdacruises .com). Once you've got your bearings, the friendly folks at Row Adventure Center can arrange a family rafting trip on the Clark Fork River (children must be 5 or older) or set up paddleboarding lessons on the lake (rowadventurecenter .com). Early the next morning, get everyone going with an easy hike on the perimeter trail at Tubbs Hill, a 165-acre waterfront park, literally steps from downtown (tubbshill.org).
WHERE TO STAY Located downtown on the lake, Coeur d'Alene Resort has spacious, comfortable rooms, including some with terraces and gas fireplaces, plus indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness center, one of the top golf courses in the Northwest, and a nearby marina with boat rentals and Jet Skis. Rates start at $204 per night. (cdaresort.com)
WHY GO With tons of daily nonstop flights to Portland International Jetport from major hubs like Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, New York City, and Washington, D.C., your clan can be climbing lighthouses and eating lobster rolls by lunch. (visitportland.com)
WHAT TO DO Cheer on minorleague baseball's Portland Sea Dogs during their seven-game home stand over Memorial Day weekend (seadogs.com); take a half-day kayak tour with Maine Island Kayak Co. (maineislandkayak.com), or head out for a special delivery on the daily mailboat ferry run to the islands of Casco Bay (cascobaylines.com). If you're feeling generous, take your brood to Treehouse Toys, a wonderland of dollhouses and building blocks, imaginative craft kits, and old-fashioned puppets and jump ropes (treehousetoys.us).
WHERE TO STAY The 122- room Hampton Inn Portland Downtown-Waterfront has an indoor pool and is within walking distance of the Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine (kitetails.org). Prices start at $339, breakfast and Wi-Fi included. P.S.: Ask for a room that overlooks Casco Bay. (hamptoninn3.hilton.com)
INSIDER'S TIP Don't leave town without treating the kids to Belgian fries and real vanilla bean milkshakes at Duckfat, a cozy sandwich shop just a few minutes' walk from the hotel. Adults: Order the insanely good poutine and one of the local beers on tap—you'll dream about it later. (duckfat.com)
WHY GO Just 13 miles northwest of downtown, Lambert–St. Louis Airport offers 59 daily nonstop flights to this friendly Midwest city, home to gorgeous parks and world-class museums and attractions— many of which won't cost you a dime. (explorestlouis.com)
WHAT TO DO Spend the day at bucolic Forest Park, site of the 1904 World's Fair. In addition to playgrounds, bike paths, and boat rentals, there's the Saint Louis Science Center (slsc.org)—with its life-size animatronic T. rex and 700 hands-on exhibits—and the renowned Saint Louis Zoo (stlzoo.org), home to the famous Flight Cage, where tropical birds roam freely, just like the kids. Hungry? Try the tasty pulled pork or sample the homemade pastrami at Bogart's Smokehouse, a popular lunch spot (bogartssmokehouse.com); sip a chocolate malted at Crown Candy Kitchen (crowncandykitchen.net), the oldest soda fountain in the city; and visit family-owned Gus' Pretzels (guspretzels.com) for their fresh-made, handtwisted delights and Ted Drewes frozen custard, another distinctly St. Louis indulgence.
WHERE TO STAY Bunk at the Drury Plaza Hotel St. Louis at the Arch, one block from the iconic, 630-foot-high Gateway Arch; rooms start at $150 a night, including hot breakfast, Wi-Fi, and evening cocktails and appetizers. (druryhotels.com)
WHY GO Located 60 miles south of busy Dallas– Fort Worth International Airport, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center offers kids a safari-like adventure, minus the arduous plane flight (and expense) of a trip to Africa.
WHAT TO DO Settle in and enjoy the beautiful landscape of the center, the first facility of its kind to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a network of organizations that promotes species conservation and animal welfare worldwide. The property, now in its third decade of wildlife management, features a 9.5-mile Scenic Drive, where giraffes, zebras, kudu, and endangered species like the addax, addra, and the scimitarhorned oryx roam freely on 1,800 acres of grassy plains and rocky hillsides. Evening tours, including special Mother's Day and Father's Day sunset safaris, allow visitors to view the animals at night using red-filtered spotlights. (Don't forget to look up: The absence of light pollution in this remote central Texas location equals some pretty magnificent stargazing.) At the property's Overlook area, kids can peruse the Nature Store, grab a sandwich at the café, and hike the short nature trail. Be sure to save time to commune with the tortoises and several species of birds at the Children's Animal Nature Center, and help brush the friendly goats roaming about.
WHERE TO STAY Listen to the wolves howl in the distance as your family glamps in one of Fossil Rim's Safari Cabins. Each unit has twin beds (and a sleeping pad big enough for two young kids), a full bath, AC, and a porch with Adirondack chairs. Prices start at $125 a night, depending on the season; a hot buffet breakfast and admission to the scenic drive are included. (fossilrim.org)
OFF-PARK EATS For lunch or dinner, drive 10 minutes to Glen Rose and try the chopped-brisket sandwich or rib plate at Hammond's BBQ (hammondsbbq.com), grab a burger at Loco Coyote Grill Café (254-897- 2324), or tuck into an icy root-beer float at Shoo-Fly Soda Shop (shoo-fly-soda-shop.com).