Even if money's tight, you can still take the vacation of your dreams. More and more, mid-priced beach resorts are putting on the ritz for price-conscious families, offering oceanside campfires and nature walks, elaborate kids' swimming pools, and upscale room decor. These facts aren't from a brochure, Web site, or travel agent working on commission -- they're the result of Parents' in-depth review of more than 200 beach resorts in the U.S. and Caribbean.
For each property, we researched how much it would cost for a week's vacation for a family of four during the summer months. The resort rates spanned from $99 to $750 per night. We automatically nixed the priciest half of the list and asked the remaining resorts if they had a supervised children's program, free activities that parents and young kids could enjoy together, a children's pool or shallow end of a larger pool, and lifeguards or other staff certified in CPR stationed near the pool. Then we pared down further, asking about the size of the rooms, smoking policies, what's on the children's menus, and other facts you'd want to know. In the end, we uncovered these 10 good-value getaways -- some high-energy, others laid-back, and all great fun for both you and the kids -- plus 10 more great runners-up to consider.
Sheraton Grand Bahama Island Our Lucaya Resort, Bahamas
With summer rates as low as $129 per night, you'd think this Caribbean resort must nickel-and-dime you elsewhere. Not at all. The supervised camp for kids as young as age 3 costs $50 for a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. session -- half that of some other resorts. Full-size "Sweet Sleeper" cribs and parking are free, there's a mini fridge in every guest room, and the resort fee, which includes Internet access, is just $5 daily per adult.
The property doesn't skimp on service either: The pool area -- with a spiraling slide into 4 feet of water and a shallow end for toddlers -- and the property's spacious white-sand beach both have lifeguards on duty throughout the day. As a backup, at least one of the staff members who hand out towels in the beach hut is a trained lifeguard.
A complimentary shuttle will take you over to Our Lucaya's pricier (though not outlandishly expensive) sister property, the Westin, where you're welcome to hang at its pools and restaurants. Reservations: 800-325-3535, ourlucaya.com.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at the beach and pools
Resort Fees: $5 daily per adult, no charge for children
Club Med's imaginative circus school teaches kids 4 and up how to juggle, ride a unicycle, walk a tightrope, swing on a trapeze, and learn magic tricks. This and the property's numerous other supervised children's programs (like learning about native dances and music), meals, and sports activities are included in the price. Thanks to a "Family Escape" promotion that's bookable through April 30, the cost could be a fairly reasonable $2,500 for a week's stay for a family of four this summer. Tack on an extra $40 daily if you want care in the resort's nursery for a child under 3.
While the kids are having the time of their lives, you can enjoy the coconut tree-lined beach, sailing, snorkeling, windsurfing, and fitness classes. Club rooms -- the least expensive type -- are comfortable, and families with infants automatically receive a changing table, baby bathtub, and bottle warmer in their room as part of the resort's "Baby Welcome" program. Reservations: 800-258-2633, clubmed.us.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at pools, but not the beach
Resort Fees: Considered in the "all-inclusive" pricing
Practically all beach resorts in the Sunshine State offer summertime specials, and this charming one located at the edge of the Gulf Coast is no exception. Rooms, equipped with a DVD player, flat-screen TV, and mini fridge, run as low as $180 per night. Even one-bedroom villas, with a full kitchen, start at just over $200. It's a great deal considering that the resort recently completed a $140 million renovation of the entire property, overhauling all accommodations and the popular pool area (left).
Speaking of the water, the waves at the beach are mild, the white sand is teeming with shells, and chances are good that you'll see dolphins and manatees offshore at least once during your trip. In fact, this 330-acre resort, more than half of which is preserved, is a nature lover's paradise.
The Tiva Kids Club for children 4 and older takes every advantage of the setting, with trips to the on-property nature center and visits from the resort's own naturalist. Guided evening beach walks and daytime tide-pool excursions cost $5 per person. Reservations: 888-222-7848, southseas.com.
Water Safety: Security guards, certified in CPR, are stationed at the pool; there are no lifeguards at the beach
Resort Fees: $14.04 per adult for each night of the stay, no charge for children
The cheapest summer rates for one of the 2,000-plus rooms at this tropical resort work out to be roughly $375 per night, the price limit to be included in the Parents survey. But when you consider that Atlantis has a mind-blowing water park and aquarium-
-- attractions that would add up to at least a couple hundred dollars daily in the States -- what you're paying for the room starts to look a bit more reasonable.
In the resort's underwater tunnels and nine open-air lagoons, there are more than 50,000 sea creatures from more than 250 species, a number that rivals the grandest U.S. aquariums. Many of the 100 acres of water attractions are thrilling -- like the 50-foot water slide in total darkness -- but require kids to be at least 48 inches tall. Smaller children will have a blast at several shallow pools and at Splashers, a Mayan-themed water-play area with a pirate ship and water canyons that is just for tots.
If you and the kids need to take a break from the sun, you could retreat to the Atlantis Theatre for a free G- or PG-rated flick, or to the new pottery studio (prices start at $15). But this resort is really best for families who never seem to tire of the water and who have at least one child who is 6 or older so you're not paying for attractions that your children are too small to use. Reservations: 800-285-2684, atlantis.com.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at pools, water play areas, and the beach
Resort Fees: None
Parking: $10 daily for valet parking
Two hours from the hustle and bustle of the Orlando theme parks, Disney offers a family experience that's easier on your feet and your wallet. Although Vero Beach is part of the Disney Vacation Club line, you don't need to buy into a time-share to stay there; a one-bedroom with a full kitchen and washer-dryer starts at $274 per night for nonmembers.
Free activities -- including sing-alongs, a campfire with s'mores, family beach walks with a nature expert, a craft hour especially for toddlers, and an "unbirthday" party with cupcakes, games, and a pinata -- center on old-fashioned family fun rather than on meeting Disney characters. In fact, only Goofy makes a regular appearance at the resort and that's at special breakfasts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The fees aren't high for any of the other kids' programs either. For instance, the three-hour, $28 Turtle Troop takes kids 7 and older to the beach to learn about and "adopt" baby turtles that have been tagged with a GPS transmitter. Kids can then follow their turtle on the Web when they're back home. A Mickey Mouse-shaped swimming pool plus a splash area for preschoolers round out the fun -- and, yes, life jackets and pool toys are free. Reservations: 407-939-7828, disneybeachresorts.com.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at the pool and beach
Resort Fees: None
Set on what's arguably the best beach on the island, Beaches Negril is all about giving parents and kids an amazing vacation. While you take advantage of tennis, kayaking, windsurfing, the "Lazy River" -- or simply collapse on the white sand -- your kids can join a supervised program. Babies hang out with trained counselors in a comfortable nursery setting while toddlers and preschoolers absolutely love Sesame Street-themed activities, like Dance Class with Zoe and Storytime with Elmo, as well as shell collecting, face-painting, and magic shows. For 6- and 7-year-olds, the program centers around pirates and mermaids.
Since all your meals, most activities, and the kids' club are included in the price, you really need to take advantage of everything to get your money's worth. So this resort (and others like it) are best for parents who are looking to spend a couple of hours alone every day. Rooms this summer are filling up, but in September you can get a big discount. The resort's WonderFall promotion offers two free nights on a seven-night stay, up to 45 percent off usual rates, and new Sesame Street shows, including the stage debut of the cartoon's latest character, fairy Abby Cadabby. The bottom line: about $3,500 for a family of four. Reservations: 888-232-2437, beaches.com.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at the pools and beach
Resort Fees: Considered in the "all-inclusive" pricing
This family favorite spreads across 22 acres on Oahu, the easiest (and usually cheapest) Hawaiian island to get to from the States. Even though summer is the most expensive time to visit, you can still snag a room at the Hilton for as low as $229 nightly; rooms in the beachfront Rainbow Tower or the more upscale Ali'I Tower will cost you about $100 more.
The four pools, including a specially designated one for children, are the hub of the action here: There is free snorkeling instruction for kids who know how to swim, plus lei-making classes and hula lessons for the whole family on the deck. Other no-cost activities include Friday-night fireworks, lawn bowling, ukulele lessons, and watching the penguins being fed (the resort has eight including babies, plus it's home to about 60 other wildlife species such as flamingos, turtles, and koi fish).
The Rainbow Express Keiki Club for children 5 and older offers field trips to the nearby Honolulu Zoo, Bishop's Museum, or Waikiki Aquarium as well as fun activities around the resort. Just be sure to bring along your child's birth certificate or passport; Hawaiian law requires proof of age for admittance into the club. Reservations: 800-445-8667, hiltonhawaiianvillage.com.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at pools, but not at the beach
Resort Fees: None
Parking: $22 daily (self), $28 daily (valet)
Even the prices seem a bit nostalgic here on Cape Cod: starting at $205 for a one-bedroom villa with a full kitchen in May and about $100 more in June and July, when old-fashioned family activities kick into high gear. There are scavenger hunts, beach fires with s'mores, baseball and soccer on the front lawn -- all at no charge. On weekdays, kids can do cool craft projects, like making kites and tie-dyeing shirts, for just $10 a head.
Two of this resort's lifeguard-staffed outdoor pools are ideal for young children -- as is the beach, with water that tends to be a little warmer and milder than on the other side of the Cape. And if the weather doesn't cooperate, the resort is the only property on our ten-best list that has an indoor pool; in fact it's got two of them. Reservations: 800-343-6074, oceanedge.com.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at the outdoor pools
Resort Fees: $16 daily per room
A short walk or shuttle ride from quiet Silver Strand Beach, this resort offers so many family activities daily -- from cooking your own pizza to animal presentations to family movies shown poolside -- that it has a separate kids' activity desk to help keep you informed. Summer rates start at $329 nightly, and that includes a welcome gift for the kids.
The conveniences are as abundant as the activities. Every family who requests a crib also gets a baby swing and a lullaby CD. Rooms can be childproofed in advance; request it when making your reservation. If you have a toddler or preschooler, you're welcome to borrow a step stool, potty seat, stroller, and toys.
Other thoughtful features include children's menus that offer old favorites and adventurous options like squash ravioli; free use of pool toys and sand buckets; and hourly-rate options for the children's program (unlike most resorts, which require a half- or full-day session). Reservations: 800-815-6397, loewshotels.com.
Water Safety: Security guards certified in CPR at the pool, lifeguards at the beach
Resort Fees: None
Parking: $19 daily (self), $25 daily (valet)
Aloe-soaked towels and fresh fruit are the kind of greeting you'd expect at one of those resorts where one night costs more than your monthly mortgage payment. But in summer, rooms here start around $215 daily, including the resort fee. Another cost-saver: You don't need a passport to get to Puerto Rico.
But it's the range of activities that makes this place special. Your family can go horseback riding, tour the nearby rain forest, learn how to do the salsa and other island dances, feed an iguana, and play tug-of-war at the beach-all in one day. Or you could hang out at the lifeguard-staffed pool (left), which has a water slide and fabulous kiddie area. The entire hotel is nonsmoking, and rooms come with a mini fridge and a marble bath. Reservations: 877-636-0636, wyndhamriomar.com.
Water Safety: Lifeguards at the pools and beach
Resort Fees: 14% of the room rate per night (about $35 on a $250 room)
Parking: $15 daily (self), $20 daily (valet)
The chain's only U.S. location, situated between Miami and Orlando, offers the same fabulous Circus School and Baby Welcome program as number two-ranked Punta Cana -- and you don't need a passport to get there.
This resort, with a new children's program and water-play area, is a great choice for families who want to split their time between the beach and Legoland, both a short drive away. Bonus: The new kids' club play area is supervised.
About 40 minutes from the Jacksonville airport, the sprawling resort has two large swimming pools (left), a kiddie pool, and its own Nature Center -- something that Camp Amelia, a supervised program for kids ages 3 to 10, taps into for activities.
An activity-packed children's pool with a sand island in the middle, plus a kids-eat-free promotion this summer, make this resort a relative bargain on one of the most expensive Hawaiian islands.
It's not on the beach, but Disney's 3 1/2 miles of private oceanfront -- featuring a beach house you can duck into for a break from the sun -- are just a five-minute shuttle ride away. Kids as young as 3 can learn about marshes and butterflies, and can take part in nature scavenger hunts at this resort.
A mini golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, two kids-only swimming pools, shark-tooth hunts, and a small private beach are among the many amenities that will keep your family happy at this resort near St. Augustine.
There are loads of freebies for kids at this resort, like mini golf, pool games, and meals. And it's very close to the airport too.
Spacious, modern rooms, including a kitchen with a stainless-steel fridge, are what make this resort near Palm Beach so cool. A pool with a waterfall and a supervised program for kids ages 5 to 12 doesn't hurt either.
Kids love the golf clinics and the large Pirates Island water park with a shallow pool, squirting sea horse, and misting crab.
The closest beach is just a mile away. But with a saltwater pool, ice cream stand, and supervised children's program that costs just $8 daily, you and the kids may not want to leave the resort.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Parents magazine.