Need some kid-friendly vacation inspiration? The winners of our first annual travel awards will wow children of all ages.

By Karen Cicero
Courtesy of Perfect Day at CocoCay

You juggled strollers and luggage, crammed onto an airplane, and spent major cash. Now all you want is for your kids to be happy. But not just regular happy: jumping-up-and-down, shouting-with-glee, viral-video happy.

Ready to blow their little minds? Family-travel experts voted on more than 500 destinations to bring you this list of kid-friendly vacation spots with serious wow power.

Greatest Cruise Stop: Perfect Day at CocoCay

At its new private island in the Bahamas, aptly dubbed Perfect Day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean delivers everything your kid could want in a beach trip. Water slides that aren’t too scary? Check! (Six of the 13 slides are just perfect for littles.) Wave pool? Yup, plus another pool with an obstacle course. Toys to squirt and splash? Tons. Kids can also help themselves to chocolate-chip cookies and soft-serve to make the yummiest ice-cream sammie ever.

Top Kids’ Club on a Cruise: Disney’s Oceaneer Club

Taking up at least half a deck, Disney’s Oceaneer Club (on all Disney Cruise Line ships) gives kids ages 3 to 12 a chance to play with their favorite characters. On the Disney Dream, they receive Jedi training and battle Darth Vader; on the Disney Wonder, they build a race car with Mickey. Every ship features “Andy’s Room” from Toy Story.

Most Awesome Pool Snack: Magic Castle Hotel, in Hollywood

Two words: Popsicle Hotline. Kids lift a bright-red phone on the pool deck of the Magic Castle Hotel, in Hollywood, and hear, “Popsicle hotline!” They give their order, and moments later, a white-gloved staffer brings out several flavors of ice-pops (at no charge!) on a silver tray. The caller gets first dibs, but all poolgoers are welcome to a treat.

Matt Stroshane/Disney Destinations. Kids gather to learn about Hawaiian legends and traditions at Aunty’s Beach House.
Matt Stroshane/Disney Destinations

Best Resort Kids’ Club: Aunty’s Beach House at Aulani

A 5,200-square-foot oasis for 3- to 12-year-olds, Aunty’s Beach House at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, in Ko Olina, Hawaii, is incredibly popular. Parents who didn’t sign up in advance line up an hour or more before it opens to get their kid on the list. Aunty’s can’t have more than 125 campers at a time, and many stay for hours, trying on dress-up clothes, making slime with Stitch, playing in the shady backyard, creating a chef’s hat, learning the hula, and so much more.

Favorite Welcome Gift: Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, in Arizona

While you’re getting your room keys at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, in Arizona, your kid receives a red cape, a blue mask, and an info booklet. It tells your caped crusader everything he can do at the resort, like zip-lining over the lagoon, getting his pic taken in a Superman-inspired phone booth, and going to a training academy to come up with a superhero name and origin story. Pow!

Yummiest Kids’ Buffet: Tusker House Restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Designed to resemble an African market, Tusker House Restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in Orlando, serves up from-scratch dishes at themed food stations. Kids have a lower-to-the-ground section, so they can take roasted chicken legs, mashed potatoes, green beans, mac ’n’ cheese, and fruit without standing on their tippy toes. (Breakfast includes Lion King waffles—Nala and Simba! Whoa.) Kiddos can also venture to the rest of the buffet where servers entice them to try shrimp curry or carved salmon. Before the meal ends, Donald and Daisy Duck will drop by your fam’s table for photo ops and autographs.

Courtesy of Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts. Your kids can head to Aqua Nick every day at 3 p.m. for a mass sliming!
Courtesy of Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts

Best Resort Water Park: Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana

Whether your kid is 2 or 12, playing in Aqua Nick’s waterscape at the Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, is like winning the golden ticket. The just-thrilling-enough slides, pop-up fountains, and dumping-water bucket will keep the little ones happy. Big kids go crazy for daily green slimings, spray that comes out of a giant nose, and a lazy river with waterfalls. At press time, the U.S. State Department had issued a travel advisory for the Dominican Republic.

Most Unusual Lazy River: Houston Marriott Marquis

Not only does the 29-story Houston Marriott Marquis have a lazy river on the roof, but it’s also shaped like the state of Texas! Your fam picks up clear tubes and then floats around the, um, state, gazing at the skyline and Discovery Green, an urban park, next door. How long does a trip around Texas take? Twenty minutes!

Best Beach for Shelling (Tie!): Bowman’s Beach and Stump Pass Beach State Park

Your beachcomber will lose her mind over the 250+ varieties of shells that wash up at Bowman’s Beach, in Sanibel Island, Florida. Look for sand dollars, scallops, and the highly coveted junonia—a cone with giraffe-like markings. Once your kid has filled her bucket, she can make like a mermaid into the gentle surf.

The mile-long beach on the Gulf Coast side of Stump Pass Beach State Park, in Englewood, Florida, is covered in shells and shark teeth, especially in the winter. As your kid is collecting, he might spy a dolphin in the water! He’ll also come across old tree stumps with shells hanging on them. Legend has it that anyone who places a shell on a stump will have a wish granted!

Coolest Bowling: Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Missouri

Your kids will be spoiled for life by the 16-lane alley at Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Missouri. They pick a swirl ball, and release it down a lane with murals of sea creatures on the floor. The ball is returned through the mouth of sharks, alligators, and frogs. Special-effects lighting makes the painted walls and sea-life decorations hanging from the ceiling seem real. It’s like bowling inside an aquarium!

Courtesy of The Plantation on Crystal River
Courtesy of The Plantation on Crystal River

Most Amazing Snorkeling Trip: The Plantation on Crystal River

Hundreds of gentle West Indian manatees head to the warm freshwater of Kings Bay, less than two hours northeast of Orlando, from mid-November to late March. Your family—dressed in loaner wet suits—can sign up for a two-hour snorkeling boat trip from The Plantation on Crystal River, in Crystal River, Florida, to swim alongside these slow-moving giants. (If your child has never snorkeled before, she can take a free lesson in the resort’s heated pool the night before the trip.) Sometimes the manatees even “kiss” snorkelers on their face mask! On the ride back, the captain serves coffee and hot chocolate.

Most Surreal National Park Experience: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Kids can sled or sandboard down 8,000-foot sand peaks—the largest in North America—and plunge into soft terrain at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, near Alamosa, Colorado. From May to August, melting snow forms a creek around the base of the dunes that’s just perfect for splashing around and tubing.

Favorite Ferris Wheel: Santa Monica Pier

While kids want to do everything on Santa Monica Pier, in California, a spin on the Pacific Wheel—130 feet high and solar powered—tops their list. Go at night when the wheel is lit up like a rainbow. Next stop: the newish Shark Frenzy ride, a clever take on the classic Tilt-a-Whirl. Kids sit in the open jaws of one of seven different species of sharks. Whee!

Best Zip Line for Daredevils: Zipline Through Paradise by KapohoKine Adventures

Far from a lame ropes course, Zipline Through Paradise by KapohoKine Adventures, on Hawaii’s Big Island, allows kids at least 5 years old and 35 pounds to soar over two miles of tropical forests and several waterfalls. You can zip side by side with your child if you want. All guests take a break to snack on tropical fruit.

Most Fun Hike for Kids: Elephant Rocks State Park

About halfway through the mile-long paved Interpretive Trail at Elephant Rocks State Park, in Belleview, Missouri, kids are in for a cool surprise: billion-year-old pinkish granite boulders perched atop a hill that look just like circus elephants. They can climb on and between the boulders (it’s allowed!) and you’ll want an Insta pic of them trying to push these massive rocks with all their might. Signs on the trail explain how the boulders were formed. Hint: It was explosive.

Courtesy of Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
Courtesy of Loews Portofino Bay Hotel

Most Memorable Family Hotel Suite: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando

Tiny tourists score their own “secret” space in the 18 Despicable Me Suites at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando. Open the door to a suite and the kids will run past the bed to another door with a Minions Only sign and a red wheel. It’s the entrance to Gru’s lab, outfitted with two missile-shaped fiberglass beds, a Minion mural, themed window treatments, and a kid-size table and chairs. Our judges couldn’t help but crack up at the saying on the pillows: “1 in a minion.”

Dreamiest Bedtime Ritual (Tie!): Great Wolf Lodge and Beaches Resorts

Every evening around 8 p.m., pajama-clad kids, some wearing the wolf-ear headbands they received at check-in, come down to the lobby of Great Wolf Lodge (16 locations nationwide plus one in Canada) and find a seat on the carpet near the Great Clock Tower. Adorable animatronic animals—led by Grandpa Bear—tell a story about the changing seasons. Then a staff member reads another story about the Great Wolf Mascots from a giant book propped up on an easel. Our judges thought a full half hour of storytelling was the perfect way to end a great day at this indoor-water-park hotel.

Your kids will be on cloud nine when Elmo, Cookie, or another Sesame Street friend comes to their room to sing and read a story just before bedtime. The 15-minute tuck-in experience, offered by Beaches Resorts, in Turks & Caicos and Jamaica, includes a plush toy and a photo. The resort staff have training to tailor the visit to children on the autism spectrum.

Cutest Bunk Beds: Kalahari Resorts & Conventions

Kids go wild over the safari vehicle beds at Kalahari Resorts & Conventions, in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania. Painted in a zebra print, they have stars on the wheels and window cutouts and are surrounded on three sides by a jungle-themed enclosure so kids can pretend they’re in a safari camp, looking up at the starry night sky. Our judges were sold on little details, like a lantern night-light and a carpet with rock print. With only 16 bunks available at this indoor-water-park hotel, try to book early.

Courtesy of Tenaya Lodge. Let guides from Tenaya Lodge answer your kids’ questions on a short hike through Sierra National Forest.
Courtesy of Tenaya Lodge

Top National Park Lodge: Tenaya Lodge

With twinkling lights at the entrance, a backdrop of giant sequoia trees, and a dreamy pool, your kid will think Tenaya Lodge, about two miles from Yosemite, is out of a fairy tale. Judges raved about the California lodge’s bountiful activities, from archery to guided nature walks to horseback riding. New this summer: Explorer cabins, scattered among tall pine trees, are the perfect multi-gen getaway, featuring two bedrooms, a covered porch, and a shared firepit.

Best Kids’ Spa Service: Four Seasons Hotel, Houston

For the ice-cream “treat” ment at the Four Seasons Hotel, Houston, your kid puts on a plush white robe at the spa and heads out to the deck of the heated saltwater pool. That’s where she’ll soak her feet in a coconut-milk bath and get a foot massage while eating ice cream with rainbow sprinkles.

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