Best Vacations for Kids: Parents' Travel Awards 2020
Our second annual travel awards come at a time when envisioning a future filled with fun and exploration is more vital than ever. These are the kid-friendly vacations we're dreaming of right now, and why kids of all ages will love them.
Judged by a panel of parents who have vacationed extensively with their kids, Parents' annual family travel awards take the guesswork out of planning a trip with perks for every age. We hope this list of winning family vacation destinations inspires you to imagine your next getaway, and serves as a reminder that the best adventures are still to come.
The Best Family Destinations
Best Beach Town: Destin, Florida
Clear your mind and picture your family playing on a white sand beach, splashing in the emerald-tinted waves, and then hitting the HarborWalk Village for nighttime fun. That’s how a vacay goes down in this picture-perfect town in the state’s Panhandle. With 13 access points to beaches with lifeguards—including Henderson Beach State Park, which has more than a mile of shoreline and 30-foot sand dunes—you’ll have space to spread out and build the castles of your kids’ dreams.
Best City: San Diego
A city that has 70 miles of coastline on one side, mountain vistas on the other, and cultural attractions galore in between is hard to beat. Taking your kids to see the weird skull collection at the natural-history museum or operate a telegraph at the science center will literally be a walk in the park, since these and 14 other interesting venues are located in palm-tree-lined, stroller-friendly Balboa Park.
Best Island: Maui, Hawaii
You can’t go wrong visiting any of the Hawaiian islands, but Maui is arguably the most magical. Its one-of-a-kind beaches (some with red or black sand!), pineapple farms, volcanic landscapes, historic villages, and waterfalls make you think you’re in paradise. Snorkel in the crystal-clear waters near Molokini Crater, home to more than 200 fish species. And Ululani’s has the best shaved ice on the island, according to The Bucket List Family’s Jessica Gee.
Best Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway
On this 600-mile trek from California’s border with Oregon to San Diego (winner in the best city category), the distances between beautiful ocean vistas and towns with homemade ice-cream shops are short. Spread the ride over five days, exploring Solvang (a Danish village), Cambria (historic architecture), and Santa Cruz (redwood forests).
- RELATED: 10 Best Family Beach Vacations
The Best Family Accommodations
Best Indoor Water Park: Great Wolf Lodge
This chain with 19 locations in the U.S. and Canada is more multifaceted than its competitors, offering character meetups, woodsy-themed storytimes, and enchanting role-playing games. The water attractions also have broad appeal. “My kids are seven years apart, and I love that there are water slides and rides for each of them,” says judge Krystin Hargrove. Room options, including bunk-bed cabins and loft suites, will fit families of all sizes.
Best Mountain Resort: Keystone Resort
Kids-ski-free packages, a great ski school, and a mix of terrain make this resort about 90 minutes from Denver the ideal place for getting your kids on the slope. They’ll also lose their mind over a giant snow fort with tunnels and slides. And there’s fun in every season. Judges point to wagon rides, hiking, and horseback riding as summer activities that work up an appetite for the fabulous restaurants. “Eat at Der Fondue Chessel, a raucous German place accessible by gondola,” suggests judge Kyle McCarthy.
Best East Coast Beach Resort: JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort
With thatched-hut cabanas dotting a stretch of sand near the Florida Everglades and a sunset fire show every night, this resort gives us Bali vibes. Kids go crazy over the awesome shelling, poolside hair braiders, and dolphin-spying tours. The Tiki Tribe Discovery Day Camp for 5- to 12-year-olds focuses on art and nature activities, and even gives kids behind-the-scenes tours of the resort.
Best West Coast Beach Resort: Loews Coronado Bay Resort
Over the bridge from downtown San Diego, this eco-minded destination helps protect its closest shoreline, Silver Strand State Beach. It has raised more than $1 million to fund Junior Ranger programs that families love, beach cleanups, and walks with naturalists. The resort’s hospitality continues by the pools, where a concierge hands out complimentary fruit and smoothies and, at night, sets up movies that your kid can watch from an inner tube.
Best All-Inclusive In The U.S.: Vista Verde Guest Ranch
After a day of horseback riding, fly-fishing, yoga, or pretty much any outdoor activity your heart desires, you’re reunited with your little ones for a big family Ranch dinner. Children rave about their riding lessons (they get their own horse for the stay), scavenger hunts, and trips to an antique fire truck for ice cream. “Kids and teens who don’t like supervised programs happily do them at this dude ranch,” says judge Eileen Ogintz of the ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. At the end of the week, your mini wranglers show off their new skills in a rodeo.
Best Hawaii Beach Resort: Turtle Bay Resort
On a remote section of Oahu, this sprawling resort, featured in movies like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, blows away Honolulu hotels with its seaside pony or horseback riding, uncrowded beaches where you may spot sea turtles, and banyan-tree groves. Bring the grandparents and stay in one of the ocean villas, which have a kitchen and washer and dryer, says judge Jacqui Gifford.
Best Hotel Chain: Embassy Suites By Hilton
The suites at its 250-plus locations have a door that closes off the master bedroom from the living area with a sofa bed—better for families than open-concept rooms. A free breakfast buffet, with made-to-order omelets and pancakes, will fuel your family before a busy day, while an early-evening reception with free snacks and drinks (wine for parents, juice for kids) allows you to book a later dinner. Icing on the cake: Most locations have indoor pools to give your family a break from sightseeing.
Best Vacation Rental: Airbnb
The diverse types of properties (4,900 castles and 2,400 treehouses worldwide, for instance) impressed our panel of judges. And if you simply want a kid-friendly house on the beach, they have that too.
The Best Family Vacation Experiences
Best Aquarium: Monterey Bay Aquarium
Your family will spy a wild assortment of sea creatures, including spotted comb jellies and a pom-pom anemone, at this destination south of San Francisco. But it’s the dozens of bilingual interactive exhibits in the kids’ splash-zone area that make this aquarium rise to the top. Kids can walk through a kelp forest, pull a plush stuffed moray eel out of its den to measure it, and use squirt toys to learn how animals resist crashing waves. Toddlers have their own section with a padded floor, a touch pool, and eye-level exhibits. The signs are written in rhyme to help kids remember their facts. Until your family can visit, keep tabs on the otters, sharks, moon jellies, penguins, and more by watching the aquarium’s webcams.
- RELATED: 10 Best Family Beach Vacations
Best Historical Attraction: Colonial Williamsburg
Think of this outdoor living-history museum in Virginia as an irresistible learning adventure. “It makes American history fun, with interactive, memorable activities that range from helping out on a farm to playing with a hoop and stick like kids did in the 1700s,” says Ogintz. “Plus, you can stay in a Colonial House and eat food from the time period.” Your dress-up fans will go nuts if you rent a period costume for them to wear for the day!
Best Science Center: Exploratorium
Chances are, some of the exhibits at your local science center were designed at this kids’ tinkering paradise with more than 650 things to try out. Judge Wendy Irvine’s faves, based on trips to the San Francisco attraction with her kids: the tactile dome (“We moved together in total darkness, touching and feeling our way out of the experience”), the pendulum drawings that create gorgeous designs while teaching mini scientists about physics, and the Bacteriopolis (“a super-colorful terrarium of bacteria that changes every day”).
Best Monument To Visit: Statue Of Liberty
The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration makes this New York City landmark a truly moving experience. Your kids will be enthralled with the “Treasures From Home” exhibit, which shows off artifacts (like teddy bears) that people coming to America brought with them. If your family wants to climb to the crown itself (do it!), be sure to prebook a ticket.
Best Zoo: Lincoln Park Zoo
It’s free. All the time. But that’s far from the only reason to bring the whole family to this Chicago favorite: Its manageable size gives you up-close encounters with more than 200 species of animals; it has one of the largest conservation programs in the country; and it schedules loads of events, from sing-alongs to garden tours. “The zoo’s stunning architecture and city views also make it a special place to visit,” says Hargrove.
Best Outdoor Water Park: Legoland California’s Water Park
Everything at this Carlsbad, California, theme park is geared to the 12-and-under crowd, so kids will find plenty to do. Judges gushed about the Build-a-Raft Lazy River, where kids design their own tube, and the Splash Zoo just for toddlers. It features a water-spraying seesaw made of DUPLO bricks. In another section, inspired by the Cartoon Network’s TV series Legends of Chima, kids can cool off in the Lion Temple wave pool and build a LEGO boat for racing past scenes from the show in a separate water area.
Best National Park: Yellowstone National Park
It’s a natural theme park: Bubbling mud, dramatic canyons, hot springs, and wildlife galore wow the whole fam. “We saw bison and elk, and if you get up early enough, you might spot those elusive gray wolves too,” says judge Cindy Richards. And the park is so vast—it spans almost 3,500 miles across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—that you can easily avoid crowds.
Best Children's Museum: Children’s Museum Of Indianapolis
The excitement starts in the parking garage where kids spot a dinosaur bursting out of the wall. Five floors of one-of-a-kind exhibits, including an interactive steam train and 800 fossils from a Wyoming dig, make this museum interesting for all ages, says judge Kimberly Milnes, whose husband loved a Star Trek exhibit when it was there.
Best Theme Park: Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom
There are theme parks with cooler rides and cheaper tickets, but the Magic Kingdom, in Orlando, thrills little ones like no other. It’s the only place where they can spin in a giant teacup, fly with Dumbo, and eat inside a castle. And whimsy is around every turn. You never know when your kids are going to squeal with delight when they spy a street performer or Mickey Mouse.
Best Theme Park Ride: Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain
The big drop at the end of the ride is fun, but the 10-minute journey listening to “Zip-a-Dee-DooDah” and watching your kids point out audio- animatronics like Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear is genuinely the best. Judges also appreciated that while the ride cools you off, it doesn’t usually leave you so soaked that you need a change of clothes.
The Best Family Travel Services
Best Car Rental: Alamo
Judges liked Alamo’s Insider’s Club, which is free to join. It gives you an extra five percent off rentals plus other deals. They also noted that many locations offer the “Skip the Counter” feature and self-serve kiosks to speed up the rental process.
Best Airline: Southwest
No luggage or change fees gave this airline that serves more than 100 destinations (including Hawaii) the nod. With two free bags per person (as long as they’re under 50 pounds each) and a free ride for the car seat and stroller, you don’t have to worry about taking all your little one’s stuff on your trip. The airline also offers “Family Boarding,” which allows two adults traveling with a child ages 6 and under to board following group A.
Best Airport: Miami International Airport
Nominated by The Bucket List Family’s Jessica Gee, this airport features the “Plane Fun” interactive children’s area. It also offers nursing suites in each concourse as well as a multi-sensory room.
Meet Our Judges
Here are the family-travel experts who cast votes for our 2020 best vacations list:
- Karen Akpan Founder of BlackKidsDoTravel.com
- Meg Brunson Travels full-time with her family of six, FamilyRoadVentures.com
- Karen Cicero Travel editor, Parents
- Diane Debrovner Deputy editor, Parents
- Julia Edelstein Editor-in-chief, Parents
- Sajay and Ric Garcia Instagram travel influencers @ric.saj_adventures
- Jessica and Garrett Gee Full-time traveling family of five, documenting trips @TheBucketListFamily
- Jacqui Gifford Editor-in-chief, Travel + Leisure
- Krystin Hargrove Founder of CoTripper, a family-travel platform for single moms
- Wendy Irvine Travel writer and blogger
- Amy Mayhue Senior travel advisor, Magnolia Travel Group
- Kyle McCarthy Editor, Family Travel Forum
- Kimberly Milnes Owner, Family Travel Boutique
- Kristal Molina Travel photographer @simplykristalclear
- Samantha Nelson Instagram travel influencer @thosecrazynelsons
- Eileen Ogintz Founder, TakingTheKids.com
- Amie O’Shaughnessy CEO, CiaoBambino.com
- Cindy Richards Editor-in-chief, TravelingMom.com
- Shelly Rivoli Founder, TravelsWithBaby.com
- Gabe Saglie Senior producer, Travelzoo
- Len Testa Coauthor of The Unofficial Guide: Walt Disney World 2020
- Devon Weaver Family-travel blogger at MamaCheaps.com