Many hotel companies proclaim their family friendliness these days. But we wanted details: Exactly how do these lodgings make kids feel welcome -- and guarantee peace of mind (not to mention plenty of R&R) for moms and dads? To find out, we sent 28 families to 32 different hotels nationwide. They sampled the food, put room service to the test, searched for safety hazards, checked out child-care programs, splashed in pools, and took pages and pages of notes.
Here, our comprehensive report on the best of the bunch -- don't book a trip without it!
Our grand-prize winner has earned the right to flaunt its slogan "Loews Loves Kids." Though once considered conservative, Loews has recently reinvented itself as the hip hotel company for all travelers, particularly families. There are currently 13 Loews hotels in the United States; by 2001, the company plans to add 4 more.
Kids under 18 stay free in the same room as their parents; a second adjoining room is discounted. Childproofing kits (with night-light, outlet covers, and soft edges for furniture) are free if you're traveling with children under 4. The Did You Forget Closet stocks such items as heating pads and portable tape players. At some properties, you can also borrow VCRs, potty seats, baby swings, and strollers.
Children under 10 receive gift bags at check-in, which contain such items as yo-yos, playing cards, and plastic water canteens.
"My 5-year-old loved the playroom -- with bright murals, a playhouse, and mazes to crawl through," comments Jeannette Turnbull, who also has a 13-year-old. The summer Kids Camp offers swimming, treasure hunts, sand art, kite making, and sailing and tennis lessons. Prices start at $235 per room per night.
"My kids were mesmerized by the lobby, with its rich jewel tones and fiber-optic lights that continuously change color," says Sandra Manske, who has a 1-, 6-, and 10-year-old. "They were also delighted to find that their pillowcases had a Rugrats theme." Prices start at $149 per room per night.
With two golf courses, two large pools, two Jacuzzis, a spa, and an 80-foot waterfall, the resort was "a big hit with parents and kids alike," reports Gwen Brown, whose children are 8 and 12. "Our bathroom had a huge tub. My kids thought it was so cool that they took bubble baths for fun." The Coyote Kids' Club offers arts and crafts, Ping-Pong, croquet, and nature walks. Prices start at $110 per room per night through September.
Don't let the plush lobbies or upscale restaurants fool you into thinking that kids aren't welcome at these 18 unique properties. After all, this is a company whose president, Stephanie Sonnabend, frequently travels with her own 10- and 12-year-old children. It's obvious she knows how to make little ones feel like big shots on the road.
Spa treatments, afternoon tea, and fitness rooms. Up to two children under 12 can stay free in their parents' room.
A chance to experience a grown-up hotel with a staff that smiles over spilled milk -- and cheerfully brings another glass.
"My 12-year-old daughter was hesitant about joining the complimentary Just Us Kids activities program," says Sarah Gann of the oceanfront property. "But the counselors made her feel so comfortable. I was able to get some time for myself -- what every mom needs." Prices start at $180 per room per night through early December.
"The staff weren't just welcoming, they were playful with our kids," says Mimi Greenwood Knight, mother of a 3-, 6-, and 8-year-old. At the hotel's Red Fish Grill, not only did Knight savor "possibly the best shrimp I'd ever eaten, but my kids were served virgin daiquiris in fancy glasses, and the waiter made a big production of presenting the drinks!" Knight complimented the hotel for going beyond the call of duty: "We asked for cough medicine at 11:00 p.m. An employee went to a neighborhood pharmacy to pick it up and delivered it right to our room." Prices start at $99 per room per night through early September.
The country's largest chain of all-suite hotels, nearly 150 coast-to-coast, stays true to its slogan "100 percent satisfaction guaranteed." If guests are not completely happy, the hotel doesn't expect them to pay.
Daily complimentary buffet breakfast, morning newspapers, and evening happy hour. Kids 18 and under stay free. Its two-room suites enable families to spread out during the day and allow parents to enjoy privacy at night. Kitchens come with a coffeemaker, refrigerator, microwave, and wet bar. No fighting over watching Nickelodeon or ER -- there's a TV in each room.
A swimming pool, free popcorn, and soft drinks during happy hour; cable TV with kids' programming.
This hotel earned a high score from Sally Squires and her 11-year-old. "Not only is it located near all the best Capitol sites, it was clean and comfy," Squires says. Even though the hotel's restaurant offers a wide variety of child-pleasing fare, the kitchen concocted a special sandwich for her son, who is "a very picky eater," says Squires. Prices start at $149 per suite per night.
"My 1- and 3-year-old loved the rain-forest motif, with waterfalls and koi ponds," says Ginny Graves. She gave a thumbs-up to the pool with a shallow toddlers' area. Prices start at $139 per suite per night; or consider the Party Package, which allows up to six people to room in a suite for $189.
Upscale Hyatt, with 104 properties nationwide, is a full-service hotel for all kinds of travelers, from conventioneers to families.
Hyatts are loaded with such relaxing amenities as pools, health clubs, spas, shops, and restaurants.
The award-winning Camp Hyatt provides computer games, treasure hunts, swimming, and art workshops.
This opulent, lodgelike hotel is perched at 8,000 feet amid the majestic Rocky Mountains. The area is famous for a kids' ski school, the summer camping-in-a-tepee program, and a children's theater. Prices start at $275 per room per night through early September.
"The lobby had southwestern furnishings, potted cacti, and Native American art," says Bev Portley. At Camp Hyatt Kachina, her daughter visited the Hopi Learning Center, where she learned Native American arts, language, and dance. And if that's not enough for the little ones, the resort's waterways sport authentic Venetian gondolas, driven by opera-singing oarsmen. Prices start at $145 per room per night through early September.
All 11 Wyndham hotels in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands have a signature Personal Vacation Planner Program, in which a staff member works with guests to create an idyllic itinerary -- including dinner reservations, baby-sitters, spa visits, teatimes, and picnics.
Kids under 12 stay free and eat for free with the Kids On Us program, offered at select properties.
Your personal planner can arrange tours to nearby kids' attractions.
Kathy Bush and her family checked out this Disney World location and declared the Sunday character breakfast with Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto delightful. The Kids Klub (with T-shirt dyeing, inner-tube relays, stained-glass art, and kite making) runs every day, allowing parents time off to recharge at the acclaimed spa. Prices start at $159 per room per night.
At check-in, two large aquariums were the "perfect diversion for antsy kids," points out Bush, who also visited this location. In the Kids Klub, her 8-year-old daughter made puppets and swam. Wyndham also scores big for screened balconies, a separate toddler pool, and prompt service. "We called housekeeping at 6:30 p.m. requesting two Band-Aids. At 6:42, two men arrived with walkie-talkies and an enormous first-aid kit," says Bush. Prices start at $93.
The renowned chain recently launched 24 family-geared SunSpree Resorts. At these hotels, large rooms are partitioned -- half for parents, half for kids.
Parents can enjoy a set of tennis, a round of golf, a dip in the pool, and intimate dinners.
The children's side of the room has bunk and daybeds, a TV and VCR, Nintendo, a phone, a CD player/radio, and a junior-size activity table for games and puzzles.
"The bright playroom is filled with toys, games, and art supplies," says Shirley Courson, who has a 1- and a 3-year-old. During peak season -- late spring through summer -- supervised activities, including scavenger hunts and Kids Night Out (a five-hour party with movies and games), are scheduled for kids every day. The small grocery at the hotel came in handy, as the Coursons forgot to pack baby wipes. Prices start at $69 per room per night.
Kids have a separate check-in desk, where they're greeted with a bag of goodies. The supervised, free children's program, Camp Holiday, is open daily and offers arts and crafts, games, treasure hunts, and videos. "The staff bent over backward to make us happy -- we felt as if we could ask for anything," says Sally Shifke, whose children are 23 months, 6, and 8. Prices start at $127 for Kid Suites.
Don't let the all-business appearance of its more than 200 hotels nationwide intimidate you. Family travelers are embraced, especially at the resort properties, which provide kids' menus, activities, and playgrounds.
Radisson's Family Approved service includes complimentary breakfast for up to four people; cots, cribs, and playpens; a lending library of books and games; a childproofing kit; and discount coupons to nearby attractions. Children under 19 stay free in their parents' room. The hotel also offers 25 percent off a second room.
Most locations give children a packet of games, magic tricks, and stickers upon arrival. The chain is also launching The Fun Factory program, which offers daily themes like Messy Day, Wet & Wild, and Treasure Day.
"My first concern when I check into a hotel with my kids is balcony safety," says Cindy Love, mother of an 8- and an 11-year-old. "I was relieved to find that it was screened in with a net." On Fridays and Saturdays, this hotel hosts a special kids' dinner, so parents dine in peace. Prices start at $159 per suite per night.
You'll find Sheraton -- with 204 hotels nationwide -- in top form at its eight family resorts, each of which offers unique kids' programs.
Many Sheratons offer adult diversions, such as golf, tennis, spas, and gourmet dining.
The summer children's programs at resort properties are imaginative and well supervised and include such activities as nature hikes, astrology, and dance.
Four swimming pools, six hot tubs, and dozens of hiking trails are sure to fill your family's days. At night, lively saloon singers, musicians, and dancers entertain. Lori Rebeck, mother of a 4-, 9-, and 11-year-old, reported that her kids relished the "rattlesnack bites" (at the hotel's Last Territory Steakhouse & Music Hall). "My youngest devoured as many of the chicken nuggets as she could get her hands on. She didn't even care when we joked with her that she was eating rattlesnake!" (The supervised children's program is open only Easter week and during the summer.) Prices start at $85 per room per night.
"There's great skiing nearby at Purgatory," says Jeff Patton, father of a 5-year-old, "but summer's the time for far more kid activities -- when hikes, art workshops, games, and races take place." Another bonus: When you order an adult meal, your child eats for free. Prices start at $109 per room per night.