Hint at the grandparents to buy your clan a family membership to a local zoo, science center, aquarium, or children's museum. Trust me, you’ll love it. You won’t feel obligated to stay all day—and mess up nap schedules—just to get your money’s worth. You’ll probably get perks like free parking or invitations to member-only events. Plus, if you're a member of a zoo or aquarium that belongs to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, you may receive free or half-price admission to other zoos and aquariums that belong to the group, which comes in handy when you're out of town visiting family or on vacation. (Check out its reciprocity program here.) The Association of Children's Museums and Association of Science Technology Centers offer similar deals.
Most family attractions schedule special “insider” experiences that your kid will flip over. For instance, your local zoo may offer special animal encounters (like this one with penguins that we did at the National Aviary) or sleepovers (like the Roar & Snore Safari at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park). Museums, science centers, aquariums, and even theme parks also have memorable experiences that you can book in advance. I’m dying to check one of the new experiences curated by Airbnb. The vacation rental giant recently started offering family-friendly guided hikes, workshops, and classes in select cities; you don’t have to stay in one of its rentals to take part.
If your child can watch a two-hour movie without squirming or talking much, she’s probably old enough to see a Broadway show. Each production has different ages requirements and guidelines, but in general, Disney’s The Lion King, Disney’s Aladdin On Broadway, Wicked, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, School of Rock—The Musical, Anastasia, and Disney’s Frozen: The Broadway Musical (opening February 22, 2018) are excellent choices for kids in elementary school. Older kids would like those plus Hamilton (ticket tip: sign up on the show’s website to be notified when new blocks of seats go on sale), Hello Dolly!, Harry Potter and The Cursed Child (a play opening March 16, 2018); and Once On This Island The Musical. I got major mom cred taking my teenager to Dear Evan Hansen, while Come From Away is a great pick for teens with grandparents. You can snag discounted tickets up to a month in advance using the TodayTix app, find discount codes at Playbill.com, or take advantage of Kids Night on Broadway, an annual event—next taking place on February 27, 2018—where you’ll receive a free kid ticket for every adult ticket purchased. Icing on the cake: Local restaurants serve up kids’ discounts too, and some shows offer a special kids’ activity following the performance.
Not planning a trip to New York City? Many popular musicals (including some currently on Broadway) have a touring version with stops in more than a dozen cities every year. The U.S. tour of Hamilton, for instance, will make its way through 16 cities in 2018, while Wicked, Finding Neverland, Disney’s The Lion King, Disney’s Aladdin On Broadway, and Something Rotten! (better for teens) are also currently on tour.
Speaking of tours, Disney on Ice, Paw Patrol Live, and Sesame Street Live are traveling around the country. These shows are the perfect length for younger kids who can’t sit through an entire musical.
Major-league parks are becoming more kid-friendly; some cities like Atlanta and San Diego have special play areas for kids to test their skills. But don’t overlook minor-league stadiums. There are nearly 250 minor-league baseball teams—and tickets to one of their games are a lot less expensive than major-league outings. Plus, there's usually a lot more between-inning fun. Package the tickets with a new mitt or jersey.
If you kid is like mine, she’ll appreciate an experience that typically wouldn't fit into the family budget, like a pedicure at Sweet & Sassy, painting pottery at Color Me Mine, lunch at American Girl Place, admission to Legoland Discovery Center, or a session at BounceU, Pump It Up, or Sky Zone. A trip to the local ice rink, bowling alley, or Escape Room will also be a hit.
Merge your vacation and holiday budget together to make your money stretch further. One year, I took my daughter and a friend to an overnight at an indoor waterpark chain, and tickets to the park were included in our package. With locations across the country, Great Wolf Lodge is a great choice if you have younger kids. Kalahari Waterparks, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have a fantastic mix of thrill rides for preteens and gentler ones for toddlers. Camelback Resort in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania offers both an indoor waterpark and wintery activities like snow-tubing.
Whether your kid is into superheroes, Minecraft, Legos, or even Broadway, there are “Cons” across the country to hit up with meet-and-greets and fun programming. For instance, WonderCon in Anaheim, California, takes place on March 23 to 25, 2018 while BroadwayCon is scheduled for January 26 to 28, 2018 in New York City. Eventbrite.com will help you locate happenings in your area; goldstar.com may offer discounted admission.