Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
What's New at Family-Friendly Destinations
Need a break from the same ol' city park, water park, theme park you've visited since you were twelve? is this the summer you vow to do something different, even truly adventurous?? is the whole family on board??? Then read on to learn about what's new (and fun!) at family-friendly destinations across the U.S.
The Mouse Has Some New Best Friends At Walt Disney World, Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park is the place to be. Step right up to Toy Story Mania!, an interactive attraction that brings old-style midway games to newfangled 4-D life. Greeting would-be carnival goers is a larger-than-life Mr. Potato Head, an audio-animatronic figure that sees you – really! Trust me, his puns are spot-on. Once inside the ride, guests pop on 3-D glasses and take aim at a variety of targets with easy-to-handle spring-action shooters. Among the games are “Hamm and Eggs,” where players launch virtual eggs at assorted barnyard targets and “Green Army Men Shoot Camp,” where virtual baseballs are lobbed at plates. The sound of breaking plates is a hoot, almost as much fun as “Bo-Peep's Baaa-loon Pop,” where the virtual darts being launched at water balloons might get you just a wee bit wet. Each player's score is tallied and you can compare your effort to the day's best at the end of the ride (better players are rewarded with more challenging – and high-scoring – targets as the game progresses). Our six-year-old son was virtually jumping out of his seat during this ride, eager to shoot at ever more targets and watch his score climb. Delicious eye candy and plentiful excitement combine to make Toy Story Mania! a surefire hit for “gamers” of all ages. Catering to the younger set is Playhouse Disney Live on Stage!, an interactive stage show featuring the stars of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Handy Manny” and “Little Einsteins.” Mickey's Clubhouse is brought to life as the mouse's pals and others conspire to create the best-ever birthday party for gal pal Minnie. Little ones will be hopping with glee at the prospect of being at the clubhouse and so close to Manny, Leo, Annie and the rest of the gang. Everyone is invited to sing along to the shows' familiar ditties, and I dare you to get those catchy tunes out of your head. Yep, it's impossible, since your next stop will probably be Playhouse Disney's Play 'n Dine at Hollywood & Vine, a character dining photo op hosted by JoJo and Goliath from “JoJo's Circus” and June and Leo from “Little Einsteins.” Kids will flit about the room, asking their favorite characters for an autograph between bites of Mickey pancakes; parents will take pleasure in the mile-wide grin on their kids' faces.
Later in the day, the Block Party Bash is where it's at. Leading the colorful fiesta down Hollywood Boulevard are an assortment of characters from Disney Pixar movies such as “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “A Bug's Life.” Children will cha-cha with Mike and Sully and samba with Woody and Buzz while you marvel at the fantastic (or is that fun-tastic?) floats and rolling stages. Come nightfall, it's time to glam up for Mickey's Pirate and Princess Party at the Magic Kingdom. The separate-ticket event beckons little princesses, who will be walking on air at being “invited” to their very own party. Junior swashbucklers are also on hand and everyone is told that “X” marks the spot for treasure troves throughout the park. It is the parents alone, however, who will decide whether the price of admission is worth it for a handful of events that aren't all that different from what you'd find at the Park in the daytime. That said, the Magic Kingdom is far less crowded during the nighttime Party and stays open till midnight. A five-minute wait at “it's a small world”? Sold!
New-ish lodgings at Walt Disney World include the Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, a vacation-ownership property that is the largest member of the Disney Vacation Club. Both Club and non-Club members can book one of over 800 units comprised of studio, one- and two-bedroom villas and Grand Villas that sleep twelve. Taking its cue from the Saratoga Springs racetrack in upstate New York, guests are treated to the traditions of classic country retreats. Quietly elegant accommodations are done in dark woods and jewel tones and guests are invited to dine at the resorts' excellent Turf Club Bar and Grill. Two pools, a full-service spa, golf, tennis and the aptly-named Win, Place or Show Arcade round out the offerings. While there's plenty to do here (and, yes, your kids will find the water slide-driven High Rock Springs pool irresistible), the best reason to stay may be the utterly spacious accommodations. Families will have room to roam in a villa that boasts a full kitchen, living room with sleeper sofa and spacious master suite replete with whirlpool bath. The patio overlooking the golf course is merely icing on the cake.
Tips for your trip to Walt Disney World...Buy everyone a pedometer. Those cries of “Mom! I'm tired of walking!” will simply melt away as kids keep track of their steps and endeavor to best the eldest (that's you, Mom and Dad)...Many of the stores in the theme parks are now carrying tie-dye t-shirts featuring your child's favorite characters. Face it, there's no easier way to spot your kid in a crowd than in tie-dye so be sure to pick up some new tees...Dinner reservations at Walt Disney World may be harder to come by than Super Bowl tickets so do yourself a favor and reserve well in advance by calling (407) WDW-DINE. More information on Disney's theme parks, lodging and dining options can be found at www.disneyworld.com. Information on the Disney Vacation Club is available at www.disneyvacationclub.com.
Water Water Everywhere Is a day at the beach the ultimate summertime treat? Perhaps, but Kalahari Waterpark in Sandusky, Ohio sure comes close. The country's largest indoor waterpark thanks to a recent expansion that doubled its size, Kalahari is an Africa-themed romp through myriad water-play lands. Start at the spanking-new wave pool, oceans of fun underneath a Texlon roof that lets the sun shine in. Terrific new rides and slides include the Swahili Swirl, a tubing slide featuring a large bowl that you'll circle for what feels like, oh, a dozen revolutions and the Tanzanian Twister, a tube-less bowl that swishes you silly before plopping you head first into the cool pool below. The Cheetah Race is a water-soaked mat race for four intrepid souls while the Flowriders, simulated surfing experiences, only require one brave soul at a time. And brave it you must – even our six-year-old stood up to the five-foot-like waves, albeit on his belly, boogy-board style.
The real magic of Kalahari, however, is that the fun doesn't stop at the waterpark. This full-service resort features an enormous game zone (don't miss the mini-golf – it has a water hazard – and the bowling lanes), an outdoor pool with slides that kids eight and under will find especially appealing and numerous restaurants (catch the breakfast buffet at Great Karoo and a midday break at the outdoor ZanziBar). Spending a night or two at Kalahari is also a good idea, since you're not going to be able to get your kids out of here anyway. Book a Nomad Room, which comes with two super-comfy queen beds, a sleeper sofa, fireplace and balcony. Request a view of the outdoor waterpark and you'll stay in that sub-Saharan frame of mind all night long. More details on the waterpark and its lodging and dining options can be found at www.kalahariresorts.com.
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it's never been just about staring at fish, which is why the aquarium is consistently voted one of the best in the U.S. Sticking with that philosophy, the aquarium's popular Splash Zones exhibit has been re-imagined as Splash Zones: Ocean Homes, more than doubling the space of this highly interactive attraction. Surround yourself in an Enchanted Kelp Forest (children will ooh and aah as you stroll through the sunlit canopy), crawl through a ocean reef in the Coral Reef Kingdom and make waves along a Rugged Rocky Shore. The Zones' touch pool is now over forty feet long and full of fishy fun and the black-footed penguins have also moved to roomier quarters. And what about that pot-bellied seahorse? Yep, he's smiling at you. www.mbayaq.org
From Laughter to Disaster Uh-oh, the Simpsons have taken over Universal Studios – can anything good possibly come of this? If you're a kid, you bet. On The Simpsons Ride, your family will join Homer, Marge and their family on a visit to Krustyland, the kind of theme park only Krusty the Clown could find enticing. Crash, fly and otherwise survive your way through Krustyland's maze of kiddie shows, stunt rides and carnival midway, giggling your way through the schoolyard humor that is the hallmark of the popular TV show. www.universalstudios.com
Crazy Days and Dark Knights The Six Flags theme park properties continue to roll out Tony Hawk's Big Spin, a coaster that will “twirl you as it hurls you.” How can you resist? Even master skateboarder Hawk approves, since he had a hand in the design of a roller coaster that spins you in 360-degree rotations while you make your way up and down some radical track. Expect to catch some serious air on this ride and expect to take a few minutes to catch your breath once you land. Nowhere nearly as light is Six Flags' Batman The Ride, which finds the Dark Knight taking on Gotham City's most notorious enemies. How best to attack the pack? On a super-coaster, of course, one that flies above and below the track at speeds of over 50 m.p.h. Rocketing your way through Gotham has never been more thrilling. www.sixflags.com
Back on Easy Street At a slower, sweeter pace are a slew of Sesame-Street-themed attractions now open at Sea World San Diego. Sesame Street presents Lights, Camera, Imagination finds Elmo and his friends romping through a 4-D movie that literally jumps off the screen. Join in the fun at Big Bird's Beach Party, where our feathered friend (with an assist from Bert and Ernie) jumps and jives to five musical numbers. Your kids can also Breakfast with Elmo and Friends and share a hug or two over delicious morning food but remind them to save some energy for the Sesame Street Bay of Play, a two-acre fun zone where the rides are sized with little ones in mind. www.seaworld.com At Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, home to some of the country's best roller coasters, junior thrill-seekers will test their skills at the all-new Planet Snoopy, a 1.25-acre playground featuring seven rides, games and special live appearances by Peanuts characters. A nearby Peanuts-themed restaurant features a kids-only menu with a few selections graciously offered for adults. There's no doubting who's the boss at Planet Snoopy! www.cedarpoint.com
Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and five-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.