All Articles America’s 20 most kid-friendly places for a family vacation

America’s 20 most kid-friendly places for a family vacation

Plus, top attractions they’ll love.

Perri Ormont Blumberg
Tripadvisor
By Perri Ormont Blumberg and Tripadvisor10 Mar 2020 14 minutes read
Family at beach, in Williamsburg, Virginia

Editor's note: This story was updated February 23, 2024.

Family vacations are the source of many a core memory: from meeting Mickey for the first time to spending long, lazy days together at the beach (or water park). But figuring out where to go can be overwhelming. Here, we've rounded up some America’s most kid-friendly attractions in popular destinations like San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and lesser-known pint-sized paradises like Empire, MI; Huntsville, AL; and Bloomington, MN (hello, Mall of America) to help you whittle down the search for your next family vacation. From actually kid-friendly museums to just-exhausting-enough hikes, there's an option for everyone below.


San Diego

For beach adventures and life-size Legos

When to go: September through November

Kids playing at the San Diego Zoo

San Diego is a warm-weather wonderland packed with kid-friendly attractions. Budding biologists can spot everything from red pandas to polar bears at the San Diego Zoo, or look beneath the waves at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps (don’t miss the outdoor tidal pools). And Legoland California, a 45-ish-minute drive up the coast, is a must for Lego-obsessed kids and adults. (Tip: Pack some mini-figures that your family can trade with Legoland’s staff throughout the park.) And for the perfect excuse to learn something new alongside your youngsters, take a surf class and catch your first waves in the gentle breaks near La Jolla.

Tip: If you can time your trip, October is a great month to visit, thanks to Kids Free San Diego, where children stay, play, and eat for free throughout the region, including at Travelers’ Choice Award winners like Ocean Park Inn and Bahia Resort Hotel.

More to explore in San Diego

Indianapolis

For kid-friendly museums and Indy 500 thrills

When to go: June to August

Dinosaur sculpture outside of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum
Indianapolis Children’s Museum
Image: Courtesy of Visit Indiana

Indianapolis is bursting with spots sure to delight both little ones and grown-ups alike. Find endless chances to learn, build, and explore alongside your kids at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world's biggest children's museum—visiting families have said the museum can keep kids engaged for four-plus hours. Get your groove on at the Rhythm! Discovery Center, the world's only interactive drum and percussion museum. Or, hit the water and kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard on central Indiana’s White River with Frank’s Paddlesports Livery Co. Another draw here is Speedway Indoor Karting, a European-style, multi-level track, a few blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the Indy 500 and its dedicated museum. (Just know your kid has to be at least 8 years old to hit the go-kart track.)

More to explore in Indianapolis

Washington, D.C.

For history lessons come to life

When to go: March through May

Lobby at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Image: Courtesy of Destination DC

Introduce your kids to the Founding Fathers on a family vacation to Washington, D.C., mixing a dash of history with plenty of kid-focused attractions and tours. Start with a hop-on, hop-off bus tour—they're a flexible way to take in D.C. highlights at your family’s pace. It’s also worth noting that all of the Smithsonian and national museums are free to visit, so you can sample them without breaking the bank (or needing to stay all day). Just know you may need to reserve a ticket in advance, depending on the museum.

Spend a morning, say, learning about the future of flight at the National Air and Space Museum (it hosts story time every Thursday at 11 a.m.) and the afternoon discovering the origins of mankind at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. And if you’re raising a future James Bond, the International Spy Museum is a must for aspiring double agents, offering a 90-minute family highlights tour. To let off any pent-up kid energy, wander the National Zoo or the National Arboretum.

More to explore in Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles

For theme-park romps

When to go: September through November

Parade with Mickey Mouse, in Disneyland

Kid-friendly vacations in Los Angeles mean beach time (Santa Monica Pier is a go-to), roller coasters, and even a few celebrity selfies—in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, that is. If you don’t want to spend too much time in the car, head to Universal Studios Hollywood, where kids can practice their wand work at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and gamers can see Toad, Mario, Bowser, and more come to life at Super Nintendo World. (It's less than 20 minutes from downtown and there are hotels, restaurants, and more on site.)

But there’s one theme park titan that rules them all: Disneyland, located in Anaheim, about an hour from downtown LA. Whether you're meeting Minnie, dodging stars on Space Mountain, or wandering through Galaxy's Edge, check out our guide to making the most of your visit.

More to explore in Los Angeles

Maui, Hawaii

For surf, snorkels, and sandy beaches

When to go: October and November

Family looking at fish at the Maui Ocean Center

With breathtaking scenery and a laid-back pace, Maui is among the top kid-friendly vacations in Hawaii. Touch tanks at the Maui Ocean Center let kids get hands-on experiences with the wonders of the underwater world, and snorkeling trips from Wailuku give the chance to see sea turtles and colorful fish swimming in their natural habitats. And off the water, you can head to Ultimate Air Maui Trampoline Park for some indoor bouncing fun, Maui Golf & Sports Park for a superb mini golf course and bumper boats, and Haleakala Crater National Park for a look at an active volcano (if your kids are early risers and you have a rental car, book a $1 reservation for a sunrise drive).

Tip: Wailuku is Maui’s county seat, and about 10 minutes from Kahului Airport, making it an easy first stop, but Wailea (about 40 minutes from the airport and home to the Andaz Maui at Wailea and Wailea Beach Resort - Marriott) and the Hana-Maui Resort (on the island’s east side) are also great for families traveling with kids in tow.

More to explore in Maui

Branson, MO

For non-stop entertainment

When to go: November and December

Roller coaster at Silver Dollar City, in Branson, Missouri
A roller coaster at Silver Dollar City
Image: Silver Dollar City/Courtesy of Explore Branson

Since it's home to the World’s Largest Toy Museum, it’s no surprise that Branson is a favorite for kid-friendly vacations. But the children’s attractions here go way beyond Lincoln Logs and toy trains. Some favorite family vacation ideas include stopping by Branson’s water and amusement parks (the zipline canopy tour and ropes course at Shepherd of the Hills Adventure Park gets rave reviews, as does the indoor WonderWorks) or taking in a family-friendly show (you’ll have your pick of magic shows, musical revues, comedy sketches, and more). And if your kids are clamoring for more time on the water, spend some time reeling in fish in one of the nearby lakes or streams.

More to explore in Branson

Virginia Beach, VA

For boardwalk afternoons and aquarium visits

When to go: June and July

Family relaxing on the beach, in Virginia Beach

The Virginia Beach Boardwalk alone—spanning some three miles and dotted with parks, stages, restaurants, museums, and larger-than-life sculptures—can keep the kids entertained for the entire day (okay, or at least a good hour or two). Plus, everyone can get in on the rollerblades and Surrey bikes available to rent along the paved promenade.

Beyond the beach, you can slip and slide through the Ocean Breeze Waterpark, or double up in a kayak for a dolphin-watching tour along the coast. For more time on the water, book a charter fishing boat, whale or dolphin-watching boat trip, surf lesson, or SUP excursion. And on cloudy days, kids will get a kick out of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center (with its newly expanded touch pools, plus otter and jellyfish habitats) or the Military Aviation Museum.

Tip: Book a stay at the Moxy Virginia Beach Oceanfront, Virginia Beach’s newest oceanfront property, which has bunk bedrooms ideal for kiddos.

More to explore in Virginia Beach

Empire, MI

For kid-approved hikes and scenic drives

When to go: June through August

Family running down the dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes, Empire, Michigan
Towering dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Image: Bo Shen/Getty Images

At the doorstep of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire is among the best family vacation spots on Lake Michigan—especially for junior adventurers. While hiking through sand dunes and forests, you can spot Lake Michigan shipwrecks, swim in the vast lake itself, then introduce your kids to nights spent under the stars. The 1.5-mile out-and-back Empire Bluff Trail, in particular, is great for groups and offers panoramic views of the lake. If your posse prefers biking, tackle the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail (Crystal River Outfitters is a go-to for bike rentals, as well as kayak and canoe loaners).

For something more low-key, road trip along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive where you’ll find plenty of spots for cranky kids to stretch their legs, and more notably, gape at the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Lake Michigan, and Glen Lake.

More to explore in Empire

Huntsville, AL

For a taste of outer space

When to go: September and October

Exterior of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, in Huntsville, Alabama
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Image: JHVEPhoto/Getty Images

When you get to Huntsville, make your first pit-stop Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. There, you can pick up a clue card for a free scavenger hunt, which will have the kids frolicking for hours. Kiddos can’t get enough of outer space? Fuel their fascination at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, a kid-friendly attraction that’s perfect for aspiring astronauts. A series of interactive exhibits—including a g-force simulator, a zero gravity chamber, and a towering IMAX screen—keep kids engaged with the science and pure adventure of the universe. Earlyworks Museum Complex is another good idea, especially on a rainy or too-hot day, when you can’t take advantage of some 60 parks in the area. And if you can swing a fall visit, Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment is the place to be for children-friendly concerts on Friday evenings with the center’s Concerts on the Dock series.

More to explore in Huntsville

Wisconsin Dells, WI

For water parks galore

When to go: July through September

Kids playing in the waterpark at Wilderness Resort, Wisconsin Dells
Wilderness Resort
Image: Courtesy of Wisconsin Dells

Planning a family vacation to Wisconsin Dells is all about getting wet: this kid-friendly getaway is packed with award-winning water parks. For first-timers in the region, note that most of the water parks here are part of resorts, but many do sell day passes that’ll allow non-resort guests to visit the water parks. Not sure where to start? Check out Kalahari’s Wisconsin Dells outpost, home to an indoor/outdoor park with surf simulators and thrilling trap-door slides; Wilderness Resort, with eight water parks on site, in addition to cabin-style accommodations for families; or Mt. Olympus Resort, which features indoor/outdoor water parks, a rotating waterslide, and more. And if you want just the water park thrills, head to the newly opened, summer-only Land of Natura, America's largest inflatable water park set in a naturally filtered lake.

If you'd rather stay dry, there’s plenty to do, from panning for gemstones at the Dells Mining Co. and gasping at magic tricks at Rick Wilcox Magic Theater to ziplining on kid-friendly tours.

Tip: Summer means high season, as families cool off from the Midwest heat. If you’re looking for fewer crowds and a break from the snow, opt for a mid-winter stay and take advantage of the indoor water parks.

More to explore in Wisconsin Dells

Atlanta

For civil rights history and more

When to go: March through May

Family walking outside of the aquarium, in Atlanta

To connect your vacation to your kid’s classroom, be sure to visit The King Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site to learn more about Atlanta's native son, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other trailblazers. (Don’t miss the “Children of Courage” exhibit, which showcases how kids participated in the civil rights movement.) The area is surrounded by beautiful grounds, and a play area, so kids can let off steam after walking through the educational exhibits. (If you’ve got a kid between 9 and 12 years old, stop by the Visitor Center to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet.)

To fill out your itinerary, go eye-to-eye with enormous whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium and be sure to leave time for a visit to the World of Coca-Cola, filled with interactive and multimedia exhibits to keep kids hooked from beginning to end, when you can try Coke products from around the world.

More to explore in Atlanta

Bloomington, MN

For the Mall of America and holiday cheer

When to go: December and January

Exterior of the Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota
Mall of America
Image: Courtesy of Mall of America

Three words: Mall of America. It’s that epic. The famed emporium combines kid-friendly attractions, fabulous shopping, and theme park rides under one enormous roof, making it one of the easiest-to-plan family vacations in the U.S. During your mall jaunt, meet the fish at SEA LIFE Minnesota Aquarium or get an eagle’s-eye view of the world in the multi-sensory Fly Over America. Not sure when to visit? The winter holidays brings ton of festive cheer (and shoppers) to the mall, which goes all out with four-foot-tall trees, nearly 5,000 strands of lights, and, of course, appearances from Santa and his elves.

When you’re ready to leave the mall, catch thrills at Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area in the winter and Hyland Lake Park Reserve when temps are warmer. At the reserve, the play area is “one of the best we've ever seen,” according to one Tripadvisor reviewer, with tons of obstacles to monkey around on. For wildlife aficionados, try Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Bonus, it’s all about a 20-minute drive from Minneapolis so you can tack on some time in the Twin Cities if you’d like, too.

More to explore in Bloomington

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL

For dolphin sightings and sandy beaches

When to go: August and September

Family building sand castles on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama

White-sand beaches shelter a maze of bays and bayous in Orange Beach, a relaxed family-vacation spot on Alabama’s sunny Gulf coast. Along with its twin city, Gulf Shores, it’s one of the best places to go with kids who love to play in the sand and salt water. Kid-friendly must-dos here include spotting dolphins, teaching your kids to bait a hook on a private fishing charter, and booking a day cruise with Hammock Time Tiki Tours, where the boats have two double hammocks, a tiki bar for parents to enjoy, and a restroom. Plus, teens will love “flying” across the coastal waters during an e-foiling lesson (basically an electric surfboard) with Foil Gulf Coast.

Back on dry land, cap off the day by building a sand castle with the talented experts at Sandcastle University, play mini golf, and shop at the Wharf. It’s worth noting that biking shines in these parts, thanks to multiple bike stations in Orange Beach with options for kids of all ages, so you might want to reserve a few hours for pedaling in Gulf State Park on the 28-miles of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail.

More to explore in Gulf Shores

New Braunfels, Texas

For a summer cool-down

When to go: June and July

Family kayaking with Paddle TX, in New Braunfels, Texas

Family vacations in New Braunfels, an hour outside of both San Antonio and Austin, are all about keeping cool: The Comal River and the Guadalupe River flow right past the town at a pace that’s perfect for a day-long inner tube float. (You can also take a guided kayak or SUP board trip with Paddle TX.) If you’re looking for something a little more controlled, there’s the always-a-kid-fave Schlitterbahn Waterpark.

Once you dry off, though, you've got a lot more exploring to do, starting at the McKenna Children’s Museum. For tots and non-swimmers, it’s all aboard the Landa Park Train to gape at the springs that fill Landa Lake and its natural swimming pool. Beyond New Braunfels, the region overflows with kid-friendly attractions, from feeding the animals at the San Antonio Zoo to picnicking in the rolling landscape of Texas Hill Country, making a road trip an easiest way to explore.

More to explore in New Braunfels

Williamsburg, VA

For colonial history

When to go: April and May

Ship in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Rich with American history and heritage, Williamsburg is packed with kid-friendly attractions that help the past come alive. Costumed actors and reenactments at Colonial Williamsburg invite children to imagine life in the early United States and the “working” milliners, printers, and blacksmiths on site are fascinating for visitors of all ages.

But family vacations don’t stop with recollections of yesteryear, since Williamsburg is home to two exciting theme parks: Water Country USA with plenty of slides, pools, and lazy rivers; and Busch Gardens, where its beloved Loch Ness Monster roller coaster is reopening after a renovation this spring. And once spring has sprung, you’ll definitely want to visit the 2024 season of the Williamsburg Farmers Market, which kicks off weekly on Saturdays starting March 16.

More to explore in Williamsburg

Phoenix, AZ

For desert adventures

When to go: November through January

Family walking through the Desert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix
The Desert Botanical Garden
Image: Visit Phoenix/Jill Richards

Calling all musical families: With more than 15,000 musical instruments, the Musical Instrument Museum is one of the best places to go with kids in Phoenix. You can listen to instruments from around the world, or try playing a tune of your own in the museum’s experience gallery. For a different kind of noise altogether, take your kids on an off-roading adventure through the Sonoran Desert, learning about desert plants and animals as you zoom along the sand.

A few more spots we’d be remiss in not pointing you towards: the Arizona Boardwalk, home to “Butterfly Wonderland” and Arizona’s largest aquarium; the Desert Botanical Garden, with some 50,000 desert plants spread across five thematic trails in a Sonoran Desert oasis; and the Children's Museum of Phoenix with more than 300 play experiences that we pray will lead to nap time.

Tip: For accommodations, consider the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, which recently debuted a massive AquaRidge WaterPark, which has a top-tier lazy river and a slide-filled playground area, home to a teen-friendly, dual-person vertical wall tube slide.

More to explore in Phoenix

San Francisco

For enormous, but not overwhelming museums

When to go: September through November

Families walking through the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco
California Academy of Sciences
Image: Courtesy of The San Francisco Travel Association

Plenty of kid-friendly attractions make San Francisco a favorite spot for any type of family vacation. The crème de la crème is the waterfront’s Exploratorium, which has more than 650 exhibits focusing on science, art, and human perception. It’s great for all ages, and kids can touch and play their way through the museum. Afterwards, walk a few piers over to grab a boat ride over to the infamous prison on Alcatraz Island or join a cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Wherever you go in the city, don’t miss the chance to ride on one of SF’s signature cable cars, which celebrated their 150th anniversary in 2023. (For easy access and tickets on the go, download the MuniMobile app.) If your kids love all things transportation, take them to the free Cable Car Museum. There, they’ll get schooled on the history of San Francisco's cable cars and get a peek at the giant mechanisms that keep the system running.

More to explore in San Francisco

Grapevine, Texas

For locomotive and Lego lovers

When to go: December and January

Kids at exhibit at Meow Wolf Grapevine, Texas

Located squarely between Dallas and Fort Worth and a stone’s throw from DFW International Airport, Grapevine offers the best of both worlds. Within its city limits, you’ll find two world-class kid-friendly attractions: the Legoland Discovery Center and Sealife Aquarium. Be sure to visit Historic Main Street, where aspiring train enthusiasts can hop on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s authentic 1920s coaches. And because of Grapevine’s prime location, you’ll also have access to the enormous Dallas Zoo, the Fort Worth Stockyards and the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, which offers tours that take you into the locker rooms and on the field, all just 20 minutes away.

When it comes to what time of year to visit, we have an easy answer. Dubbed the Christmas Capital of Texas, the city has a packed itinerary of events for 40 days during the holiday season—including ice-carving displays at the Gaylord Texan Resort, light parades, caroling, and more—making it the perfect December getaway.

More to explore in Grapevine

Boston

For history and harbor happenings

When to go: August to October

Families on swan boat, in Boston, Massachusetts
A swan boat in the Boston Public Garden
Image: APCortizasJr/Getty Images

Bursting with rich history, Boston is full of classic experiences that captivate kids. There are plenty of kid-friendly attractions that introduce youngsters to America’s revolutionary past, such as a guided tour on Boston’s historic Freedom Trail and Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, where kids can get in on the action by tossing bales of tea into Boston Harbor.

When your children need a break from all that history, you can catch the Red Sox at Fenway Park, head to Boston Public Garden for a ride on the iconic Swan Boats, or stop by the The Boston Children's Museum and the New England Aquarium, which sit about a 15-minute walk apart in the harbor.

Tip: When you need a break from child-wrangling at museums, but your kids still need some level of diversion, head to The Lawn on D, a park near the Boston Convention Center with interactive art installations, live music, and LED illuminated swings.

More to explore in Boston

Orlando, FL

For a theme park bonanza

When to go: December through February

Father and son at the Crayola Experience, in Orlando, Florida
Crayola Experience
Image: Courtesy of Visit Orlando

You already know Orlando is packed with kid-friendly attractions. But allow us to refresh your memory on what is arguably the ultimate kids’ vacation destination. First, there are the many parks of Walt Disney World (which will open “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure,” inspired by The Princess and the Frog, later this year) and Universal Orlando, home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Then, you can delight the whole family with space-themed memorabilia at the Kennedy Space Center Shop (the center itself is about a 30-minute drive), or head to “sea” level at SeaWorld Orlando, which is set to open Penguin Trek, a family coaster featuring an Antarctic expedition this year.

These days, we’d also urge kid-toting visitors to swing by the Crayola Experience Orlando, a creative play haven, or Funtastic Depot, the city's largest indoor amusement park. The latter’s pièce de résistance is its inflatable amusement park (there’s no such thing as overdoing it at the ball pit slide, but there’s also a climbing wall, obstacle course, free fall platform, and other stellar, bouncy features).

FYI: Universal Orlando Resort plans to open the Epic Universe theme park, with completely new themed lands like How to Train Your Dragon’s Isle of Berk and a villain-inspired Dark Universe park, in the summer of 2025, making it the perfect time to plan a trip, whether your family is full of first timers or theme park fanatics.

More to explore in Orlando

Perri Ormont Blumberg
Perri Ormont Blumberg is a New York City-born-and-based writer, who first became a fresh air fiend at her family's vacation home in the Catskills. She holds a B.A. in psychology from Columbia University and is also a culinary school graduate from the Natural Gourmet Institute. Her writing and editing work has appeared in publications such as the New York Post, Travel + Leisure, Business Insider, Men’s Journal, TODAY.com, Architectural Digest, Fox News, Robb Report, and many others. Previously, she was a senior staff writer at Southern Living, news editor at Men's Journal, and food editor at Reader's Digest. Follow Perri on Twitter @66perristreet.