Skip the princesses and check out these 5 alternatives to a theme-park vacation.

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I have never understood the hoopla over Disney World. Maybe you’re like me, or maybe you’ve been enough times that you just need a change.

Either way, here are five vacation alternatives that deliver hefty doses of fun while broadening your child’s cultural playbook through real-world experiences. All are based on a budget similar to a four-night stay at Disney World (which, realize, is a hefty $4,200).

Virginia Beach

There are fancy-pants beach vacations. And there are plop-down-in-the-sand holidays where an easy “Leave It to Beaver”-era charm is the main attraction. Virginia Beach is the latter, and its lack of grandeur is precisely why I love it.

Oceanfront hotels are affordable. As are the mom-and-pop restaurants where locals flock for shrimp boils, steamed blue crab and tangy Lynnhaven oysters plucked straight from Chesapeake Bay. Entertainment plays out on a 3-mile-long boardwalk, with street performers, shaved ice and salt water taffy vendors and a small amusement park.

But the beaches are the real selling point. Choose from Resort Beach, a surfer’s paradise; the smaller, dune-speckled Sandbridge (which butts up to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a great spot for eco-adventures); or Chesapeake Bay Beach, which woos families with gentle waters and access to historic First Landing State Park.

Other activities? Zip-line through the trees at Virginia Aquarium’s “aerial forest park.” Ocean Breeze Waterpark has slides with the requisite 35-foot drop, and a giant wave pool. At the Military Aviation Museum, you can view Super Hornet fighter jets, Spitfires and other wartime aircraft. For a fee, you can blow the kids’ minds with a ride on an authentic open-cockpit 1941 Boeing Stearman PT-17 Kaydet.

The oceanfront Hilton Garden Inn (rooms from $230) has a pool, a sand play area, cabana service, a playground and discounted tickets to many attractions.

Lake Geneva, Wisc.

The coastal resort town of Lake Geneva is the Hamptons of the Midwest. Celebrity sightings are nil, but sun-drenched afternoons lazing on the water are guaranteed. Another attraction is estate ogling. For over a century, the rich and famous (Wrigley, Schwinn, Maytag, Rockefeller and Sears) have been vacationing in Lake Geneva.

Tourists can get ridiculously close to these mansions by simply hiking and biking around the lake. Thanks to an Indian treaty signed in 1833, the 26.2-mile Shore Path (originally used by the indigenous Potawatomi tribe) provides public access in perpetuity. Translation? You can meander through the grounds of historic estates without the risk of a stalking violation.

in Lake Geneva, Wisc., you can spend time on the water in a relaxed, upscale setting. (Thinkstock)
in Lake Geneva, Wisc., you can spend time on the water in a relaxed, upscale setting. (Thinkstock)

You should stay at Grand Geneva Resort and Spa (deluxe rooms start at $159). The property has its own 50,000-square-foot water park, stables (riding lessons, carriage rides) and a new adventure center equipped with mountain bikes, slack lines and archery. Canopy zip-lining is also available nearby.

But whizzing across the lake is what families really want out of this type of vacation. The concierge can arrange all water-sport rentals and book an organized cruise.

There are two standout non-water-related outings. Yerkes Observatory is deemed the birthplace of modern astrophysics. It houses what’s billed as the world’s largest refracting telescope and 170,000 photographic plates. And a tour of the lavish 13-bedroom Victorian Black Point Estate, with the original plumbing and furniture, is a thrill.


There is an art to not depleting your child’s college fund while visiting London. Step one is finding a budget-friendly hotel situated near major attractions and a Tube station. The Marriott Kensington fits the bill. (The Family Time package, which includes breakfast, is 245 pounds, about $323, for a room that comfortably fits four.)

To get oriented, take a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour, a perfect first-day outing when battling jet lag. It stops at most landmark attractions (Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace). Definitely stop for a ride on the London Eye.

For some children, parading past endless paintings is like eating a platter of fish roe: pure torture. However, according to my 10-year-old, certain museums are “actually fun.” The Natural History Museum and the British Museum (all national museums are free) fall into the cool category. Both are gigantic. Some advice: Identify what you want to see before arriving. Trying to tackle it all is a recipe for meltdowns.

The Wallace Collection is equally cool, owing to its “Game of Thrones” appeal. Art is displayed in a stunning Victorian mansion. Downstairs, there is a war chest of arms and armor plus a reproduction chain-mail ensemble that the children can try on.

For a whiff of elegant Britain, wander through the neighborhood of St. James’. Sample artisanal cheeses at “cheesemonger to the crown” Paxton & Whitfield and pop into Prestat, said to be the queen’s favorite chocolatier. Then have afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, the department store that has served as Royal Grocer for 150 years. If the children are well behaved, reward them with a souvenir from Hamleys, among the oldest and largest toy stores in the world.

Royal parks are essential sightseeing. Organize a picnic in Hyde Park followed by pedal boating around Serpentine Lake. You can also book a guided horseback ride with Hyde Park Stables (no experience necessary). Not to be missed are the rose gardens in Regent’s Park. The manicured display of 12,000 roses (85 varieties) is a paean to England’s gardening heritage. On the northeast corner of this park is the London Zoo.

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour outside of London features “Harry Potter” sets such as Dumbledore’s office. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
The Warner Bros. Studio Tour outside of London features “Harry Potter” sets such as Dumbledore’s office. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

If your children are die-hard Harry Potter fans, do the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. Unlike a theme park, this provides interaction with the actual props, sets (including Diagon Alley and Dumbledore’s office) and costumes from the Harry Potter films. You will even partake in a quidditch match, if only on a green screen. It’s a time commitment. The studio is close to Watford, about one hour from London by train.

Two more fabulous-and-free experiences: the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (at about 11 a.m. daily) and enjoying the antics of street performers at Covent Garden.

Money Saver: Instead of meals at pricey restaurants, head to the city’s splendid food courts (Selfridges, Harrods and Marks & Spencer) for takeout. You will find a perfect picnic or in-hotel dinner.


A few days at an all-inclusive dude ranch is a slam dunk for everyone. Kids can live out their cowboy or cowgirl fantasies. And parents, well, can too. A century-old former stage-coach stop and buffalo ranch, Vee Bar Guest Ranch near Laramie is an authentic, no-frills Western experience — rustic log cabins, horseback riding, mess hall meals, campfires, river tubing, hiking, fishing, hay rides — that feels like overnight camping for the whole family.

There are just nine guest cabins, so by the end of the first day, the staff will know everyone’s name and your children’s snack preferences. On the final night, there is a campout under the stars (or you can sleep in a tepee) complete with fiddlers by the campfire and s’mores. Adults, $980; children 6 to 18, $825; 5 and under, $200 (rates slightly higher in July and August) for the three-night packages.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route runs from L.A., long the California coast, all the way to Seattle. (Amtrak)
Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route runs from L.A., long the California coast, all the way to Seattle. (Amtrak)

Amtrak train trip

To children, sleeping on a train is one of the ultimate treats. It’s all cool — the dining car, a sleeping compartment, even maintaining your balance while using the bathroom inside a lurching vehicle. On top of pleasing your children, a train trip is both flexible and budget friendly. In fact, on Amtrak, children (2– 13) pay half fare. And an upgrade to a family bedroom (these are limited, so book early) includes all meals onboard.

Here’s the concept: Spend two nights on the train and two full days (including hotel stays) exploring two cities of your choice.

You could ride from Chicago and make stops in Memphis and New Orleans. Or head down the west coast from Seattle, stopping in Eugene, Ore., and Oakland.

Amtrak’s website is easy to navigate and provides a toll-free number for parents who require customer assistance.