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Some families prefer to spend their vacations unwinding and not doing much of anything, while others enjoy heading out to experience all sorts of activities and attractions. If you’re looking to do more than just relax during your time off, consider a family-friendly destination in the U.S. that combines fun and learning. It’s a great way for your kids to develop curiosity, learn a few things that they probably wouldn’t have learned in school, and have a good time. These are some of the top picks in the U.S., so you won’t even have to worry about getting everyone passports.
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While we still haven’t developed that time-traveling DeLorean just yet, there are ways to experience the past. Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum featuring more than 40 different sites, two museums and a wide range of activities. It includes buildings that date back to the 17th century, with reenactors revealing what life was like during the period. Experience the start of the American Revolution and even join the troops while they march toward Yorktown. There are even games from the era that younger ones can play to find out what life was like for kids then.
Visiting New York City is a great way to teach your kids about U.S. history, in a much more interesting way than what they’d get out of a book. They can walk in the footsteps of the countless immigrants who came through Ellis Island searching for a better life and marvel at the Statue of Liberty, one of the nation’s most recognized symbols of freedom. At Ground Zero, they can read the names of the victims etched in the bronze panels that surround the twin reflecting pools. In between learning, there’s Central Park, home to its own zoo, and walking through the bright lights of Times Square.
Huntsville offers many family-friendly attractions, but one of the most fascinating for kids and adults is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. This world-renowned museum features exhibits that reveal NASA’s achievements and you’ll also find the world’s largest space attraction, the Saturn V which hangs ten feet above the floor in the Davidson Center. There are dozens of interactive attractions, like the Olympus Mons Climbing Wall, the Mission to Mars Simulator, and the Spacedome IMAX Theater. Outside, you can ride the Space Shot and the G-Force Accelerator to get an idea of the physical impact astronauts experience when they are in space.
The small town of Cody, Wyoming offers a taste of the Wild West, spectacular scenery and one of the largest museums devoted to the arts in the region, thanks to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which is dubbed the “Smithsonian of the West,” encompasses five themed museums that cumulatively present the most informative introduction to the American West you’ll find. Families can tour an authentic teepee in the Plains Indian Museum and learn about the area’s wildlife in a natural history museum. At the historic Hotel Irma, watch re-enacted gunfights on summer evenings. Plus, Yellowstone National Park is just an hour’s drive away.
Every child learns all about Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower in school, but it doesn’t really sink in unless they have something to connect it to in real life. In the town of Plymouth, just minutes from Cape Cod and a short drive from Boston, they can see both of those iconic landmarks to get a real understanding of how Native Americans and the pilgrims lived. You’ll even be able to board an exact replica of the 1620 Mayflower, the Mayflower II, complete with reenactors who will answer questions about their courageous voyage. Nearby is Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum where you can experience life in the 17th-century.
Located along the Central California Coast, Monterey is a great family vacation destination for learning and having fun. The famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best in the country with more than 80,000 plants and animals, along with many interactive exhibits. There’s even a 7,000-square-foot Splash Zone housing over 30 hands-on features for kids under the age of nine where they’ll learn how to resist a crashing wave, crawl through tunnels with tropical fish, and use underwater video cameras steering through tidal pools and wetlands. You’ll also find numerous beautiful beaches nearby.
Washington, D.C. is the ideal learning vacation for families with multiple ways to delve into the country’s history and government, while touring countless amazing museums. Most of the Smithsonian Museums are free and include so many different topics it would take at least a few trips to see them all. You can also visit the U.S. Capitol to see where bills and laws are made, and even watch the justices hear and vote on important national cases in the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are many family-friendly attractions to enjoy in Atlanta, like the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca Cola, but as the city played a key role in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also a great place to learn about the struggle for equality. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site includes several sites like his birth home, The King Center, and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. You’ll be able to see many exhibits that document Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equal civil rights for all in America.
If you want the opportunity to learn more about the environment and the importance of protecting wildlife while enjoying a beach vacation at the same time, visit Wassaw Island in Georgia. Your family can actually help out with the Caretta Research Project which is working to save the sea turtles. You’ll help monitor and protect the nests of loggerhead sea turtles in the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, collecting data and watching over the turtles and their eggs while learning more about them. You might even get to see the babies hatch! With Savannah nearby, you can easily enjoy the sights there too.
Philadelphia played host to many of the country’s firsts, making it another great city for learning about America’s history firsthand. Visit Independence Hall, the very spot where the Founding Fathers of America met to debate and sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Pay homage to the famously cracked Liberty Bell, in Independence National Historical Park, and to really understand why our country’s past still matters today, explore the National Constitution Center, an interactive museum.
Mesa Verde National Park is home to some of the world’s most well-preserved ancient Pueblo dwellings. Tucked beneath the sandstone cliffs in southwestern Colorado, some date all the way back to 550 AD. Here you can retrace the ancient footsteps of the ancestral Puebloans who once lived here, with over 4,500 dwellings that can be found within the park’s boundaries, including Cliff Palace which contains 150 rooms, 23 kivas and once had a population of roughly 100. Kids aged four through 12 can become a Junior Ranger by completing activities in a booklet that can be picked up at the Visitor Center or the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.
While Disney World and the other theme parks first come to mind when thinking of an Orlando vacation, it offers so much more. You can enjoy some of those and visit the Kennedy Space Center to learn all about space and the history of flight at the country’s premier institution. The 90,000 square foot Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit includes a full-scale, 184-foot space shuttle stack as well as two solid rocket boosters and an external tank. The Visitor Center is practically an amusement park itself with a Rocket Garden, children’s playspace, an Early Space Exploration exhibit, a popular Angry Birds hands-on exhibit, 2 IMAX shows, an Astronaut Memorial, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. You can even take a tour to visit the rocket launch pads.
A vacation in Hawaii is always going to be a good time with opportunities for swimming, snorkeling and spending time on beautiful beaches, but if you head to the Big Island, kids can learn about volcanology. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is unlike anywhere else on the planet, it’s home to two massive volcanoes, including Kilauea. There are trails for viewing huge craters, and smoking steam vents, and by stopping at the visitor center, you can find out about the current conditions. You can even walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, an underground tunnel where lava once flowed.
There are so many opportunities for learning while having a good time for kids and adults alike, going way beyond Mount Rushmore. Dig for mammoth bones at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs and then splash around in the water park. You can explore Wind Cave, one of the longest in the world, experience the Old West on a historic 1880 steam train in Hill City, embark on a wildlife safari at Bear Country U.S.A., and visit the Cosmos Mystery Area where “the laws of nature seem to have gone completely berserk.”