Busy Mom’s Guide: 5 Family-Friendly Vacations {that aren’t Disney}

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My Little Miss and I were discussing the 4 seasons the other day when she voiced the question that Maine children have asked for centuries: “Why can’t it be summer all the time?”

Now don’t get me wrong, us Maine girls love winter! But when we’re well on our way into Spring and still have patches of snow at the playground refusing to melt, even we can get a little anxious for summer. And summer, if it’s done right, brings vacation! Now the real question: how (and where) to vacation on a budget, with kids? We love road trips, live for adventures, are suckers for tourist traps and – in a perfect world – would take a vacation at least once a month. But we also have two little kids who are allergic to their car seats after 5 minutes, want to touch EVERYTHING, and have attention spans that are about as long as their eye-lashes. So where do we go? Here’s a few of our favorites… And the best part? They’re not Disney!

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When I was 10 years old, my parents took us to Washington D.C. We saw the Lincoln Memorial, walked across the National Mall, got ice-cream from an ice-cream truck – and I fell in love. When we moved to that part of the country, I knew we would be taking frequent trips into the city, and I wanted to see everything. We planned several different short weekend trips and within a 6 months had seen all the highlights at least once. My conclusion? This is an AMAZING family friendly vacation spot! Here’s why:

  • Free Parking on Sundays – It doesn’t get any better than this! It fills up fast, so park early. Hint: Parking is also free after a certain time on Saturday night, so check your preferred area to see if you can park the night before and save your spot all night long!
  • Free admission to all National Museums, and D.C. is FULL of them! And they’re not all just for adults. The National Mall is surrounded by an entourage of fun for kids 3 and up (I say 3 because kids under 3 just want a place to run around without restraint – which is pretty much your back yard). My daughter’s personal favorite is the Aviation Museum. She discovered the simulator exhibit on our last visit and was absolutely enthralled with them! We went twice in a row – and she begged to go back every day for weeks. The Natural History museum is also a favorite – almost as exciting as a zoo, the animals just don’t move! The exhibits are amazing – her favorite is the new Dinosaur wing.
  • Family Friendly Area – I know what you’re thinking: “This is the Nation’s capital, how can it be family friendly?” I had similar concerns myself, but after our first trip my fears were laid completely to rest. Washington D.C. is an incredibly busy area, but there are very strong measures in place to make the tourist area feel like a National sanctuary – the people’s city. There are huge, grassy areas under big, beautiful old trees perfect for picnic lunches or afternoon naps for the kiddos. Lots of big, open spaces and, unless there’s a big event going on, it doesn’t feel crowded. There are ice-cream trucks, street vendors, even a merry-go-round, and always another museum to visit and exhibit to see. Once you’ve parked, you’re within walking distance to most of the major sights and in many cases, you can walk from one to another without crossing any major roads.

fv5When we moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, it took us about 2 days to realize we were within an hour’s drive of the chocolate capital of the United States! Needless to say, we spent a LOT of time there, and still talk about how much we miss their Peppermint Patty Shakes. I knew they would have chocolate – a lot of it – and I knew it would be good, but what I didn’t know was all the OTHER things to do besides eat! Don’t get me wrong, we did a lot of that, too, but with all the attractions at Hershey, you’re never bored. It really is ‘the sweetest place on earth’!

  • chocworld1Chocolate World – Yes, that’s what it’s called and for good reason. Swing in to Hershey’s version of a ‘visitor’s center’ and get free samples, a ride through the ‘factory’, fun pictures with the characters, AMAZING food and goodies, and every Hershey souvenir you could ever dream of. Admission is free, and all attractions inside (3D Theater, Make Your Own Chocolate Bar, and more) are reasonably priced. You can easily spend 2 or 3 hours enjoying this tourist trap. We have gone dozens of times and would do it again in a heartbeat!
  • Hersheypark – Yup, they have their own theme park, too. Complete with roller coasters that could rival any Orlando attraction, Hersheypark is set up like a 6 Flags and has a charming carnival atmosphere. With a large children’s section and plenty of big rides for the older kiddos (or adults that like to pretend they’re kids… like me!), this stop is sure to be a popular one for everyone in the family. They also host concerts and shows in their outdoor stadium! You don’t get any better than that.
  • Great hotels – I’m not normally a snob about many things, but when it comes to hotels, I’m super picky. I want to be treated like royalty… for a bargain-basement price! I’ve had the pleasure of staying in and working with dozens of hotels in the Hershey/Harrisburg area and although you probably won’t get the full spa treatment without paying for it (interested? Check out the Hershey Hotel – it costs a pretty penny, but it’s worth it!), there are plenty of affordable options available that give you a great price and a great stay. Unlike some other destinations, Hershey does affordable hotels well, especially when you book through an affiliate site like Priceline or Booking Buddy.

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This list would not be complete without adding one of my favorite places on earth. Call me a simpleton, but I’ve visited 30+ states and enjoyed plenty of National treasure attractions and have still not found one that can rival Bar Harbor, ME. With it’s simple charm and breathtaking beauty, fresh-caught lobsters and Maine blueberry treats, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most-visited stops on the East Coast!

  • fv8There’s Something for Everyone – There really is! Mini-golf, water parks, nature trails, and beached; beginner, intermediate and advanced hiking trails – whether you’re looking for shopping, a spa day or whale watching there is -literally- something for everyone to enjoy. Stroller-friendly, lots of benches and picnic tables in and out of the park for family stops, free admission to most parts of Acadia National Park and free PARKING (in most places) – this is a vacation-logistics dream come true.
  • Small Town Feel – Isn’t there something endearing about a small town? It’s one of my favorite things to enjoy. You can walk from one side of downtown Bar Harbor to the other within a half hour, and the only reason it will take so long is because you will inevitably duck into the most adorable little book shop you’ve ever seen, buy a ginormous ice-cream cone and take a picture with the famous Red Lobster carving on the sidewalk. Even with all the amenities within a 20 minute drive, Bar Harbor has kept its simplicity and in that, its charm.
  • One of a Kind Entertainment – No, you won’t be able to find a Broadway show playing in downtown Bar Harbor… but you wouldn’t want to! Who has time to watch a performance when you can go kayaking, bike the island (or on part of it – Mount Desert is quite large!) or visit Rosalie’s for the most delicious pizza you’ve ever had in your life?
  • Lobster Ice-cream – I’m not even joking, it’s a thing. Now you have to come just to find out if it’s for real!

{Note: If you make it all the way up to Bar Harbor, don’t forget to visit its sister city, Blue Hill. My hometown and so dear to my heart, this is one of those best-kept-secret spots you’ve got to see! The Coop has amazing, locally roasted coffee, The Mill Stream Deli sells the best doughnut holes in the state, the town Park has free beach access and a huge rock island that’s so fun to climb on when the tide is out, and I have yet to find local pizza I enjoy more than Yanni’s. 🙂
Give us a visit! I know you’ll enjoy every minute of it.} 

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I had the pleasure of enjoying San Diego a few years ago over a long weekend while my husband was on military leave. We didn’t have time to visit much, but what we did do was so fun! It’s a beautiful place with the charm of a beachy destination and the fun of a big city.

  • Beautiful Beaches – I know, this is a no-brainer, but as a Maine girl born and raised, seeing endless sand stretched out against the ocean never gets old! We have incredible rock beaches, and a few sandy ones, but nothing that can stand up against a San Diego beach. I’m not going to lie, they are crowded (this is definitely a con in my mind, but maybe that’s the Maine girl talking again). We visited on a holiday weekend and the beach – and parking lot – were buzzing! But it was worth finding a little spot of our own to enjoy the sun, and the view!
  • A Fun City to Visit – I’m a sucker for tourist traps, many of which are so subtle you hardly even notice they’re there! My husband sees a cobblestone street and begins speculating that it’s most likely not the original, but was installed recently for the tourist, while all I see is a charming little side-street. Cobblestone is cobblestone! And I love it. They have fun little cafes, adorable street-side restaurants, and stunning marinas full of yachts! Ahh… the view was amazing.
  • SeaWorld – Can you tell my inner child always dreamed of swimming with dolphins? Yes, there is a SeaWorld outside of San Diego, and we enjoyed every minute of it!
  • Family Friendly – Although San Diego can definitely hold its own when it comes to having a night life, we were not bothered by it at all. We were looking for a family-friendly environment, a good, safe part of town for our hotel, and enjoyable entertainment and attractions – and that’s just what we found! I’m sure there are a lot of people that go to San Diego for other reasons, but those were ours, and we were very pleased with our visit.

{Side-note: we did find that a few things were more on the pricey side than we expected. Parking was unreasonable and hard to come by, but it would be an ideal location to fly in and use public transportation or shuttles!}

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Last but not least…. I know, I know, I said no Disney – but have you ever explored what lies outside of those magic gates? There’s so much to see and do without ever selling your right arm to enjoy ‘the happiest place on earth’. My family used to spend several months a year in Florida touring the state and we’ve only gone to Disney twice – and we didn’t miss it! There was always something exciting to do when we got to Kissimmee.

  • Old Town Amusement Park – Want fun rides, fair food and carnival lights without the cost? This is the place for you! They have a great selection of kiddie rides as well as plenty to keep the big kids happy. There are a bunch of adorable little shops as you walk down ‘Main Street’ full of fun souvenirs, some great family-friendly restaurants, and there’s even a weekly car show!
  • Good Variety of Hotels – Again on the hotel thing… yes, I’m a snob, and there are plenty of hotels to choose from in the Kissimmee/Orlando area. There are even campgrounds that have cute little cottages to rent! (Those are my favorite!) There are tons to consider and as long as you stay away from the shady, super cheap ones, you’ll probably be really pleased with what you get.
  • All the Fun without the Cost – I know I promised to not include Disney, but who doesn’t love that cute little mouse? One of the best parts about staying nearby is that everything – EVERYTHING – is Disney themed. Restaurants, stores, billboards – the whole thing is set up to feel like it’s just one big Disney town. To some this might complicate matters if you have a hard time explaining to sad kiddos why you can’t actually go visit, but for most kids it will be fun just to be around all the merriment! And if you do have a little spending money, here are my favorite non-Disney attractions nearby:
    • Disney Resorts – This is another one of those ‘best kept secret’ secrets. Did you know you can visit any of the Disney resorts for free? They all have location restaurants that serve the public! (Make sure you call ahead, some may have certain hours.) This gives you access to the main level and lobby of the resort, where all the fun is kept! The Animal Kingdom resort hosts it’s own private mini-zoo! It’s fun, it’s Disney, and it’s FREE!
    • Arabian Nights – amazing show! I went with my man for a date night once and we SO enjoyed it. Good food, too!
    • The Holy Land Experience – want to see the Bible come to life without getting your passport? Check this place out! Top-notch displays and acting in their live performances; it’s like Sight & Sound Theatres meets The Natural History Museum. It’s awesome.
    • SeaWorld – Swimming. Dolphins. Swimming with dolphins. Need I say more?
    • Busch Gardens – I’ve actually never been, but I’d LOVE to amend that. It looks amazing!
    • Downtown Disney – This place is a BLAST! It’s by far the best way to ‘do’ Disney without doing Disney. See characters and enjoy shopping, larger than life Lego displays, eat at the Rainforest Cafe, and take a ferry ride to Disney’s Old Key West Resort where you can enjoy the beautiful beach adjacent to the property! Did you know you can also ride the monorail for free? Hop on at any Disney monorail station and see sights from a comfy air-conditioned car!

So there you have it! My top 5 family-friendly recommendations. I hope it’s helpful!

Do you enjoy traveling with your family? What are your favorite places to visit?

Happy trails!

❤ Jasmine

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