Best Toddler Vacations – Where to Travel?
As toddlers tend to be somewhat fickle emotional roller-coasters, some people decide not to travel until their little ones are a little older. I think that really what you need to corral some of the craziness is to find the right place to go. It’s true: some vacation destinations are more toddler-friendly than others, but the United States has a ton of great options. Today let’s share some of the best trip ideas for finding great toddler-friendly vacation destinations in the U.S. (so you don’t need a vacation when you get back).
I do love good food, good beer and wine, and a little relaxation, so many of these options have all three.
Stress-Free Toddler-Friendly Vacation Tips
Visit Family & Friends
Visiting family and friends means you have built-in babysitters and adult conversation. Someone else can be delighted by your little one’s giggles and smiles while you (hopefully) get a bit of a nap.
Rent a house or condo at a beach or lake
What toddler, baby, or adult for that matter does not enjoy the crash of waves, the cawing of seagulls, the fresh scents of a barbecue wafting across the hot sand? If this is your idea of a perfect vacation, look no further. Beaches and lakes are perfect for a toddler-friendly vacation. Many have adjacent playgrounds, nearby mini-golf or other family-friendly amusements, boardwalks, etc.
- Try to travel in the shoulder season. One of the benefits of traveling with babies and toddlers is you are not encumbered by a school schedule.
- There is a very little more destructive to a toddler-friendly vacation than crowds. Lines to get in, having to wait for food, overwhelmed pools. As an example, one Labor Day weekend we decided to go down to Palm Springs. We were planning to splash in the very family-friendly pool at the very family-friendly and much-lauded resort. Unfortunately, most of the state of California seemed to have had the same idea. Even though we got out to the pool early, all of the shaded pool chairs were taken, and by 9 AM, the pool was overflowing with rafts, and my 2-year-old got chased out of the splash pad by older kids with water guns. Don’t make our mistake. Try to travel at off-peak times if at all possible.
- If you want to ensure some relaxation time for yourself, research, and book a babysitter ahead of time. Toddlers are unpredictable, and may not want to play at the beach while you read your book under an umbrella. So spring for a couple of babysitting hours.
- Most hotel Kids’ Clubs do not take children until they are at least 3(sometimes 5 or 6).
- If this is your first toddler-friendly vacation, consider a road trip to a nearby destination. Something less than a 3-hour drive if possible. It will help you get your feet wet.
Great Toddler-Friendly Beach Destinations
From volcanoes to soft sand, shave ice, and mai tais, Hawaii really does fit the bill as a toddler-friendly vacation spot. Plus, the Hawaiian culture loves Keiki, so children are welcome at a lot of different places and spots. We brought our daughter to a luau when she was 13 months old, and everyone welcomed her with open arms.
In case you’re saying, “Everyone recommends Hawaii. Which island is best for young kids?”
Well, each one has its benefits. Honestly, when traveling with toddlers I’d recommend Oahu (for the sheer number of alternative activities available) and definitely Kauai. Kauai is a little calmer than the other islands. It’s busy but not as full of honeymooners and crowds as Oahu or Maui. Though it has plenty of activities for adventure travelers, it also really caters very well to families with young kids. We have stayed twice in Poipu on the south shore since the waters are a little calmer.
Toddler-friendly Kauai attractions?
- Ride the train at Kilohana Plantation
- Lydgate Beach Park. It has a protected cove for little ones to swim and an awesome playground
Though smaller than nearby Rehoboth, Lewes is wonderful for kids. You can easily drive to the boardwalk in Rehoboth and spend a day with your toddler happily smearing ice cream all over his or her bathing suit, then jumping on to the carousel. The food in Lewes and the Delaware Cape Region is fabulous. You can let your little one try cracking crab legs. After a day at the beaches, you can spoil your toddler rotten at the Kids’ Ketch toy store in the downtown area.
And for the more discerning adult tastes, you can take a short drive over to Milton, DE to visit Dogfish Head Brewery and Tap Room. This kid-friendly brewery does have a non-alcoholic option as well as water, and they often have events and a food truck.
While growing up, my family visited Sanibel Island every year. The legendary beaches are renowned for shelling (and sandcastle building, to my recollection). If we lived on the East Coast or Midwest, I think we would resume the yearly family pilgrimage there. Check out this post from Scary Mommy on 10 Things to Do on Captiva and Sanibel Islands with Kids.
Great Toddler-Friendly Lake Destinations
Honestly, I think a lot of places situated on a lake are great for young kids. Choose the one closest to you. That being said, I do have a couple of favorites.
Lake Champlain, VT
Lake Champlain boasts the attractions of a major city/college town in Burlington, the relaxation of the lake atmosphere, and some really stunning mountains. Home not only to the award-winning Tyler Place Family resort, an all-inclusive resort that boasts special programs specifically for infants and toddlers but also to the Vermont Teddy Bear Company. After a day at the lake, what could be better? There’s even a kid-friendly vineyard in Shelburne. Check out these other family-friendly activities. The Vermont.org website also has an excellent calendar of upcoming kid-friendly events.
Door County, WI
Wisconsin is absolutely beautiful. Sure, Wisconsin Dells may be the “waterpark capital of the world,” but for a really relaxing and enjoyable toddler-friendly vacation, I recommend Door County. Where is it? Door County, WI sits on a peninsula in the middle of Lake Michigan. It’s about a 2 1/2-3 hour drive from Milwaukee and a 4-5 hour drive from Chicago. You could also fly into Green Bay, and cut your drive to about an hour.
Why choose Door County? The food, beer, and family fun.
One of the things I miss the most about Wisconsin is the food. First of all, you would be remiss not to try frozen custard, the state specialty which tastes like everything you want summer and sugar to be. Then you get pretzels, the cheese, the sausages, the produce…yum, yum, and yum. Plus, restaurants in Wisconsin truly do cater to families. For some great family-friendly restaurants in Door County, check out this post from Road Trips for Families. For train-obsessed toddlers, I’d also look into PC Junction. Try and catch a Friday Fish Fry if you can.
Ah, and the beer. Don’t think that just because you have little ones with you, you can’t go beer or wine tasting. In family-friendly Door County, you could take your kids to Starboard Brewing Company or Door County Brewing Company. Both offer a family-friendly atmosphere per their websites.
What about family fun? Check out these great ideas for a family-friendly weekend itinerary. Have you taken your toddlers to a drive-in movie theater yet (btw you should)? You could start a new drive-in tradition at Skyway Drive-In. A recurrent theme in finding a toddler-friendly vacation destination is finding spots with animals. Check out The Farm to fulfill those needs.
Try a Toddler-Friendly Cruise
Why are cruises great for families with young kids?
- All-inclusive so you know what you’re spending ahead of time.
- You only have to unpack once.
- The rocking of the ship lulls your little ones to sleep (absolutely true–my daughter is a terrible sleeper, except on cruise ships).
- Plenty of kid-friendly activities and space to run around either on a ship or in port.
- Most cruise lines (Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian) all offer a nursery care program for their youngest travelers. These do incur an additional fee, but if you are able to take a nap or go to the spa for an hour, that extra fee is the best vacation investment ever.
- Food options are plentiful and usually very picky-eater-friendly. They also will make a special meal if requested, or allow a child to order from both the kids and adult menu.
What are some drawbacks to a cruise?
- Babies have to be at least 6 months old before they are allowed on board a cruise ship.
- If your child shows any signs of illness, they will not be allowed to participate in the nursery care program (at the discretion of the staff).
- If you are pregnant (which happens to some parents of toddlers), you must complete the cruise before you are 24 weeks pregnant.
- Close quarters, particularly if there are more than 3 of you.
- Children in swim diapers are not allowed in any pools on any cruise ship. That being said, many cruise lines offer a splash pad area which is open to young children.
What are some ways to maximize your family cruise?
- Spring for a slightly larger room, or one with a veranda. While your little one naps, you can read on the balcony.
- Choose a cruise with a lot of port days. Little known fact–the ship is a lot emptier on port days. If you want to sit by the pool and eat ice cream while your little one splashes in the splash pad, this is eminently more enjoyable on a port day. On sea days, the ship moves quite briskly, meaning the wind can quite literally make your hat fly off. The wind also makes it slightly less enjoyable to navigate the crowds around the pools. So, choose a cruise with lots of port days. Plus, you can always get off and find a beach nearby.
- If your doctor says it is OK, bring some seasickness tablets, or my personal favorite Motioneaze. It’s an herbal remedy where you apply little drops behind your ears (or those of your child). We’ve used it routinely on our cruises and have not yet fallen ill.
- Teach your child to wash their hands. The best way to prevent infection is through good hand hygiene. That’s my doctor’s moment of the day.
- Bring an inflatable baby bathtub. Why? If your cruise ship does not have a splash pad, you can fill it with water on deck for your little one to play in while you relax on a deck chair. Also, most cruise ship staterooms do not have bathtubs. If your little one is terrified of the shower, bringing an inflatable bathtub may save your sanity.
Toddler Vacations in California
Several major cities are often recommended as great family vacation spots, but in general, major U.S. cities are busy, crowded, and not always super toddler-friendly. So, with that in mind, here are some (slightly) off the beaten path U.S. destinations perfect for a toddler-friendly vacation.
Monterey & Mendocino
As short trips from San Francisco, both of these are excellent spots for a toddler-friendly vacation destination. Now, in all fairness, I have not personally been to Mendocino. Henry and Andrew’s Guide to Mendocino though has convinced me we need to go. Family-friendly wineries? Yes, please. Farm animals? Done, done, and done. Oceanfront views? Perfect California getaway.
Monterey (on the southern side of San Francisco) boasts many of the same benefits. You can visit possibly the coolest playground I’ve ever seen (Dennis the Menace Park) and have an afternoon of wine tasting while watching your toddler happily play outdoors at Folktale Winery. Oh, and there’s the little matter of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Or maybe rent a paddleboat at El Estero Park. With plenty of open spaces, fresh air, and good food (oh, and wine, did I mention the wine?), you and your young kids can have a stress-free, enjoyable vacation.
OK, I know I said go slightly off the beaten path, but San Diego is just SO great for toddlers, babies, adults, teenagers… It’s hard to find anyone who has been to San Diego and not enjoyed it. We’ve been vacationing there with our daughter since she was 6 months old, and every time we go, we try to stay somewhere new because each neighborhood is vastly different.
- La Jolla. Your little kids can view the seals at the Children’s Beach, or splash in the water at the very toddler-friendly La Jolla Cova, or explore the tide pools at the Birch Aquarium.
- Carlsbad. About 30 minutes north of San Diego itself is the affluent seaside community of Carlsbad. It’s a great place if you are primarily visiting Legoland California (good if you have older kids with your toddlers, as there are a lot of toddler-friendly playgrounds and building stations for younger kids) or the San Diego Safari Park (located in Escondido). Check out the Grand Pacific Palisades or Omni La Costa.
- Coronado Island. Over an arching bridge is the little island of Coronado. Go here for a more relaxing beachy vacation. I would live here if I could afford it.
- Downtown San Diego. You could drive a lot around here, or try the trolley or bus system. San Diego has a number of family-friendly breweries, but really you and your toddler could spend your entire vacation at Balboa Park. Just pick a new area of the park to explore each day, then head back to your hotel for a well-deserved nap.
A Quick Word about Disney
- It’s hot.
- Toddlers have short attention spans and need naps.
- Disney can be overwhelming, for both you and them.
- Disney prices can blindside you. I believe my mother refers to it as a “wallet-ectomy.”
- The parks are huge. On an average 3 hour day that we spend at Disneyland, I log approximately 9000 steps. In 3 hours.
Again, I do write a lot about Disneyland, and we have taken my daughter since she was about 2 1/2. We only live 30-60 minutes from Disneyland, and amusement parks are part of the family culture here in Los Angeles. When we go, we go for a couple of hours in the early morning or late afternoon, then head home and nap. The one time we stayed overnight and did Disney straight for 2 1/2 days, I was exhausted. Despite taking naps and frequent rests, my feet hurt. I was cranky. And I swear we could have flown to Norway for what we spent on food and sundries.
I always welcome other opinions, and I agree that babies are toddlers are RIDICULOUSLY CUTE in Mickey ears.
I think traveling with young kids is pretty rewarding. Though it has its challenges, kids sometimes need a change of scenery and at the very least, some trains and farm animals. Never underestimate a place with a good children’s museum, either. With the rise of family-friendly breweries and wineries, hotels, Airbnbs, and attractions, it is easier than ever to find a place where everyone has some fun.