25 Best Last Minute Family Vacations
Having a pleasant getaway with kids means keeping them busy and entertained. Fortunately, there are many family-oriented last minute destinations all around the United States. There are amusement parks with attractions like the massive SkyWheel in Myrtle Beach, miniature train rides in Sonoma, museums of natural history with dinosaur bones, water parks with slides and lazy rivers, caves to explore, parks to hike and lakes to kayak. Photo: nadezhda1906/Fotolia
Lying at the foothills of the mighty Rocky Mountains, Boulder is a northern Colorado city that attracts outdoorsy types, hikers, mountain climbers, and skiers. The closest outdoor activities to the city can be found at the Flatirons, which are full of wonderful trails and interesting rock formations. In the city, the whole family can enjoy a stroll through downtown pedestrian Pearl Street Mall with its many cafes, restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. Boulder is home to the University of Colorado Boulder campus, which has strong presence in the city life. Take the kids to see the stars at the Fiske Planetarium and to learn about what lived or still lives in the area at the Museum of Natural History. Wonderland Lake Park is located in the heart of the city and offers several playgrounds, a nice picnic area, and hiking trails around the lake. Car lovers will enjoy a superb collection of antique cars at the Shelby American Collection.
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There is much more to Sonoma than fabulous wine and picturesque vineyards. This charming town has deep Spanish roots and strolling through its historic town square, with so many interesting buildings, is a delight. Kids will get a kick out of the city hall, which looks like an old Spanish castle. The square is very lively and there is always some barbecue going on as well as live music, in the true spirit of Sonoma. If your kids are big enough, they will love the Simraceway Performance Driving Center, a racing school just outside the town. At the very least they can watch some really cool cars. A short drive from Sonoma is beautiful Sonoma Coast State Beach. Sonoma Train Town, with miniature train rides, roller coasters, and a petting zoo, is also great fun. Definitively visit Safari West, a wildlife park with over 700 exotic animals. Hike through beautiful Bartholomew Park, where you can combine hiking with some wine tasting in the park winery.
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» Little Rock
The capital of Arkansas, Little Rock is a lovely city on the Arkansas River with a range of activities for the whole family. Even if you are not into museums, the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum is a fascinating glimpse into the life of the 42nd American president, with a very realistic replica of the Oval Office and a number of original presidential artifacts. For history buffs, the Old State House Museum, located in the 1800s Greek Revival building, tells the story of Arkansas past. The Little Rock Zoo has over 725 animals from 200 species and the Magic Springs Theme and Water Park will keep the kids occupied for hours. Just outside of the city is shady, beautiful Pinnacle Mountain State Park, in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, a great place for a hike, bird watching, or nature exploration.
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» Myrtle Beach
From the moment you arrive at Myrtle Beach and the kids see 50 miles of fine sand, you will have no problem keeping them occupied, because that massive beach is surrounded by one fun attraction after another. There is the huge SkyWheel, the biggest Ferris wheel in the country. Then there is the Family Kingdom with all sorts of rides, and the entire boardwalk full of arcades and games. You can’t even go for a dinner without something fun happening. You can watch medieval jousting during your evening meal at Myrtle Beach Medieval Times or Polynesian fire dance while eating at Polynesian Fire Luau and Dinner Show. Kids will also love touching sharks and stingrays at Ripley's Aquarium and the whole family will enjoy paddling a kayak on a wild and quiet South Carolina waterway with Gator Bait Adventure Tours. Photo: jpeacockcad/Fotolia
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Wallace is a small yet fascinating town in Idaho’s Silver Valley, world famous for its huge deposits of silver, which gave it the name Silver Capital of the World. Wallace downtown is the original mining town, beautifully preserved, with original buildings (check out the Oasis Bordello Museum), which tell the story of a mining community in 1884. Visitors can take one of many mining tours and go down into the depths of the Earth to see where all the treasure comes from and what the miners had to do to get it out. Nearby is Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area, the location of many skiing and hiking trails and the famous mountain bike trail, Route of the Hiawatha Trail.
Photo: Pierrette Guertin/Fotolia
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» Wilmington, NC
Wilmington is North Carolina's jewel, a port city, and the coastal playground where the graceful past merges with lively present in one fascinating package. Strolling along the brick sidewalks through the city historic district means exploring 230 blocks of architectural treasures, stately churches, ancient live oaks, and magnificent antebellum homes. There’s music as well as live performers and flowers everywhere, together with charming shops, restaurants, and cafes. Keep going to the Carolina Beach Boardwalk by the sea, the or pedestrian-only Riverwalk in the Port City Marina. Take the kids to the Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park for some hair-rising rides or hop on a water taxi to visit the World War II battleship North Carolina. The North Carolina Aquarium is located at Fort Fisher, and Wrightsville Beach is the perfect spot to enjoy some watersports.
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New Mexico’s capital Santa Fe in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is famous for its amazing pueblo buildings and a thriving art community that calls it home. Founded in 1610 by the Spanish, its life revolves around its traditional plaza, a lively place with music and a market full of delicious food. The whole area around the plaza is a well-preserved historic district with narrow streets and adobe landmark buildings, such as the Palace of the Governors, which today houses the New Mexico History Museum. Visit Loretto Chapel with its legendary spiral stairs and hear the story about them. Get out of the city and stroll through lush, green Hyde Memorial State Park surrounded by fragrant pines. El Rancho de las Golondrinas is a living museum of life in a 18th/19th century Spanish village, with a schoolhouse, a hacienda, and guides dressed in period costumes. The Santa Fe Children's Museum is playful, hands-on center for learning through play with a puppet stage, a garden, and a climbing wall.
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History buffs will definitely want to put Gettysburg on their short list of must-see towns on the East Coast. The Gettysburg National Military Park preserves the history of the Civil War’s bloodiest battle, which inspired Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Today, the rolling green hills and nature trails throughout the former battleground provide a full day of walking and hiking while contemplating the historic events that took place on the hallowed grounds. This quaint Pennsylvania town has plenty of unique attractions in addition to the battlefield, including haunted and historic tours, theater, golf, wineries, distilleries, and authentic cider makers. Photo: squirlgirl/Fotolia
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The capital of Ohio, Columbus, is located on the Scioto River, and much of the city life happens on the river banks. The city’s Scioto Mile consists of a chain of parks with a network of hiking and biking trails and a large interactive fountain. The Center of Science and Industry is located on the west bank of the river and is a fascinating interactive science museum with hands-on exhibits and experiments for kids of all ages. The German Village is another fun spot to explore, with its typically German brick houses built by German settlers in the 1800s. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is one of the best in the country, while the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens features an exceptionally rich collection of plants and gardens as well as nature-inspired art exhibitions.
Photo: Bryan Busovicki/Fotolia
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» St Louis
Coming to St. Louis is dramatic: visitors to this modern Missouri city on the Mississippi River are greeted by the massive, iconic, 630-foot Gateway Arch. The arch was built in honor of Lewis and Clark, the early 19th-century explorers of America's west. The best way to see the arch is from the replica paddlewheeler that plies the river. You can also climb the arch and see the city and the river spread under your feet. Try to catch a St. Louis Cardinals game at Busch Stadium. Kids will love Six Flags St. Louis, a Midwest theme park with rides such as the Batman the Ride or the Screaming Eagle wooden coaster, which rushes past at the breakneck speed of 62 miles per hour.
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Emporia is a small city founded in 1857 in Lyon County, Kansas, between Topeka and Wichita. Emporia is a lively college town, home to the respected Flint Hills Technical College and Emporia State University. It is well-known for the Dirty Kanza bicycle race whose signature event is 200 miles of gravel and the Glass Blown Open (GBO) disc golf tournament - the largest disc golf tournament in the world!
The city is situated on upland prairie, with the Cottonwood River flowing on the southern edge of the city. Peter Pan Park and Soden's Grove Park are large green spaces that the folks of Emporia use for recreation and to enjoy nature. David Traylor Zoo and a verdant botanical garden are home to a number of exotic animals, such as lemurs, a mountain lion, birds, and many others. A great place to learn about the city’s history is the Red Rocks State Historic Site, a former home of William Allen White, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and political adviser to several American presidents. Emporia is famous for its lively biking community and has a number of gravel biking trails. Photo: Emporia Convention & Visitors Bureau
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» Rehoboth Beach
Rehoboth Beach is a small town in Delaware on the Atlantic coast. The heart of the town is its lively beach boardwalk full of restaurants, shops, and amusement activities. The Rehoboth Beach Museum tells the story of the town's history through its collection of vintage postcards and yearbooks. Cape Henlopen State Park is a great place to explore, with ancient dunes and the 1941 observation tower. During the war the park was a military base. Funland is a small amusement park on the boardwalk with an arcade and thrill rides for kids. Midway Speedway Park offers go-kart racing and mini-golf.
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» New Braunfels
Snuggled between the Comal and Guadalupe rivers, New Braunfels is a small city near San Antonio known for its spacious lush parks, such as Cypress Bend and Landa, and the strong German influence left over from the city’s original German settlers. The city’s historic downtown Gruene district is full of well-preserved 1800s buildings such as Gruene Hall. The city is surrounded by a network of caves, such as the Natural Bridge Caverns, which the kids will love exploring. The nearby Schlitterbahn water park has a large number of fun slides, rides, and a large wave pool. Lake Dunlap, a reservoir on the Guadalupe river, is a pleasant cool spot to try fishing or kayaking. Landa Park is a 51-acre park on the river bank with a miniature train, mini-golf, picnic tables, and a network of hiking and biking trails. Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo Exhibits is a curious roadside attraction famous for its large number of snakes and other animals.
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Pigeon Forge is a tiny mountain town in eastern Tennessee that is very well known to the fans of country music, especially those of Dolly Parton. She put her town on the map by opening Dollywood, an Appalachian-themed amusement park with some fantastic rides. Just next to it is Splash Country, a huge water park with slides and rides, pools and lazy rivers. There is also a museum of Dolly’s costumes and memorabilia. All around the fun parks are restaurants and music venues and you can hear country music from every corner. The Titanic Museum is probably not going to have any country music, but it does have a fascinating exhibition of artifacts that tell the tragic story of the unfortunate ocean liner. Another fun spot to visit is the Hollywood Wax Museum, featuring life-sized wax figures of Hollywood stars with which visitors can take photos. Photo: Scott Prokop/Fotolia
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A large Minnesota city, Duluth is a port city on the north shore of Lake Superior. It is hard to believe that you are not on the ocean when you see the massive oceangoing vessels that travelled 2,300 miles from the Atlantic through the Great Lakes Waterway and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Duluth has a famous freshwater aquarium that introduces animals living in and around the Great Lakes. For more animals, visit Lake Superior Zoo, which has some big cats, bears, primates, and a mini trail. The Aerial Lift Bridge across the Duluth Ship Canal is fun to watch as it lifts 135 feet to let the ships pass. Spirit Mountain is a popular ski area in the winter and during warmer months has an adventure park and a network of hiking and biking trails.
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Birmingham is known as an industrial center of Alabama and the southern United States, but it is also a college town and a surprisingly beautiful city. Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a serene spot with thousands of diverse plants in themed gardens mixed up with outdoor sculptures. Birmingham Zoo is known for working on the conservation of endangered species and has hundreds of lions, elephants, and other animals. The McWane Science Center is a science museum with a number of fascinating hands-on exhibits, such as dinosaur fossils, a space center, and IMAX films. The Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is a lovely green space in the South East Lake neighborhood, perfect for hiking or playing ball. Alabama Splash Adventure is a great place to cool off during the summer.
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» Fort Worth
Today a modern city in North Central Texas, Fort Worth was once a key trading post for cowboys in the late 19th century, as it was located at the end of the Chisholm Trail. Cowboys are still around and the Fort Worth Stockyards is great place to watch rodeos. There is also the National Cowgirl Museum and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, with many exhibits that showcase the rodeo life. Fort Worth Zoo is one of the best in the country with more than 7,000 animals living in natural themed habitats. The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is more a playground than a museum, with interactive, hands-on exhibits, IMAX films, and a planetarium. NRH2O is a water playground with five levels of slides, endless river, and pools. Six Flags Hurricane Harbor is the largest waterpark in North Texas. Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge is great place to see buffalos, gators, deer, and many species of birds.
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Once known as the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, Sarasota is a coastal city south of Tampa on the Gulf Coast. The Ringling Brothers are still very much present in Sarasota with the Ringling Museum of Art, but Sarasota is a popular tourist destination because of its wonderful wide sandy beaches. Siesta Beach is great place to cool off in the ocean, play some tennis, or let the kids enjoy in the playground. Lido Key Beach is located on Lido Key, a barrier island just off the Sarasota coast. The Mote Marine Laboratory has a large aquarium with stingrays, sharks, manatees, and other local animals, while Sarasota Jungle Gardens is a park and zoo with over 150 wild animals in a lush jungle setting. The South Florida Museum is an aquarium, planetarium, and history museum all under one roof. Bayfront Park is a lovely waterfront green space with a playground, a promenade, and lovely views of the city and the ocean.
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A charming Oregon city on the Columbia River, Astoria is located near the Pacific Ocean and has a nice outdoorsy vibe. The city’s landmark is the Astoria Column, a large monument towering from the nearby hilltop, with a series of murals that feature the history of the area. The views from the hill are magnificent. The best place to learn about the history of the area and the Columbia River is the Columbia River Maritime Museum on the riverfront, with exhibitions showcasing shipping, fishing, and military activities in the area. The Flavel House Museum is located in a beautifully restored Queen Anne Victorian mansion, showcasing the lifestyle of the rich, with original period furniture and a beautiful formal garden. The Oregon Film Museum is located in a former jail and is focused on the making of the popular movie The Goonies as well as other movies made in the area. Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks are located in the area where the famous Corps of Discovery spent the winter. The park contains a replica of the stockade and many pleasant hiking trails. Fort Stevens State Park is fun to explore as it has not only beautiful beach and many trails but also the remains of historic Fort Stevens and a 1906 shipwreck.
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Boone is a small North Carolina town in the massive Blue Ridge Mountains, a charming place where it is easy to feel the spirit of early pioneers like Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone Park is home to the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum with a very realistically recreated 1700s village. The park also features the popular drama Horn in the West about the struggles that pioneers like Boone had to face. Tweetsie Railroad is a fun, Wild West-themed amusement park with mini train rides, a chair lift, and a petting zoo. Mystery Hill is home to three weird museums with strange historic artifacts such as giant bubbles and optical illusions. The Children's Playhouse has a pretend vet clinic, an arts and crafts studio, the What's Cookin' Kitchen, and the indoor Romp and Stomp room with a bouldering wall. Kids love the adrenaline-pumping High Gravity Adventure with different zip lines. You can also take them to the Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park and Fun 'n' Wheels go-cart racing track.
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» West Palm Beach
West Palm Beach is a lively South Florida city with only Lake Worth Lagoon separating it from the neighboring Palm Beach. While the grownups enjoy strolling through the downtown CityPlace district and Clematis Street with its restaurants, bars, shops, and clubs, the kids prefer to head to the drive-through Lion Country Safari, where animals like rhinos and lions roam free. Palm Beach Zoo is another place for animal lovers – this zoo and botanical garden has some rare animals, an interactive fountain, and a rainforest area. Mounts Botanical Garden has plants from all over the world. Okeeheelee Park is a 1,700-acre waterside park with numerous hike and bike paths, an equestrian center, and a BMX track. The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium has exciting hands-on exhibits, a planetarium, and fresh and saltwater aquariums. Rapids Water Park has a wave pool, several water slides, and a lazy river.
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North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh, is known for its many universities and a fascinating Greek Revival-style 19th-century capitol. The city’s North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is a fascinating museum of North Carolina’s plants, animals, and geology, with live animals and 3D movies. Pullen Park is a popular amusement park with a mini train, a carousel, paddle boats, and a playground. The North Carolina Museum of History tells the story of the history of North Carolina, while the Marbles Kids Museum has interactive hands-on activities and displays for the kids of all ages. Yates Mill is a wonderful restored 1756 mill located in Historic Yates Mill County Park. Frankie's Fun Park is kids’ heaven with bumper boats, laser tag, go-carts, arcade games, batting cages, and flight simulators.
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Frankenmuth is in Michigan, but it is hard at times to believe you are not somewhere in Bavaria. Its early settlers built a number of elaborate buildings in the Bavarian style and left many other traces of their German origin. The best place to learn about it is the Frankenmuth Historical Museum. The Bavarian Belle riverboat is a traditional boat that offers cruises on the scenic Cass River. Frankenmuth Aerial Park is the place for adrenaline junkies, with a high rope course and several zip lines over the treetops. Mirror Maze is a curious amusement center where thousands of mirrors make a fun maze. Wilderness Trails Zoo is a small animal park with a few exotic and many domestic animals. Bronner's Christmas Wonderland is the shop where Christmas never ends as well as the largest Christmas store in the world.
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Destin is a gorgeous beach town in northwest Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, famous for its fantastic long sandy beaches, world-renowned golf courses and the Destin Harbor Boardwalk. Henderson Beach State Park is great place for hiking, with scenic nature trails through the ancient dunes and a coastline sheltered by oak and pine forests full of wildlife. Kids love the Big Kahuna waterpark on the west side of the city, with 40 rides, fantastic tall slides, pools, and waterfalls. Fort Pickens is a historic fortification built in 1830 to protect Pensacola Bay. It has informative guided tours, but the kids usually prefer to roam and explore on their own. The Destin History and Fishing Museum is a small but fascinating place that tells the story of fishing, with all sorts of old fishing rigs and displays of local marine life.
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» Dauphin Island
Dauphin Island is a small town in Alabama, on an island on the Gulf Coast with the same name. The island is known for its wonderful long white beaches and large number of forts. One of them, 19th-century Fort Gaines, has a blacksmith shop and the original cannons. The Audubon Bird Sanctuary is great place to observe migrating birds in the park’s dunes, forest, and swamp. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab's Estuarium has a large aquarium with native marine species, exhibits that feature Alabama’s coastal habitats, and a boardwalk through the marsh. Fort Morgan is another island fort, a star masonry fort at the entrance to Mobile Bay. Sand Island Light is an old decommissioned lighthouse just off the island, near the entrance to the bay.
Photo: BJ Ray/Fotolia
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25 Best Last Minute Family Vacations
- Boulder, Photo: Courtesy of jzehnder - Fotolia.com
- Sonoma, Photo: Courtesy of KarenWibbs - Fotolia.com
- Little Rock, Photo: Courtesy of sframe - Fotolia.com
- Myrtle Beach, Photo: Courtesy of jpeacockcad - Fotolia.com
- Wallace, Photo: Courtesy of Pierrette Guertin - Fotolia.com
- Wilmington, NC, Photo: Courtesy of spiritofamerica - Fotolia.com
- Santa Fe, Photo: Courtesy of Ffooter - Fotolia.com
- Gettysburg, Photo: Courtesy of squirlgirl - Fotolia.com
- Columbus, Photo: Courtesy of Bryan Busovicki - Fotolia.com
- St Louis, Photo: Courtesy of SNEHIT - Fotolia.com
- Emporia, Photo: Courtesy of Emporia Convention & Visitors Bureau
- Rehoboth Beach, Photo: Courtesy of Chee - Fotolia.com
- New Braunfels, Photo: Courtesy of Aaron - Fotolia.com
- Pigeon Forge, Photo: Courtesy of Scott Prokop - Fotolia.com
- Duluth, Photo: Courtesy of jonbilous - Fotolia.com
- Birmingham, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Fort Worth, Photo: Courtesy of digidreamgrafix - Fotolia.com
- Sarasota, Photo: Courtesy of Peter - Fotolia.com
- Astoria, Photo: Courtesy of jkraft5 - Fotolia.com
- Boone, Photo: Courtesy of faykatriona - Fotolia.com
- West Palm Beach, Photo: Courtesy of jccain - Fotolia.com
- Raleigh, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Frankenmuth, Photo: Courtesy of helgidinson - Fotolia.com
- Destin, Photo: Courtesy of Jim - Fotolia.com
- Dauphin Island, Photo: Courtesy of BJ Ray - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of nadezhda1906 - Fotolia.com
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