Bring a cooler. Load it with water and juice rather than soda. Why? (A) Soda is bad for kids. (B) It makes them hyperactive. (C) Worst of all, it makes them have to go to the bathroom sooner.
Skip the interstate pit stops. Instead, head to a supermarket for healthy snacks like nuts and fruit.
Pack picnic supplies. With plastic utensils, napkins, a real knife, and a sheet, you'll be prepared to stop anywhere.
Take a half-hour walk each day. Whether it's on a hiking path or in a small town, it's the best way to sightsee.
Spring for a hotel with a pool. Kids love them, and swimming is much better than watching TV.
National Park Programs the Whole Family Will Enjoy
Acadia: Three boat companies run ranger-led sailings off Maine's Mount Desert Island for learning about flora, geology, and history. 207/288-3338, nps.gov/acad, $2-$35 depending on age and boat.
Grand Canyon: The Discover the Grand Canyon package includes two nights' lodging, several meals, and two days of guided hiking. The terrain can be challenging; children must be at least 10 years old. 928/638-2525, grandcanyonlodges.com, from $533 for two adults, 16 and under $186.
Shenandoah: Three packages each come with two nights' hotel, box lunches, and guided hikes. 800/778-2872, visitshenandoah.com, $499 for two adults, 16 and under $166.
Yellowstone: Geared especially toward children 8 to 12, the four-day Yellowstone for Families program includes hotel, breakfasts and lunches, guided hikes, and lessons in animal tracking. 307/344-5566, yellowstoneassociation.org, $1,190 for two adults, 12 and under $365.
Wisdom From Parents Who Work at Theme Parks
SeaWorld San Diego: "Between shows and rides, visit the aquariums. Even on our busiest days, they're calmer areas." David Roberts, assistant curator of animal training
Paramount's Great America, Santa Clara, Calif.: "Hit the water park early to get a spot under the giant umbrellas. It fills up quickly." Cami Masters, guest services manager
Universal Studios, Hollywood: "Revenge of the Mummy doesn't thrash you around or put you upside down. It's good for adults and kids." Sophia Schiro, guest relations
Disney World's Animal Kingdom, Orlando: "Festival of the Lion King is a great show during midday. It's one of the only shows that's air-conditioned, and you get 30 minutes to cool off." John Dent, manager of operations
Legoland, Carlsbad, Calif.: "First thing in the morning, catch the Sky Cruiser, pedal cars that tour the heart of the park. The line gets long later." Kevin Johnson, Ventriloquist
Trend: Educational Bathroom Humor
Museums are learning what parents already knew: Kids dig gross stuff. The exhibit "Human Grossology" has stations called Vomit Center and Y U Stink, along with a climbing wall molded like human skin--warts, zits, and all. It's at Honolulu's Bishop Museum (bishopmuseum.org) and ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vt. (echovermont.org). Then there's "Animal Grossology"--where kids learn about frogs that give birth by belching and follow the progress of a cat's hairball--at Toronto's Ontario Science Centre (osc.on.ca) and the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix (azscience.org). Both exhibits are based on the Grossology books by science teacher Sylvia Branzei.
We can pretty much guarantee that at least one of these beautiful, inviting cities is just a drive away. America's surprising state capitals are a truly varied bunch of burghs, but they have a few awesome things in common, including great cuisine, art, history, and four seasons of outdoor activities.