12 Awe-Inspiring American Castles
Who doesn't go a bit giddy at the sight of a castle? The good news is that you don't have to head to Europe for honest-to-goodness ones of the Cinderella variety—we have plenty right here in our own backyard. Railroad barons commissioned most of these estates, but at least one housed a legitimate king and queen (bet you didn't know this country had its own history of royalty!). Each is an engineering wonder in its own right, with some even constructed out of old-world castles that were shipped across the ocean. And each is open to tours should you decide to make a trip (a select few will even let you spend the night). Read this and you might just discover a side of America you never knew existed.
1. GREY TOWERS CASTLE
Most colleges contend to be fortresses of learning, but Arcadia University in the suburbs north of Philadelphia can back it up with battlements acquired in 1929. Grey Towers was built by eclectic sugar refiner William Welsh Harrison between 1893 and 1898 and modeled after Northumberland's Alnwick Castle (a.k.a. the most archetypal expression of the medieval style). The 40 rooms wowed with gilded ceilings, tapestries, ornamental paintings, and hand-carved walnut and mahogany woodwork in styles from French Renaissance to Louis XV—and of course a Mirror Room—while secret passages behind fireplaces and underground tunnels. Self-guided tours of public areas are possible while classes are in session (the building now contains dorm rooms and administration offices). Free brochures outline the history. 450 South Easton Rd., Glenside, PA, 215/572-2900, arcadia.edu.
Other properties on this list may be bigger and more lavish, but the 'Iolani Palace has one thing above them all: legitimacy. America's only true palace—as in, royalty resided here—was built from 1879 to 1882 by King Kalakua and Queen Kapi'olani. The goal was to enhance the prestige of modern Hawaii in a kind of Victorian-era keeping up with the Joneses. (The palace had electricity and a telephone even before the White House.) Stone-faced with plenty of koa wood inside, the two-floor American Florentine–style building includes a throne room, grand hall, and private suites, including the upstairs room where the queen was imprisoned for five months following the 1895 coup. Today, concerted efforts are underway to find artifacts and furniture (like the king's ebony and gilt bedroom set) that were auctioned off by the post-coup Provisional Government. 364 South King St., Honolulu, HI, 808/522-0832, iolanipalace.org. Admission $12, guided tour $20.
3. HAMMOND CASTLE
Like a modern-day Frankenstein's castle on Massachusetts's rocky Atlantic shore, Abbadia Mare (Abbey by the Sea) served as both home and laboratory for prolific inventor John Hayes Hammond Jr. after it was completed in 1929. Hammond is largely credited as the "Father of the Radio Control," as in tanks and planes and remote-controlled cars. He was also a lover of medieval art, and the castle was designed to showcase his collection. The building itself is a blend of 15th-, 16th-, and 18th-century styles, including a great hall with elaborate rose windows and pipe organ plus a courtyard featuring a two-story meat market/wine merchant's house brought over from southern France. And, yes, like any proper mad scientist, he made sure there were secret passageways. Self-guided tours are available along with annual Renaissance Faire fund-raisers, psychic gatherings, and spooky Halloween events. 80 Hesperus Ave., Gloucester, MA, 978/283-2080, hammondcastle.org. Admission $10.
4. FONTHILL CASTLE
Celebrating its centennial in 2012, the former home of industrialist-turned-archaeologist Henry Mercer is an ode to artisanship: All 44 rooms (10 bathrooms, five bedrooms, and 200 windows), 32 stairwells, 18 fireplaces, and 21 chimneys are hewn from hand-mixed reinforced concrete in a mishmash of medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine styles. Thousands of handcrafted ceramic tiles were inset throughout, including Mercer's own Moravian-style tiles plus Persian, Chinese, Spanish, and Dutch productions he collected. Today, the 60-acre Bucks County estate serves as a museum to pre-industrial life, with 900 American and European prints at Fonthill and even more artifacts (like a whale boat and Conestoga wagon) in its sister building, the Mercer Museum, a fun house–like six-story castle in its own right. East Court St. and Rt. 313, Doylestown, PA, 215/348-9461, mercermuseum.org. Admission $12.
5. CASTELLO DI AMOROSA
Word to the wise: Imbibe the cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio at the Castello di Amorosa winery carefully, because somewhere in the 121,000-square-foot, 107-room, eight-level complex there's a dungeon with a functional Renaissance-era iron maiden. It took 14 years to construct the castle using historically accurate medieval building techniques. The end result is an "authentic" 12th- and 13th-century Tuscan castle with drawbridge and moat. The frescoes in the Great Hall and Knights' Chamber are hand-painted, some 8,000 tons of Napa Valley stone hand-chiseled, the Hapsburg-era bricks, hand-forged nails and chandeliers, and 500-year-old fireplace all tediously imported from Europe. That sense of awe? Very modern. 4045 N. St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA, 707/967-6272, castellodiamorosa.com. Admission $18, including wine tasting.
6. BOLDT CASTLE
What do you do when you come across a heart-shaped isle while vacationing with your wife in the Thousand Islands? If you're upstart industrialist George Boldt, you buy it and hire 300 stonemasons, carpenters, and artists to build a six-story, 120-room testament to your love. There were Italian gardens, a dove-cote, and a turreted powerhouse, plus all the imported Italian marble, French silks, and Oriental rugs money could buy. But when his wife Louise died in 1904, the heartbroken Boldt ceased construction on the Rhineland-style Taj Mahal and left it to the elements for 73 years. Today, tourists can visit from May to October for self-guided tours—or book a wedding in the stone gazebo. +44° 20' 40.29" N, -75° 55' 21.27" W, Heart Island, Alexandria Bay, NY, 315/482-9724, boldtcastle.com. Admission $8.
7. GILLETTE CASTLE
It's elementary: Get famous (and rich) by playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage; build your own Baskerville Hall. Pet project of campy eccentric William Hooker Gillette, the 24-room castle was completed in 1919 by a crew of 20 men over five years using the actor/playwright's own drafts and designs. It's also the focal point of his 184-acre Seventh Sister estate, a forested bluff overlooking the Connecticut River. Outside, the local fieldstone reads like crumbling medieval; inside, the built-in couches, curious detailing, and inventive hand-carved southern white oak woodwork is all arts and crafts. As for cat images? There are 60. (Gillette had 17 feline friends.) Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Rd., East Haddam, CT, 860/526-2336, ct.gov. Grounds open year-round; interior tours available Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Admission $6.
8. OHEKA CASTLE
Second behind Asheville's Biltmore as the largest private estate in the nation, OHEKA—an acronym of Otto Herman Kahn, its millionaire financier original owner—ended up abandoned in the late 1970s and sustained extensive damage from fires, vandals, and neglect. After a 20-year renovation, it's back in form and is now a 32-room luxury hotel. Think Downton Abbey just an hour from Manhattan (themed packages available), or for that matter, Citizen Kane (photos of it were used in the film). Originally set on 443 acres, massive tons of earth were moved to make the hilltop location of the 127-room, 109,000-square-foot manse the highest point in Long Island. The Olmsted Brothers planned the formal gardens, the Grand Staircase was inspired by Fontainebleau's famous exterior one, and 126 servants tended to the six-person family when they came for weekends and summers. The 1919 price tag: $11 million. That's $110 million in today's money. Sounds about right for a man whose likeness inspired Mr. Monopoly. 135 West Gate Dr., Huntington, NY, 631/659-1400, oheka.com. Admission $25. Double rooms from $395 per night. Guided tours available.
9. BISHOP'S PALACE
Of all the Gilded Age Victorians built by Nicholas Clayton along Galveston's Gulf Coast, the Bishop's Palace (née Gresham Castle, 1893, after its original owner, Santa Fe railroad magnate Walther Gresham) remains the grandest—and not just because its steel and stone hulk survived the Great Storm of 1900. Its small lot and oversized proportions with château-esque detailing of steeply peaked rooflines and sculptural chimneys still dominate the street, while inside the 14-foot coffered ceilings, 40-foot octagonal mahogany stairwell, stained glass, plaster carvings, and Sienna marble columns exude richness. Keep a lookout for the bronze dragon sculptures. After serving as a Catholic bishop's residence for 50 years, the house is now open for tours. Book a private guide to see the usually off-limits third floor. 1402 Broadway, Galveston, TX, 409/762-2475, galveston.com. Admission $10, private tours from $50.
10. CASTLE IN THE CLOUDS
Location, location, location—as important in castles to fending off conquers as forgetting Gilded Age woes. And for millionaire shoe baron Thomas Plant, that meant setting his 1914 Lucknow Estate (named after the Indian city he loved) on the rim of an extinct caldera high in the Ossipee Mountains with unbroken views over 6,300 private acres of woods and lakes. The mansion by comparison is relatively subdued: A mere 16 rooms, it's practically minuscule compared to the other castles on this list. Throughout, the arts and crafts philosophy of artisanship and living in harmony with nature is expressed in the stone walls, inventive handiwork like the jigsaw floor in the kitchen, and functional decor that eschews ostentation—all planned at Plant's 5-foot-4 height—plus a few technological innovations like a needle shower, self-cleaning oven, brine fridge, and central-vacuuming system. Much remains wholly preserved today. Route 171, 455 Old Mountain Rd., Moultonborough, NH, 603/476-5900, castleintheclouds.org. Admission $16.
11. THORNEWOOD CASTLE
It's not every day Stephen King chooses your luxury B&B as setting for his haunted-house TV miniseries Rose Red. Then again it's not every day that a 400-year-old Elizabethan manor house is dismantled brick-by-brick and shipped round Cape Horn to be incorporated into an English Tudor Gothic castle in the Pacific Northwest, as Thornewood was from 1908 to 1911. The property was a gift from Chester Thorne, one of the founders of the Port of Tacoma, to his wife and apropos of its origin, the 54-room castle is now a prime wedding venue, with antiques and artwork galore plus an Olmsted Brothers–designed garden and three acres of fir-dotted grounds overlooking American Lake. Book a room to get an inside look at the building; there are also tours and events that are occasionally open to the public. 8601 N. Thorne Lane Southwest, Lakewood, WA, 253/584-4393, thornewoodcastle.com. Double rooms from $300 per night.
12. HEARST CASTLE
Understatement of the millennium: William Randolph Hearst's 1919 directive to architect Julia Morgan to "build a little something" on his ranch in San Simeon. Then again, a 115-room "Casa Grande" inspired by a Spanish cathedral is a relatively modest proposition compared to the 250,000 acres and the 13 miles of coastline it's set on. It's when you add in the three additional Mediterranean Revival guesthouses (46 more rooms total), 127 acres of gardens, the Neptune pool with authentic Roman temple pediment, the zoo with roaming reindeer and zebra, Egyptian Sekhmet statues on the terraces, and the private airstrip that things get a bit over-the-top. Magnificent doesn't begin to describe the museum-quality artwork, which drove the architecture as much as anything, from Renaissance statuary to Gothic tapestries and entire ceilings, nor the palatial scale of the publishing magnate's vision for "La Cuesta Encantada" (The Enchanted Hill)—still unfinished upon his death in 1951. 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon, CA, 800/444-4445, hearstcastle.org. Admission from $25.
Theme Park Survival Guide
I am thinking of taking my kids to a theme park for the very first time. What kind of prep work should I do? Your planning—and fun—can start as early as... now. Build your kids' anticipation by visiting the park's website together. Get to know the map, decide what your must-see attractions are, and find out about special events such as shows, character parades, fireworks, and laser displays. Of course, while you're getting your kids pumped up for their park visit, you also have to manage their expectations. Take the time to prepare them emotionally for the big trip, suggests George Scarlett, a professor of developmental psychology at Tufts University. A theme park is awash in eye candy that can test kids' self-control, especially preschoolers'. Let them know there are park rules, just as there are rules at home. They may need to stand patiently in line before they can board a ride. They'll likely have to wear safety belts or protective gear, and they'll need to keep their hands and feet inside all attractions. Because many rides have minimum height restrictions, make sure they understand which ones will be off-limits to them. Robert Niles, founder and editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, suggests that in the weeks leading up to your theme park visit you should let your kids earn a "souvenir allowance" to spend at the end of the day or the trip (remember, you don't want to be stuck carting around a collossal stuffed animal from ride to ride). And prepare yourself to be patient with your little ones. I remember how my then-6-year-old desperately wanted to visit Disney's Haunted Mansion, but after we had waited in line for more than an hour, he freaked out in terror right at the front door. Seeing the look on his face, I sighed and promptly headed for the exit. There are a ton of ticket options. What's the best deal? Some things are obvious: You can save money—and time—buying park passes online; multiday tickets will usually bring the per-day cost down. But some seemingly high-priced offers—such as park combo deals and annual passes—can actually save you a bundle. A season pass to Six Flags, for instance, gets you into all 13 of the company's theme parks for the year. (If you decide to get an annual pass while you're at a park, you can usually upgrade your ticket right on the spot.) Be sure to follow a park on Twitter or Facebook, so you'll be alerted to flash promotions—last-minute offers that can include discounted nighttime attendance, buy-one-get-one-free deals, and savings on meals or souvenirs. Hotel package deals will certainly cost you more, but they also come with perks. A family of four can expect to pay several hundred dollars more for, say, a three-day Walt Disney World package than for a comparable "a la carte" stay at a nearby Marriott. But Disney packages often include discounts on on-site hotels, dining, and special events that may make up the difference. At Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure, if you stay on-site you get a complimentary Express Plus Pass that lets you skip lines for certain rides and attractions. (For more on express passes, see "Should You Pay Extra for Shorter Lines?" to the left) I never take my kids anywhere without a loaded backpack. Is that a good idea at a theme park? Just because a park features a castle doesn't mean you should have to pay a king's ransom for basics like water, snacks, sunscreen, and bandages. "Never buy anything in a theme park you can buy outside the park," says Niles. If you worry about things like food spills, cuts, inclement weather, and meltdowns, by all means do some schlepping. Bring packaged snacks, wet wipes, Ziploc bags, a change of clothes, disposable rain ponchos, sunscreen, bug repellent, water bottles, a small first-aid kit, small toys, coloring books, and glow-in-the-dark sticks and necklaces (which the parks sell at dusk but they charge a fortune). And while we're obsessing over details, don't forget to pin your name and cell phone number to the inside of your kids' clothes and make sure your family wears closed-toe shoes to the park. You don't want your little one's flip-flops flying off on the new Wild Eagle ride at Dollywood. What are the best times of day—and times of year—to visit a theme park? Remember one thing: Always go against the flow. The more you can anticipate where the herd will be—and flee to where it's not—the more elbow room and (relative) solitude you'll enjoy. For instance, most visitors don't show up first thing in the morning. Arriving at least 15 minutes before the gate is thrown open (c'mon, your kids are going to be up at dawn anyway) and heading for the most popular rides first can be the difference between no wait and a wait of 60 to 90 minutes for marquee attractions. Niles notes that, amazingly enough, you can walk right on to Tatsu, billed as the world's tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles when the park opens at 10:30, but by 11 the wait can be as long as two hours. But do your homework so that you choose your morning rides carefully. A water ride that soaks you to the bone may be a less than inspiring way to start your day. The same goes for lunch. If you head to a popular watering hole such as Three Broomsticks in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure between noon and 2 you'll find that a thousand other Muggles had the same idea. Instead, pack a lunch, or make reservations to eat early or late (check reservation policies; Disney, for instance, will let you make online restaurant reservations up to 180 days in advance). While everyone else is chowing down, enjoy some shorter wait times at attractions that are otherwise jammed. If your park features a midday character parade or a popular live show, you'll likely find rides less crowded at those times as well. Other go-against-the-flow techniques include: heading for the back of the park at opening while everyone else is boarding the rides nearest the front gate; leaving the park at midday for a dip in the hotel pool or a nap, then returning in the early evening when crowds are often lighter; opting for the left-hand line at snack bars and souvenir shops because most folks are programmed to turn right (sounds crazy, I know, but park sharks swear this one is true). As for time of year, most major parks are less crowded in September and October, as school starts up, and April and May, as school winds down. (But if anyone asks, I'm not the one who suggested you take your youngster out of class just so she could shake hands with Mickey!) Some parks have trends all their own: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay sees an increase in student tour groups from Brazil each January and June; Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are more crowded at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom; at its Southern California cousin, Disneyland, locals flock on Saturdays and Sundays. How can my smartphone or tablet improve my visit? If you remember that your phone or tablet works for you (and not the other way around), it can help solve some problems. By now, everybody knows they should snap a shot of where they're parked, but you should also take a picture of your kids in their park-visit clothes each morning in case you have to ask for help in locating them. Smartphones and tablets also give you access to a new generation of apps, such as Disney's Mobile Magic and Cedar Point's GPS Park Map, that allow you to quickly pinpoint restaurants, bathrooms, and other crucial stops. Disney's app goes even further, providing up-to-the-minute estimates on wait times at rides and attractions. But Niles advises you to rely more on your own smarts than on your phone's. "Do you really need an app to tell you there's going to be a long line all day at Thunder Mountain?"
Make Everyone Happy And Take The Family Reunion On Location
Kris Zahrobsky, a 25-year-old firefighter from the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Ill., is a member of the Feelys, a family based mostly in the Midwest that for generations has tried to keep in touch and get together every other year or so. When Kris was growing up, the reunions were simple affairs, maybe in someone's backyard or at a state park. There wasn't a whole lot to do besides catch up, eat, and pose for pictures. "It was great to see all the relatives," says Kris, "but I remember being bored out of my mind." For the 2005 reunion, Kris proposed a different kind of get-together--a weekend in the Wisconsin Dells, a destination that overflows with family resorts and water parks. "The Dells was my first choice," says Kris. "In the same building, the kids can go to the water park while the parents sit and relax." The Feelys decided to base the reunion at the Kalahari Resort, which has indoor and outdoor water parks, a banquet hall that can host a big family dinner, and all sorts of rooms and suites. Last fall, Kris even set up a website to post family news and a reunion itinerary, including times for group boat tours, casual gatherings in a hospitality room, and a mass on Sunday morning. The Feelys are expecting this summer's gathering to be the best turnout in years: around 200 people from 18 states, with some members of the extended family who haven't attended a reunion since the 1970s. If you expect people to devote vacation time and endure hours of travel, the least you can do is make the reunion fun. Rather than the traditional backyard barbecue or potluck in someone's crowded living room, more and more families are going on cruises, renting a few beach houses, or heading to all-inclusive resorts. Planning a big reunion is difficult enough. Add in coordinating a vacation that jibes with everyone's budget, schedule, and desires, and the job becomes nearly impossible. Age-old rivalries and differences don't help either. "You find out how dysfunctional your family is when planning a reunion," says Stacey Hopkins of Atlanta, Ga., whose family reunion of 150 to 200 people takes place every other year, usually somewhere in the eastern U.S. "Our family has a lot of alpha females, and it's not pretty when people don't agree. The experience can be traumatic." From the planning stages to exchanging pictures after the trip's over, everyone involved should try to be flexible and keep things pleasant. "Don't talk about religion, politics, and child rearing," says Laurence Basirico, author of The Family Reunion Survival Guide. "Not if you expect everybody to have a good time, anyway." There are many ways to make the experience as painless--and as fun--as possible, and we've done some of the homework for you. The consensus is that you should begin planning a reunion at least a year in advance, to allow time for deciding where to go and when, to give everyone ample warning for taking off work, and to make sure rooms will be available. If you've got a reasonably big group--over 20, say--lodging reservations should be made eight or more months ahead. Memorial Day to Labor Day is prime family reunion season because kids are out of school. The Christmas break is also popular, but prices are sky-high and many people have traditions they like to keep at home, as well as commitments to the other side of the family. It's usually clear who'll be the reunion ringleaders--the same crew of matriarchs (and sometimes patriarchs) who host Thanksgiving dinners and send cards to everyone on their birthdays. "Somebody's gotta take charge, but no one should do it alone," says Basirico. "When things get going, have a travel agent serve as a neutral third party." People won't be offended when an agent says there's a deadline for deposits (and it's handy to have an outsider to blame should things go wrong). After a few casual conversations indicate that there's a fair amount of interest, one of the ringleaders should send out a group e-mail. To keep the conversation from literally going all over the map, offer roughly three possibilities. List a few pros and cons for each, as well as ballpark costs. To avoid any confusion, specify up front who will have to pay for what. Some people will want to go camping while others will lean toward five-star resorts, so compromise is essential. Organizers of the Feely reunion in Wisconsin Dells knew that not everyone wanted to pay over $100 a night at the Kalahari Resort, so they provided booking details for a nearby campground. Have each family pick a leader to voice its concerns and, if necessary, put the decision on where to go to a vote. Don't get hung up if someone doesn't want to go or cancels at the last minute. Carry on with the people who want to be there. Figuring out food and activities on a vacation can cause anxiety for a couple, let alone for a group of 50. That's why cruises and all-inclusive resorts are naturals for reunions. They provide home bases for fun and relaxation, and you always know where meals will be. "Cruise reservations are no-nonsense: X tables at X times," says Kathy Sudeikis, president of the American Society of Travel Agents. "Anywhere else, when you have to do dinner for a big group, it's like moving the Fifth Army." Some families prefer a place that's within driving distance of a majority of the attendees. A beach, mountain retreat, or small town can do the trick--but planners should be sensitive to anyone traveling a long way. No one wants to drive five hours after a six-hour flight. The reunion shouldn't be held in anyone's backyard either, because whoever's local might wind up bearing the burden of playing host and tour guide. Every traditional vacation spot in the U.S. has a convention and visitors bureau (CVB), and you should put these organizations to work for you. Contact the CVBs of your top choices and tell them how big your group is and what you're interested in doing. They'll pass along your info to hotels, resorts, car-rental agencies, restaurants, and attractions--who in turn will send you offers, coupons, and brochures catered to your needs. Hotels and resorts are willing to give perks to big groups, whether it's a corporate retreat, a business conference, or a family reunion. "Put the ball in the venue's court and ask what dates can get you the most value," says Jonathan Miller, former president of the National Association of Reunion Managers (reunions.com). "Leverage the size of your group in terms of how much business you're bringing to the hotel." If you're not staying in an all-inclusive, it's probably worth it to pay a little extra for rooms with kitchens--or ask that the hotel provide them at no additional charge--because you don't want to run to a restaurant every time a child is hungry for a snack. As for activities, the idea is to reunite and be with each other, but people will get burned out if things are too regimented. Give everyone ample free time. There's no need to eat every meal together. "More and more, people are saying lunch is on your own," says Laurie Van Horn, of the YMCA of the Rockies in Colorado, which hosts more than 800 reunions a year. "It usually works well when there's one planned activity a day to bring everyone together, maybe team building on the high ropes course or a hayride." Always bear in mind that the reason for the trip is equal parts family and vacation, and that people will want to take it easy. Besides, if you allow things to happen naturally, the bonds created will be all the more meaningful. Tips for a better reunion Make a family tree to be displayed at the reunion. Bring albums filled with old family photos. Host a "lack of talent" show with singing and dancing. Have a family trivia game (When did the family's first ancestor reach the U.S.?) and give out prizes. The kids will love it if you bring walkie-talkies--and you'll love using them to keep track of the kids. On a cruise, arrange for the head of the family to get a suite, which can double as a group gathering place. Have kids make name tags with crayons and stickers. Skip Christmas presents among extended family for a few years and use the money saved on the vacation. Walt Disney World Orlando's WDW has been an iconic family vacation for so long that it's possible for three generations to have memories of it as a special place. "It's great if you want to do the rides or just sit around the pool and catch up," says Judy Russell, of central New Jersey, who vacationed at WDW last summer with her seven siblings and their families. "You can even party at night if that's your thing." Groups of eight or more people staying at a WDW property can sign up for Disney's Magical Gatherings, a program that opens up options not available to smaller groups or day-trippers--say, an evening cruise capped by a fireworks show, or a special dinner and safari at Animal Kingdom. Groups that fill 10 or more rooms are automatically directed to a special sales office that arranges discounts of 10 percent to 35 percent and other perks. With the events offered through Magical Gatherings, you'll most likely be in the company of other small groups. But if you hit the 10-room mark, dinners and special events can be private. Also, while Magical Gatherings are limited to a handful of activities and programs, the sky is the limit with larger groups. Disney lets you throw parties in cool places like the underwater VIP room at EPCOT's the Living Seas. Or you can rent out an entire attraction for a private dinner--after the giant boulder chases Indiana Jones across the stage at Disney-MGM Studios, your group is invited onstage for dinner, and the rest of the show is performed right around the tables. Prices for special group events are negotiated, and they fluctuate depending on season and demand, but dinners cost around $50 and up a person, dessert parties start at $30, and character breakfasts (with Mickey, Goofy, Donald, or others in attendance) begin at $11 for kids 3 to 11, $18 for adults. 407/934-7639, disneyworld.com/magicalgatherings. Cruises Today's big-ship cruises have something for everyone, from black-tie dining to Ping-Pong tournaments. It's also the easiest reunion to plan. Seating everyone together for all meals is no problem, though just doing a group dinner daily is usually enough. Ships arrange special events, sometimes for free--private cocktail hours, photo sessions, and more. And they all give a discount: The standard tends to be one person free for every eight cabins. "The biggest mistake is ending up on the wrong ship," says Rick White, of White Travel, a cruise specialist in West Hartford, Conn. "If you're couch potatoes, you want an easygoing destination, like the Caribbean. If everyone's active, think about Alaska or maybe Europe." Summer is family cruising season, so it's unlikely you'll be overwhelmed with senior citizens or singles looking to party, but ask your travel agent about the ship's atmosphere regardless. (For that matter, ask your agent about everything. Travel agents book nearly all cruises, and they should know the ships.) Three- or four-night sailings are popular because they cost less in terms of money and vacation time than the standard weeklong cruise. All cruise lines are accustomed to handling groups, though a few have particularly attractive selling points for big families. Carnival Cruise Lines includes "fun points" that groups can use for a private cocktail party, poker chips, or photo sessions with a pro. Through its Royal Reunions program, Royal Caribbean arranges onboard scavenger hunts and trivia contests for groups--and the ships have rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, and teen-only nightclubs. Groups on Holland America ships score extras such as unlimited soft drinks and free snorkel gear. Family favorites on Princess Cruises include movies on a 300-square-foot screen by the pool, as well as a 24-hour buffet.
10 Best Bargain-Priced Family Vacations
For our readers with kids (those fortunate folks!), Budget Travel has asked America's foremost expert on family travel to select what she regards as the top budget-priced family vacations for the year ahead. She's responded not simply with names but with prices, addresses, and phone numbers for snaring a reservation without further ado. At the start of a new year, it's appropriate that we should select prize-winning family vacations available throughout the year, in every season. Though we may highlight an especially low price available only during one season, each of the vacations we've described below is offered at reasonable rates in all 12 months. Our choices fall into 10 basic categories and number around 30 different specific programs, resorts, or facilities. The envelope, please, and the winners are... 1. Family camps They are a way to have some fun in the woods, watch the leaves change colors, and later, play in the snow without paying for a pricey ski condo. There are kids' activities, meals available, and plenty of wildlife. And in summer there are plenty of affordable packages, too. The YMCA of the Rockies' Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado, has 5,100 pristine acres near world-class ski resorts; room for 2,500 people in lodges and cabins; organized activities for children three and older; miles of hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trails; an indoor pool and gym, even a climbing wall; and horseback riding in summer. Rates for a two-bedroom cabin start at $126 per night with fully equipped kitchens; lodge rooms as low as $50. The YMCA also runs an even larger resort in Estes Park, Colorado, that is known along with Snow Mountain Ranch for hosting large family reunions. Visit ymcarockies.org or call Snow Mountain Ranch at 970/887-2152; Estes Park at 970-586-3341. Elsewhere in America, Montecito-Sequoia Lodge is between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks on Lake Homovalo in California. The lodge has two big stone fireplaces and a deck to take in the view of the Great Western Divide. Stay in a lodge room with private bathroom or a rustic cabin with a wood-burning stove and bathhouse nearby. Stuff to do includes hiking, fishing, canoeing, tennis, and organized kids' activities such as all-day programs in summer and plenty of sing-alongs around the campfire. In winter, tube, sled, cross-country ski, or snowshoe. Packages include meals. Midweek stays in fall (until just before Thanksgiving) start at $180 per night for four in a cabin, including breakfast, dinner, and activities. Book a Thanksgiving package for four nights and five days for under $1,200, including meals, kids' activities, guided hikes, and more. Other winter packages cost less in cabins, slightly more for stays in the lodge. Visit mslodge.com or call 800/227-9900 or 650/967-8612. 2. Dude ranches Some of them are open year-round and are just as much fun when the leaves are changing in autumn and snow is falling in winter. Malibu Ranch, in Milford, Pennsylvania, is on a thousand acres of forested land in the Poconos just 75 miles from New York City. It's the oldest working dude ranch in the East. The kids can swim in the indoor pool, fish, try pinball, dance, play with Bobo the donkey, and--of course--ride horseback. You can also ski in the winter. Five-day/four-night packages, including meals and riding, average $930 for a family of four. Two-night winter weekend packages for a family of four are $555. Contact 800/862-5428 or malibududeranch.com. Alternately, you can be a real Texas cowboy at the Flying L Guest Ranch, 40 miles northwest of San Antonio in the spectacular Texas Hill Country. The Flying L has hosted John Wayne and Willie Nelson, among others, and now spreads over 700 acres. There's breakfast and dinner, nightly western entertainment. Swim outdoors year-round, play tennis, golf, or fish in the San Julian Creek. If you don't want to ride, you can traipse miles of hiking trails. All-inclusive rates average $90 per night for adults and $40 for kids and teens. Contact 800/292-5134 or flyingl.com. You can also book these ranches and other affordable adventure trips through Gorp Travel at gorptravel.com or 877/440-4677. 3. Working farms Younger children love farms where they can gather eggs for their breakfast, milk a cow, feed the goats, or go for a hayride. At The Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire, they can learn to water-ski in summer; ice-skate in winter; hike in the fall. In winter, there are sleigh rides, cross-country skiing, an indoor pool, and daily kids' activities. Bring the family before Christmas and cut down your own Christmas tree at a nearby farm. Fall rates, including meals and activities, average $78 per night for adults and $58 for kids; slightly higher for winter and summer stays of less than five nights. We know families who return year after year. Learn more at 800/242-6495 or east-hill-farm.com. 4. Hulas and such Hawaii can be more affordable than you might think, with off-season packages and bargain airfares. Get every fifth night free mid-April to mid-December with packages starting under $175 per night for one-bedroom Maui condos booked with Destination Resorts Hawaii, the largest condo company in the upscale area of Wailea. There are special car rental, tennis, and golf packages as well as larger units, ideal for family reunions. They'll even buy your groceries for you before you arrive. Contact 800/367-5246 or drhmaui.com. While on Maui between May and November, pay $54.50 (a $20 savings) and take a child free on the Pacific Whale Foundation's ecotrip to watch the dolphins play, and then snorkel at a partially submerged volcanic crater. Naturalists will point out the Hawaiian green sea turtles. Contact 800/942-5311 or pacificwhale.org. Throughout the fall, pay just $73 a night ($90 in summer), including continental breakfast, at the newly renovated Aston Aloha Surf Hotel in Waikiki. The kids will love the hotel's surfing theme. Kids' Camp costs $40 daily, including lunch and snacks. Call 800/922-7866 or log on to astonhotels.com for deals throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Outrigger's Ohana Hotels (ohana means "family" in Hawaiian) are a block or two from the beach but have rates as low as $69, based on availability. Rooms with kitchenettes start at $119. Book the "Big Kahuna" package for five nights and get a free night, plus some other goodies (800/462-6262, outrigger.com). California-based Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays has some of the best air/hotel packages around, starting at just over $500 per person from the West Coast for Oahu. There are also good air/hotel deals from Chicago and New York, starting at $767 per person. Ask about added values like free nights, complimentary room upgrades, and food and beverage credits (pleasant.net, 800/242-9244). 5. Mexican beaches All-inclusive resorts are always a hit because everyone can do what they want, when they want, and there are plenty of organized activities for the kids as well as other children for yours to pal around with. Usually you can get bargain rates throughout the Caribbean until mid-December and then again from just after Easter all the way to Thanksgiving and beyond. A trip to Mexico can really be a bargain and will give the kids a chance to practice their Spanish and see a different culture. At Allegro Resorts, kids can stay and play free until December 20 and then again during the summer. All-inclusive rates for a family of four start at $160 per night, including meals, liquor, sports, and kids' activities. Contact 800/858-2258 or allegroresorts.com. Akumal's Club Caribe is one of my favorites, south of Cancon's crowds but smack in the middle of the Yucatan coast, with prime snorkeling, diving, and plenty of Maya ruins to explore. Rates start at under $150 per day, including parents' meals. Costa Azul, an hour north of Puerto Vallarta in San Francisco, Mexico, is a soft-adventure resort ideal for preteens and teenagers where they can swim through caves, trek through jungles, kayak to hidden coves, and learn to surf. Room rates start at under $100 for a family of four. Book Akumal or Costa Azul at Rascals in Paradise, (800/872-7225 or rascalsinparadise.com), where you can also ask about other bargain finds. 6. Cruises offer the benefits of an all-inclusive vacation with the added plus of being able to explore many new places during one trip. They are especially good bets if the grandparents are coming. There are morning-till-night activities for children as young as three on most major cruise ships and plenty to keep adults busy, no matter what their ages. And, because of increased competition in the industry, cruising has never been more affordable. Even cruises to Alaska and Europe can be had for under $900 per person, less for kids. Carnival Cruises and the Disney Cruise Line are especially popular with budget-minded multigenerational groups. Kids will love the waterslides on Carnival ships and Disney's private island--Castaway Cay--complete with a jungle gym that's anchored in the water. Seven-night cruise packages for fall until just before Christmas, and in late spring, start at $799 for adults and $399 for kids up to age 12 who share a stateroom with two parents. There are also shorter cruises available. Contact 888/325-2500 or disneycruise.com. Check Carnival's Web site at carnival.com for specials under $500 per person per week. Call 888/227-6482. Cruises Only (800/278-4737 or cruisesonly.com) can offer substantial discounts. 7. Go granny Grandparents are taking the grandkids on more trips than ever, leaving moms and dads behind. Elderhostel (877/426-8056, elderhostel.org) offers some of the best grandparents-with-grandkids deals anywhere, among them some 140 different intergenerational trips where families can spend a week between Christmas and New Year's Day exploring Yellowstone National Park, or in Minnesota learning about animal-tracking, bird-banding, wolves and deer, weather, and lake ecology (through the ice!). There are year-round programs in the United States, Canada, and abroad--take a Grand Canyon river excursion or a train trip in Louisiana. Packages start at under $500 per person including meals, accommodations, and programs. 8. Breakfast with Mickey Mouse Every family wants to go to Orlando at least once, and if you plan smart - say a long fall weekend or January after the holidays--you may find a trip to Mouseville more affordable than you might think, with deeply discounted hotel and air deals available. Even better, the crowds won't be nearly as large. After a hard day at the Orlando theme parks, come home to your own pool and plenty of space in a four-bedroom, three-bath house for just $105 a night; three-night minimum. For this and other top deals in Orlando, call Leisure Link International at 888/801-8808 or visit eleisurelink.com. If it's your first trip and you're planning to concentrate your time within Disney World, stay at one of Disney's own budget-priced properties (All-Star Sports, Music, or Movies Resorts) for as little as $80 per night (less for campsites), entitling you also to use Disney World's free transportation system and thus avoid a car rental. Call 407/934-7639 or visit disneyworld.com. Finally, grandparents and parents who are 50 or older save big-time at the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort (877/387-5437, hifamilysuites.com), paying as little in some off-season periods as $89 a night or less. The older you are, the less you shell out for a two-bedroom suite complete with free breakfast (kids eat all their meals free), VCR, and separate TVs and video games for the kids. There are good deals for younger parents too. 9. Giant faces, buffalo, and more On a visit to the Badlands of South Dakota, the kids can count all of the different license plates in the parking lot of Mount Rushmore, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary. (Get more Mount Rushmore information at nps.gov/moru or 605/574-2523.) Kids can't climb on the monuments, but Mount Rushmore can still serve as a welcome respite during an interminable cross-country trip or the centerpiece for a family vacation that's certain to please. You can explore caves, pick up rocks blasted from the mountain where the colossal statue of Chief Crazy Horse is a work in progress, join a "dig" at the Mammoth Site where more than 50 giant mammoths were trapped more than 26,000 years ago, and take a Jeep tour through a buffalo herd. Call 800/952-3625 or visit South Dakota's official tourist site at travelsd.com or blackhillsbadlands.com, the site of the Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes Association, which lists 50 "G-rated" family attractions in the region. Stay also at Custer State Park, where besides seeing the buffalo, you can rent an old-fashioned cabin on a lake starting at under $100 a night, go gold-panning, or make animal tracks with the kids at hands-on junior naturalist programs. Contact 800/658-3530 or state.sd.us/sdparks. 10. The time machine Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown are absorbing year-round, as historic interpreters dressed in period costumes help thoroughly modern families appreciate what life was life without TVs, computers, or indoor plumbing. In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, you'll find the largest outdoor living history museum. The kids can help weed the garden in spring, make bricks in summer, or attend a slave couple's wedding in winter. Visit in summer and you can also go to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA. Families can book a four-night/five-day stay, including accommodations and unlimited admission for $700 or less. If you go in the winter, you won't have the roller coasters but you will have fewer crowds and can join holiday celebrations. More information at 800/465-5563 or williamsburgfun.com. Money-saving smarts 1. Alternate pricey attractions with those that are free--a hike in the woods, the best playground in the area, a tour of the local potato-chip factory. 2. Set the souvenir budget before you leave home and stick to it. Suggest the kids start collections along the way-postcards, pins, patches, for example. 3. Always ask when you call for reservations if there are any other discount deals available-kids eat free, a room upgrade, a second room at half price, etc. Playing hooky 1. Carefully check the calendar to make sure your children won't be missing a school concert, championship soccer game, or dance. 2. As soon as you have your trip tentatively scheduled, inform the teacher. Ask for the work ahead of time and suggestions of how your children can share the experience with their classmates. An oral report when they return? A photo journal? 3. Buy your children journals so they can keep a daily record of what they're seeing and doing. 4. Set aside "homework time" every day so they don't fall behind. 5. Bring some goodies back to share with the class from the region you're visiting. Get the kids involved 1. Get out a map and talk about where you want to go and what you want to do. Even the four-year-old will have an opinion. 2. Make sure everyone gets at least some of their picks on the itinerary. 3. If the kids are old enough, suggest each one plan a day's activities. 4. Surf the Web with them to find where you want to go, the best deals to get there, and what to do once you've arrived. Often, the kids are the best Web browsers in the family. 5. Consider inviting a friend for an only child or for a sole preteen or teen in the family. He or she will be much happier.
Summer Vacations at Winter Resorts
With lift tickets at most major ski areas costing well over $50 per person and slopeside condos charging far more, skiing at well-known resorts has become a costly venture - and that's without considering the expense of clothing, meals, equipment, and keeping up with the Joneses of downhill schussing. But when the snow is replaced by wildflowers, these same ski areas get desperate to fill their digs, their lifts, their trendy restaurants and bars. And they've made the effort to do so by building golf courses at the bases of their mountains and keeping lifts running year-round to entice the summer hiker or biker. Yet, would you believe, it hasn't worked? Though the mountain scenery is among America's most majestic, summer tourism at the famous ski resorts has remained a slow trickle to everywhere except Aspen and Vail. Result: a frantic assortment of package offers at remarkably low rates, bargains that often combine lodging with food and activities. Here's how you can enjoy a fine, low-cost, warm-weather vacation at seven resorts mainly known for their winter glamour. Sugarbush, Vermont North of Killington, Route 100 is quintessential Vermont, where freshly painted steeples reach toward the skies, covered bridges built in the 1880s remain intact, and the farmland is so fertile you feel like running out of your car and digging your hands in the soil. Nothing seems to change in these parts, and that's the way locals prefer it. In Mad River Valley, the mountains barely top 4,000 feet, making them an accessible outdoor playground that challenges but doesn't leave you lost in the wilderness for days, howling with coyotes. Welcome to the Sugarbush Ski Area. Hovering above the towns of Waitsfield and Warren, Sugarbush is an ideal summer retreat. You can take a chairlift to the top of 4,135-foot Mt. Ellen and hike the Long Trail (Vermont's state-long hiking trail) south to Mt. Abraham or north to that distinctive mass of rock called Camel's Hump. Road bikers can rent bikes at the resort and ride a 15-mile loop on Routes 100 and 17 through Waitsfield and Warren and their respective covered bridges. Stop at the Warren Country Store for lunch and enjoy a Dagwoodesque sandwich outside overlooking a small waterfall. Mountain bikers can simply use the resort's ski trails to snake through the forest. Golfers will want to know that one night at the Sugarbush Inn and a round of golf can cost as little as $86 in the spring/summer/fall off-season (phone 800/53-SUGAR for reservations). Non-golfers can choose to spend the night at Hyde Away, a 12-room inn in Waitsfield, where rooms start at $59 and include a full breakfast (phone 802/496-2322 or 800/777-4933). Sugarloaf, Maine Viewing moose in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, in summer is almost as easy as seeing squirrels in your backyard in other parts of the country. Take a sunrise stroll along one of the numerous Sugarloaf ski trails and you're bound to see Bullwinkle and friends slurping knee-deep in some pond. Sugarloaf, in the central part of the state, is a great place to get lost in the thick woods and go canoeing, fly-fishing, or hiking. This big, brooding mountain, Maine's second highest peak, towers over the 17-mile-long valley. Across the road from the resort, a former railroad bed lines the Carrabassett River, providing an ideal trail for the novice mountain biker. Yet the highlight for many visitors is the golf course, which is always ranked by golf publications as one of the finest in New England. One of the best packages is the Early Bird Stay and Play. From late May to July 6, you get lodging at the resort's Sugarloaf Inn or Grand Summit Hotel, breakfast, and a round of golf for $99 per person (phone 800/THE-LOAF for both hotels). Keystone, Colorado If mom and dad downhill ski, they know that the best ski areas feature a slew of activities for children. Well, this doesn't stop when the slopes are green. At Keystone, a mere 90-minute drive from Denver, where you stay at the 9,300-foot base of a 12,200-foot high mountain, there's a long list of free summer activities for kids: It includes panning for gold, gathering around a campfire to hear Redtail the Mountain Man tell stories about his mining days, free fly-casting clinics, and children's craft nights. Parents receive two free Mountain Passports with every reservation. This will entitle you to more than a dozen free activities at Keystone, including mountain bike clinics (try white-knuckling down the hardest trail, "The Wild Thing"), nature hikes around Lake Dillon, yoga classes, tennis clinics, and much more. Spring/summer/fall lodging packages start at just $84 a night at the Keystone Inn or Keystone Lodge and $99 for a studio condominium in The Forest (phone 800/468-5004 for rooms at any of the three). They also feature two golf courses (ask about package deals with lodging) and more than 25 restaurants to choose from, including budget-oriented coffee shops. Crested Butte On the crest of the Rockies, stretching from craggy 12,000-foot peaks to winding rivers, Crested Butte has always been a summer playground for hikers, horseback riders, and fishermen. What outdoors person wouldn't be attracted to this vast wilderness where elk, eagles, deer, bear, and bighorn sheep outnumber the small human population? More recently, mountain bikers and golfers have been coming to the area. Bikers try the Gold Link Trail System, a moist pocket of deep-in-the-woods trails that will keep your adrenaline on overdrive for hours. Vast fields of shoulder-high wildflowers line the trails like spectators at a marathon. Indeed, in the summer, more than 600 varieties of wildflower carpet the mountainside in a profusion of color. Golfers savor the 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. course. Last year's golf package cost $292 per person for three nights at the Sheraton Crested Butte Resort and two days of golfing (phone 800/544-8448). Non-golfers will find the options more affordable. Stay at the Crested Butte Lodge (800/950-2133; $45 to 65 a night for two), walk the 30 yards to the lift, and pay only $13 to take the chairlift to the summit (your chance for a two-mile-high hike). Park City, Utah Thirty-five miles outside Salt Lake City, Park City is getting ready to welcome the world at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. On historic Main Street, where 64 buildings from the 1880s are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, new boutiques and restaurants have already opened to intrigue the masses. Yet, venture here this summer, before the big hoopla, and you'll have the streets of this former silver-boom town to yourself. Not to mention the hills. Take the $8 lift to the 10,000-foot summit and choose to hike or bike down more than 50 miles of trails, or simply picnic atop the peak. There's also the Park City Stables, where you can saddle up and go on an hour-long horseback ride ($29) through the woods. Kids will enjoy whipping down the Alpine Slide and playing the new miniature golf course. At night, Park City has free weekly concerts in City Park and, in late August, various jazz greats come to town to play in the Park City International Jazz Festival. The resort's accommodations start as low as $80 for a studio condo in The Lodge at the Mountain Village (800/222-PARK). Big Sky, Montana Big Sky, Montana, is the America you visit to leave your urban woes behind and breathe in the crisp, fresh air. Aptly named Lone Mountain rises up dramatically from the town's heavily forested lower slopes to an elevation of 11,150 feet. In winter, skiers carve their perfect turns down the mountain with few lift lines and even less traffic on the trails. The setting is even more serene in summer when the population decreases. This is A River Runs Through It country, where the movie was filmed, so grab that pole and try your luck fly-fishing for trout on the Gallatin River. Trail rides at one of the local ranches and golfing the Arnold Palmer-designed 18-hole course in Meadow Village are just as popular. Or put on your hiking boots and explore the miles and miles of trails in the Gallatin National Forest. One of the easiest and most enjoyable routes involves starting at the resort and simply taking a gondola ride up the mountain. Then enjoy a leisurely hike down to the base on a new self-guided nature trail along a roaring stream. If you're feeling lonely, head 18 miles south to Yellowstone National Park and hang with the bison, elk, and black bear. While golfing ($44 to $57 per round) and a lift ticket ($15) are cheaper than at most resorts, Big Sky's lodging tends to be more expensive, with Stillwater studio condos starting at $114 per night (800/548-4486). Or try Golden Eagle Property Management, which will rent its Hill Studios at the base of the mountain for $75 (800/548-4488). Whistler, British Columbia The excitement at British Columbia's Whistler starts long before you reach the resort, on the 75-mile drive from Vancouver, where 7,000-foot snowcapped peaks slope down to the waters of the Pacific. Like other ski resorts in warm weather, Whistler has its share of excellent golfing (including the Chateau Whistler Golf Club, which Golf magazine called "one of the best golf resorts in the world") and the requisite gondola ride to the peak for knockout views. There are also more than 62 kilometers of mountain bike trails for the off-road rider at the Whistler Mountain Bike Zone. Yet, it's the unusual possibilities for outdoor adventure that separate this ski area from the pack. You can take a helicopter ride to hike the untrammeled Coast Mountain alpine meadows, even do a little summertime skiing and snowboarding on Blackcomb's Horstman Glacier. During summer, three lifts run to Blackcomb, with lift tickets costing about $25. Then there's the Westcoaster alpine slide, a bobsled run at the bottom of Blackcomb, paragliding, in-line skating at a freestyle park, and Whistler Kids Windsurfing, which holds both kids-only courses and family camps. Whistler Central Reservations (800/WHISTLER) will place you in one of 450 slope-side condos and houses and include many of these activities in their customized packages. For example, five nights' lodging and one round of golf at each of Whistler's four designer courses is a mere $369 (US) in the off-season.