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50 Essential Vacations That'll Put the Cherry on Top of Any Childhood

Lisa Fogarty

by

Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

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The best time of year

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The best time of year

There's nothing like being a kid and feeling the freedom of summer. Any way you look at it, a vacation from school is pretty great — but when a child gets to experience educational and eye-opening new places, it can be life-changing.

Are you planning your summer break itinerary? From the White House to Dinosaur Valley State Park and back to the underground scenery in Carlsbad Cavern, here are 50 trip ideas and attractions kids under 10 will have a blast visiting.

Originally published June 2016. Updated May 2017.

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Crayola Experience

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Crayola Experience

Crayola Experience is located in Easton, Pennsylvania, and boasts four floors of fun that include 26 hands-on attractions guaranteed to keep your artsy little ones busy for hours. They can doodle in the dark, take part in a themed project, hit up the playground and water tables and so much more. 

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Sesame Place

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Sesame Place

The Sesame Street theme park in Pennsylvania (otherwise known as Sesame Place) brings your child's favorite characters to life while giving them the opportunity to have a ball on rides and water rides, take part in a parade or interactive theater and even dine with Elmo, Abby, Big Bird and Cookie Monster. 

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Dinosaur Valley State Park

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Dinosaur Valley State Park

Got a dinosaur-obsessed household? Dinosaur Valley Park in Texas is the perfect place to take your little ones so they can hike and search for dinosaur tracks (dinosaurs apparently left footprints in the bed of the Paluxy River), swim and fish in the river and camp out beneath the stars. 

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LEGOLAND

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LEGOLAND

LEGOLAND has two resorts in the U.S., in California and Florida. Kids can stay in themed rooms at the LEGOLAND hotels, spend the day at the water park, meet the LEGO characters and check out The LEGO Movie 4D: A New Adventure

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

They've read all the books and have fallen in love with J.K. Rowling's characters — now take them to Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter and make their dreams come true. They'll ride the Hogwarts Express and travel between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, two theme parks bursting with fun rides and interactive experiences. 

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Wisconsin Dells

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Wisconsin Dells

There's a good reason why Wisconsin Dells in southern Wisconsin is known as the Water Park Capital of the country — it's home to an incredible number of theme parks, including Noah's Ark Water Park and Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park. It's also situated on the Wisconsin River and surrounded by magical glacier-carved sandstone formations — your kids will feel like they're vacationing on another stunning planet. 

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Six Flags Magic Mountain

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Six Flags Magic Mountain

Six Flags theme parks feature some of the most exciting rides in the country, but Magic Mountain in California stands out for its high-tech experiences, including the New Revolution, a virtual-reality roller coaster. If you've got a young daredevil in the family, this park is perfect — and it will keep them wondering and asking questions about the computer magic responsible for these thrilling rides. 

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Redwood National and State Parks

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Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks in northern California are home to redwood trees (the tallest on Earth) as well as a variety of wildlife and plant species. Your children will feel like they're walking through an enchanted forest (because they are!) and you can even plan to camp out beneath the stars, steps away from Crescent Beach Overlook. 

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San Diego Zoo

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San Diego Zoo

All zoos are fun, but there's a good reason why the San Diego Zoo was voted the No. 1 zoo in the world: It's home to every animal you can think of, from panda bears to anaconda snakes, camels to clouded leopards. Plan your day with care and you can experience a sunrise surprise stroll, early morning with the pandas, botanical tours and so much more. 

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Kennedy Space Center

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Kennedy Space Center

What child hasn't dreamt of the day he or she will float in outer space and discover new stars and planets? NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida gives kids an opportunity to learn about real astronauts and a space shuttle launch experience, as well as tour real rocket ships. 

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The Strong Museum of Play

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The Strong Museum of Play

Imagine a museum where your children are encouraged to do nothing but play — sounds like your child's dream vacation, doesn't it? The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. has every toy — both vintage and new — you can possibly think of, from pinball machines to board games and dolls to action figures. Don't be surprised if you find yourself wrapped up in your own game of classic Simon. 

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Hersheypark

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Hersheypark

What do you get when you mix delicious chocolate and candy treats with an amusement park, shopping, fun restaurants and concerts? You get Hersheypark in Pennsylvania, a family theme park consisting of 110 acres of rides and attractions and conveniently situated right next door to Hershey's Chocolate World — sure to please every little sweet tooth in your family.

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Mount Rushmore

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Mount Rushmore

The significance of the highest office in the country really hits home for kids when they see Mount Rushmore for the first time. The sculpture, carved into the Black Hills region of South Dakota, honors George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. After marveling at the artwork, kids can visit a bookstore, museum and a theater that shows short films about Mount Rushmore. 

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Omaha's Zoo & Aquarium

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Omaha's Zoo & Aquarium

Come for the wonderful exhibits and important lessons in conservation, but stay at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium to spend as much time as possible on the amazing Stingray Beach, where children can touch, feed and interact with these incredible creatures as they glide along in an 80-foot-long pool. 

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Federal Hall National Memorial

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Federal Hall National Memorial

A ranger-guided tour at Federal Hall in New York City is the perfect way to teach your little ones about important historical U.S. events, including the construction of the Customs House, the importance of Federal Hall, the Stamp Act Congress and what prompted the American Revolution. 

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The White House

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The White House

If you're visiting Washington D.C., a trip to the White House is a must — but it's worlds better if you plan your trip to coincide with a time when you can walk around the grounds and check out the inside of the most famous house in the country. There's no better way of gaining an appreciation for U.S. government — just be sure you're aware of the security restrictions and which items you can and can't take inside of the White House. 

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Museum of Science+Industry

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Museum of Science+Industry

There's something for every age group at the Museum of Science+Industry in Chicago. The under-10 set can explore a mirrored maze; walk aboard a real U-505 (the only German submarine in the U.S.); discover their inner builder at Brick by Brick, an exhibit of hands-on building challenges; descend a mineshaft and so much more. Young visitors will love the WOW! Tour, an hour-long guided tour that provides exclusive access to areas not open to the general public. 

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SeaWorld

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SeaWorld

Controversial issues aside, SeaWorld offers young children a glimpse into an underwater universe rich with over 27,000 rescued animals like killer whales, sea turtles and injured birds. It's the perfect place to visit, learn and have fun in the sun. 

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Atlantis, Paradise Island

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Atlantis, Paradise Island

Itching to dig your toes into the sand but not sure where to find a kid-friendly island that will accommodate everyone in your family? Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas is the ultimate family vacation because it's packed with things to do, whether you're 2 or 62. Preschoolers and young children can join the Sea Squirts program and learn about marine life, become Jr. Ultimate Trainers for the day and learn to care for sea animals or just hang out at the beach and build sand castles. One day they'll swim with dolphins and play in the water park; the next they'll create art and visit the theatre — there's so much to do in Atlantis you'll never hear your kids say those two words you dread most: "I'm bored!" 

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Rocking Horse Ranch Resort

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Rocking Horse Ranch Resort

The Rocking Horse Ranch Resort in New York State is an all-inclusive vacation that includes horseback riding (naturally), but also features mountain tubing, an indoor waterpark, heated outdoor water park and Wild West shows. Grab a set of cowboy hats and get ready for an action-packed vacation. 

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Disney Cruise Line

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Disney Cruise Line

With a Disney Cruise, arriving at your ultimate destination isn't nearly as fun as getting there. Children will meet their favorite Disney characters, splash and play, take in a live show and experience an unforgettable open-air dance party. 

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Busch Gardens

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Busch Gardens

There is so much to do and see in Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida, that you'll struggle to get it all done in one trip (there are far worse problems in life, of course). In addition to rides, kid-friendly attractions include Jungle Flyers, which lets them soar 50 feet over the "jungle," the Serengeti Safari and Railway and Stanley Falls, a water ride with a 40-foot drop. 

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Adventure Island

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Adventure Island

Let's cut to the chase: Kids are always on the lookout for waterslides and water rides at the amusement park. Adventure Island in Tampa, Florida, features six slides, four pools and an array of dining and shopping experiences — so, basically, every kid's dream vacation come true. Reserve a cozy cabana or chickee hut where you can lounge and relax while your kiddies run, jump, splash and play the day away. 

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Disney on Ice

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Disney on Ice

Combine professional ice skating, dancing and the wonders of Disney and all of its beloved characters and what do you get? A spectacular theater experience called Disney on Ice, which is most magical for children age 10 or younger. Check your local Disney on Ice listings to see which show is headed your way — from Frozen to colossal parties featuring every character from Mickey to Pinocchio, there's something for everyone. 

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Polar Express

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Polar Express

If you loved the film and book by Chris Van Allsburg, you and your little ones will adore getting into your comfy pajamas, stepping aboard a real-life Polar Express train and traveling to Santa's hometown. To find a Polar Express train experience close to your home, visit Rail Events and search by zip code. You'll meet characters from the story and have an opportunity to take photos with Santa at the end of your (roughly) hour-long trip. 

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Thomas Land

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Thomas Land

Got a little boy or girl who is obsessed with all things choo-choo and Thomas the Train? You'll be excited to know Thomas Land is a very real place in Edaville, Massachusetts, where young children can ride aboard Thomas and Diesel Derby, take a spin on Harold's Lift Off helicopter, jump into a basket on the Sodor Windmill Ferris wheel and much more. 

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Surfing trips

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Surfing trips

Help your children become comfortable in water at an early age by introducing a fun and healthy sport like surfing into their lives. You'll want to start them off practicing amongst gentle waves like those found at Mondos Beach and Pitas Point in Ventura County, California, or Hanalei Beach in Kauai, Hawaii. For a real treat, sign them up for a surfing class at Ron Jon Surf School (they'll have to be at least 7 years old) in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and watch as they perfect their form and ride the waves.  

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Grand Canyon

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Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive and beautiful landmarks the United States is proud to call its own. Located in northwestern Arizona, the canyon is majestic, no matter what the age of its visitors, but your young children will stare in disbelief at the color and light it creates. A major plus: Sunrise is a splendid time to visit the Grand Canyon — finally a reason to be grateful for how early your children wake up in the morning. 

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Yellowstone National Park

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Yellowstone National Park

Few things are more dramatic or spectacular that watching Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. This 3,500-square-mile park, which spans into parts of Montana and Idaho, is a national jewel and one that will bring wildlife, geysers, hot springs, rivers and forests to life for your children. They'll feel as if they stepped onto the most idyllic movie set ever created. 

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Pennsylvania Dutch Country

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Pennsylvania Dutch Country

Pennsylvania Dutch Country in Lancaster, PA, teaches children about Amish heritage and allows them to experience a simpler life on the farm, where technology is minimal and horses and buggies take the place of cars and trains. Open their eyes to another way of life and take advantage of Lancaster's wonderful dining, art and shopping districts.

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Niagara Falls

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Niagara Falls

Hailed as America's oldest state park, Niagara Falls is breathtaking, dreamy and filled with great hiking trails and opportunities to see penguins and sharks. Keep the kids up past their bedtimes to see a magnificent fireworks display put on every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday night from May 1 until October 31. 

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a 35-mile-long park in Michigan that has nearly every natural feature you and your kids can imagine: from beaches and cool dunes to lush forest and even glacial formations. Don't forget to visit both the Port Oneida Historic Farm District (which sells fresh produce and maple sugar) and historic Glen Haven Village. 

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Buckingham Palace

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Buckingham Palace

Imagine the priceless looks on your children's faces when you prove to them that not only does royalty exist outside of fairytales, but so do honest-to-goodness palaces where a queen resides and the future king and queen (and their adorable children) will one day live. Buckingham Palace is just one of countless amazing and educational destinations on a London vacation — a city packed with adventures for children of all ages. 

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Statue of Liberty

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Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom and the first beautiful sight many immigrants beheld as they arrived at New York City by boat so many years ago. It's as magnificent now as I'm sure it was then, and can be explored by hopping a ferry from Battery Park in Manhattan to Liberty Island. Use your sightseeing day to stop over at Ellis Island as well, and show your children the historic spot where over 12 million immigrants first touched U.S. soil from the late 1800s until 1954.

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Crystal River, Florida

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Crystal River, Florida

Manatees are peaceful marine mammals otherwise known as sea cows. There aren't many places where you can observe these amazing, gentle creatures, but American Pro Diving Center in Crystal River, Florida, lets you get up close and personal with a guided manatee snorkel tour. The tour is available year-round and can be coupled with an optional Crystal River 30-foot dive (only for the most daring of tweens). 

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National Baseball Hall of Fame

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National Baseball Hall of Fame

Baseball fans will swoon and learn at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, which houses a museum; tens of thousands of artifacts like shirts worn by legends Cy Young and Derek Jeter; and over three million documents such as manuscripts and scrapbooks. And when you've tired of baseball (as if that will ever happen), Cooperstown itself is definitely worth a look around — don't forget to stop at the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers' Museum. 

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Mount Rainier National Park

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Mount Rainier National Park

Looking for something fun to do to offset winter boredom? Take your kids sledding and sliding in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and sign them up for a super-fun ranger-guided snowshoe walk, where they'll learn about plants, animals and how people survive in treacherous conditions. One of the best parts about this trip? You're less than two hours away from Seattle. 

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Beaver Creek, Colorado

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Beaver Creek, Colorado

There's really no such thing as a bad ski trip, but you and your family can have an amazing one at Beaver Creek, Colorado, which has been dubbed "The Ivy League of Ski Schools." The Ranch is a ski and snowboard school designed specifically for your littlest snow bunnies and bears and will provide them with an introduction to their new favorite winter sport and pastime. 

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Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

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Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

How many kids can say they've witnessed the eruption of two volcanoes, courtesy of the amazing Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, located on the big island of Hawaii? You can camp, hike or bike through this majestic national treasure — with the knowledge that you are never far away from even more natural wonders. 

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San Francisco

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San Francisco

With its rolling hills, cable cars, museums, amazing restaurants and, of course, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco is a beautiful escape from ordinary life. Kid-friendly activities in this great city include a visit to Ocean Beach, the California Academy of Sciences and the Peekadoodle Kidsclub.

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Colonial Williamsburg

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Colonial Williamsburg

There's a good chance children will learn more about the American Revolution after just one trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, then they will from reading a school textbook about the war. Actors reenact scenes straight from the 1700s, including the moment townsfolk learned about the Declaration of Independence and decided to break free from British rule. Kids also learn about the lives of soldiers and children during the American Revolution and have an opportunity to meet brickmakers, carpenters, coopers and more. 

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Kids' yoga retreats

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Kids' yoga retreats

Give young children the gift of mindfulness and a healthy outlet for their anxiety by booking a kid-friendly yoga retreat that will change their lives for the better. Whether you opt to take the entire family on vacation and benefit from a blissful week of yoga (and snorkeling and diving) at Small Hope Bay Lodge in the Bahamas or would rather give your child a taste of independence at a children's yoga camp like Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in Virginia, your options are nearly limitless.

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Iceland

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Iceland

Yes, Iceland! With its geothermal pools (including the famous Blue Lagoon, located 40 miles from Reykjavik), volcanoes, mountains, fjords, glaciers and mystical Northern Lights, Iceland is a universe within a small, relatively accessible country. Located 5-1/2 hours away from New York City by plane, you'll get there fast and will be able to explore its capital and surrounding areas in just a few days' time. 

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American Museum of Natural History

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American Museum of Natural History

One of the largest museums in the world, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has something for every young historian, explorer and scientist. You'll spend hours walking among dinosaurs, get a glimpse at the deepest, darkest spots in outer space and lose yourself in the Museum's Mammal Halls, which features primates and both enormous and miniscule mammals from North America, Africa and Asia. And that's just on day one.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns is located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico and contains 117 concealed caves — which makes for a whole lot of fascinating rock formations and stalactites for your kids to ooh and ahh over. Self-guided tours are separated according to level of difficulty and, if you have young kids who get easily spooked, you may want to avoid something like the Spider Cave tour, which requires you to crawl beneath a tight passageway. Children under three are not allowed to take cave tours, but kids ages 5 to 10 will delight in this magical underground world. 

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Alabama's Civil Rights Trail

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Alabama's Civil Rights Trail

Older children will have learned about Rosa Parks' courageous bus protest and the African American struggle for civil rights. Give them a sense of the importance of freedom (and the price many had to pay for it) by taking a trip to Montgomery's Rosa Parks Library and Museum, which features a replica of the bus Parks rode as well as video footage from the 1960s. You can explore Dexter Parsonage Museum, where Martin Luther King, Jr. lived; visit the Civil Rights Memorial; and travel about one hour to Selma to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the 1965 voting rights protest march turned into a violent battle with police that will forever be known as "Bloody Sunday." 

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Gold Country, California

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Gold Country, California

The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought waves of families out west to search for gold and riches in towns west of Sacramento. Gold Country still exists along California State Highway 49 and it's a sight to behold: old-timey saloons, storefronts and wooden sidewalks are all that's left of these ghost towns and your children will feel as if they stepped back in time. Visit the Gold Discovery Museum, tour the Sutter Gold Mine and don't miss Columbia State Historic Park, where a perfect Wild West boomtown has been recreated. 

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Mississippi River cruise

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Mississippi River cruise

The Mississippi River is the heart and soul of America, but is often overlooked as a family trip destination in favor of less watery landmarks. Embark on a river cruise from St. Louis, Missouri, and explore a few hundred miles of its 2,348-mile trail or opt for a sightseeing paddle-wheel cruise, available in St. Louis, Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans, Vicksburg, Mississippi and other cities along the river bank. You can make river exploration the main course of your trip or treat it like an appetizer and spend the majority of your time exploring a fascinating city like New Orleans. 

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Alaska Marine Highway

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Alaska Marine Highway

Don't forget Alaska! The largest state in the U.S. is also the least densely populated, which means unlimited opportunities to explore breathtaking unspoiled lands and an array of wildlife in their natural habitat. The Alaska Marine Highway gives you a chance to travel from the state of Washington to the Aleutian Islands by boat, and, along the way, kids will see glaciers, logging towns, eagles, porpoises — maybe even whales. The ferries themselves are comfortable and loaded with amenities your kids will love — from restaurants and shops to movie theaters on some boats. 

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