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Great Ways to Gather

The best family reunion destinations offer quality time together–and apart.
By Leslie Mieko Yap

Travel and family reunions often go hand in hand, a type of vacation sometimes dubbed a destination family reunion. Instead of meeting for an afternoon at someone’s house or at a park, the entire clan takes a group vacation to some distant locale. The vacation becomes the celebration.

(c) Royal Caribbean International

Above: Cruises are a great choice for multigenerational groups because they offer activities and amenities for every member of the group. Royal Caribbean International photo

Below: A family group enjoying a trail ride at Wildcatter Ranch in Graham, Texas. Wildcatter Ranch photo

horseback ride

“Families today are so busy and are often scattered about the country,” says Anita Allen, a AAA Travel agent who has helped numerous families plan such events. “Destination reunions bring them together to catch up and celebrate a special occasion at an exciting location.”

Traveling with a large number of family members of different ages can be a lot of fun, but it also presents challenges. Here are some tried-and-true ideas for successfully vacationing with the family in tow.

Take a cruise

Cruises are all-inclusive vacations, so nearly everything–meals, some drinks and entertainment–is figured into the price. That means you don’t have to be concerned about divvying up expenses or who’s going to pick up the next tab.

And there’s plenty to do on a cruise. On today’s amenity- and activity-filled ships, everyone in the family can find something that suits their interests: golf lessons, exercise classes, a spa treatment, karaoke, bingo or just relaxing by the pool. Supervised child and teen programs let kids have their own fun while adults have theirs at a theater, a dance club, a casino or a fine-dining restaurant. The family can come together later for dinner and a show. Plus, most cruises include a variety of shore excursions (which usually cost extra) that families can enjoy together.

Priscilla Low, a 31-year-old AAA member, took a vacation with her family of 15 on a Princess cruise from New York City to New England. The highlight for her father, who’s in his 80s, was having afternoon tea every day with his seven grandkids.

“Because you’re planted in one place, a cruise is especially good for family members who are less active,” Low said.

Cruises also eliminate the need to prepare meals for a large group, and ships typically have a variety of restaurants to choose from.

In addition, many ships offer group rates and special group amenities. For example, families that book eight staterooms or more with Holland America Line’s Family Reunion Program receive one free family photo per stateroom and one free room upgrade. On Princess ships, the onboard services department can help create special customized parties or activities.

Stay at a resort or ranch

Resorts and ranches make for an easy reunion destination because they offer a variety of activities on and around the property. Family vacation expert and author Emily Kaufman, who blogs as the Travel Mom, went to 1,259-room Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort on Grand Bahamas Island with 18 family members.

“Each day, we set up at the beach or at the pool, and everybody did whatever they wanted,” Kaufman says. “People woke up at their own pace and just hung out.” For some family bonding time, they chartered a snorkel boat through a local company.

The downside of their experience, however, was that the vacation ended up being pricey because the resort wasn’t all-inclusive. “All our dinners had to be pre-arranged,” Kaufman says. “With a group that size, you can’t just walk into any restaurant.”

“An all-inclusive resort is definitely more cost-effective,” says Hend Hasrouni, a AAA branch manager who supervises travel agents. At the all-inclusive Riu Palace Paradise Resort in the Bahamas, for example, “the cost of activities–a massage, snorkeling, an introductory scuba lesson in the pool and all your meals–is all included. If you paid separately for those things, it would cost a lot more,” Hasrouni says.

Although large resorts offer room to roam, Texans Mary and Larry Maddock prefer a more intimate setting for their annual reunion. Their clan–four adult children, their spouses and 11 grandkids ranging in age from 5 to 17–has been gathering at the Wildcatter Ranch in Graham, Texas, 90 miles northwest of Fort Worth, for five summers in a row. The rustic ranch has 32 guestrooms and suites and two guest houses. Guests at the Wildcatter usually remain on-site for meals and activities, such as fishing, canoeing and skeet-shooting.

“We’re small, so it gives families an opportunity to be together,” says resort manager Jason McAlister. “Teens can do their own thing, but they’re still close by, so you can easily connect at the pool or at mealtimes.”

Plan a Disney vacation

Florida’s Walt Disney World, with four major theme parks, offers a Magical Gatherings vacation package for groups of eight or more. Families can enjoy special group experiences called Grand Gatherings, which range from a Disney character meet-and-greet to a safari dinner. Beyond the parks, the resort offers fishing, boating, golf, spa services and more. So during the day, family members can pursue their own interests then circle back with the rest of the group for dinner to share their experiences.

Over the past 27 years, diehard Disney fan Kay Belin from Valparaiso, Ind., has organized yearly family trips to Walt Disney World. “I enjoy seeing the magic of Disney through the eyes of all age groups,” Belin says.

Go camping

Big family groups have camped in the great outdoors for generations. State parks and private campgrounds across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana offer beautiful sites, from mountaintop hideaways to scenic spots tucked along clear streams. But today’s camping can be a little less rustic if that’s what you seek. You might discover that it’s not your grandmother’s campsite in some parks, and grandma may want to come along for the trip.

In Missouri alone, nearly half of the state’s 85 state parks and historic sites feature camping, ranging from primitive hike-in tent sites to those with modern conveniences like water and electricity. Beyond the tent, however, are some more comfortable and more interesting accommodations.

Camper cabins are available at Mark Twain, Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Stockton and Lake Wappapello state parks. The camper cabins have electricity, heating and air conditioning but do not include water or restrooms; a modern central restroom and showerhouse is located nearby. The cabins generally include a queen size bed, a futon and a carpeted loft for sleeping bags. And Lake of the Ozarks State Park not only offers rustic log cabins but a yurt, which is a circular structure with a fabric cover over a wooden frame. It features electricity, a locking door, log futon, bunk bed and more.

Carol Preble, owner of the Rusk Kampground of America (KOA) in Rusk, Texas, says the best part of Kamping Kabins (which is what KOA calls its cabins and cottages) is that they enable everyone to participate in activities at the family reunion location.

“The combination of RV sites, tent sites and rental accommodations means that people can have true family reunions where everyone is right there all the time,” she says.

An added plus of KOA campgrounds is that most of them have a variety of activities for campers of all ages. The Rusk KOA, for example, has a swimming pool, horseshoes, volleyball, a toddler’s playground and a Frisbee skills course.

Regardless of where you sleep, camping itself is a great bonding experience, which is intensified when multiple generations participate.

“Camping encourages an older way of life, when families did things together,” Preble says.

Leslie Mieko Yap is editor in chief of New Mexico Journey. Some information added by Dennis R. Heinze, regional editor of AAA Midwest Traveler.

Related article: Not Home for the Holidays

Nov/Dec 2011 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Your AAA Travel agent can help you plan a destination family reunion. Call (888) 366-4222, click on AAA.com/travel or visit your local AAA office.

Your agent can coordinate group travel to Walt Disney World Resort, Disneyland Resort or any of the Disney Cruise Line ships. AAA-approved campgrounds, including KOAs, can be found in the AAA CampBook®, available at your local AAA branch.


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