By Nora Heston Tarte
Vacations, staycations, and daycations for every budget
It’s been a weird year for travel across the world, but new hope is shining on a 2021 summer travel season that emphasizes getting out with family without going too far. Many restrictions are starting to lift across the western states, from indoor capacity limits to the reopening of amusement parks. It’s still important to stay in the know, keeping an eye on changing travel restrictions from state to state and what is and isn’t open when you want to travel. Some destinations still have limits on activities and attractions, so set your expectations early. Most notably is the California resident only restriction set on area theme parks that will lift as the counties move through the colored tiers. That all being said, if you’re ready to embrace a summer of fun, there are a few ways to do so. From staycations to daycations, to traveling across state lines—we have some recommendations to get your wheels turning.
One of the best parts of living in Arizona is the abundance of luxurious accommodations right here in the Phoenix metropolitan area. While outsiders flock to our state to enjoy the expansive pools, high-end hotels and year-round golf, Arizona residents certainly don’t have to leave to get a taste of the good life. It’s nearly impossible to pick just a couple places to stay and play, but we’ll try our best to suggest at least a few opportunities to have fun with family without going far.
The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa ranks high on our bucket list for summer adventure. The Adventure Water Park is the hotel’s biggest draw for families, and all of the outdoor amenities are open once again (with mandatory masks and social distancing protocols in place). Try your hand at surfing without hitting the ocean thanks to the resorts flow board simulator that makes desert surfing a real possibility. Or, lay back and relax on the lazy river. Kids and adults both enjoy going full speed down the 110-foot waterslide or lounging in a poolside cabana. You can even book an early tee time to start your day off on the right foot and beat the heat. When you’re ready to retreat indoors, try out the hotel’s spa. As of press time, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant and kid’s club were still closed.
If you’re looking to leave the metro, consider Arizona’s other towns. Sedona is a hiker’s paradise with a focus on wellness offering more moderate temperatures. Kids of all ages will love the outdoors while adults take in the gorgeous red rocks that flank the region. If you’ve ever wanted to have your aura read or shop the latest and greatest from local New Age shops, Sedona is a destination for you. Explore the trailheads throughout Red Rock State Park on the outskirts of town or indulge in the arts community. Another option for more temperate weather is Flagstaff. Surrounded by mountains, this Arizona city offers a little something different than most destinations in the state. Families will love exploring the outdoors, seeing natural phenomena like Meteor Crater and the Petrified Forest National Park. Dinosaur Tracks are sure to be a highlight for any young child with an affinity for the extinct beasts, plus a quaint downtown offers a place to shop and eat. When you’re traveling up this way, take a detour to the Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde. The drive-thru wild animal experience boards families onto a bus and takes them through several acres of open land where lions, panthers, zebras and giraffes all roam. You may even get an opportunity to hold an ostrich egg or feed a giraffe.
South of Phoenix, in Tucson, a dude ranch offers a unique type of getaway for families that’s perfectly socially distanced. Tanque Verde Ranch sits on 60,000 acres of desert landscape nestled among the Rincon Mountains and adjacent to Saguaro National Park. Embracing the old west lifestyle, the property also takes into account comfort, offering luxuries one might not equate with your average ranch. Check out the full itinerary of activities before you visit, which includes a lot of horseback riding, mountain biking, fishing and family bonding.
You don’t have to dedicate a week or even a weekend to your family adventure. Arizona is also ripe with opportunities for daycations. If you’re off work, or your company supports playing hooky for a day, make the most of it with some of the region’s best attractions.
We could write a list a mile long of all of the wonderful things to do in Arizona. Baseball season brought with it a semi-return to normalcy when it comes to sports, and in Phoenix you can watch the Arizona Diamondbacks play a game. Or, you can hit up The Phoenix Zoo, which is bringing back it’s drive-thru zoo experience to allow families to stay cool and social distance while getting up close and personal with the animals. In Scottsdale, big resorts include golf outings, spas, and over-sized pools, while sunset horseback rides are available through Ponderosa Stables.
One of our favorite cities to spend a day with kids is Tempe. In addition to Tempe Town Lake (which offers kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, SUP yoga and fishing), kids will enjoy Papago Park where Hole in the Rock is a famous short but enjoyable trek in the desert, Hayden Butte and the Desert Botanical Garden. If you want to escape the heat, slip inside at the Sea Life Arizona Aquarium, Legoland Discovery Center or Hall of Fame Fire Museum. When you’re ready to eat, Downtown Tempe has plenty of options for family-friendly fare and a good beer for mom and dad.
Over in Scottsdale, you can trade in overnight accommodations for a day at the Arizona Boardwalk. Instead of situated beachside like most boardwalks, this family-friendly destination is located in desert surroundings with a variety of attractions to entertain young and old. In addition to an aquarium, there is a dinosaur exhibit, a laser/mirror maze, Butterfly Wonderland, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a VR experience and more. The premier entertainment destination has enough to keep even the antsiest kids busy for a full day, which is every parent’s dream. And even the restaurants have family in mind, with options that won’t cause your toddler to whine, from Johnny Rockets to Dad’s Pizza Co. For dessert, Frozen Penguin serves custom ice cream sandwiches to cool down your brood.
For those ready to get out of Arizona, there are a few nearby destinations that offer a much-needed change of scenery. SeaWorld San Diego is back to welcoming guests to experience the thrills of this California theme park (for now it’s CA residents early). With extra safety protocols in place, guests are invited to experience big rollercoasters with multi-launch rides featuring high-energy twists, electrifying loops and inversions as well as kid-friendly rides primed for families. All of that plus exciting indoor and outdoor animal exhibits, and it’s easy to see how you’d spend a day at the park.
Another Southern California-area amusement park of interest is LEGOLAND. LEGOLAND California features a full ride-packed theme park, miniature park and aquarium in Carlsbad, California. All of the attractions give a nostalgic nod to one of our favorite childhood toys, plus on-site accommodations that feature fun, themed rooms for families, epic pools and more.
Great Wolf Lodge is the other Southern California destination worth traveling for (Great Wolf Lodge in Scottsdale is a great staycation or birthday weekend option). The indoor waterpark and hotel boasts a slew of thrill rides as well as more leisurely attractions while staying out of the hot sun. Other attractions include an arcade, bowling alley, blacklight mini golf and a Build-A-Bear workshop on site.
If it’s not a theme park that you have in mind, consider hitting the beach for a more laid-back vacation. Southern and Central California are full of family-friendly beach towns including San Diego, Newport, Huntington, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Avila Beach. Each has its own draws from the iconic Ferris Wheel at Santa Monica Pier to the beachfront playground and kayaking tours in Avila Beach. Enjoy the outdoors with surf lessons and bike rides while also embracing the reopened indoors, including waterfront dining.
If California isn’t calling your name, check out one of these other family-friendly locations: Las Vegas, Utah (and its many national parks), Reno and Lake Tahoe. If you’re open to going a little farther, Colorado cities including Breckenridge, Denver, and Telluride all offer their own charms.
We know we only scratched the surface of what your family can explore this summer, but we hope this roundup at least inspired you to find a way to enjoy family time this summer in whatever capacity makes you most comfortable, whether that be getting fully vaxed and hitting the skies or staying close to home and wearing a mask.
Nora Heston Tarte is a travel writer and editor who spends her time exploring the U.S., one destination at a time. You can follow along on her adventures–near and far–on Instagram @wanderlust_n-wine
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