We camp on a bluff overlooking a broad valley, giraffe and antelope wandering below, half a dozen rhino grazing in the hazy distance. After dinner around the campfire, we settle into our tents, but not before a herd of elephant rambles past, the ground literally shaking beneath their jumbo feet. Snug in our sleeping bags, we are roused three times in the middle of the night by lions roaring somewhere out in the dark.
It’s only the next morning when we pack our bags and trek back to the parking lot that reality sets in again. This isn’t Africa—it’s the Wild Animal Park in San Diego.
A popular sleepover program called “Roar & Snore” that helps make the southern California city one of the best places in America for a family vacation.
There’s plenty more of course, starting with half a dozen theme parks, unlimited outdoor sports, big league ball teams, Balboa Park with all its museums, more than a hundred miles of beach, and weather to die for.
San Diego is one of 10 urban areas that made our list of the most family-friendly cities in America. All of them have several features in common, starting with a wide range of family oriented activities, some of them educational and others just plain fun. They are easy to get navigate, either on public transport or your own vehicle. And most are fairly affordable.
Some of our picks are obvious: How could you not choose Orlando with its amusement parks or Washington, D.C. with all that civics and history, or New York with all the Big Apple has to offer?
Others are more offbeat or under discovered. Like the Hampton Roads area of southern Virginia, a cluster of sun-splashed cities at the bottom end of the Chesapeake Bay, all of them linked by Interstate-64 and its various bridges and tunnels. Nowhere else along the Atlantic Seaboard do you find such an eclectic blend of kid-friendly attractions.
Virginia Beach with its wide, white sands and lively boardwalk is the epitome of a family seashore getaway. When you talk about American historic idols, Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown are all always near the top of the chart.
Busch Gardens offers a dozen roller coasters including some of the tallest and fastest thrill rides in North America. And if that’s not enough machinery for your kids, they can clamber all over the battleship Wisconsin, permanently docked along the Norfolk waterfront.
Chicago is another not-so-obvious choice. With no theme parks or world-famous landmarks (other than the Sears Tower), you wouldn’t immediately think of Chicago for a family vacation.
Yet for a certain type of child—those that can appreciate world-class art, incredible architecture and iconic American sports teams—Chicago is right up there.
Cruise the Art Institute, catch the Cubs at Wrigley Field (whose olden style resembles the kind of ballpark that kids imagine growing up), gaze down at the world from the Skywalk on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Building.
The Windy City also has celebrity cred: hometown to Obama, Oprah and Michael Jordan. Getting around Chicago is half the fun—elevated trains, water taxis and more than a hundred miles of bike paths.
The city’s tourist office has created an interactive audio guide called “Chicago for Kids” that can be downloaded onto an iPod or similar device. Midwest or down South, every city on the list offers something unique that you can experience as a family.