December is as good a time as July to go on a family vacation. The destinations on your list will be glistening even more the closer it gets to Christmas—and what better way to fend off that inevitable winter break boredom? From warm cities to ski resorts, the U.S. is brimming with fun, kid-friendly vacation spots this time of year.
Holiday lights and sipping hot chocolate next to a fire are what most children dream of come winter. There are plenty of places for that or for catching up on some R&R under the palms while the kids make sand castles on the beach. There's even a town named after old St. Nick himself, where the merriest of escapes awaits you and your family on Mistletoe Drive (yes, really).
Disney World is magical every day of the year, but around the holidays, the theme park is especially merry. 'Tis the season for decking Disney's halls with Mickey-inspired decor of every shape and size. There will be Christmas parties to attend, fireworks shows to watch, and many gingerbread sundaes to be eaten. If you're looking for a fun way to celebrate the holidays this year, a getaway to the "Most Magical Place On Earth" might be just the ticket, but keep in mind that others will have the same idea. These days, November and December beat out July and August in terms of Disney World's busiest months.
New York City is downright magical during the holidays, no matter how old you are. There's plenty for kids to see and do (such as Macy's Santaland, watching the Rockettes, and ice skating under the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree), but the adults will be treated to plenty of entertainment, too. Tour the festive storefronts along Fifth Avenue, go see the New York City Ballet perform The Nutcracker, or shop for gifts at the Bryant Park Winter Village. Whatever you do, get out of town long before New Year's Eve, when the crowds really arrive.
If it's a cabin getaway to a faraway place, surrounded by pristine scenery with just you and the family that you seek, then America's national parks are just the thing. These glorious displays of nature aren't just summertime destinations. You can go somewhere like Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah to see the red rock capped with snow or cozy up in a mountain hut in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. The winter months offer a host of free ranger-led tours, junior ranger activities, and wildlife education programs without the heat and the crowds.
You don't have to fly all the way to Germany to partake in an authentic Christmas market. In fact, you only have to go as far as Philadelphia's famous Love Park, which hosts its own holiday bazaar every year. Philly is nearly as festive as the Big Apple between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, offering holiday-themed train rides, light shows, ice skating rinks, parades, and decorations.
"The Polar Express" is an iconic kids' book and movie that the Grand Canyon Railway brings to life every winter. The scenic railway that trails along one of the Natural Wonders of the World is transformed into the North Pole come December, offering children a once-in-a-lifetime ride on The Polar Express. Dozens of these festive train rides have popped up all over the country, but this one is special because of its locale. The train ride includes warm cookies, hot chocolate, a reading of the nostalgic tale, and, of course, an appearance from Santa himself. Be sure to book ahead, as these trains can sell out months in advance.
If it's warm weather you seek, the Lone Star State may be your best bet. Texas is cheaper and quieter than Florida, which is downright swarming with tourists come December. The coastal destination of Galveston, for instance, lingers around 60 degrees during the final month of the year, as do Houston and Austin. It isn't swimsuit weather, but it's nice enough for a T-shirt and you might even run into one of those iconic palm trees with Christmas lights while you're there.
December is prime skiing season and there are countless resorts dotted around the country that cater specifically to kids. At some—like Colorado's famed Aspen Snowmass, Keystone, and Steamboat—your kids may even be able to ski for free. Family-friendly ski areas around the country offer beginner ski and snowboarding lessons, discounted lift tickets, and additional events like sledding, too. Meanwhile, the adults can show off their own skills on the slopes.
San Diego is bustling with eager whale-watchers during this time of year. From mid-December to April, visitors can spot gray whales in the midst of their 5,000-mile migration from Alaska to Baja California off the coast of San Diego. You may often spot orcas, minke whales, fin whales, and the occasional blue whale, too. There are all kinds of tours to choose from, including quick, 30-minute adventures just off the shore and half-day cruises that venture out further. Watching a whale breach from the deck of a boat is something your kids aren't likely to forget.
Yes, there is actually a town called Santa Claus and it features such street names as Christmas Boulevard, Candy Cane Lane, and Mistletoe Drive. This little hamlet in Indiana has completely maximized on its festive names, erecting more than 20 statues of the big man in red around town. Santa Claus is even home to the only post office offering a "Santa Claus" postmark. It employs an army of elves to reply to nearly half a million letters each year. It's no surprise that its population of 3,000 multiplies around the holidays.
You don't have to be an athlete to try out the sports at Olympic complexes, and an Olympic-themed getaway can make for a fun and active family trip. Along with delivering Olympic fun—you can try bobsledding, luge, ice skating, and curling in the same place Olympians still train today—these locations are always tremendously scenic and overflowing with charm. Most of them are located in picturesque ski towns (Lake Tahoe, California; Park City, Utah; Lake Placid, New York) with a wide array of kid-friendly hotels, restaurants, shops, and other amenities to keep families happy.
Trade in charming carriages for dog sleds during your vacation in Montana, Wyoming, or Alaska. When you're not cozied up next to a fireplace sipping cocoa, you'll be out having the adventure of a lifetime, trailing behind a pack of hyper huskies, watching the winter wonderland scenery zoom by. People even dog sled in Maine and Minnesota, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding a place close to home. You might even come back with a few tricks of your own.