The Birthday Trip
Turn the family vacation into a birthday celebration.
To celebrate my sons' birthdays over the years, we've run the gamut of party themes. We've thrown pirate parties, spy parties, Pokémon parties, Harry Potter parties, pumpkin-painting parties, cookie-making parties, roller hockey and wiffleball parties . . . parties at home, at kids' museums, bowling alleys, sports gyms, roller rinks, county parks. By the time the boys had reached double digits (they're now 14 and 12), it was time to rethink how we'd celebrate their big days.
Because three of our four family birthdays fall at opportune times to travel — around New Jersey's Teacher Week, over spring break and at the beginning of summer vacation — we started to bundle b-day festivities with our annual family vacations. And instead of feeling gypped out of presents or missing their friends, the kids have absolutely loved each and every festive adventure we’ve taken (a Disney cruise and trips to Hawaii and Stowe, VT).
Planning and budgeting for a birthday trip is just like planning and budgeting for a family vacation — with a few extras thrown in. Pack your own party must-haves or check with your travel agent, reservation-taker or hotel concierge to arrange some bonus big-day magic.
For high flyers: Club Med Punta Cana
Where: An island getaway that promises relaxation for adults and derring-do for kids, Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic has an on-site circus school where anyone 4 and older can learn to juggle, walk a tightrope, ride a unicycle and fly on the trapeze.
What: Along with the big-top classes, supervised beachfront kids' activities — age-segmented clubs; tennis, sailing (6+) and windsurfing (8+) lessons — let parents enjoy the coconut grove, white-sand beach and pools sans kidlets. Families traveling with babies get a changing table, baby tub and bottle warmer in their room.
Birthday wow! Extras like cake and decorations can be ordered at no additional cost, in keeping with Club Med’s all-inclusive pricing model.
How much? Prices vary depending on season and length of stay, but Kayak.com currently lists off-peak rates starting at $316 per person; kids younger than 4 stay free.
For astro-nuts: Space Camp
Where: An out-of-this-world option for wannabe astronauts, Space Camp in Huntsville, AL, offers a three-day (Fri. to Sun.) Family Space Camp option for intrepid parents and children 7 (grade 2) and older.
What: Families can choose between two simulator adventures, both of which involve educational time in the US Space & Rocket Center Museum. Family Space Camp puts participants through the paces of traditional astronaut mission training (you’ll experience a gravity chair and pilot a manned maneuvering unit) as well as learn about space history and rocket construction. The Family Aviation Challenge packages fighter pilot training (including takeoff and a water landing in a helo-dunker) with survival-skill sessions. Programs can be adapted to accommodate special needs, including hearing and vision impairments
Birthday wow! The real blast is the programming, not the birthday extras. Because lodging is on-site at the dorm-style Habitat and meals served in the galley, b-day bonuses are not on the typical agenda. (It can’t hurt to ask when making your reservation, though.)
How much? Tuition ranges from $798 for two to $1,398 for four. Transportation to and from Huntsville Airport can be arranged.
For cowpokes: Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
Where: This dude ranch in Gallatin Gateway, MT, sits pretty on the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park and the eastern slope of the Continental Divide.
What: Guests to this historic spread (Chief Joseph passed through on his fabled trek to Canada) ride the ranch’s Appaloosa horses (weekly trips take wranglers through Yellowstone), hike, swim, fish on the Gallatin River, enjoy campfire cookouts and square dance, among other dude-ranchy activities, all geared to age and ability. Ranch-goers stay in spacious log cabins and eat family-style in the dining room.
Birthday wow! Nine Quarter frequently hosts b-day parties and can arrange a ranch-appropriate celebration as needed.
How much? Adult rates for a week start at $1,834 double occupancy off-peak; toddlers 3 to 5, at $500; and kids 6 to 14, $1,561. A 10 percent service charge covers gratuities.
For SpecialKids: Morgan’s Wonderland
Where: Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, TX, is the world's first special needs adventure park, built specifically to accommodate kids with sensory, mental and physical challenges.
What: Along with adaptive and accessible attractions, Morgan’s Wonderland has a fishable lake, Braille signage, a 3-D park model and a service animal rest area. GPS bands track guests’ whereabouts.
Birthday wow! Party packages are available if you’re bringing a crew. Plentiful picnic tables let you bring in your own food and cake to suit any dietary needs.
How much? One-day pass: $10 for kids 3 to 10; $15 for adults. Ten-day pass: $79.95.
For ocean explorers: Disney Cruise Line
Where: With four luxury ships (the Magic, the Wonder, the Dream and the Fantasy) that travel everywhere from the Caribbean to Alaska in stretches that range from three days to more than a week, Disney has become synonymous with family cruising.
What: There’s plenty of patented Disney magic onboard — engaging, age-segmented kids’ clubs (four, in fact, that give mom and dad time to go off on their own to the Senses Spa or Palo restaurant), sports decks, spectacular water slides and pools, Broadway-caliber stage shows, character meet-and-greets, even fireworks at sea (eco-friendly fireworks, which turn into fish food after they're shot off). Generously sized staterooms comfortably fit four, with bunks that fold down, tons of storage space and separate shower and commode rooms.
Birthday wow! Wear the provided birthday button and watch the pixie dust fly. Order cakes (like the Mickey spectacle we surprised our older son with on the Fantasy — we enjoyed for days, kept in our stateroom fridge) and décor at Disneycruise.com/gifts-and-amenities prior to sailing. Make sure to let your dining room server and stateroom host know about the big day; they'll ensure extra magic.
How much? Rates vary. Price it out at Disneycruise.disney.go.com.
For haoles (off-islanders): Hawaii
Where: It takes lots of saving and planning to fly to the Aloha state, but two summers later our kids are still talking about our summer birthday trip to the Big Island as if it were yesterday.
What: We stayed at the Waikaloa Hilton, a huge three-hotel resort with a ferry through the middle, two pool areas, tons of restaurants and a water-sports lagoon where we spent a 10-hour day snorkeling, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and pedal-boating. Off-site, the island of Hawaii, the state’s largest, is a veritable wonderland of activities — we took surfing lessons and a submarine ride, visited the active volcano, toured a coffee plantation, hiked a waterfall, attended a luau, learned to play the ukulele and ate a ton.
Birthday wow! Our special day was surfing day, so that was the wow factor. We met families who planned their luau to coincide with their birthday dinner. Depending on what resort you stay at, the concierge can arrange just about any treat or activity you desire.
How much? This is an expensive trip, no doubt about it, no matter where you stay. We cut costs by using airline points (which segmented our flight into three legs — one too many, frankly) and my husband’s hotel guest rewards. We also got an affordable deal by sitting through the resort's two-hour time-share presentation. Look into options like these as well as at rental units if resort fees are too prohibitive.
For outdoorsy types: Stowe, VT
Where: A classic New England year-round mountain getaway, Stowe has all the snow/slope fun you'd need in the winter and adventure/sports experiences for the spring and summer.
What: The cozy town offers restaurants for all palates, and resorts like Smugglers' Cove package the family fun for you. When we went in summer, we stayed at the pet-friendly Stowe Mountain Lodge and scheduled our own fun — biking on the town's dedicated bike path, six trips down the Alpine Slide, a ride up on the sky gondola, a hike on top of Mt. Mansfield, a jaunt to the nearby Ben & Jerry's factory.
Birthday wow: On birthday day, instead of cake we had flan at the (sadly now-closed) Mexican restaurant we went to. Lodging ranges from the all-inclusive resorts to rentable condos, where you can make your own dinners and bake your own cake, so you can spend more on the outdoorsy activities!
How much: Price varies per resort and depending on the time of year you go. Summer's a more affordable option.
Cheryl Krementz is MetroKids' managing editor.