Got kiddos under the age of five? Then the fall is your friend for family travel. Now that school is back in session, you can visit these family-friendly destinations without the summer crowds, whether you’re aiming for a weekend trip amongst the fall foliage, or a beach town that’s awesome in the offseason. So if you have a toddler or two in tow or preschoolers who still have a relatively open schedule, read on for fun fall family vacation ideas.
For a summer visit to D.C., you better be ready to share it with a whole lot of field trips and tour buses. When school is pack in session, however, it’s easier to get around. For a requisite tour of the Mall, you’ll definitely want to check out our insider’s guide (the Hirshhorn, for instance, hosts a Wednesday or Saturday morning story time, starting in September). For the under-five set, you won’t want to miss the Building Museum. If it’s still hot in October (it’s been known to happen), cool off in the extra large splash fountain at the Yards Park, where the newly developed waterfront has great spots for lunch, too. If it’s already chilly when you visit, tour the U.S. Botanic Gardens and warm up among the tropical plants and flowers.
Insider's tip: All Smithsonian museums are free! That includes the National Zoo!
Find out more: washington.org
There may not be a more magical way to take advantage of a school-free schedule than at a Disney park. At Disneyland, the weather’s just about always lovely, so find out when your school district has its winter or spring breaks—and book your family’s trip before or after to lessen the crowds. You may think it’s a trip to save for when the kids are a little older, but there is plenty for all ages to enjoy—and this may be the stage when the kids are most willing to believe in all the magic. We know how expensive it can be, too, so we have tons of ways to save so you can feel like you’ve made the most of it.
Insider's tip: We rounded up 15 hidden secrets of Disneyland (like where to pick up those baby essentials you may have forgotten at home).
Find out more: disneyland.disney.go.com
One (of many) fantastic things about a high-elevation destination is all that can happen in a day just when it comes to weather. If you need a fleece in the morning during the fall months, you’ll be in a t-shirt by the afternoon thanks to your proximity to that glorious sun. And much of what is wonderful about Boulder in the summer is still accessible to families in the fall, from letting the tots scale the boulders in Arapahoe Ridge Park to a kid-friendly hike by the Flatirons. Football season, of course, is only in the fall and is when downtown Boulder is the stage for Pearl Street Stampedes. The University of Colorado's Golden Buffalo Marching Band performs while cheerleaders dance and the football team tosses out toy footballs from an antique fire truck that leads a parade. Locals and kids alike call this a favorite fall tradition. Check out all of our other favorite mountain towns to explore year round here.
Insider’s tip: If you visit right after school is back in session, you’ll have Boulder Creek more to yourself for warm-weather tubing!
Find out more: bouldercoloradousa.com
Adirondack Park—Northville, NY
When the playgroup asks if you went to the park on your trip Upstate, your tots will be able to say that, yes, in fact, they visited the biggest park in the country. Well, the continental United States, but who’s counting? (If you are counting, however, the park—not to be confused with a state or national park—boasts 6,000,000 acres!). And in the fall, that adds up to a lot of changing leaves. If the kids fell asleep, you won’t even have to get out of the car for one of 14 drives that meander through some seriously epic fall foliage. For other favorite places around the country to see fall colors, check out our list.
Insider's tip: There is wildlife galore to keep an eye out for: moose, fox, river otters, flying squirrels, beavers, skunks and black bears! Did we mention flying squirrels?
Find out more: visitadirondacks.com
Thomas Town at Kennywood Park—Pittsburgh, PA
Yes, it’s true. Thomas Town is the newest attraction at storied Kennywood Park, complete with five rides, a stage show, appearances by other Sodor regulars like Percy, James, Emily and Gordon, as well as play areas galore. Since it just opened this July, eager crowds flocked to make the most of summer vacation, so checking it out in the fall may be a better bet for shorter lines (we know how hard it is for toddlers to wait). In anticipation, download a coloring sheet of the whole town for excited Thomas fans.
Insider's tip: Starting in late August, Kennywood closes on weekdays. But in October, Kennywood is open weekends, 12-4 pm, for Happy Hauntings, so make this a fun weekend trip. Thomas Town, Kiddieland, and select family rides will be open. You’ll also get to partake in kid-friendly Halloween fun like the Hootin’ Holler Hayride and other fall activities.
Find out more: kennywood.com/thomastown
Bethany Beach, DE
If you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, you know summer at the beach can mean big crowds and tons of traffic. But if you wait until fall, the beach can be yours. Even during peak season, Bethany Beach is a lower-key choice than big regional draws like Rehoboth or Virginia Beach. Both the Boardwalk and main drag of Garfield Parkway are easy strolls for short-legged travelers, with plenty of souvenir stores still open and places to duck into for French Fries or ice cream. Bethany Beach also decks out its streets for the season, making for a sweet photo-opp with pumpkins and fall decor. And if the wind picks up, just pop into Bethany Beach Books and while away some time in its darling children’s section.
Insider's tip: Tidepool Toys & Games right on the Boardwalk is a great place to grab marked-down beach toys, and they have a well-stocked Thomas the Train table inside to keep toddlers entertained.
Find out more: townofbethanybeach.com
White Sands National Monument, NM
The U.S. is rich in natural wonders, and every single state has amazing national parks to explore. Most will have fewer crowds to contend with when you avoid traveling in the summer months, but that can also put you into some inclement weather depending on when you travel. The southwest is a good bet in the fall to avoid crowds and the highest temps! And instead of miles to hike (which can be a lot to ask of the under-five set), White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico has acres of soft sand dunes! So pack or purchase a sled at the Visitor Center, slather on the sunscreen, and slide on down—again and again, as your tot is bound to want to do! There are also kid-friendly boardwalks for exploring the dunes without getting sand in your shoes. If you’re looking for family-friendly national parks in another neck of the woods, check out our whole round-up of the best national parks for families.
Insider's tip: Hours do vary depending on the time of year, so check the website before you go.
Find out more: nps.gov/whsa/index.htm
Great Wolf Lodge—Nationwide
You may think your kids need to be mermaids to fully take advantage of an indoor waterpark like Great Wolf Lodge. But rising swimmers and life vest-wearing tots can splash-a-plenty in the areas designed especially with toddlers in mind, like the zero-entry Cub Paw Pool and Fort Mackenzie’s splash pad. With 16 locations currently across the country, from Grapevine, TX to Traverse City, MI, and soon-to-be Scottsdale/Salt River, AZ, there’s likely a lodge near you. The Bloomington location was recently renovated and is the first to offer the new Northwoods Friends Adventure Show (each lodge offers a similar lobby feature that comes to life!).
Good to know: Use the “Explore by Age,” filter on the website and see how much there is for tots “under 52 inches” to do, both in the water and out: you'll find a daily schedule of character appearances by Wiley and the rest of the pack of Great Wolf Kids, morning Yoga Tails, art projects in the Kids Store (where you can also Build a Wolf at the Creation Station), as well as a bedtime story and PJ party. Not to mention Ten Paw Alley for tot-sized bowling.
Insider's Tip: You can start the fun three hours before check-in and keep it up ALL DAY after your 11 a.m. check out. That’s right, the lodge is still yours until closing (or at least until nap time, a perfect time to hit the road with a happily exhausted pack). Talk about a paw-some perk.
Find out more: greatwolf.com
Mount Rainer, WA
New England, while stunning, certainly doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to breathtaking fall foliage. If you check out Mount Rainier in the fall, not only will the summer mountaineering crowds have died down, but there will also be a blanket of reds, yellows, and greens laid out at the base of the mountain. There’s an 800-year-old Douglas fir log to checkout, the Trail of Shadows is recommended for tot trekkers (it’s under a mile), interactive exhibits await at the local visitor centers, and a gondola ride is a must. You’ll marvel at all the incredible views along the way.
Insider's tip: If your littles aren’t quite mountaineers, there is still so much to do thanks to these inspiring itineraries for families, whether you have 10 hours or 48 to explore.
Find out more: visitrainier.com
Check Out a Carnival Cruise
If you’re fancying some fall family fun offshore, it’s a great season to take a cruise. This year, we reported on Carnival’s newest ship, Horizon, which travels from New York to Bermuda and the Caribbean until late-September. If you’re traveling after then, you can take a six-or eight-day cruise to the Caribbean from Miami. Highlights include all the opportunities to rub shoulders with Dr. Seuss favorites, from a themed water park to character appearances at a “Green Eggs and Ham” breakfast to a family retreat at Dr. Seuss Bookville. Find out more with our official onboard review.
Insider's tip: Like everything these days, there’s an app! Download the Carnival app, The Hub, for deck plans, event notifications, and more. There are also tiered Wi-Fi plans to meet your needs for staying connecting—or disconnecting—while at sea.
Find out more: carnival.com
…Or Dream Ahead With Disney
If you’re thinking about next fall for off-season travel, check out Disney Cruise Line’s fall 2019 itinerary lineup. A cruise is a great way to share the magic of Disney with the kids in a space that’s a little more manageable than the theme parks. Cruises will kick off next September on the East Coast from Florida, Texas and from New York ports to Caribbean and Bahaman islands. From the West Coast, you will be able to cruise from California to Baja and the Mexican Riviera or Texas via the Panama Canal. You can also head south from Vancouver to San Diego. Find out more here.
Insider's tip: A perk with most Caribbean or Bahamian cruises is Disney’s Private Island, a beach paradise onshore for cruise guests only, another great way to keep crowds to a minimum.
Find out more: disneycruise.disney.go.com
Indiana Dunes, IN
If you want the beach without big waves or a coastal current, consider a jaunt to Lake Michigan, particularly the Dunes region comprised of Ogden Dunes, Dune Acres, Porter Beach, and Beverly Shores. It’s the perfect spot for picnics, pristine beaches (public as well as private beaches for those who rent a house in one of the beachside towns), and all that wet, sandy good fun that’s usually a crowd-pleaser with kids of all ages. If you’re curious about other under-the-radar beaches to visit, we gathered plenty across the country.
Find out more: indianadunes.com
LEGOLAND Florida Resort—Winter Haven, FL
Whether they’re still loving Duplos or have moved on to a full-on brick storage station, they will absolutely love LEGOLAND, which is a good size for younger brick builders. And everyone should love the more amenable Florida weather in fall or winter months. Theme park planning is overwhelming, we know, so we’ve done all the research for you, with LEGOLAND Florida Resort secrets you probably don’t know, from “tot spots,” which are just like the big kid rides but sized for younger kids, to how autism-friendly the park is. While you have the option to stay onsite at LEGOLAND Hotel, across the road is LEGOLAND Beach Retreat, for that perfect mix of themed fun for the kids and relaxation for the ‘rents. Tot-friendly accommodations include kid-friendly menus (breakfast is included!), floating bricks in the pool, a big play structure, and even toilet seats that convert to a smaller size in the bungalows. If you’re planning to check out other LEGO locations, we have you covered there as well.
Insider’s tip: There’s a free shuttle service to the park, where you also get early admission as guests of the Beach retreat so you can beat the crowds that way too.
Find out more: legoland.com/florida
Lake Tahoe, CA
Tahoe is glorious year-round, from summer dips to winter slopes. But the fall is perfect for fairer-weather travelers. By then, the summer tourists have gone home and you’ve got the trails, towns, and beaches to yourself. The same goes for the kids at places like High Camp’s playground and roller rink and Squaw Valley Adventure Center’s Sky Jump Bungee trampoline (for any kiddo over 20 pounds). If you have little adventurers who also want a little taste of snow, High Camp also has a one-mile loop the whole family can enjoy. Or head to Truckee for indoor fun at the KidZone Museum. And wherever you stay, lake access offers ideal spots for toddlers to play in the soft sand, run through the wave-free water (which is plenty cold in the summer anyway!), and make friends with crawdads
Insider's tip: Sometimes we need a little vacay within the vacay. All About Kids Tahoe is a babysitting service for newborn & up, so if you want to get a date night out of the trip, give them a call.
Find out more: visitinglaketahoe.com
Story Land, NH
For theme park fun, you definitely don’t have to travel to Florida or California. If you’re in New England, Story Land in New Hampshire has everything your young family needs and plenty of fairy tale characters, like Cinderella (she hosts a tea party and story time and will loan you her Pumpkin Coach for a ride), as well as Humpty Dumpty, Duke the Dragon, and new friend Rory the Dinosaur. Not to mention attractions, like a Buccaneer Pirate Ship, specifically designed for the pint-sized.
Insider's tip: Make it a fall weekend at Story Land, which is open every weekend in September as well as Columbus Day Weekend (it closes for the season soon thereafter). If you love it and want to come back again or live in the area, check out Story Land’s Preschool Play Pass just for kids ages three to five. The activation period runs March to June 2019.
Find out more: storylandnh.com
— Jennifer Massoni Pardini