9 summer destinations from San Diego to Orlando

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This year, summer will bring more than just warmer temperatures our way. It’s also arriving with a significant increase in COVID-19 vaccinations and a loosening of pandemic-era travel restrictions. For families, that means summer vacation ideas are back on the radar after a year of COVID-safe family road trips, backyard movie nights and other staycation vacations

While the biggest bucket list family vacation ideas may have to remain on the back burner for another year, Americans are rightfully looking beyond our own backyards for summer vacations this year. And boy, have we earned it.

With safety considerations still strongly in mind, the best summer vacations of 2021 offer a little something for everyone in the family – and every budget, too. From the great outdoors to the greatest theme parks in America, here are this year’s best summer vacation ideas for families.

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Hershey, Pennsylvania

The sweetest place in the United States also happens to be within driving distance of many northeast cities. Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania, is home to world-class roller coasters, a water park and Zoo America spread across 121 acres of pure family fun. 

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Here the thrill rides are interspersed with kiddie rides that make it easy to keep the family together all day long, even when you’re traveling with teenagers and little ones at the same time. Another great perk of Hersheypark? All ticket holders are entitled to a sweet preview in which you’re able to visit the park the evening prior to your scheduled visit for several complimentary hours of family fun.

This year, several new dining opportunities – such as Milton’s Ice Cream Parlor – can be found at Chocolatetown, the park’s $150 million expansion honoring the life and legacy of founder Milton S. Hershey. Chocolatetown is also the place to experience Candymonium, Hersheypark’s biggest roller coaster yet. 

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After your sugar and adrenaline rushes, head to the Hershey Lodge, a converted motor lodge with modern upscale vibes, for onsite dining options and chocolate-themed treats. There’s also an indoor water park exclusively for hotel guests, featuring the deliciously named Twizzlers Twists water slides.

San Diego, California

Shipwreck Rapids at SeaWorld San Diego.

California has been one of the most cautious states in the country when it comes to easing COVID restrictions, but just in time for the summer months, the future looks bright for summer vacation ideas in the Golden State.

Thanks to its seemingly endless coastline and kid-friendly attractions, San Diego is a perennial favorite for California family vacations. This year, out-of-state visitors with proof of a fully completed COVID-19 vaccine can visit SeaWorld and ride one of the most anticipated new roller coasters of the summer, Emperor, which will send guests to exhilarating speeds of more than 60 miles per hour on the tallest and fastest floorless dive coaster in the state. SeaWorld San Diego is also the only place in North America where you can see the Emperor penguins whose journey from cliff to sea inspired the coaster’s design.

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The San Diego Zoo is also welcoming visitors to its recently-opened hummingbird exhibit, a state-of-the-art space where guests can interact directly with the buzzing birds. When the day is done, dinner at the historic Bali Hai will have you feeling like you’ve been transported directly to the tropics. 

Why not work a little road trip to Carlsbad into your summer vacation plans as well? There, you can visit the Flower Fields and LegoLand California, then enjoy the relaxing and kid-friendly atmosphere of King’s Fish House for some top-notch local seafood. 

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Nassau, Bahamas

Located on pristine Cable Beach, Baha Mar is an enormous luxury resort that houses oceanfront hotels from SLS, Rosewood and Grand Hyatt, as well as top-notch restaurants and a world-class casino.

A trip to the Bahamas is one of the most popular summer vacation ideas for families pining for a piece of paradise without the hassle of flying with kids that usually goes hand-in-hand with getting to the more far-flung Caribbean beaches.

Located on pristine Cable Beach, Baha Mar is an enormous luxury resort that houses oceanfront hotels from SLS, Rosewood and Grand Hyatt, as well as top-notch restaurants and a world-class casino. And hold into your pina coladas, because opening this summer at the resort is an ultra-luxe beachfront water park called Baha Bay – yet another reason why this could be one of your best summer vacations ever. 

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Located directly adjacent to Baha Mar, Baha Bay will feature more than 20 water slides, a dueling water coaster, a half-a-million-gallon wave pool and a state-of-the-art surf simulator. Food trucks and national chains like Umami Burger and Sugar Factory will provide tasty treats for park goers and adults will never have to sacrifice their tan for lady luck as this property will also house a secluded outdoor gaming pavilion with oceanfront views. 

Fully-vaccinated guests are exempt from COVID-19 testing upon arrival, but are still required to obtain a Bahamas Health Visa. 

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Branson, Missouri

Silver Dollar City's Outlaw Run is the first wooden roller coaster to feature multiple inversions.

With a welcoming atmosphere, popular theme parks and family-friendly live shows, Branson is a town seemingly designed with skip-gen and multigenerational family vacations in mind. One of the top draws is Silver Dollar City, a theme park that embraces down-home charm while offering some serious thrills – including Outlaw Run, the first wooden roller coaster to feature multiple inversions and Time Traveler, billed as the world’s fastest, steepest and tallest spinning coaster. 

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This year, the park’s Star-Spangled Summer celebration brings festive treats and special entertainment, including Grammy award-winning artists and the return of the Harlem Globetrotters. And families can cap off any evening with a dinner cruise on the 1890s-style riverboat showboat Branson Belle or a spin on the Branson Ferris Wheel, which was relocated from Chicago’s Navy Pier.

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Historic Downtown Branson is also home to the Branson Landing, a pedestrian-friendly shopping, dining and entertainment district. For families looking to stay right in the heart of the action, the Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing offers comfortable accommodations walkable to many of the attractions. For a resort feel, the iconic Chateau on the Lake offers sweeping mountain and water views and full-service amenities, like a spa and marina with water activities.

Miramar Beach, Florida

The Florida panhandle offers 200 miles of coastline and Miramar Beach offers some of the best.

If your favorite summer vacation ideas are all about the beach, there’s a lot to look forward to this year in Florida’s panhandle and its roughly 200 miles of stunning coastline.

In a region populated by many of the best beach towns in Florida and home to some of the top Florida all-inclusive resorts, laidback Miramar Beach embodies both a nostalgic beach vibe and modern amenities that make for all the best summer vacations. It’s quieter than nearby party town Panama City Beach, but still packed with plenty of dining options and activities. 

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The Village of Baytowne Wharf in nearby Destin is an all-day stop where you’ll find dining, shopping, recreation, entertainment and nightlife, including Rum Runners, a popular dueling pianos restaurant. Rental condominiums abound for families large and small and most are well within walking distance of all the town has to offer.

The area recently welcomed its first ever luxury hotel, Hotel Effie Sandestin, with a signature rooftop pool that delivers panoramic views from the Gulf of Mexico to the bay. Celebrity chef Hugh Acheson celebrates the local flavors of the Gulf Coast at Ovide,  of the hotel’s on-site restaurant..  

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

An easy drive from many major population centers up and down the East Coast, the mountain town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is both the perfect gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and home to Dolly Parton’s 150-acre theme park mecca, Dollywood.

Set against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge is one of the top summer vacation ideas for families in search of a little Southern hospitality with their family trip. 

An easy drive from many major population centers up and down the East Coast, the mountain town of Pigeon Forge is both the perfect gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which does not require advanced reservations, although its campgrounds do) and home to Dolly Parton’s 150-acre theme park mecca, Dollywood, which house an amusement park, water park and the four-star Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. Kids will love Dollywood’s most recent expansion, Wildwood Grove, while thrill seekers will be seriously impressed by the park’s selection of roller coasters like Lightning Rod, Thunderhead, Mystery Mine and Blazing Fury.

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This summer marks Dollywood’s 36th season and the park’s new multi-sensory Summer Celebration (June 25 to July 31) promises to be a groundbreaking 3D evening light show powered by drones and choreographed to fireworks and music. Another great way to cap off a day in Pigeon Ford is a visit to Dolly Parton’s Stampede, known for its generous 4-course meals and live show in a 35,000-square-foot arena. 

Along Pigeon Forge’s main drag, The Island is a hub of dining, shopping and entertainment. There you’ll find Margaritaville Island Hotel, which combines mountain latitude with island attitude (and a rooftop pool). Parents love the St. Somewhere Spa, while kids can’t get enough of the hotel’s resident parrot, Max, who’s known to sway in time with the lobby music.

Park City, Utah

There's a whole X-Games worth of outdoor activities on offer at Utah Olympic Park.

More than just the winter wonderland made famous around the world by the 2002 Olympics, Park City is a family-friendly year-round destination with outdoor activities for every season. In the summer months, Park City is internationally recognized for its mountain biking trails, including both paved and gravel trails suitable for novices, kids and elite riders. And on the city’s historic downtown Main Street, you can dine at more than 50 restaurants and shop at more than 100 independently-owned boutiques.

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For the ultimate luxury-meets-modern-mountain accommodations, nothing quite compares to the St. Regis Deer Valley. Accessible by one of the last remaining funiculars in the country, this stunning mountain hotel boasts a spacious split-level pool, world-class spa and several on-site restaurants. It’s pet-friendly, too: St. Regis Deer Valley welcomes your four-legged family members and even offers them turndown service.

Orlando, Florida

Inspired by the "Jurassic World" films, Velocicoaster launches thrill-seekers 155 feet in the air into an 80-degree drop, propel them up to 70 mph and twist them into an intense barrel roll right above the Islands of Adventure lagoon.

If you’ve settled on a theme park vacation for your family this summer, you may already have central Florida on the mind. No matter how often you visit, there’s always something new to experience at the best Orlando theme parks. 

At Universal Orlando Resort, thrill seekers are raving about the parks’ newest coaster, the “Jurassic World”-themed VelociCoaster. And for those extra-hot summer days, you can’t do better than a private cabana at Universal’s Volcano Bay, one of the most immersive water parks in Orlando. And the popularity of Universal’s Mardi Gras festival has led to a brand-new summer food offerings found throughout the Universal parks. 

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Pair a Universal Orlando vacation with budget-friendly family accommodations at either of the resort’s two Endless Summer properties, Surfside Inn and Suites and Dockside Inn and Suites, both of which offer 2-bedroom family suites. For the ultimate splurge, your stay just steps from the theme parks at Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando’s Future Rock Star Suite, where the kids’ room comes with its very own red carpet.

Over at Walt Disney World Resort, all eyes are on the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration that kicks off this fall. But there’s plenty of excitement on tap for summer vacations too. The budding foodies in your families can enjoy the 2021 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival that begins July 15. Character interactions may be limited at all the parks, but Disney PhotoPass Service has teamed up with Snapchat for special lenses that will bring your favorite Disney characters – and even Cinderella Castle – to life. 

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One of the best Disney World hotels, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, makes its long-awaited return this summer with newly-renovated “Moana”-inspired rooms. Budget-conscious families will love the amenities at Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Disney Springs, an official Walt Disney World Resort hotel. A short walk from the dining and entertainment district, the hotel features the popular Oasis Aquatic Pool Playground and poolside dining options.

Las Vegas

Vegas is luring back tourists this summer with competitive hotel rates, plenty of open sky and outdoor activities and an abundance of family-friendly attractions so you’ll never be left scrambling to keep the kids entertained. 

Now’s your chance to introduce your aspiring young creatives to Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart, which is best described as part art exhibit, part amusement park and part escape room. You can spend hours at this large-scale interactive installation that encourages you to go down a rabbit hole of secret portals and even slides. It’s located at the AREA15 entertainment district. 

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Away from the Strip, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is just 30 minutes from downtown Las Vegas and provides a welcome pause from the bustling bright lights. The stunning red cliffs house more than 30 miles of hiking trails, including the scenic Calico Hills Trail. 

When you’ve had enough of the scorching heat, Mandalay Bay and its luxe resort pool is the obvious choice for overnight accommodations. Located right on the Strip, the hotel’s water features are the best in town with a man-made sand beach, lazy river and a wave pool. Prepare to be mesmerized by the shark reef, which is widely recognized as one of the best aquariums in the country. 

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FamilyVacationist.com covers family vacation ideas; family travel destinations; all-inclusive resorts; and must-have travel accessories for families of all shapes, sizes and orientations. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.



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