12 Great Summer Vacations in the U.S. for Families

From great theme parks to the Great Outdoors, here are this summer's best vacation ideas.
Family swimming underwater in pool (Photo: Shutterstock)
Family swimming underwater in pool (Photo: Shutterstock)
  • Summer was made for family adventures and the U.S. has so many great summer vacation spots to choose from.
  • My favorite summer family vacation ideas include beach towns, car-free islands, theme parks, and outdoor meccas.

I love a good summer adventure, and I know I’m not alone. Summer vacation means the kids are out of school, the calendar is wide open for family fun, and the best summer vacation spots in the U.S. are welcoming kids and parents with open arms.

There are so many ways to approach deciding where to go, so the first step is to figure out which summer family vacation ideas feel like the right fit for your fam this year-—is this the season for a big family road trip? A national park adventure? Or another tried-and-true family vacation?

Summer Vacation Ideas for Families

From bucket-list family vacation ideas to epic family travel adventures the kids will never forget, here are my top picks for family summer vacation spots in the U.S. that offer a little something for everyone (and fit every budget, too).

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1. San Diego, California

San Diego Zoo
Families love visiting the San Diego Zoo (Photo: Troy Spoelma)

Thanks to its seemingly endless coastline and kid-friendly attractions, San Diego is a perennial favorite for California family vacations. Head to SeaWorld to ride one of the best roller coasters in the country, Emperor Dive, which sends 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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Families love visiting the San Diego Zoo, where you can explore a state-of-the-art hummingbird exhibit and 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 ideas 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. And winter and early spring is prime whale watching season here, so it’s worth joining a tour to see these gentle giants.

Where to Stay for a San Diego Summer Vacation with Kids

If a private beach and the lushly tropic atmosphere of a Polynesian paradise sound like your idea of a summer vacation dream come true, you have to stay at San Diego’s Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa between Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. Restaurants and shops are walking distance away, and you can rent bikes (and beach essentials) from the hotel. Ocean views suites and private balconies round out the experience.

2. Hershey, Pennsylvania

Animal encounter at ZooAmerica (Photo: Hershey, PA)
Hersheypark isn’t the only sweet place to go with kids in Hershey, Pennsylvania (Photo: Hershey, PA)

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!

Several 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 Milton S. Hershey. Chocolatetown is also the place to experience Candymonium, Hersheypark’s biggest roller coaster ever.

Where to Stay on a Summer Vacation to Hershey

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 sweet treats. There’s also an indoor water park exclusively for hotel guests, featuring the deliciously named Twizzlers Twists water slides.

3. Branson, Missouri

Wooden roller coaster at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri (Photo: Silver Dollar City)
In the Midwest, Branson is full of fun summer vacation ideas for families (Photo: Silver Dollar City)

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 in this popular summer vacation spot for families 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, the world’s fastest, steepest, and tallest spinning coaster.

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Every year, the park’s Star-Spangled Summer celebration brings festive treats and special entertainment, including an appearance by 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.

Historic Downtown Branson is also home to the Branson Landing, a pedestrian-friendly shopping, dining, and entertainment district.

Where to Stay on a Branson Summer Vacation

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. 

4. Miramar Beach, Florida

Children on a beach in the Florida Panhandle (Photo: Visit South Walton)
Florida’s Panhandle beaches mix nostalgia and with modern conveniences (Photo: Visit South Walton)

If your favorite summer vacation ideas are all about family beach vacations, 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 a quieter summer vacation spot for families 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.

Where to Stay Near Miramar Beach

The area boasts 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 the hotel’s on-site restaurants.  

5. Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Aerial view of theme parks and mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (Photo: Pigeon Forge Tourism Bureau)
Easy access to Dollywood and the Smoky Mountains makes Pigeon Forge a popular summer getaway destination (Photo: Pigeon Forge Tourism Bureau)

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 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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Every summer, Dollywood celebrates the season with a multi-sensory Summer Celebration featuring 3D evening light shows 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 four-course meals and live show in a 35,000-square-foot arena. 

Where to Stay for Summer Vacation in Pigeon Forge

If Dollywood is the focal point of your summer vacation, you can’t beat Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa for family accommodations. But if you want to branch out, head to Pigeon Forge’s The Island, a hub of dining, shopping, and entertainment. Here 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. 

6. Park City, Utah

Mom walking across a bridge on the ropes course at Utah Olympic Park (Photo: Park City Chamber)
Parents can get in on the action at Utah Olympic Park in Park City (Photo: Park City Chamber)

More than just the winter vacation destination made famous around the world by the 2002 Winter Olympics, Park City is one of the best summer vacation spots in the U.S. because of its family-friendly outdoor activities year-round.

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In the summer months, Park City is internationally recognized for its mountain biking trails, including both paved and gravel trails suitable for the novice to the elite. 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.

Where to Stay in Park City with Kids

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 a pet-friendly hotel, too: St. Regis Deer Valley welcomes your four-legged family members and even offers them turndown service. 

7. Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, Florida

JurassicWorld VelociCoaster at Universal Orlando Resort (Photo: Universal)
Thrill seekers love the JurassicWorld VelociCoaster at Universal Orlando Resort (Photo: Universal)

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 or what time of year, there’s always something new to experience at the best Orlando theme parks, which is what makes Orlando a summer vacation destination that some families come back to year after year.

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At Universal Orlando Resort, thrill seekers are raving about the incredible Jurassic World-themed VelociCoaster. 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. 

Where to Stay Near Universal Studios in Orlando

Pair a Universal Orlando vacation with Universal’s 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 two-bedroom family suites. For the ultimate splurge, 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.

8. Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida

Remy welcomes guests to the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival (Photo: Disney)
The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival takes place every July (Photo: Disney)

There’s plenty of excitement on tap for summer vacations at Walt Disney World Resort. With four major Disney theme parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios), two epic Disney water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach), and the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment district to keep you busy, it’s no wonder summer vacation ideas often start with a trip to Disney even though there are less-crowded times to visit.

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You may come for the age-appropriate Disney rides for little kids (not to mention Disney rides that adults and teenagers will love just as much), but it won’t take long for you to discover the amazing Disney food around the parks, the breathtaking Disney fireworks celebrations, and—for the budding foodies in your family—both the incredible Disney World restaurants and the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival, which takes place every July.

Where to Stay for a Walt Disney World Summer Getaway

One of the best Disney World hotels, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, has 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. For bigger families, there are even a number of onsite Disney hotels that cater to families of five or more. And for water-loving families, there are more than a dozen fantastic Orlando hotels with water parks, water slides, and lazy rivers close to the theme parks.

9. Las Vegas, Nevada

Night view of family friendly attractions in Las Vegas
Vegas is surprisingly full of summer vacation ideas for kids (Photo: @chara_stagram_ via Twenty20)

If you don’t immediately think of Las Vegas as one of the best summer vacation spots for families, you may not have been paying attention to how Vegas has reshaped its image to welcome kids and parents. And Vegas is luring 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. 

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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. 

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. 

Where to Stay for a Summer Vacation in Las Vegas

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. 

10. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho

Yellowstone's Old Faithful at sunset (Photo: NPS)
Yellowstone National Park has been one of the top summer vacation spots in the U.S. for more than a century (Photo: NPS)

With natural attractions like Old Faithful Geyser, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River, Yellowstone Lake, Grand Prismatic Spring, and abundant wildlife viewing, Yellowstone National Park has been one of the top summer vacation spots in the U.S. for more than a century. It also consistently ranks as one of the best national parks to visit in summer (and yes there are plenty of ways to avoid the big crowds).

The park covers 3,500 acres of wilderness across mostly Wyoming, but also parts of Montana and Idaho. Families will find a variety of ways to appreciate the great outdoors, including thermal basin exploration, rafting, hiking, fishing, boating, and so much more.

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Keep your binoculars handy, as driving through the park can also provide a front row seat to a variety of wildlife, including bison, bears, elk, wolves, moose, eagles, and red foxes. Kids four years and older can take part in the Yellowstone’s Junior Ranger program, an educational way to learn about the park’s natural wonders, such as the hot springs. A variety of eateries from restaurants to ice cream shops, along with 52 picnic areas, provide plenty of places to enjoy a meal or a snack.

Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park

With an abundance of national park lodges, national park campgrounds, and more than 300 backcountry campsites, Yellowstone invites families to take their time exploring all it has to offer on summer vacation. For the classic experience, book early and reserve a spot at the turn-of-the-century Old Faithful Inn, which embodies the iconic log-style “Parkitecture” of America’s best lodges.

11. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park Resort
This kid-friendly summer vacation spot features 20 indoor and outdoor waterparks (Photo: Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park Resort)

Want to make a big splash with the family this summer? Look no further than the popular Midwest family vacation destination (and Waterpark Capital of the World), Wisconsin Dells. This kid-friendly summer vacation spot features 20 indoor and outdoor waterparks, including the nation’s largest waterpark, Noah’s Ark Waterpark, offering more than 50 slides across 70 acres; Wilderness Resort, featuring four indoor and four outdoor waterparks; and Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park, providing five roller coasters, a surf pool, seven go-kart tracks, and more.

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The fun doesn’t stop at the waterslides, as there are plenty of things to do on dry land. Take a stroll through downtown to visit local shops, eateries, arcades, a bowling alley, Dell’s Mining Co, and even a Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum. In the surrounding areas, you can get an up-close look at the animal kingdom at Timbavati Wildlife Park; explore a wonderland of curiosities, including the world’s largest indoor carousel, at the House on the Rock; or step into the fascinating world of the big top at Circus World Baraboo.

Where to Stay in Wisconsin Dells

You can’t visit the Waterpark Capital of the World and not stay at a water park resort. There’s really no wrong choice for family accommodations in Wisconsin Dells, but if you want to go all-in for your summer vacation, book your stay at the Wilderness Resort, one of the largest water park resorts in the country. In addition to its four indoor and outdoor water parks, you’ll enjoy a black light mini-golf course, zip lining, laser tag, and go-karts.

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If your family is already a fan of Great Wolf lodge water parks, you could also consider the affordable Great Wolf Lodge Wisconsin Dells, which pioneered the all-under-one-roof family resort concept and ranks as one of the best Great Wolf Lodge locations in the country.

12. Mackinac Island, Michigan

horse and carriage, bikes, and Victorian house on Mackinac Island in summer
There are plenty of great ways to get around on the car-free Mackinac Island (Photo: Courtesy of Pure Michigan)

It’s a truly special summer moment when you and your kids step onto Michigan’s Mackinac Island for the first time. Hop the ferry and then get into the slower groove of this car-free idyll with a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Throughout your time on the island, roll, walk, or bike past Victorian houses and stately old hotels, stopping to take in the vibrant blue waters of Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac.

While you’re on Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”), there are some things you must do, including making the trip out to Arch Rock, a massive limestone arch that frames Lake Huron. Hike, take a horse-drawn taxi, or join a tour to get there. Another Mackinac must: sampling your way through the island’s unusually high concentration of homemade fudge. Known as the fudge capital of the world, the island has more than a dozen fudge shops (and how will you know which to bring home if you don’t try them all?).

There’s so much else to do here: rent kayaks, play mini-golf, linger in the island’s cute shops including some lovely bookstores. If you’re there at the right time, you might get to join in annual celebrations like June’s Lilac Festival and August’s Fudge Festival.

Where to Stay in Mackinac Island

By far the most famous place to stay on the island is the Grand Hotel, a stately hotel where guests dress for dinner and the massive front porch just beckons you to grab a drink and rock the afternoon away with a good book.

But the Grand Hotel isn’t the only game in town, which is good because it books up quickly and can be pricey to boot. For more great stays, try the dog-friendly Mission Point Resort or the cute-as-a-button (and family friendly, with connecting rooms) Main Street Inn and Suites.

Bonus Summer Vacation Spot: Nassau, Bahamas

Aerial view of Baha Mar Resort in Nassau, Bahamas (Photo: Baha Mar Resort)
Baha Mar is an enormous luxury resort that houses oceanfront hotels from SLS, Rosewood, and Grand Hyatt (Photo: Baha Mar Resort)

Sure, it’s not really part of the U.S., but the Bahamas is one of the most popular and convenient summer vacation ideas for families pining for a piece of paradise without the hassle that usually goes hand-in-hand with getting to the more far-flung Caribbean beaches (or flying with kids on flights that require multiple connections).

Where to Stay on a Summer Vacation in the 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. And hold into your pina coladas, because the kids are going to love the ultra-luxe beachfront water park Baha Bay—yet another reason why this could be one of your best summer vacations ever.

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Directly adjacent to Baha Mar, Baha Bay features 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 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. 

Or for something where the price is fixed and everything is included, consider one of the many Bahamas all-inclusive resorts, many of which cater to families.

Even More Summer Vacation Ideas

Do none of these ideas feel quite right? Here’s some more inspiration from the editors at FamilyVacationist (real humans who love to travel with their families):

  • Dude Ranches: Adventurous families (and especially if you’re trying to figure out something fun for a big family group) have great options at the many dude ranches around the U.S. (and Canada too). There are concentrations of dude ranches in states including Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. There’s horseback riding, sure, but depending on what dude ranch you choose, you might also find hiking, Ropes courses, spa treatments, and plenty more outdoor activities.
  • National Parks: We’ve included a few national parks in our ideas above, but really, you can’t go wrong with any national park (or state park, for that matter). Coast to coast, standout national parks that aren’t quite as crowded include Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Olympic National Park. And don’t forget that if you have a fourth grader, they can get you into national parks for free!.
  • Head for the Coast: What coast is closest to you? Whether it’s a ocean or a lake, there’s something so summer about sitting at the water’s edge. South Carolina’s Lowcountry, North Carolina’s white sand beaches, the tide pools of Northern California, the lighthouses of Cape Cod or Door County … the options are endless and the inspiration is everywhere.

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Carly Caramanna
Carly Caramanna has a passion for covering the latest in unique food, travel, and theme park trends. Growing up in the carb-filled land of bagels and pizza by the slice (aka New Jersey), her parents instilled a love of all things adventure, food, and Walt Disney World. After attending NYU, she's spent her career in New York City and Nashville. An expert on all things wining and dining at theme parks, she contributes to Mashed, Business Insider, Parents Magazine, and FamilyVacationist.