9 Fresh Summer Vacation Ideas for Families

From the Great Outdoors to the greatest theme parks in America, here are this year’s best summer vacation ideas for families.
Family splashing on dock (Photo: Shutterstock)
Photo: Shutterstock

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.

Summer Vacation Ideas for 2021

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. 

Hershey, Pennsylvania

Animal encounter at ZooAmerica (Photo: Hershey, PA)
Animal encounter at ZooAmerica (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. 

BUDGET-FRIENDLY TRIPS: 10 Cheap Family Vacations That Are Actually Super Fun

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

EXPLORE MORE: 20 Best Family Vacation Spots in the U.S.

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.

San Diego, California

Shipwreck Rapids at Seaword San Diego (Photo: SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment)
Shipwreck Rapids at Seaword San Diego (Photo: SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment)

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 Dive, 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.

CALIFORNIA FUN: 13 Great Pismo Beach Outdoor Activities for Families

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. 

Nassau, Bahamas

Aerial view of Baha Mar Resort in Nassau, Bahamas (Photo: Baha Mar Resort)
Aerial view of Baha Mar Resort in Nassau, Bahamas (Photo: Baha Mar Resort)

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. 

ALL-INCLUSIVE VACATIONS: 8 Amazing Bahamas All-Inclusive Resorts

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

Branson, Missouri

Wooden roller coaster at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri (Photo: Silver Dollar City)
Outlaw run at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri (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 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.

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.

GET OUTDOORS: The Best Outdoor Activities and Things to Do Near Branson, Missouri

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

Children on a beach in the Florida Panhandle (Photo: Visit South Walton)
Children on a beach in the Florida Panhandle (Photo: Visit South Walton)

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. 

FLORIDA FUN: 10 Dreamy Florida Beach Resorts That Are Perfect for Families

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 the hotel’s on-site restaurants.  

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Aerial view of theme parks and mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (Photo: Pigeon Forge Tourism Bureau)
Aerial view of theme parks and mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (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 (which does not require advanced reservations) 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.

KID-FRIENDLY HOTELS: 15 Best Family Resorts in the U.S.

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 four-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

Mom walking across a bridge on the ropes course at Utah Olympic Park (Photo: Park City Chamber)
Mom walking across a bridge on the ropes course at Utah Olympic Park (Photo: Park City Chamber)

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 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.

OUTDOOR ADVENTURE: How to Make a National Park Trip Easier and Better This Year

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

JurassicWorld VelociCoaster at Universal Orlando Resort (Photo: Universal)
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, 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. 

ORLANDO MAGIC: The Ultimate Guide to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

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 two-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. 

STAR WARS LAND: The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando

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, Nevada

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

BUYER BEWARE: Resort Fee Scams: How to See the Real Price Up Front

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. 

More from FamilyVacationist:

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.

Family Travel Ideas Delivered to Your Inbox

Love vacations? So do we! Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for ideas, tips, and inspiration.

Thank you! You are subscribed.