When most people think of the ideal family vacation, Walt Disney World invariably springs to mind, and for good reason: it’s one of the most iconic travel destinations in the world, jam-packed full of thrill rides, educational exhibits, and events catering to children large and small.
But it can also be overwhelming for all involved. On top of the financial strain a Disney vacation can cause for most families, there's also the impulse to soak up its seemingly endless attractions in just a few days. You might even say that you need a vacation from a Disney vacation thanks to the sensory overload you'll surely experience. Not to mention, standing in line for hours on end in the sweltering Florida heat takes its toll.
Thankfully, there are many other cheaper, lower-key alternatives to Disney World that offer enjoyable escapes and unique experiences in cities across the United States. Here are six family getaways worth exploring.
For Thrill Ride Seekers
If you’re seeking thrill rides like Disney’s Space Mountain or Big Thunder Railroad, Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, more than fits the bill. It’s called the “roller coaster capital of the world” for good reason.
First opened in 1870, the second oldest park in the U.S. boasts a variety of spine-tingling rides. One of the most noteworthy is the Millennium Force, which borders Lake Erie. Ride-goers experience a grand view of the water as they escalate a staggering 310 foot climb—right before they take a massive dip at a seemingly gravity-defying 80-degree angle. The hair-raising ride is an architectural marvel, covering 13 acres, and at one point set records for being both the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in the world.
But wait, there’s more! Cedar Point offers other thrill rides of note including the Valravn (the tallest, fastest, longest dive coaster in the world) and the Top Thrill Dragster (which broke height and speed records in 2003).
Once you’ve caught your breath, the park’s home base of Sandusky, Ohio, has plenty of other fun activities for the whole family, including The Merry Go Round Museum, which chronicles the history of the carousel ride, and the Sandusky Maritime Museum, which offers a bevy of Great Lakes History.
For Wildlife Enthusiasts
The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, provides an intimate view of sea life with an ethical agenda—it was founded on principles of conservation and education for sharing the world with animals. If you’re looking to expose your children to the wonder of nature and a respect for the environment, look no further.
Whether you’re seeking a tactile experience (Living Seashore), a chance to observe dangerous animals from a safe distance (Shark Alley or Jellies Invasion), or insight into the lives of dolphins (Dolphin Discovery), the Aquarium leaves no stone unturned.
And don’t let the name fool you, this award-winning exhibit examines life beyond the ocean too. A notable example is the Upland Tropical Rainforest, featuring a variety of rare birds, mammals, amphibians and vegetation, while "Australia: Wild Extremes" showcases the fascinating and unique creatures from the land down under.
And once you’re done, there’s even more local treasure to explore in Baltimore, including The Walter’s Art Museum (showcasing art from the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century), The Baltimore Museum of Art (featuring the world's largest collection of Matisse paintings), and the world famous Washington Monument, honoring the first president of the United States.
For Out of This World Fun
If you’re looking for a space-based alternative to Epcot attractions like Mission: Space and Sum of All Thrills (R.I.P.), then Space Center Houston, the official visitor center for NASA, has you covered. It’s the perfect place for any aspiring young astronaut or science buff to learn the history of the Space Race and explore the mysteries of the cosmos.
Space Center is a full-fledged immersive experience, starting with the Starship Gallery, which features real-life spacecraft and artifacts including the Apollo 17 Command Module, the Skylab 1-G trainer, and even an actual moon rock you can touch.
Other highlights include a mockup of the Space Shuttle Independence, the lectern where John F. Kennedy gave his rousing speech regarding the future of space travel, and the interactive exhibit "The Feel of Space." Space Center Houston also offers a variety of day camp and workshop activities for children to learn even more about our achievements beyond the stars.
For those looking to come down to Earth, Houston is a city with a rich diverse landscape, full of many great activities. This includes the NASA-sponsored Space Center Houston and City Sightseeing Tour, the Houston Underground Tunnel Tour, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
It’s worth noting that in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, tourism is a vital and important way to help the city recover, while also being an excellent vacation destination.
For a Trip Back to the Wild West
If you’re seeking fun along the lines of Disney World’s Frontierland, why not visit a form of transportation that existed back in the real Wild West? The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado, is a living testament to that era. Established way back in 1881, it’s a living piece of history that has been featured in several films including Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
The 64-mile train ride crosses a variety of scenic landmarks between New Mexico and Colorado, full of historical tidbits and stops along the way. Passengers can choose from a variety of trips (and trains, all of which provide in-car dining).
Jin Irby-Rogers, a mother of three from Richardson, Texas, explains why Cumbres & Toltec is an ideal destination for her family: “We have been to Disney, with 3 kids, and we had a good time, even my husband. But there is something about a less stressful, less chaotic, beautiful landscape that you might not see otherwise—wildlife running and playing, clean air, cooler temps and eating ice cream while you wander through town...not to mention it’s a whole lot cheaper!”
Speaking of those attractions, here’s a sampling of destinations you can stop by during train trips: Southern Colorado stops include the Mesa Verdes and Great Sand Dunes National Parks and Fort Garland Museum. Some Northern New Mexico highlights include El Lado Lake State Park and the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm.
Irby-Rogers swears by staying at the Elkhorn Resort in Avon, Colorado, for a wonderful back to nature experience, complete with a nearby flowing river, nature trails, and hummingbird feeders ("you could stand by [the feeders] and have hummingbirds flying right past you," she says).
The railroad offers a truly immersive and expansive experience, as stated in their mission statement: “Come for a day, stay for a month.”
For Film, TV, and Music Buffs
If attractions along the lines of Disney’s Hollywood Studios are more your speed, then a trip to the Pacific Northwest is in order.
The youngest exhibit on our list (founded in 2000), Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture is “dedicated to the history and exploration of popular music, science fiction, and pop culture.” It’s a fully immersive celebration of the creative process in mainstream entertainment, covering the history of rock and roll, pivotal moments in genre filmmaking, the evolution of video games, and much more.
Current exhibits of note include the expansive Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame Exhibition, Guitar Galaxy: Quest for Volume, and niche galleries for Star Trek, David Bowie, and Jim Henson.
The pop culture mecca is also dedicated to encouraging childhood imagination, offering a variety of creative workshops for kids with a focus on the arts.
And while you’re visiting the largest city in Washington state, why not take in all it has to offer? A stop at the Space Needle landmark is a must, offering a panoramic view of the city, while Puget Sound has ample choices for sailing, viewing sea life, and more. And don’t forget a stop at Pike Place Market, one of the oldest (and most esteemed) farmers markets in North America.
For Florida Fun Beyond Walt Disney World
Even if you’re looking for an alternative to Disney World, there’s no reason to rule out a trip to Florida. And if you’re determined to sidestep Orlando, Destin might be the paradise you seek, especially if you’re craving some fun in the sun.
The town’s beautiful white sand beaches and clear emerald green water makes it one of the most beloved, yet affordable, vacation destinations on the East Coast. And Henderson Beach State Park is the crown jewel of the tourist haven.
For a small entrance fee, your family can visit one of the most scenic spots in coastal Florida. The park is kept in pristine condition and hosts a variety of activities, including hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, and, of course, swimming! Not to mention camping amenities and a playground for small children.
Courtney Todd, a budget-conscious mother from Austin, Texas, says she loves Destin because “the beautiful water and sand reminds me of Mexico and South American beaches without the hassles of international travel.” She particularly noted that she and her family enjoyed and partaking in parasailing and viewing live alligators while dining at Fudpucker's Beachside Bar & Grill.
Destin caters to tourists with a variety of other attractions, including a boardwalk, dolphin sightings, and incredible seafood (as well as the delectable European grub at McGuire’s Irish Pub).
As is always the case when planning your vacation, it pays to do your research to create the ideal getaway. We hope these suggestions provide the inspiration for some truly memorable and enlightening adventures for the whole family. Just remember that sometimes an off-the-beaten-path destination may become the vacation spot of your dreams.