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Vacation Planning: Spontaneity Is Key

I tend to approach family vacations like a general planning a battle. I marshall resources, circle targets, and muster the troops to follow me no matter how heavy the fighting. But I am slowly learning that my job may be to follow rather than lead. The little things that happen along the way are always more memorable than anything that involves a museum, monument, or long line, even at the most exciting theme park in the world.

Case in point: I spent a solid year planning our family trip to Disney World. I made lists and notes based on books and brochures. I held roundtable meetings at mealtimes to go over my findings (to which the most common response was "Will we be able to get pizza there?").

Thus I was surprised  -- maybe even made a little crabby  -- to find out that my younger son's fondest memory of our trip turned out to be the afternoon the kids and their dad rented bikes at the Port Orleans Resort, where we were staying, and pedaled along an easy and pleasant path to Dixie Landings, the next Disney resort. (I was napping in the room due to exhaustion from following my itinerary.) For a 5-year-old who had just learned to ride his own bike at home, it was a thrill to be able to display his new skill on vacation.

My older son  -- 13 at the time  -- does not cherish memories of Space Mountain. Instead, he remembers the belly dancers who jiggled to our table at the Moroccan restaurant in Epcot's World Showcase. "I had definitely never seen that before," he says with a grin.

Nina Senatore, a specialist in children's developmental issues at Simmons College, believes that those experiences that are most connected with a child developmentally are the ones that make the biggest impression. "Parents think in terms of what will make a great memory, but kids live in the present. They can learn about a culture by having an ice-cream cone while watching a mariachi band in El Paso, or sitting in a cafe in Florence and starting up a conversation with another child."

Moreover, adults think about all the things that make a destination wonderful and want to share them all at once. "But this probably isn't the only time your child will visit. He doesn't need to do everything in a brief trip," points out Senatore.

Hello? I never thought about my children growing up and traveling on their own. My goal was always to pack as much as I could into every family trip because I thought it would be the only time they'd have the opportunity to experience a particular place. Even Senatore admits that she had big expectations when she took her daughter  -- who was 5 at the time  -- to New York City to see the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center and the Rockettes. "I thought it was thrilling, but what she remembers are the street vendors selling chestnuts, which is much more personal," she says.

What I have discovered is that a vacation is not a scene from a movie or a picture from a magazine that comes to life. It's a feeling of peace and pleasure, kind of like the one I get when I look at my younger son sleeping. It's an opportunity to slow down, a time to walk through a park or sit in a cafe a few minutes longer.

I won't stop researching our trips because that satisfies some need I have to know about where I'm going  -- and I love the anticipation. But I'll keep my itinerary folded up in my purse once we get there.

My parents never planned a vacation, yet I have the best memories of those special times we spent together. My dad's goal was simply to get us in the car, back out of the driveway, and head for the horizon. Who knew what we might find? My mother would turn her side of the car into a miniature kitchen, with plates, silverware, and groceries. Sandwiches, carrots, celery, and apples appeared like magic at short intervals to stave off hunger and boredom. My sisters and I used our dolls' suitcases for tables, and then we slid back into our pillows and read, napped, and watched the telephone poles fly by until it was time to get out and look at something we had come a long way to see.

I remember wearing raincoats on Maid of the Mist as we came closer to the spray of Niagara Falls. I remember riding a tandem bike with my dad around Michigan's Mackinac Island and being so proud I made it. But most clear in my memory are the long rides home in the back of our old Plymouth, feeling the wind on my face as I watched the stars race by. I always pretended to be asleep when we pulled into the driveway so my dad would carry me up to my room and I could maintain the illusion that our travels would never end. When my mother tucked me in and turned on the floor fan with the hum that made the bed vibrate, it was as if I were still riding through the night, safe among those who loved me most in the world.

That's the feeling I hope my kids have when they look back on family vacations  -- not that what we did or where we went was breathtakingly beautiful or spectacularly educational or unbelievably exciting, but that we made our way through the world together.

Judith Kirkwood, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, plans vacations from her command post in Madison, WI.

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