5 Unforgettable Family Vacations

by Sascha Zuger

5 Unforgettable Family Vacations

Here’s how to get the insider perks on trips to Busch Gardens, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and more

Ever wonder what was so special about that seemingly ordinary kid dancing onstage at the “Festival of the Lion King” show? Or the one on the float in the Sesame Place parade? Simple. They’re the children of VIPs: Very Informed Parents. Here’s the low-down on how to rock your next getaway with extra experiences that make a big impact.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, FL

Why go: 1,500 animals from 250 species. And some give autographs. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the largest critter-based theme park in the world, with something for everyone, like camp Minnie-Mickey for the tykes and Dinoland USA for the elementary set. You’ll find Broadway-worthy musicals and a daily parade, too.

Snag this bonus: Leading the audience in making animal calls or dancing onstage at the “Festival of the Lion King” show. Get there at least 15 minutes early and sit on one of the front four floor benches. Four leaders are chosen to help their quarter of the theater show “wild” enthusiasm at key moments in the show. Or choose aisle seats on the floor: An additional 20 or so young children are selected from those seats to circle dancers on stilts and play African hand instruments during the finale. You won’t get picked if you’re in the upper seats, as performers don’t want to lead kids up and down stairs in the dark.

More info: steady walkers and up; bonus free with admission; 407-939-7675,

Sesame Place, Langhorne, PA

Why go: If you have a toddler or a preschooler, this place is hard to top. The manageable theme park features mesmerizing shows, a massive climbing play structure, water attractions, and mini-rides built with the littlest daredevils in mind. The parade is always the highlight as it bebops down the main drag with dancers and music — and fur — galore.

Snag this bonus: Your child, sitting pretty in a float. Two daily parades offer the downplayed opportunity for kids to ride on floats or walk alongside the professional dancers and characters. Check for locations for the first-come, first-served sign-up. If the first parade’s quota of participants is filled, ask when to come back for a chance at the second.

And this one, too: Hobnobbing with the furry red guy himself, onstage in “Elmo’s World Live.” Arrive for the show at least 20 minutes early, sit close to the stage, and your youngster could be picked to dance along with Dorothy and don an adorable biblike getup onstage with Elmo later in the show, a la Sesame Street‘s Elmo’s World segment. A mom with a baby is also chosen, normally from the front left, to act in the signature baby slot.

More info: all ages; bonuses free with admission;

Busch Gardens, Tampa, FL

Why go: A three-story jungle play area of mazes, ropes, and crawl tubes, where kids can soar above the treetops on a zipline. Oh, and orangutans! colorful villages, coasters, and a far-away vibe make this African-themed destination stand out.

Snag this bonus: A tug-of-war with a Bengal tiger, offered once a day. As soon as you get there, head to the Jungala area, where a sign is posted listing the time to show up later that day if your child wants to give it a go. Getting picked is based on luck, but it’s worth planning if you’ve got a daring type on your hands. And in case you’re wondering, there are two screens and a trainer in between the kid and the tiger. Tug-of-war is a natural behavior for tigers — so beast and kid dig it.

More info: 7 to 12; bonus free with admission;

Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Lake Buena Vista, FL

Why go: This movie-themed park is well known for having lots of rides, shows, and attractions that appeal to older kids, but it has dazzling new attractions for the younger set, too. We’re talking an interactive Toy Story ride and live shows featuring Playhouse Disney, Beauty and the Beast, and Voyage of the Little Mermaid. Guests of any Disney resort take over the park for Extra magic Hours, with fewer crowds.

Snag this bonus: The best character face time in all the Disney parks. Most people say there’s nothing for the little ones at Hollywood Studios during the evening Extra Magic Hours. We say: Hit the little-known interactive dance party of the century at the Animation courtyard. Little Einsteins, Pooh and Friends, and the classic Disney characters jam with a kid-friendly DJ, clouds full of bubbles, lasers and mist, limbo poles, and several balloon-animal artists for a rocking good time. “The long lines to wait for character encounters were not flying with my just-under-three-year-old daughter,” says Kristen Berger of New York city. “The dance party let mika boogie down one-on-one with Pooh Bear and get post-conga-line hugs from minnie. It was like this great hidden secret. She still talks about it.”

More info: all ages; bonus free with admission and stay at any Disney resort; 407-939-7675,

Grant’s Farm, St. Louis

Why go: This Anheuser-Busch-run historical property is an under-the-radar gem. You’ll find Ulysses S. Grant’s hand-built cabin, animals to pet, an exotic-bird show, a tram ride through a 280-acre wildlife preserve, the famous Clydesdales, a museum of antique carriages and wagons, and the Tier Garten, where you can catch a breather in a picturesque setting. Incredibly, admission and all of that is free. Even more incredibly, so is beer. Yes, free suds!

Snag this bonus: Close encounters of the pachyderm kind. Many assume the handful of folks with access to the elephants must be friends of the owners to have such a privilege. Not so. A small fee covers a tour of the elephants’ lodging, a funny demonstration of their massive anatomy, and one-on-one time when little hands can feed big trunks carrots or hold a bucketful of peanuts as the majestic creatures do their best hover impression, à la Dumbo. “Strangers smile when Elyse, who’s two, tells them she gave her carrot to the elephant,” says Cassie Guillespie of Belleville, IL. “She loved the tickle of the trunk as it plucked food right from her hand. They have become her new favorite animal — best five dollars I ever spent.”

More info: 2 and up; bonus costs $5; 314-843-1700,