“Pack a lot of patience.”
Countless vacationing moms and dads can testify to this dry but sage warning from AAA auto travel counselor Susan Meek. Road trips with the kids can be brutal on even the most saintly of parents: long hours in the car, scrapping siblings at war for space, the inevitable off-key sing-along. It all can be a trial, true. But it’s also a quintessential part of the American family experience, and lucky for parents, Meeks’ words of gentle caution come with a practical tip to make things go smoother this summer.
“Don’t try to cram everything into one or two days,” she advises. Advance planning and ample time allow for less rushing and more opportunities for snack breaks and rest for cranky children.
Chuck Mai, vice president for Public Affairs for AAA Oklahoma, has a go-to list of six “P”s for family road travel, one of which is “pamper your kids.” Making the road trip interactive for the children will ensure that everyone in the car has fun not only at the destination, but on the way there as well.
“If your children are the right ages, assign duties such as navigator and entertainment chief,” he says. “Extra maps come in handy for kids to chart your progress.”
Pampering ties into another vital “P” on Mai’s list: prepare. In addition to making sure your vehicle is up to the drive, packing those few extras for the children will turn your road trip into smooth sailing.
“Bring pillows, blankets, special toys, CD or DVD players, books, sunglasses and your imagination to dream up fun family games,” he advises, “like ‘I Spy’ and the ‘License Plate Game.’ Visit the library and check out old-time radio shows, such as Dragnet and Gunsmoke.”
But is summer vacation all about the kids? Adults often look forward to their own fun and relaxation, which can be hard to manage with the whole family along for the ride. Again, the travel-savvy Meek has some good suggestions. Some hotels have information about local babysitting services, allowing parents to sneak away for some grown-up time. Even better, she suggests, is if there’s a family member in the area, why not let the kids spend time with their grandparents or another loved one? “Your kids will get to build a lot of wonderful memories,” she says, “and you get some time to yourself.”
For parents looking to make memorable trips for the kids – and also for one another – there are plenty of destinations with something for everyone within a day’s drive of Oklahoma. Sometimes, you don’t have to go very far to get away:
Davis and Sulphur, Okla.
For families eager to escape the juggernauts of their daily routines, there are few more relaxing and scenic getaways in Oklahoma than along Highway 7 east of Interstate 35. Sulphur is home to the Chickasaw National Recreational Area, which for more than a century has lured eager tourists with its mineral and freshwater springs, green forests and cool creeks.
A U.S. national park, the area is famous for its geologic formations and plentiful wildlife. In the heat of the Oklahoma summer, it’s the perfect location for a shady hike with the kids, and swimming, canoeing, fishing and boating on the Lake of the Arbuckles are favorites with many families.
For a walk on the wild side, in nearby Davis lurk the beasts of Arbuckle Wilderness, Oklahoma’s 400-acre exotic animal theme park. And when the kids are worn out and it’s time for parents to sneak away, they won’t have to go far for a picnic-for-two at Turner Falls, Oklahoma’s highest waterfall.
A fabled destination for families all over the country, Branson is the be-all and end-all for those who like their vacations with a bit of spectacle and style. The whammy of all attractions in the area is the famous Silver Dollar City, Branson’s theme park dedicated to the surrounding Ozark Mountains.
History buffs in the family will enjoy the historic homesteads, practicing craftsmen or touring the park’s centerpiece, Marvel Cave, by lantern light, while kids will be fans of the roller coasters and play areas.
But Silver Dollar City is not the only star of the Branson scene. The city’s countless theaters offer live shows almost every night. For families who are stout of heart, the area offers multiple zipline services for a high-speed tour of the tree canopy, or hot-air balloon rides for a breathtaking tour of the Ozarks. There are plenty of options for just the grown-ups, as well.
Local wineries offer everything from tastings and tours to murder mystery dinners, or, for the ultimate chic getaway, parents can take a dinner cruise on a luxury yacht across Lake Taneycomo. With its combination of natural wonders and big-city entertainment, Branson is the perfect destination for those families who are a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.
Eureka Springs, Ark.
If you love the serenity of the Ozark Mountains without the glitter and splash of Branson, this town is the perfect happy medium. Although at first glance Eureka Springs may seem quaint, don’t be fooled – this mountain getaway has modern sensibilities, and is home to everything from writers’ colonies to motorcycle rallies. But while the city may not have the overt glamour of its neighbor to the north, Eureka Springs never lacks for sophistication.
The town is home to endless shops and some of the most famous hotels in the region, including the Crescent, which has crowned a nearby peak above the city since 1886. If this hotel’s luxurious accommodations and precarious mountain perch remind you of The Shining, there’s a reason: It’s rumored to be haunted, and kids and adults alike who love scares will be fans of the hotel’s year-round ghost tours.
For the explorers in the family, Onyx Cave Park lies about 10 miles from Eureka Springs. Only a few miles farther is Cosmic Cavern, where kids can pan for gemstones or take in the mystery of “bottomless” underground lakes. When the time comes for parents to relax on their own, they can take in a drink overlooking the town at the Balcony Bar and Restaurant or get a massage at the Serenity Spa, both located in Eureka Springs’ historic Basin Park Hotel. And for parents who like to snuggle when spooked, that same hotel offers haunted honeymoon packages of its own.
As much as Oklahoma fans hate to admit it, Texas is home to a lot of fun. For those who already have taken in the sights and nights of Dallas, a whole different scene has a home in nearby Grapevine. Like its metropolitan neighbor, Grapevine is home to top-notch food, wine and shopping for the grownups. But for the whole family, fun doesn’t get more all-inclusive than Great Wolf Lodge.
What sounds like an exotic hunting getaway is actually a massive indoor water park, complete with slides, forts, towers, ponds, cannons, creeks and more – a million gallons of water more. The park is only available to guests of the lodge, which makes the experience less crowded than a trip to nearby Six Flags, but with just as much adventure.
For teenagers who aren’t too keen on water activities, there’s gr8_space, an area for teens to surf the web, play video games, listen to music or sing karaoke. Separate spas are available for adults and children, and some suites even feature built-in “cabins” or “caves” for the kids – and for parents who need to unwind in some privacy.
Far from the indoor waters of Great Wolf Lodge are the calmer currents of the Illinois River, which flows through Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma. This scenic waterway is one of the most popular spots in the state for camping, canoeing, kayaking or simply renting a raft for the family and floating downriver. Just south of the town sits Lake Tenkiller, where scuba diving, fishing and boating are popular activities.
But there’s more to Tahlequah than its water sports. The city also is the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and is rich with the history and culture of the tribe. The recently opened Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum will offer history fans a glimpse into the tribe’s early days in Oklahoma; for an even older look at the tribe’s culture, visit the Cherokee Heritage Center, which includes a re-creation of a Cherokee village as it would have looked before Europeans settled in the United States.
When the kids have had their fill of culture and canoes, take them to eat at Sam & Ella’s Chicken Palace – which actually is most famous for its pizza. Parents needing recreation time of their own can choose from the area’s scenic golf courses or butter up Lady Luck at one of the local casinos.
Santa Fe, N.M.
One day’s drive from Oklahoma City is an entirely different kind of Old West – Santa Fe. This unique city is home to remnants of times past, from ancient Native American artifacts to the churches of the Spanish Colonial era. Kids can learn about everything from Santa Fe’s fascinating history and arts to science and nature at the recently expanded Santa Fe Children’s Museum, while adults can shop at some of the city’s world-famous summer arts markets.
While skiing season doesn’t begin until the fall, there are still plenty of outdoor activities for the taking in the area, from hiking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to white-water rafting on the legendary Rio Grande. After the kids’ bedtime, parents will be unable to resist an evening on the town for a taste of Santa Fe’s nightlife. Enjoy everything from flamenco to blues at some of the city’s popular clubs, or a sophisticated dinner in a historic restaurant. During the summer, many bars offer cocktails under the stars, leaving little wonder why New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment.
Wichita Mountains, Okla.
Oklahoma may only have been a state for a little more than a century, but the Wichita Mountains set up shop here some 500 million years before the Land Run. This ancient range is home to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 60,000-acre park containing such species as bison, elk and Texas longhorn cattle. Picnicking, rock-climbing and camping are favorite activities at the park, and the view from Mount Scott – almost 2,500 feet above sea level – is unbeatable in the state.
Next, take in a bit of R&R in nearby Medicine Park, just south of Lake Lawtonka. This scenic resort town, with its cobblestone architecture, offers ample opportunities for fishing, water skiing or swimming for the entire family. Parents can enjoy a drink on the creek-side patio at the Park Tavern or jaunt down to historic Fort Sill for a lesson in military history. Before leaving the area, don’t forget to visit the Meers Store and Restaurant. This last remnant of an Oklahoma boomtown still offers the most famous hamburgers in the state.
Without a doubt, one of the region’s most popular vacation destinations is Oklahoma’s very own capital. Situated at the crossroads of the nation, Oklahoma City is a mix of cultures and eras, home to everything from the world’s largest stocker and feeder cattle market to luxury hotels and shopping downtown.
Kids and parents alike will have a blast in Oklahoma City’s Adventure District, home to such attractions as the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the Oklahoma City Zoo, which recently celebrated the birth of a baby Asian elephant and unveiled a new, state-of-the-art habitat.
Kids who favor science over nature can find their kicks just a few steps away at Science Museum Oklahoma, with interactive exhibits, planetarium shows and the famous Omnidome Theater.
For parents, Oklahoma City’s not-to-miss attraction is certainly Bricktown. One of the oldest districts in the city, the area is now the ultimate hot spot in OKC. Enjoy elegant fondue at The Melting Pot, followed by drinks at one of the many hip bars in the area and a cruise on the Bricktown Canal. Or, if a more low-key night on the town is your style, take in hot dogs during a Redhawks game at the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, followed by a cold beer upstairs at nearby JJ’s Alley Bricktown Pub.
Far from the flashy streets of New Orleans, yet still steeped in Louisiana culture and history, rests Shreveport. Conveniently located at the three corners of Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, Shreveport is less than one day’s drive from Oklahoma City, and yet is a world apart. Families can cruise down the Red River and Cross Bayou to view Louisiana’s famous history and wildlife, including alligators and blue heron, from the observation deck of the Spirit of the Red riverboat.
Or, for a closer look at the wild side of the Shreveport area, venture 10 miles west to Gators & Friends Alligator Park and Exotic Zoo.
Parents can try their luck at one of the area’s popular casinos, or, for fans of the arts, take in some of the city’s famous offerings with a show from the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra or Metropolitan Ballet. History fans will be charmed with Shreveport’s bounty of historical museums and neighborhoods.
This summer, instead of taking to the skies, Oklahoma families may have just as much fun pulling out the maps.