Go beyond the basic pail-and-shovel creation by signing up the whole family for a course at Sand Castle University. Contributed by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism

Spring travel: Family adventure

Where kids can dine with an astronaut, glamp in a teepee and hang their feet over a city skyline

Planning a trip with children can be a challenge. Finding destinations that will interest and engage different ages often requires the resources of an expert travel coordinator. For parents already fretting over spring break and the long summer ahead, we’ve done the legwork and come up with several suggestions sure to captivate the most finicky travelers. Whether the kids are animal lovers, thrill seekers, space enthusiasts, sports fans or grumpy tweens who’d rather not spend a minute more with Mom and Dad, there’s a destination just for them in store.

Kennedy Space Center, Fla. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and despite the passage of time, the thrill of that monumental achievement still captivates American imaginations. Kids who have only learned about the feat in textbooks and grainy videos can now experience the same thrill through new attractions at the Kennedy Space Center ($52-$206; State Road 405. 855-433-4210, www.kennedyspacecenter.com). Leading the list is a revamped Apollo/Saturn V center with interactive exhibits and artifacts, and a Lunar Theater with a 1969-style living room that recreates how many families sat around the television to watch the event as it unfolded. Kids can also sign up for the Astronaut Training Experience that makes them part of a crew in charge of launching, landing and walking on Mars. While on the grounds, visitors can get up close to the Space Shuttle Atlantis, watch 3D films, tour the Rocket Garden and learn about space explorers in the U.S. Astronauts Hall of Fame. With advance reservations, the entire family can dine with a working astronaut and hear about space travel first-hand.

In North Augusta, S.C., the minor league Augusta Green Jackets play at SRP Park, with views of the nearby Savannah River and access to an entertainment complex. Contributed by Augusta Green Jackets
Photo: For the AJC

North Augusta, S.C.

Take the kids back in time to when baseball parks were cozy, and the players were so close you could watch them sweat. That’s the feel at the 4,700-seat SRP Park ($7-$15; 187 Railroad Ave. 803-349-9467, www.milb.com/augusta) where the Augusta Greenjackets, a minor league farm team for the San Francisco Giants, take the field. Just across the Savannah River from downtown Augusta, and situated to take advantage of water views, the park hosts its second year of games from April through September. And there’s more than baseball to keep everyone entertained. The Riverside Villages complex around the stadium features restaurants, a brewery and a new Crowne Plaza hotel, with bike paths planned to connect each element. Last year, the combination of the stadium and the surrounding attractions earned the Ballpark of the Year Award from Ballpark Digest.

Orlando, Fla.

Swimming with dolphins has become the ubiquitous attraction at most seaside resorts. But Orlando’s Discovery Cove ($420-$560, 6000 Discovery Cove Way. 407-513-6500, www.discoverycove.com) takes that experience to a higher level. It begins first with some preplanning: The Cove accepts only 1,300 visitors each day, and those spaces are saved well in advance. It’s also a good idea to sign up for the various animal-related activities when making reservation so you’re assured of a spot. When the day arrives, plan to be at the doors early, around 7 a.m., especially if you opted to feed the stingrays. They’re friendliest at their early-hour breakfast, swishing up next to waders offering tasty tidbits. Snorkel through the man-made coral reef, where the giant sharks are segregated behind a glass viewing wall. Don an oxygen-infused helmet and walk on the bottom of the reef for a unique perspective. And yes, swim with the dolphins. As an added bonus, experts will talk about the care, treatment and importance of each sea creature in their charge. With that in mind, visitors bring nothing but themselves onto the property. Breakfast, lunch, beer and wine for the adults, snacks, towels, wet suits, even eco-friendly sunscreen are included with admission. In between adventures, float along the lazy river through an exotic bird sanctuary, splash around in one of several pools or build sand castles on one of the pristine beaches. You may start out early, but you won’t want to miss a minute before the doors are locked at 5:30 p.m.

Gulf Shores, Ala.

The littlest tykes may be happy with a pail and a shovel, but for older kids who need more of a challenge, enroll them in a session at Sand Castle University ($120-$300, 251-600-9771, www.sandcastleu.com). Building experts will come to your blanket and beach chairs to teach the finer points of creating a memorable beach structure in one- or two-hour sessions. No experience or special equipment is required. Reservations include special tools and a time-lapse video that shows each project from start to finish. Classes are offered in groups as large as 20, making them ideal for a family activity. In addition, the university’s sand experts will create custom designs to mark a birthday, graduation or other milestone.

LaGrange

Can’t wait for summer and the chance to cool off at a water park? With the opening last May of Great Wolf Lodge ($180-$520, 50 Tom Hall Parkway. 844-473-9653, www.greatwolf.com), about 70 miles south of Atlanta, it’s summer all year round. The big draw: an almost 100,000-square-foot indoor water park with giant slides, water forts, a lazy river, pools and an adults-only hot springs oasis. Beyond the water, kids can work on art projects, join a jamboree, listen to stories, visit the arcade, bowl on kid-sized lanes, pan for gold, conquer a ropes course and rock climb. There’s even a flip flop workshop that helps kids get creative and design their own footwear. A variety of dining options are on site, as are a range of overnight accommodations in rooms and suites designed with rustic cabin accents and spacious enough to hold up to a dozen guests. Note: Access to the park is only available to lodge guests.

Myrtle Beach, S.C., offers a wealth of family-friendly adventures, including hands-on activities at Broadway at the Beach. Contributed by DiscoverSouthCarolina.com
Photo: For the AJC

Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Sure, this city by the sea is noted for its beaches and water sports, but just a few blocks beyond the shore is a world of entertainment to keep families amused. Start with a view of the entire town from atop the Sky Wheel ($14-$50. 1110 N. Ocean Blvd. 843-839-9200, www.skywheel.com), with gondolas big enough to accommodate entire groups riding together. Let the too-young-to-drive set get behind the wheel of a go kart or a bumper car at the Broadway Grand Prix ($35-$53, 1820 21st Ave. N. 843-839-4080, www.broadwaygrandprix.com), where little ones can hop on a carousel, spinning teacups and other fast but not furious rides. Mini golf, an arcade and a rock-climbing wall are also on the grounds. Broadway at the Beach (Admission costs vary. 1325 Celebrity Circle. 843-444-3200, www.broadwayatthebeach.com) is another entertainment complex that caters to all ages. Try to escape the mirror and laser mazes, splash through the interactive fountain and get drenched in the water park’s wave pool, 22 slides and lazy river. Dry off and head to Dinosaurs the Exhibition, where animatronic T-Rexes and Triceratops rule the land. See how many celebrities you can identify at the Hollywood Wax Museum, a building that’s identifiable as the one with the ape scaling the outside wall. Ripley’s Aquarium is home to a shark tank, discovery center and daily dive shows. And don’t miss a mind-boggling tour of WonderWorks, an upside-down house on the outside filled with hands-on exhibits inside. Kids can stand in hurricane-force winds, steer a NASA spacecraft, pilot a fighter jet and ride a 360-degree virtual roller coaster.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

All-inclusive resorts can solve a myriad of family trip issues. Most host so many activities, there’s barely time to sit on the beach and work on a tan. At the AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort on Riviera Maya ($434-$983 per person, double occupancy; 77710 Riviera Maya. 888-407-4869, www.rivieramaya.grandvelas.com), the kids and teens clubs now have a new way to keep the family’s youngest members entertained: onsite glamping. In keeping with the resort’s posh amenities, this is camping at its most comfy, with individual, kid-sized teepees well-appointed with luxury bedding and blankets. Campfires provide the perfect backdrop for whipping up s’mores with a variety of gourmet chocolate treats. Club leaders help kids make their own dreamcatchers, create puppets, put on a shadow theater show and play all sorts of kid-friendly games. While the youngsters are doing their thing, parents can settle into one of the resort’s suites, many of which boast balconies with private plunge pools. The property includes eight restaurants, a spa, three pools, two fitness centers, water sports and karaoke and piano bars.

Scale the heights of the newly refurbished, iconic Seattle landmark, the Space Needle, and get the sense of floating in the air high above Puget Sound. Contributed by The Space Needle
Photo: For the AJC

Seattle, Wash.

The iconic landmark of this northwest city, the Space Needle ($27.50-$37.50, 400 Broad St. 206-905-2100, www.spaceneedle.com), underwent a complete makeover last year resulting in a fresh face for the 57-year-old structure. Soaring 605 feet above the skyline, it was built as an attraction for the 1962 World’s Fair and was considered cutting edge for the time. The $100 million overhaul added more than 175 tons of glass to the observation levels, with both interior and exterior viewing spaces. New technology enabled the addition of 11-foot-tall glass panels that provide seamless, 360-degree, floor-to-ceiling views of Seattle and the Puget Sound beyond. No fear of heights? Then kids will rush to stand on the open observation deck where glass benches are tilted to improve the view while creating the distortion of having their feet dangle over the city. The interior observation area is just as impressive, lined with 10 layers of glass that open to a downward view of the Needle. After coming down to earth, make time to check out the Seattle Aquarium ($30, 1483 Alaskan Way. 206-386-4300, www.seattleaquarium.org), located at Pier 59 on the edge of Elliott Bay. It’s home to seals, otters and a giant pink Pacific octopus. Hop on a streetcar and jump off at Lake Union Park (prices vary, 860 Terry Ave. N. 206-684-4075, www.atlakeunionpark.org), where a variety of kid-friendly attractions line the banks of the water. Take a boat ride, learn about the city’s seafaring past, check out a range of historic crafts or enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of the restaurants and coffee shops.

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