Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Oconaluftee

Great Places for a Family Reunion

BYBeverly Burmeier
Is it time to get your clan together? If you’re planning a reunion that encompasses several generations, these entertainment hubs promise fun for everyone.
 
Branson, Missouri
Known as the Live Music Show Capital of the World, Branson provides world-class entertainment for the whole family. With 52 live performance theaters, the hardest part will be choosing which shows to attend.
 
The variety is huge: Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai, Doo Wop and the Drifters, country star Clay Cooper, Amazing Pets, corny but popular Baldknobbers Jamboree, New South Gospel, and the six-sibling Haygood group. For pure fun and a touch of rodeo, go to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Show — kids love eating an entire meal with their fingers!
 
Of course, the area offers much more than shows. Families find fun at Silver Dollar City theme park, featuring an 1880s-style craft village, musical programs, 40 rides and attractions, shops and restaurants, and special interest festivals throughout the year. 
 
Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, this all-American vacation destination also has three pristine lakes for fishing and relaxing, nine championship golf courses, and dozens of attractions and museums (don’t miss the acclaimed Titanic Museum). There’s a full range of shopping at The Branson Landing on Lake Taneycomo in the heart of downtown Branson, with waterfront dining and whimsical light shows at night.
 
Big Cedar Lodge, located on Table Rock Lake, 10 miles south of the city, has lodging accommodations and catering services designed for large groups. Numerous nature trails are perfect for a family stroll. Fly-fishing lessons, campfire wagon tours, rustic picnic campsites, and carriage rides are fun for all ages.
 
New Braunfels, Texas
Home of Schlitterbahn, one of the largest and most creative water parks in the world, New Braunfels is the perfect destination for families that crave excitement. From toddler-friendly wade pools to water slides inside a castle-like tower to much faster and scarier rides, there’s something exciting for everyone in the family. Cabanas are available for rent for protection from the summer sun, and guests can bring coolers with food and drinks, which helps keep costs reasonable for large groups.
 
When you’re done blasting down water rides, spend a day at Natural Bridge Caverns. Here, take the Discovery Tour to find incredible views of underground formations in the largest show cavern in Texas, or explore a second large cave and marvel at spectacular calcite and flowstone formations on the Hidden Passages Tour. A ropes course, zip line, and mining adventure keep kids busy for hours. 
 
New Braunfels also is known for delicious German food and polka bands playing at venues throughout town. Be sure to check out nearby Gruene for a quaint slice of early American life. Dine at the Gristmill Restaurant, listen to nightly live music at Gruene Hall (children welcome), or take in one of the special events such as Market Days, Sunday Gospel Brunch, or wine tastings at The Grapevine. Gruene also is headquarters for leisurely float trips down the Guadalupe River.
 
Older kids need more challenging activities? Texas Ski Ranch features a lake for boats towing skiers; another for wakeboarders being pulled on a cable at 19 mph, and a practice lake with slower cables for kids or beginners. Little kids can play on the sandy beach, and bigger kids can try their skills at the skateboard park, rock climbing wall, or the large indoor trampoline park. Grownups will enjoy watching world champion wakeboarders train from the deck of Wahoo Restaurant.
 
Gatlinburg, Tennessee        
Weddings are wonderful occasions for families to get together, and Gatlinburg is known as the Wedding Capital of the South. If you’re going there for this special event, why not plan an extended vacation?
 
Despite the wildfires that ravaged parts of the city in November 2016, Gatlinburg remains one of America’s great mountain resort destinations. If you visit the recovering city, you’ll find accommodations of every kind, dozens of local and national restaurants, and attractions galore  — surrounded on three sides by the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.
 
In addition to Gatlinburg’s mountain scenery, whitewater rafting, zip lining, golf, and fishing continue to make it an excellent destination for families. Its small-town charm belies amenities like a world-class aquarium and a Space Needle observation tower. Wahoo Zip Lines, located a short drive from Gatlinburg, provides spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains while guests zoom for 2 miles on cables high above the ground.
 
The downtown area of Gatlinburg is filled with bustling tourist attractions, but there also are plenty of down-home shops within walking distance. Traditional arts reflecting the town’s mountain heritage abound in craft shops that welcome visitors with Appalachian hospitality.  
 
Be sure to spend a day or two exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country. A drive on Newfound Gap Road, Blue Ridge Parkway, or Foothills Parkway will reward your group with awesome sights, especially in fall leaf season. 
 
Gulf Shores, Alabama        
White sand, sparkling water, and sunny skies make the family-friendly resort community of Gulf Shores a great vacation destination. Along with 32 miles of soft, sugary sand perfect for lazy days spent building sand castles, this coastal region offers a bounty of ways to enjoy its Southern charm. All ages will appreciate the turquoise water, beach town simplicity, fabulous seafood dining, and abundant outdoor activities. Companies such as Dolphin Express leave from Bear Point Marina at Orange Beach and travel out on the back bays to watch these lively creatures, which can be spotted playing in their natural environment year-round.
 
For exercise, hike the trails of Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, an undisturbed barrier habitat of almost 7,000 acres. The Pine Beach trail is an easy-to-walk path (2 miles round trip) through marine forest, salt grass, and marshes to unspoiled beaches and sand dunes.
 
An excellent adventure for all ages is the two-hour nature tour offered by Sailaway Charters. Captain Skip Beebe started this family tour because he noticed kids got bored on regular sailboat tours. He engages children with tales of the area’s diverse wildlife and lots of hands-on experiences with the sea critters he draws into his nets — and then releases.
 
Other Reunion-Friendly Locations
When planning your family reunion, here are a few other great destinations to consider:
  • Rosemary Beach on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.
  • Moab, Utah, gateway to several national parks.
  • Kalaloch Lodge on the beach in Washington’s Olympic National Park. 
  • YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, which specializes in accommodating and entertaining large family groups.
BEVERLY BURMEIER has written for National Geographic Traveler, AAA Home and Away, and AAA Going Places.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Gulf Shores, Alabama
If You Go
AAA offers five tips for planning a family reunion:
 
1. Activities. Choose an area that offers sightseeing and options for activities for all ages and fitness levels. 
 
2. Price. Exotic locations may be nice, but they aren’t practical for a wide range of budgets, ages, and interests. Choose an area with a price most families can afford. Cruise ships and resorts are popular for reunions because of their all-inclusive pricing packages.
 
3. Preferences. The family hometown can be a wonderful site for a reunion. So can a resort by the ocean, one in the mountains, or a big hotel in a major metropolitan area. Developing a consensus among relatives will help broaden participation.
 
4. Set a budget. Let family members know what to expect by setting a per-person budget for shared expenses such as mementos and meals. 
 
5. Seek professional help. Let an experienced travel agent do the trip planning for you, from hotel to flight arrangements, so you can enjoy what matters most — the actual vacation with your family.
 
Learn More
Let a AAA Travel agent help you plan the perfect family reunion vacation by calling toll-free 1-888-870-9392 or visiting AAA.com.
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