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Play Close to Home: 6 Destinations in the US and Canada That the Whole Family Will Love

Dream vacations in our own backyard!

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You don’t have to travel far and wide to see wonders of the world and create quality memories with your loved ones. The United States and Canada have all the right elements for a joy-filled jaunt, from Hawaii Island’s sacred strands to Maine’s granite coastline and everything in between.

1. Orlando (Florida)

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Existing solely for fun, theme parks all but ensure smiles — and Orlando corners the market on the concept. Thanks to resorts like Walt Disney World and Universal, the “theme park capital of the world” ranks as one of the top five most-visited cities in the US. Disney World, the region’s No. 1 draw, opened to great fanfare in 1971 and still welcomes more than 58 million people every year. At the Magic Kingdom, original rides such as the carousel, Dumbo, and It’s a Small World inspire nostalgia, while new attractions like Avatar Flight of Passage keep devoted travelers hooked and pull in new audiences.

Other recently debuted lands live up to the hype, from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to Toy Story Land, both at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Potterheads transport to Hogwarts at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, split between Universal’s two parks. And Aquatica, SeaWorld’s water park, was voted the nation’s best in a 2021 USA Today poll.

Fans of vintage attractions find retro entertainment at Gatorland, a quirky ode to reptiles that opened in 1949. Eighty miles north, Weeki Wachee Springs’ fanciful underwater mermaid performances have been enchanting crowds since 1947. For those in search of amusement, escape, and even a little magic, the City Beautiful is a wish come true.

Visiting Tips

Eat and drink around the world at Epcot; the International Food & Wine Festival runs July to November, but Epcot’s World Showcase offers tasty global samplings year-round. Cool off with a classic Dole Whip dessert at Aloha Isle inside Magic Kingdom — or opt for the boozy version at Tamu Tamu Refreshments in Animal Kingdom (as a reward for braving the thrill-packed DINOSAUR ride). To enter a Disney park, both a park reservation and valid admission for the same park on the same date are required.

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee)

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts several superlatives: At 522,427 acres, it’s the largest protected land area east of the Rockies, and it gets more visitors than any national park, welcoming 14 million yearly guests. The hype is deserved for the easy-access waterfalls — some of which require only a short walk along paved pathways — as well as spruce forests, bear and elk sightings, and epic mountain panoramas.

Officially dedicated in 1940, GSMNP excels in accessibility, with 850 miles of hiking trails. Some of the most popular double as the highest peaks: Clingmans Dome, Mount Guyot, and Mount Le Conte. But travelers need not lace up to appreciate the views. Dozens of scenic lookouts dot Newfound Gap Road, aka US Highway 411. Chimney Tops Overlook, at mile 4.5, and nearby Carlos Campbell Overlook deliver some of the best ridgeline vistas.

Explorers get equipped with free maps and ranger advice at visitor centers such as Cades Cove, in Townsend, Tennessee; Sugarlands, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and Oconaluftee, near Cherokee, North Carolina. Sugarlands is closest to Laurel Falls, perhaps the most family-friendly short hike the park offers. Meanwhile, Oconaluftee sits on grassy fields that, come dewy morning, draw in herds of elk — and the wildlife fans who treasure them.

Visiting Tips

GSMNP is free to enter. If you plan to hike, buy a trail guidebook or map such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Falcon Pocket Guide. Summer brings crowds and opportunities to float down Deep Creek with rentals from JJ’s Tubes in Bryson City, North Carolina. Peak leaf-peeping typically happens between mid-October and early November. Book a cabin through Airbnb or a property-management company like Great Smokys Cabin Rentals.

3. Alaska Cruise

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The brisk spray off a humpback whale’s glistening tail. The booming crack of ice calving off a glacier. The striking sight of caribou standing at attention in a heather-filled meadow. A trip to Alaska, the largest and northernmost state in the United States, is a feast for the senses — and one of the best ways to explore the Last Frontier is on the water.

Cruising season runs from April through October. Visiting in May and early June reveals the destination’s many marvels — wildflowers bursting into bloom, throngs of wildlife migrating across the vast landscape, and glaciers rising from the depths like frozen spires. Nearly every Alaskan cruise — whether on a big ship or boutique vessel — travels through the Inside Passage, the storied 400-mile coastal route stretching from Puget Sound, Washington, along the British Columbia coast, and into the Gulf of Alaska.

Ice-carved fjords and forest-clad islands give way to charming small towns and bustling cityscapes, including Juneau, the lone American capital city that is accessible only by air or sea. From there, cruisegoers are in for a cornucopia of experiences that reflect the rich heritage and diversity of Alaska — from ports of call like Skagway, a Gold Rush–era town where salmon fishing and sled-dog adventures await, to Tracy Arm Fjord in the Tongass National Forest, where baby seals sprawl out on icebergs for afternoon naps. Another Alaskan rite of passage is journeying through Glacier Bay National Park, a 65-mile-long fjord spanning 3.3 million acres, whose epic tidewater glaciers can be viewed only from a vessel. There’s no way to capture the full grandeur of Alaska on any one visit, but taking in a slice of this exquisite coastline via a water voyage is the perfect place to start.

Visiting Tips

The Alaskan Tourism Restoration Act allows for the direct passage of cruise ships from Washington state to southeast Alaska without stopping at a Canadian port. Book with a line such as Viking, Crystal, Silversea, Seabourn, Celebrity, Disney, or Holland America. If given the chance, nature lovers should be sure to check out Chicagof Island, just off the coast of Juneau. It’s home to the largest population of bears per square meter in the world. Late summer is peak season to spot these majestic creatures on the island.

4. Acadia National Park (Maine)

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Wabanaki tribes have inhabited the land that is now Acadia National Park for thousands of generations, and to these “People of the Dawn,” sunrise on Cadillac Mountain is sacred. In winter months, daybreak occurs on the 1,530-foot peak before anywhere else in the United States, and visitors still hike or drive up the North Atlantic seaboard’s highest summit to bask in a reflective morning meditation.

Carved by glaciers and pounded by wind and waves, Acadia’s pink-granite headlands were formed over millions of years. Observers can witness the drama in striking places such as Thunder Hole, where swells rushing into a sea cave cause explosions of water up to 40 feet high. Nearby, Sand Beach invites all ages to swim, explore tide pools, and soak in the scenery.

Inland, 45 miles of gravel carriage roads have been blessedly car-free since John D. Rockefeller commissioned them in 1915. Here, sightseers can walk, bike, or ride in a horse-drawn carriage through hardwood forests while keeping their eyes peeled for foxes, moose, peregrine falcons, salamanders, and more.

Other must-see spots include serene Jordan Pond, as well as the Abbe Museum, which centers on the Wabanaki Nations. In this important repository, visitors are reminded that above all, Acadia isn’t just a vacation destination, but a home.

Visiting Tips

Acadia is extremely busy between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Use the Island Explorer shuttle to reduce traffic. Bustling Bar Harbor offers the most hotel options (Bar Harbor Inn has a lovely fire pit), or look for a vacation rental in the quieter communities of Winter Harbor, Corea, Islesford, the Cranberry Isles, and Isle au Haut. Book a carriage ride with Wildwood Stables, and watch for seals on a Lulu Lobster Boat Ride. The Chart Room, Beal’s, Side Street Café, and Stewman’s Lobster Pound are all good bets for fresh seafood.

5. Hawaii Island (Hawaii)

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Known for its temperamental volcanoes, multihued beaches, and diverse climate zones, the island of Hawaii (aka the Big Island) has become the center of a controversy involving a plan to build a super-telescope on the sacred summit of Mauna Kea. The debate has sparked a larger conversation about visitors’ relationship to the Hawaiian Islands, and how overtourism and an entitled, consumerist approach to the destination impacts Indigenous people and their land.

Of course, the island’s natural splendor is unmistakable. Spanning 333,308 acres, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been named both an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also the storied home of the fire goddess Pele, this otherworldly preserve presents the chance to view multiple craters and even walk through a lava tube.

Colorful beaches also inspire awe, from the quintessential white sand of Hapuna Beach State Park to black sand at Punaluu Beach, and even green sand at Papakolea. Meanwhile, lush foliage and local legend surround cascades like Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls. On the north shore, rich history, fertile taro farms. and rugged hiking trails mark the dramatic Waipio Valley, cradled between 2,000-foot cliffs. Additional historic sites such as Puukohola Heiau — home to one of the largest restored heiau (temple) in Hawaii— and Kaloko-Honokohau, with its ancient Hawaiian kii pohaku (petroglyphs), lend a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s heritage.

Tourism may be an inexorable part of Hawaii’s landscape, but those who take time to understand the destination, show respect, get to know locals, and try to leave the island better than they found it will truly grasp the concept of aloha.

Visiting Tips

Patronize local businesses as much as possible. Stay at Da Log House B&B in the Puna area; polish off a poke bowl from Umekes Fish Market Bar & Grill; and book a tour with My Kona Adventures, which offers dolphin watching, manta-ray night snorkeling, and a South Kona snorkeling excursion that promises glimpses of honu, Hawaii’s sea turtles. Support more local purveyors at the Hilo Farmers Market, which is open seven days a week and features everything from seasonal produce, flowers, and coffee to clothing, crafts, and local art and photography.

6. Toronto (Ontario, Canada)

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Whatever your version of happy is, Toronto likely has it. Love beaches? Nature? Culture? Excellent food and wine? Often likened to New York City, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, Canada’s largest city holds it all and a lot more.

For fresh air, Toronto comprises 1,500-plus parks filled with green spaces, walking paths, and other amenities. At 399 acres, High Park is a year-round favorite, with spring cherry blossoms, a summer pool, fall foliage, and winter ice skating. Hugging the city’s eastern boundary, rustic Rouge National Urban Park features 15 hiking trails.

June to September, beach parks on the shores of Lake Ontario fill with sunseekers; top spots to stretch out include Bluffer’s Beach, Woodbine Beach, and Toronto Island Park’s four swimming beaches. A 13-minute ferry ride from the Jack Layton Terminal, this cluster of 15 lake islands also boasts kid-friendly attractions like a petting zoo, an amusement park, and several splash pads.

Patrons of the arts flock to venues like the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; and the Toronto Theatre District, which rivals that of New York City and London. Historic homes (Casa Loma) and cathedrals (St. Michaels Cathedral Basilica) also welcome visitors. High above it all, the CN Tower’s LookOut Level offers sweeping panoramas from 1,136 feet above ground. From this lofty vantage point, it’s obvious why this vibrant city is Canada’s top urban hub.

Visiting Tips

Gourmands can dig into the city’s expansive multicultural food scene (Alo, a contemporary French eatery, is the reigning four-time No. 1 finisher on Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list), then head to Wine Country Ontario, an hour’s drive away, to winery-hop at more than 180 estates. Fuel up for the day with coffee and doughnuts from Tim Hortons, a Canadian staple since 1964. During baseball season, join cheering Blue Jays fans at the Rogers Centre. Get from point A to point B affordably on the Toronto Transit Commission’s efficient network of city buses, subways, and streetcars.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The World’s Most Amazing Places.

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