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The Pleasure Principle

Give the kids what they want out of a vacation, and they won’t be the only ones smiling



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Disney’s Aulani resort on Oahu

IT’S FUNNY HOW idealism trumps practicality when it comes to family vacations. Determined to do right by our children, we haul them around the Louvre or stuff them into lumpy sleeping bags, wondering what went wrong when the inevitable wailing starts. Well, Mom and Dad, here’s what went wrong: Kids don’t want to build character when they go on holiday. They want to have fun. The trick is finding a resort that provides so much of what kids want that they don’t even realize they’re getting what they need.

The Rocking Horse Ranch in Highland, N.Y., has miles of riding trails that allow kids to get in touch with their inner Wyatt Earp (or Calamity Jane) and catch up on the fresh air and exercise they’ve missed while hunched over their computers “doing homework.” Other outdoorsy activities at this family-run dude ranch include rock climbing, horseshoe pitching and marshmallow roasting. Oh, and there’s the Red Ryder BB Gun Shooting Gallery, too.

Anyone who’s seen Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (or, for a more current movie reference, Avatar) has probably dreamed of hanging out at a place like the Out ’n’ About Treesort, which comprises 18 treetop cabins ranging from basic to semiluxurious. Located amid 36 acres of wilderness in Takilma, Ore., it’s a spot where kids can commune with nature in ways that get their adrenaline flowing. Everywhere you look, there are ladders, swings, rope bridges and tree-to-tree zip lines. There’s ground-floor stuff, too, like arts and crafts workshops, swimming and hiking. The Treesort even puts on oddball entertainment at night, such as juggling acts and medicine shows, in the unlikely event that any of its guests has an ounce of energy left.

There are also zip lines at Sentosa, but that’s no surprise, given that this resort has pretty much every kid-friendly activity on the planet. Situated on a 1,236-acre island in the Singapore Strait, Sentosa is a jumble of marine parks, luge rides, interactive cinemas, cable cars, laser shows, wave pools, indoor skydiving facilities and terrifying roller coasters. Even the edifying options here come with a thrill: The pretty Butterfly Park, for instance, is right next door to the ew!-inspiring Insect Kingdom.

For more sedate families, there’s sun, sea and cartoons at Aulani, a Disney resort on Oahu. Aunty’s Beach House has caregivers to keep the small-fry busy, and there’s a teen spa for older kids — allowing Mom and Dad a little time to themselves — plus scavenger hunts, fireside storytelling and chats with Mickey Mouse. The resort has made a genuine effort to incorporate elements of local culture, so don’t be surprised to hear your offspring warbling “E Hula Mai ‘Oe” on the plane home.

Culture likewise abounds at The Athenaeum in central London. Located a scone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, the hotel treats even its youngest visitors like royalty. Kids get their own concierges, who will have learned in advance their guests’ favorite food, reading material and music so that these may be provided upon arrival. The concierges will also arrange theater tickets and help plan itineraries. Even if the latter results solely in your precious ones making a beeline for the tony fashion retailers of Oxford Street, they’ll stumble across a hundred historical landmarks on the way.

If the kids seem more interested in celebrity than aristocracy, try Atlantis Paradise Island, the Bahamas resort where running into folks like Justin and Britney in the lobby is not outside the realm of possibility. Tweens will swoon at the carefully crafted cool factor here. There’s a mini mall with hamburger joints and pizzerias that are perfect hangouts for honing an air of nonchalance. And there’s Crush, a teen nightclub that’s strictly adult-free between 9 p.m. and midnight, and which glows with iPads, gaming cabanas and video walls. The educational possibilities at Crush seem limited, but — who knows? — maybe the ability to request songs via touchscreen will come in handy in a professional environment one day.

For an even closer brush with fame, stay at Hollywood’s Sheraton Universal Hotel, a.k.a. the “Hotel of the Stars.” The big attraction is a short tram ride away: Universal Studios Hollywood, which offers daily behind-the-scenes tours. Jimmy Stewart worked here, as did W.C. Fields and Elizabeth Taylor. Your children won’t know who these people are, and they’ll be too busy thinking about seeing the Shrek special-effects show to care, but there’s a chance they’ll soak up some culture while wandering these hallowed lots — and that alone is surely worth the price of admission.

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