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TAKING THE KIDS

Yes, They're Family, but They Can Also Be Fun : Family reunions at vacation spots are more popular than ever, but make sure you plan well in advance.

August 22, 1993|EILEEN OGINTZ

ESTES PARK, Colo. — The brothers, all in their 30s and 40s, nabbed the oldest one just outside his lodge room, smearing shaving cream all over him, themselves and anyone else who got in the way, just as they had as boys. The children were amazed to see their dads--all supposedly responsible adults--act so ridiculous.

That's one family tradition--the one I could most easily do without--that surely will endure, I thought, as a glob of shaving cream hit me smack on the neck.

The six siblings in my husband's family, their parents, spouses and children--23 of us in all--were gathered at the YMCA of the Rockies' Estes Park Center, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, for a week-long family reunion to nurture the family connections . . . dumb traditions and all.

"I wanted everyone to get together while we still could, for a happy occasion," said my 70-something mother-in-law, Lee Yemma, who lives near San Antonio, Tex.

That was no small task and the reunion turned out to be a year in the making. Like most American families, we're spread across the country, from Southern California to Washington to Illinois, Texas and Massachusetts. One brother is a U.S. Marine, recently back from Somalia. All of us juggle frenetic schedules. It had been 15 years since everyone had managed to be in the same place at the same time, before several of the marriages and most of the kids. We wanted to give the cousins--who range from teens to toddlers--a chance to get to know each other.

But where to go? Someplace centrally located. Somewhere where none of us would have to cook for 23 people. It couldn't be too expensive. And there had to be plenty of activities for kids.

The sprawling 840-acre Estes Park Center had all we needed. And it was a relative bargain, too: less than $1,000 a week for a family of four, including meals and most activities.

We didn't realize until we arrived that we had stumbled onto the quintessential family reunion track--the fastest growing segment of their business, according to YMCA of the Rockies' marketing director David Thomas, who noted that some reunions are booked two years in advance. (Call 800-777-YMCA for information.)

So many reunions are held here and at the YMCA's Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colo., southwest of Estes Park (600 this year, YMCA officials said), that a family program coordinator is now in place to oversee special activities just for such families.

A sign in the administration building offered a welcome to the 23 families holding reunions that week. Certain large cabins--some sleeping as many as 70--are especially designated just for that purpose.

Everywhere, it seemed, people were wearing T-shirts advertising their reunions. It felt good to see so many different kinds of families--not just white families, but families of Asian and Hispanic heritage, African and Native Americans--all enjoying themselves together.

We saw them lingering over coffee at big round tables in the dining hall, playing miniature golf and tennis, heading off on hikes, swinging toddlers at the playground, posing for group portraits with the mountains as the backdrop.

Now as families live farther apart and struggle to maintain connections, they're turning what once was "a picnic in the park" into full-fledged vacations, Thomas said.

Cruise lines, family travel agencies and resorts also report an upsurge of interest from family groups. One Long Island travel agency, called Moments, specializes in reunion packages with special rates. (For information call 516-889-5600.)

"I get calls all the time from people planning reunions a year ahead, who discover that places are already booked," noted Edith Wagner, editor of the magazine Reunions ($24 a year; P.O. Box 11727 Milwaukee, Wis., 53211. Send the magazine a note about your reunion and $2 for handling, Wagner said, and the editors will send you a sample issue). Her tip for reunion planners: Don't be afraid to ask hotels and resorts for special group rates.

Those planning such gatherings may also find use for Tom Ninkovich's "The Family Reunion Handbook" ($14.95 plus $2 postage from Reunion Research, 3145 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, 94118). Ninkovich recommends planning early and scheduling plenty of activities--especially for kids. "You can't expect people to just sit around and talk all of the time," he said.

But certainly, that's a big part of it. One night the adults in our group talked until 3 a.m. Another evening, over pizza, the kids listened to their parents reminisce.

In addition to the special family reunion activities, Estes Park Center offers some 60 different activities each week for vacationing families (many individual families vacation there, as well). Activities range from bubble making for the younger set to wilderness survival, storytelling and fly fishing lessons for older children and adults.

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