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FAMILY VACATIONS: STRATEGIES

The Perfect Vacation for All? Let's Vote on It!

Trying to satisfy adults and kids with dueling desires, the family ballot is born

May 23, 1999|BETSY BATES FREED | Betsy Bates Freed is a writer living in Santa Barbara

I used to think traveling with children was bound to get easier once everyone could tie his or her own shoes and we could ditch the strollers, diaper bags, port-a-cribs, beloved "blankies," crayons and car seats. Little did I know the dark challenges lying ahead.

When kids are little, Mom and Dad say, "Hey, we're going to Disneyland!" Or the beach. Nana's house. The Grand Canyon. The kids say, "Yeeaaa!" and run for the car.

As soon as kids celebrate their first double-digit birthdays, however, things change. Mom and Dad mention the Smithsonian, the Liberty Bell, the Napa Valley. The kids roll their eyes.

Last spring, faced with a smaller budget and bigger kids than ever before, we grappled with summer vacation plans over family dinners. It seemed that every scenario split the family. The under-13 lobby--Robert, 12, and Rachel, 10--pushed hard for a marathon tour of the creepiest Southern California amusement parks. The wine drinkers--my husband, David, and I--dreamed of yawns on the porch of a Napa Valley B&B.

Fearing an impasse, I hit upon the idea of a vacation that would offer something for everyone, guided by that all-American notion of equal voting rights. We would concoct a list of possibilities--all within reason and in line with budgetary constraints--and then vote! From among the winning ideas, we would try to piece together the perfect vacation, custom-designed around our family's eccentricities and desires.

The vacation ballot was born.

To get things rolling, we sat around the kitchen table in a freewheeling brainstorming session, travel books and maps strewn about for inspiration. To our surprise, not all of the ideas even required a trip! The kids liked the idea of a beach day with friends; I advanced the notion of touring Santa Barbara sights we've missed in the three years we've lived here. One item centered on an L.A. excursion to take in a Dodgers game and IMAX theater. Rachel pushed for staying in a hotel with a pool . . . regardless of said hotel's location. David likes fishing; both freshwater and saltwater varieties made the ballot.

I should point out that every family's ballot would shape up differently. If we hadn't limited ourselves to car trips, we would have set an amount for round-trip air fare and included destinations within that price range. Some families would want to include choices centered around a family hobby, or suited for toddlers or high-school-age kids.

In our case, some parental judgment was necessary, even in drawing up the ballot. Despite intense lobbying, we left off "paint-ball shooting," an activity in which you don camouflage clothing and stalk each other with goo-splattering guns. Not my cup of tea, and not even on our runners-up list of fun family activities. Still, it was easy to come up with 25 items for consideration.

Once our ballot was complete, I made four copies and set a deadline. Everyone had three days in which to trade votes, ponder possibilities and put pen to paper. Here's how it worked:

Every item rated a possible 10 points, with "10" meaning you would really, really love to do this on vacation, and "1" implying that doing this on vacation would scar you for life. Outright ballot alterations were not allowed, disqualifying Robert's tongue-in-cheek suggestion that a family film fest feature only R-rated movies.

Once the ballots were collected, scoring was easy. I added up the totals for each ballot item and divided by 4. "Take the dog" won hands down. Sydney, our Australian shepherd, would get a vacation too.

The big losers were "go dirt biking," in spite of Robert's rating of a perfect 10, and "fly kites," which the aforementioned 7th grader rated at "minus infinity." Thanks to adult votes, California's Sequoia National Park edged out hot and hellish amusement parks. But the visit to a video arcade somehow made the cut. That's life in a democratic family.

Some of the winning items required some research to integrate into the slowly evolving vacation plan. "Rent a cabin in the mountains" barely edged out "Stay in a hotel with a pool." So we spent a morning on the Internet locating a fair number of Sequoia-area cabins that featured pools and allowed pets. Fishing and picnicking fit into the picture, so things began shaping up quite nicely.

One bright morning last August, the Jeep was packed, the dog leash was located and the Freeds were on their way to the Lazy J Ranch in Three Rivers, Calif., just outside Sequoia. Library books, hand-held computer games and quick stops at parks and antique stores along the way made the drive relatively painless.

The Lazy J sat right on the highway, but who cared? It was cute and clean, had a pool and a barbecue, and offered glimpses of wild quails strutting outside the bedroom window. The kids splashed for hours in the pool; we got the quiet porch time we had craved. Every town has a video store, and this was no exception. Our PG-rated film fest materialized after dark.

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