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TAKING THE KIDS

Vacations That Keep Everyone Busy

March 05, 2000|EILEEN OGINTZ

You need a vacation. Somewhere warm and sunny. Somewhere with a great beach.

Many families plan to head to a warm beach for winter and spring breaks; 40% of vacations to beach resort destinations are expected to include kids this year, according to the Travel Industry Assn. of America.

But forget snoozing on the beach all day, a book in your hand and a pin~a colada at your side. Not with the kids along. You're going to be too busy building sandcastles, snorkeling, playing in the pool. Your teens, who wouldn't be seen with you in public at home, will want to join you on the golf course, on the tennis court or at a hip restaurant where they'll blithely order the most expensive meal on the menu.

Remind yourself at those moments that family togetherness is why you're spending those bucks. The overwhelming majority of kids polled around the country last spring for Yesawich, Pepperdine and Brown's Portrait of Family Travel survey said they like family vacations and would welcome more of them. Parents said they wanted "quality time" with the kids.

Of course, just about any sun-drenched beach resort you choose will have organized children's activities. "They've become standard in the last five years," said Laura Sutherland, author of the recently released "Tropical Family Vacations" (St. Martin's Griffin, $16.95), who reviewed dozens of programs in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Mexico and Florida for her useful guide.

"Parents now expect a kids' club," Sutherland said. "It's insurance to them that the resort is family-friendly."

But parents aren't likely to check the kids in right after breakfast until dinner as they once did. "Now families want to do more things together," observed Victor Lopez, the Hyatt divisional vice president who oversees the chain's 18 resorts. "They don't want R&R. They want action."

Janice Bird, Wyndham Resorts' vice president for resort marketing, added, "With so many parents working, they feel guilty if they're not with the kids on vacation."

Resorts are responding with more activities families can share, whether they're beach sports or parent-child golf clinics, arts-and-crafts sessions, nature walks or evening barbecues complete with entertainment. Wyndham, for one, is unveiling an expanded family program this spring. Hyatt is tinkering with its offerings, too, as are smaller individually owned properties.

That's not to say parents shouldn't be able to steal a few hours for themselves on vacation, especially when these resort camps are free and provide ever more creative programming. How can you tell whether the resort has the right mix of kids and family activities for your gang?

Before booking, call the resort. Ask about value-added family packages and what family and children's activities will be offered. Hyatt, for example, is offering a fifth night free at certain resorts and a day of Camp Hyatt, activities for children ages 3 to 12. Complimentary snorkeling gear and beach toys also can save you money. So can a deal that includes breakfast, as at the Royal Resorts villas in Cancun.

A free children's program, as at St. Lucia's Windjammer and Wyndham's Rose Hall Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, is a real plus too. Your youngsters can go for the whole program or just sign up for certain activities, which will save money.

Windjammer Landing in St. Lucia throws in 35 hours of nanny care with its family packages. Talk directly to the person who runs the children's program, author Sutherland suggested. Here's what you need to know:

* What daily activities are offered. You don't want lots of movie or TV time.

* The minimum age required for kids to participate.

* The average number of kids per group and the ratio of counselors to kids. The more kids, the happier yours will be. Anything just for teens? Will the program be canceled if only a few show up?

* A schedule of kids' evening activities. Many are offered free or at a nominal price several nights a week.

* The counselors' training and background checks. Do they know cardiopulmonary resuscitation?

Some kids' programs to check out:

* Hyatt's "Sunshine Sale," offering free nights, at (800) 55HYATT (554-9288), Internet http://www.hyatt.com.

* Rates at the all-inclusive Wyndham Rose Hall Resort in Jamaica, complete with water park, start at $198 per night for a family with two kids 12 or younger. Call (800) WYNDHAM (996-3426), Internet http://www.wyndham.com, for deals here and at other Wyndham resorts.

* Windjammer Landing boasts individual villas and complimentary teen and children's activities. Family packages for those with two kids 12 and younger start at $3,600 a week in March, less in April, and less than $3,000 in summer. Call (800) 743-9609, Internet http://www.windjammer-landing.com.

* The new soft adventure resort FDR Pebbles in New Court, Jamaica, is offering rebates up to $200 per adult. Its sister, Franklyn D. Resort, in Runaway Bay, more geared to younger families, is offering $300 off for seven-day stays. Call (800) 654-1337 or visit http://www.fdrholidays.com for rates. For information about the Meet the People program, in which visitors of all ages meet local residents, go to http://www.jamaicatravel.com.

* The Royal Resorts in Cancun, all suites and villas, encourage junior golfers with a one-time greens fee of $139 for two, free kids' activities for children as young as 2 and separate children's pools. College students on spring break are not permitted without their parents. Family packages start at $1,560 a week for a family of four. Call (800) 221-8090, Internet http://www.royalresorts.com.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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