Kids' programs may provide a vacation from vacation


January 16, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Forget baby-sitting. That won't cut it for today's vacationing kids. They want to be entertained -- especially if you're not going to be around.

And this is true for the diaper set and the bored-with-everything teen who says he's doing you a favor just being there.

"If it sounds and smells like baby-sitting, my boys are the first to leave," says Las Vegas attorney Robert Unger.

Hotels and resorts know that, too. That's why they're cooking up elaborate children's programs that promise fun and games -- with a few thrills thrown in. It's your job to make sure you find the one that's right for your family and budget.

These programs are great if you want to work in some adult R&R time on a family vacation. Your children can ski in Colorado or snorkel in Mexico, study marine life in Florida or learn about Indians in Arizona while you snooze by the pool, scuba dive or hit the expert slopes. At night, while you enjoy a leisurely meal, they can happily chow down on burgers and pizzas while watching the latest Disney movies.

"When you're together 24 hours a day on vacation, it's hard to keep everybody happy all the time," says Chicago child psychologist Victoria Lavigne. "This is a nice option for some families to have."

Some of these programs now operate year round. The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale (Ariz.) Resort at Gainey Ranch, for example, runs its Camp Hyatt Kachina every day of the year. It's where Camp Hyatt got started -- call (800) 233-1234. But even there, children in diapers can't participate, nor is the Rock Hyatt program for teens open all the time.

That's why it's important that you ask a lot of questions before you book, to avoid disappointments. Many children's programs may be widely advertised but only available for school vacation times or the summer. Some may not live up to their billing and are just a room with a couple of video games. Some are pricey, others eminently affordable. Bob Unger has become a big fan. "The kids didn't even want to leave for dinner they were having so much fun," he says, adding that his children typically don't "jump at these things." His advice: Check the schedule to see how many different activities are offered -- and ask about staff qualifications -- ahead of time. Those are good indicators for program quality.

If you're planning to travel at such peak times as spring break, check to see if you need to reserve a spot for the kids.

The good news is whatever your budget or your time frame, you've never had more choice. You can consider the Boca Raton Resort in Florida, where a day's activities average $35 per child, or the Holiday Inn's new SunSpree resorts, where rooms average $100 and some children's programs are free and others require a nominal charge; call (800) HOLIDAY or (800) 327-0101 for the Boca Resort.

If you feel more comfortable with a place that has a long track record, you can try some programs that have been around for decades. Check out Kutsher's Country Club in New York's Catskills, (914) 794-6000, or Bishop's Lodge in Santa Fe, (505) 983-6377.

Nancy Johnston spent a couple of weeks every summer at Bishop's Lodge until she went to college. That was in the 1940s. Now she brings her grandchildren. "It was wonderful then and it's wonderful now," she reports.

But you can also find them at the newest, glitziest spots like the new MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, the nation's largest, with more than 5,000 rooms; call (800) 929-1111). Even that quintessential family destination, Disney World, now touts the evening children's activities offered at some Disney World resorts; call (407) W-DISNEY.

Despite all this, some parents hate the concept. "You're supposed to go on vacation to be with your kids," one said.

But an increasing number of parents have no other chance to get in some adult time except on the family vacation. Club Med played host to 12,000 children under 12 last year at its five family clubs. Hyatt reports 45,000 kids have now participated in Camp Hyatt, the number more than doubling in the last year.

The problem is that your children may not buy into the idea as much as you do. In fact, preschoolers or teens may balk completely. "Have realistic expectations," urges Ms. Lavigne. Don't assume your 3-year-old will gladly spend all day with strangers -- nor will your shy 8-year-old.

If you're committed to the idea, be flexible. Suggest your child stay an hour for starters. Plan something to do together afterward.

For everyone's happiness and sanity, it's important to know exactly what the children will be doing before you go. Call ahead and talk to someone involved in the program, not just a reservation agent.

You can even use your research to help the children buy into the idea, suggests Don Wertlieb, chairman of the child studies department at Tufts University. "If you involve the older kids in the choice, they'll be much more interested," he says.

But if they're not happy, it's always better to cut your losses and do something else. Mr. Wertlieb's kids still joke about one miserable experience at a New England resort. They liked the activities during the day but simply hated being "baby-sat" at night. They were miserable, and so were their parents.

"The night out wasn't worth it in the end," Mr. Wertlieb says ruefully.

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