My older daughter's first word wasn't Mama or Dada. It was Gus. Gus was our cat. Never mind my bruised feelings; there's a profound connection between kids and animals. I'm not just talking little kids; I'm talking teenagers, too. All three of my children put swimming with dolphins in their top ten favorite vacation experiences. They've also held alligators, parrots, and (really big) snakes (not in my top ten); they've met memorable goats, burros, potbelly pigs, and wolves. Kira, who visited Egypt with me when she was eight, still remembers Pepsi Cola the camel but shockingly few historical facts; in Baja, Molly, at six, got close enough to a 40-foot whale to recall vividly that whale breath is really bad, and to yearn to do it again ever since.
We share the planet with many creatures, some four-footed and furry, some finned, some winged. Some are beautiful, some not so much. Without getting preachy, I believe animals have the capacity to teach us something about the universe, about compassion, about ourselves. Even if I'm wrong, that doesn't change the fact that kids and animals are a natural combo, which is why there are so many cool places and programs that bring them together for a can't-miss vacation or activity. Need suggestions?
Grab a copy of Make Way for Ducklings and visit the Boston Common, a public space since the 1600s and still one of the great places to go with young kids in Boston.
SeaWorld has a ton of animal encounters. Interact with belugas in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio (ages eight and up or ten and up, depending on location). Get a close-up look at dolphins in San Diego (ages six and up) or don a special helmet and go underwater with sharks in Orlando (ages ten and up). "Trainer for a Day" programs are the ultimate learning-is-way-fun experience. Discovery Cove in Orlando takes younger kids (ages six and up) in its Trainer for a Day package that includes dolphin encounters, snorkeling, wading with rays, and hand-feeding birds.
The Maui Ocean Center in Hawaii has shark dives for certified divers (ages 15 and up). For the truly adventurous, San Diego Shark Dives takes you down in shark cages to encounter great whites and other sharks in the wild (ages 12 and up).
Dolphin Quest, in Hawaii and Bermuda, has many options. Bermuda's Discover Dolphins (ages three and up) offers 15 minutes of up-close dolphin time; in Hawaii, Kids Quest (ages five to nine) includes 30 minutes of dolphin time.
See wolves up close at the International Wolf Center in Minnesota and the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center. In Minnesota, join a session on wolf communication (ages six and up), then head into the forest with your guide to howl at a local packmaybe they'll answer. In Colorado, there are daily guided walks (60 to 75 minutes).
Southern California's Wild Things, a home for exotic and wild animals that work in the entertainment industry and elsewhere, has one daily tour most months, two in summer. The first Saturday of the month, reserve a spot for the Purrrfect Project Tours with pre-tour family craft time (best for kids ages 4 to 11).
Stay in safari tents or cottages at Safari West in Santa Rosa, California, and go to sleep to the sounds of the African savanna. There are safari tours during the day, perfect for all ages, but be prepared for up to three hours of travel over rugged terrain.
For more wild inspiration, read Away.com's Top Ten Family Vacations for Wildlife.
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