If you live in Vermont, you don't have to travel far to find family-friendly summer fun — but sometimes you want to. This summer, we asked our Kids VT contributors to visit some of their favorite destinations, both in state and around the region. We shared their adventures in our June, July — and this month, August — issues. Looking for more day-trip ideas? Check out all of this summer's — and last summer's — suggestions at kidsvt.com.
Eight years ago, my husband, Kevin, and I spent a romantic weekend ... at the Great Escape. Our idea of fun has always been a little offbeat — we enjoy planning for the zombie apocalypse, for example — and I look back at that trip with particular fondness. We'd just begun dating, and I remember holding hands and discovering a shared passion for kettle corn.
In June, we decided to return — with our 4-year-old son, Oliver. Alas, the hand holding had a different purpose this time around. Coming back with Oliver and Kevin, whose own parents brought him when he was a boy, I was more interested in the park's long history as a family destination: It opened as Storytown USA in 1954, and became the Great Escape in 1983. It's changed, as we have, but retained its roots.
The park is still full of thrill-ride fun. The Boomerang roller coaster shoots riders through loops and corkscrews, and the Mega Wedgie waterslide drops them down a 100-foot tunnel for a swirl around a giant bowl into the pool below. Its best-known coaster, the Comet, actually predates the park. The 80-year-old wooden behemoth, featured on MTV's "Road Rules" and Discovery Channel's "Wild Rides II," was originally part of the Crystal Beach Amusement Park in Ontario before the owner of the Great Escape bought it and installed it in the New York park in the early 1990s.
My son, Oliver, looked longingly at the screaming kids on these hair-raising rides, but I was secretly relieved he didn't meet the 48-inch height requirement — I'm not a roller-coaster fan. I was also psyched about the number of rides he was big enough for, including Frankie's Mine Train, a gentle coaster on which he went solo, lighting up the ride with his 1000-watt smile. The Timbertown section is full of stuff for adventurous tots, and includes an area with refreshing water sprays appropriately sized for the smallest sweaty kids.
Interestingly, though, Oliver was drawn to the oldest parts of the park: the Storytown buildings. These pint-size stores, tack shops, banks and butcher shop are remnants of the park's original incarnation. Oliver loved pretending to lead a class while sitting at the teacher's desk in the schoolhouse and "escaping" through the jail's wrought-iron bars.
Splashwater Kingdom, one of the Great Escape's newer features was a hit with us, too. It was the hottest point of the day when we arrived at this outdoor water park, which is not to be confused with an indoor water park nearby; when Paul Bunyan's enormous bucket tipped over and drenched me, it was a welcome relief. My only regret: The glare off the bright-white pool bottoms in Noah's Sprayground made me regret leaving my sunglasses in our rented locker.
A few words of advice: The $14 locker is worth the price, but it's not the only expense you'll incur during your visit to the Great Escape. If you go, bring plenty of cash. In fact, you may need a small loan to underwrite your New York adventure. We got advance-purchased discounted tickets for $41.99 each, paid $18 for parking, dropped $14 on a locker, and ate an unimpressive lunch of fries, soda and chicken strips that cost about $30.
After seven hours and 15 rides, we headed home. I pestered Oliver for his backseat opinions, but all I got were snores.
1172 State Route 9, Queensbury, N.Y. Info, 518-792-3500, sixflags.com/greatescape
I grew up in Southern California, where I was building sandcastles before I could walk and boogie boarding before I could ride a bike. My 10-year-old twins have also spent countless summer days frolicking in the Pacific, playing in the sand. I wasn't about to let a move to Vermont interfere with raising my two beach kids.
I am pleased to say we have already found a few great sandy spots here in Vermont, but we have had to adjust to something you never experience in Southern California: changeable weather. After packing up lunch, umbrella, beach chairs, hats, sunscreen, balls, books and buckets ... it pours? I quickly realized that in Vermont, every beach trip needs a plan B.
When clouds threatened to spoil our first trip to North Beach in Burlington, I went straight to my backup plan: a scenic cruise on Lake Champlain aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen III. My kids love boat rides of any kind, and with inside and outside seating on three decks, I figured we could avoid getting wet while being on the water for an hour and a half.
As we boarded the ship, the kids were amazed to look down and see fish swimming in the harbor. Just moments later, they were even more excited by the kid centric options at the snack bar: hot dogs, chicken wings, burgers, nachos. The fact that I refused to order even water did not deter them from studying the menu so intently, they didn't even notice when the boat started to move.
I settled into my plastic deck chair, listened to the canned narration and took in the scenery. The mellifluous voice of the narrator ("cheesy," according to my daughter) provided a mix of Lake Champlain history, local geology, lake facts and a little Champ lore. It was the consummate tourist experience, and as a new resident, I found it to be a good family activity on a stormy summer morning. My kids enjoyed exploring the two upper decks of the ship while they watched the Vermont and New York shorelines glide past.
The rain came and went faster than you can say Samuel de Champlain. By the time we got back to the Burlington Community Boathouse, the sun was shining again and we resumed plan A: the trip to North Beach. In theory, we could have ridden our bikes — or rented some from Local Motion — for the mile-and-a-half ride up the Burlington Bike Path. But I'd packed way too much stuff for an afternoon at the beach, so we drove — and paid the $8 nonresident fee to park at North Beach.
It was a Monday afternoon and, despite the suddenly gorgeous weather, the beach was relatively empty. We spread out on the sand, which was more like construction-grade sand than the soft white stuff we are used to. The turkey sandwiches I packed were a far cry from the tantalizing nachos aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen III, or a hot dog from the North Beach snack bar about 100 yards down the beach from where we were. But they were easier on the budget and, I'd like to think, better for the kids.
After lunch, the twins headed for the warm, shallow water, where they entertained themselves splashing and racing and scanning the lake bottom for treasures. I tackled the Sunday New York Times crossword and did some rather shameless people watching. After about 20 minutes, I concluded that I could have been at any beach anywhere: toddlers were building sand castles, teens were tanning and texting, gulls were tormenting beachgoers, all the lifeguards looked bored. There were even some stand-up paddleboards to rent. The only differences between Burlington's North Beach and one in Southern California? Less intense waves — a relief since I didn't feel nearly as anxious about the kids getting swept under — and an absence of breast implants.
A few hours later, as clouds started rolling in and a battalion of camp kids arrived on the sand, we decided to pack up. Driving home, I swung into the Burlington Bay Market and Café parking lot, where they serve the best creemees in town. We ordered at the window, found an empty table on the patio and licked creamy dairy sweetness in contented silence, watching the Spirit of Ethan Allen III embark with a new group of tourists.
"Can we go to the beach again tomorrow?" my daughter asked. "Sure," I said,
"But maybe we should go to ECHO too," I added, having learned a thing or two about summer on the west coast of Vermont.