There is a well-known theme park near our city, complete with roller coasters, water rides, and shows where sea lions do amazing tricks and cartoon characters high-five the kids. I haven’t been there since high school, so I don’t know what it’s like today; all I have are vague memories of eating ice cream out of waffle cones that dripped onto my shoes in the blazing summer heat, and finally getting up the courage to ride my first roller coaster that does loops.
I also recall sunburn, standing in lines so long that my back ached, being desperately hot and sticky, and wanting to leave after just a few hours. These memories loom larger in my mind than anything else, which is probably why I haven’t been back.
We took our children to a different, supremely popular amusement park about 10 years ago on our summer vacation. We thought it would be fun and in some ways, it was. Obviously, these amusement parks are successful for a reason. The experience definitely created lots of memories. But for us the real fun was in reminiscing about how miserable parts of the experience truly were.
Our kids were afraid of almost every ride. They cried on several and I had to sit there in a little tram, trapped with a screaming child while a Captain Hook robot laughed maniacally. The kids constantly needed to use the toilet and we spent much of the day hustling them in and out of bathrooms. They constantly complained of being hot and tired and hungry. So did I. They were difficult to entertain while waiting in long lines and, to top it off, the whole trip cost a tremendous amount of money. I went into typical thrifty-dad mode, determined that if we were putting so much time and money into the vacation, we were going to have fun even if it killed us.
About three days into the trip, I figured out exactly how to have fun. It was simple, actually: Leave the amusement park.
We returned to the hotel by early afternoon, and spent the day hanging out as a family by the swimming pool. That’s literally all the kids wanted. They wanted to splash around the pool with mom and dad, have pizza, and sit in the shade when they were tired.
I, too, loved it. In between taking the toddler down the water slide, I was able to lounge on a chair in the shade, watch them play, read, and have a drink.
Based on that experience, we’ve cut most of the tourist stuff entirely and vacation at places where we can sit around together as a family. Going to the beach is always a winner. Spending time at national parks where we can hike and hang out in coffee shops at little touristy towns is a blast, too.
We’re also pretty pleased to drive a couple hours west of St. Louis to a few acres of land our family owns where we have a small house and a pond. There’s no cell phone reception there, so it’s quiet. We make bonfires, roast marshmallows, hang out at the pond, go fishing, play frisbee, take short walks through the countryside, and make little trips into town where there’s a candy shop (and a few wineries).
Keeping it simple is sometimes better
Travel has always been one of those parts of life that I’ve vastly, incredibly over-thought. For a long time as young man, I would vacation to certain places because it seemed like the thing to do. Everyone else went to such-and-such a place and did certain things, had specific experiences, so I figured I should, too. After a while, I wondered if I was vacationing only for the sake of the pictures, to be able to say I’d been there, done that ride, or to fit in with how everyone else traveled.
It seems to me that there are many people out there who absolutely thrive on active vacations. They love the full tourist experience. They love cruises and theme parks and guided tours. Me, though? I don’t really want to do anything at all. With our family, instead of burning ourselves out on activities, everyone seems happiest if we move slightly out of our typical, ordinary circumstances (so we don’t just do what we do at home) and spend lots of quality, slow, leisure time together.
I guess my point is, however you vacation this summer, make sure you spend time with family and friends in exactly the way you like. Vacations don’t have to look a certain way or check a specific box. Vacations aren’t experiences to be acquired so much as they are special moments to be lived.