Before you have kids, the word “vacation” means lounging shoeless at a beach bar in some sun-kissed Margaritaville, waking up at the crack of 11 and never once having to apply sunscreen to a hysterical and slippery 3-year-old. After you have kids, the word “vacation” is a hideous lie that somehow equates a word that means relaxation with force-jamming a folding stroller through a broken security machine at LaGuardia or, alternately, piloting a minivan through 19 hours of apocalyptic Georgia highway for the purpose of enjoying animatronic mice songs alongside 30,000 of Ohio’s meatiest citizens. It’s weird, is what we’re saying. Yet while “family vacation” remains a term so murderously oxymoronic that I actually want to reach into Microsoft Word and choke it, there are ways you can make the notion something not only less moronic but reasonably close to an actual vacation. If you’re lucky, you might even get to take off your shoes. Here’s how.
Trade off mornings with your spouse
Simple math: They handle the mornings on even-numbered days, and you handle the odds. This way, each of you enjoys a reasonable amount of coffee-on-the-balcony time while also ensuring that the children are appropriately nourished. TWIST ENDING: It can also be an afternoon or evening. Wherever you install this trade, it doesn’t have to be an hours-long endeavor — it’s amazing how much a little sliver of alone time can impact the rest of your trip.
Turn the minivan into a lounge.
Have you driven a minivan lately? Good Lord, they’re like space stations on sensible tires, only with better mileage. The refurbished early-‘80s Dodge Caravan in which we took our family Disney trips was a vaguely upgraded delivery truck; our current Odyssey features 4,000 lights, 38 different temperature controls and an Apple Store’s worth of chargers. But best of all, it features an absurd surfeit of backseat space, which my children have converted into a “lounge” that contains blankets, pillows, books, and their wealth of devices. Once they’re in the lounge and we’re on the road, the children can melt into their own space, while my wife and I sit up front having “adult conversations” and listening to audiobooks that don’t involve teenagers born to the Greek gods. They get their space, and we get ours, and the miles melt away.
For the love of God, wait until the kids are old enough for Disney.
You know what kids don’t remember between the ages of 0-7? JUST ABOUT ANYTHING. You can jangle all the fancy wristbands you want, taking a 3-year-old anywhere sucks, particularly if that anywhere includes lumpy crowds and Florida heat.
Take frequent breaks.
My father, a genial and frugal man, was the sort who would trumpet us awake for the 9 a.m. theme park-gate opening and keep us out enjoying Rides and Magic until the late-shift Cast Members physically swept us out of the park, with brooms. (Have you ever seen the 12:30 a.m. show at the Hall of Presidents? BECAUSE I SURE HAVE.) And while genetics has certainly left me with a murderous desire to maximize our Vacation Dollar, the smarter part of my brain has gifted me with knowledge of the value of breaks. If you’re at a beach, theme park, pool, park, or family gathering, schedule an afternoon break to re-find your chill. It’ll make your evening much more pleasant, and probably make it so your kids don’t want to run up on stage and punch Abraham Lincoln, which, trust me, makes the ushers pretty angry.
Remember: Sometimes all you need is a pool.
When we were small, the aforementioned father made an admirable habit of taking us to the Crucial Locations of American History, such as all the good D.C. monuments, Colonial Williamsburg and wherever Andrew Jackson lived, all fascinating relics of our shared history through which my brother and I dutifully slogged in the hopes of just getting back to the hotel pool and playing with our G.I. Joes. Vacation doesn’t have to be fancy. Sometimes, it’s just water. Sometimes, it’s just outside.
Split up the children.
Part of the reason vacations sometimes don’t feel like such is that you’re simply moving the collective weight of your usual family unit, along with its vices and stresses, to another location. In short, if the kids don’t get along at home, they’re sure as hell not going to behave for Six Flags. Take a few moments to break the kids up and do things with them individually, even if it’s just a walk for ice cream, or a ride with just the two of you. Vacations are about changing the dynamic a little bit. And if you’re tired of, say, constant sibling fighting, chances are good the siblings are too.
Put your phone away, delete Facebook, uninstall anything in the Social Media folder and for the love of God, don’t read the news.
If there’s a war declared or a volcano under your feet, you’ll hear about it. Otherwise — and we know you know this — lock the horrible machine that ties you to your real-world stressors in the glove compartment of your Odyssey while you sip a drink by the hotel pool searching for your lost shaker of salt.