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Authentic, Immersive Thrills? PGAV Destinations on The Art of the Family Vacation


Introduction:  The Fine Art of Traveling with Children

It’s that delicate balance of interests, more complex than a Congressional subcommittee. It’s that persistence to find the right blend of activities that satisfies everyone. It’s the think-on-your-feet flexibility to adapt when things don’t play out the way that you planned. It’s the after-the-fact hindsight mike konzen pgav destinations family vacation theme parksthat helps you do it better next time.

By Mike Konzen (left), PGAV Destinations.

Related: Zoos – Releasing Wild Success: PGAV Destination's Latest ResearchAttractions Marketing – Leverage Full Potential of Destination Brands / PGAV's Al Cross on Themed Entertainment, Attraction Design

And just when you think you’ve got the kids figured out, they change on you.

It’s the family vacation, the most creative act that most families will ever undertake together.  Planning, executing, and enjoying a family vacation is truly a rich and complex art form. Even for experienced destinologists like us, this particular art form defies easy understanding.

So, like a lot of challenging subjects, we decided to do some research. We commissioned H2R Market Research to conduct an original, nationwide study for us, asking families for detailed information about the reasons they visit destinations, how they plan their trips, how they rank different attributes, and how they evaluate their experience. Perhaps most importantly, we compared our family results to a control group of adults-only travelers, looking for key differences.  The resulting survey provides for a maximum margin of error of +/-3.7% at a 95% confidence interval.

As creators of state-of-the-art destinations, we have too often looked at families as a homogenous group. The findings within this research will influence our thinking about appealing to the broad range of interests and needs within families, especially as children develop from birth to the end of their teenage cheetah hunt busch gardens roller coaster pgav destinationsyears.

Section 1:  The Question Freud Never Asked:  What Do Families Want?

Our study establishes that there are numerous priorities for families as they travel.

In descending order, here are our top ten:

1.    Togetherness
2.    Fun
3.    Variety
4.    Unique experiences
5.    Learn something new
6.    See animals
7.    See new rides/exhibits
8.    Someplace we’ve never been before
9.    Have a discount/coupon
10.  Special event/festival

The most important ingredient for a family is togetherness. Nearly 66% of the families in our study said so. Families want to do something as a family, even if they head off to different parts of the destination so everybody can see what interests them. At least they’ve all come to the same place, away from their crazy routines and their computer screens. They have a rare chance to create memories they can smile about – and tease each other about – for the next 50 years.

Once the family’s together, what matters in having fun. Families want “fun and excitement” more than they want education, interactivity, friendliness, or anything else, ranking fun’s importance 4.56 on a scale of 0 to 5. If the kids are happy, so are the grown-ups.variety pgav destinations theme park family vacation

Variety ranked third in importance for families; they gave it a 4.51 on a 0 to 5 scale. “That’s because, in order for Mom to generate that romantic view of everyone doing something together, you need different things for everyone to do, ” remarks Jerry Henry. “Nearly 4 in 10 families say variety is one of the things that inspires them to visit an attraction.” 

In response, more attractions are becoming hybrids, making sure they have a combination of hands-on activities, amazing things to see, exciting rides or experiences, and then of course shopping and dining. Until recently, a lot of places missed that lesson. Now you see zoos starting to experiment with rides; museums coming up with fun restaurant concepts; historic sites adding unique retail experiences.

Section Two:  Boys and Girls, Toddlers and Teens

Some of the most interesting findings of the study came from our understanding of different genders, at different ages. Of course, we need to be careful about rigidly defining gender and age traits – all kids are different – but there are some interesting trends.

Here are some categories:

Sense and Sensibility (Ages 1 – 4)

First, you appeal to a toddler’s sense. Maybe you use texture, the slick-rough feel of a turtle shell, the splash of water. Or games that involve matching shapes or colors. Then you work on his or her motor skills, but so cleverly, it looks like play. Small children learn through play.

Creative play helps a child deepen her imagination, become resourceful, and understand emotions – her own, and those of others. Play also help kids develop language and social skills.  Then, as language develops, you can reach kids through storytelling, fantasy, and wonder. At this age, an experience doesn’t have to be authentic. It has to be captivating.great bear wilderness polar bear pgav destinations theme parks zoos aquariums

The DIY Years (Ages 4 – 7)

These are the years when interactive experiences matter the most, especially for girls. Kids are full of energy, and need things they can see and touch. They’re moving outward from the world of fantasy, learning that it’s just as much fun to explore the real world. They still tend to personify objects, and they’re very present-tense, but they’re beginning to learn how to think about other times and places and points of view.

Beginning around age 5, our study showed that variety becomes very important to parents of both boys and girls. The need for interactivity peaks for girls in these years, then starts to decline; it will remain important for boys until they reach 12.

Identity Quest (Ages 8 – 11)

These are the years when gender starts to draw a few lines of its own – blurry lines, but noticeable ones. Kids are learning to think a little more abstractly; they’re not so dependent on concrete, sensory learning. It’s important for them to have chances to ask questions, think things through for themselves, and explain them to a grown-up. But they still crave interactive experiences:  the kind that let them imagine themselves in another world, piloting a plane or fighting a 19th century battle.

For parents of boys, this is when variety starts to really matter. Boys’ desire for hands-on interactivity peaks in these years, then will decline as they move toward the physical excitement of thrill rides.

The Thrill Years (Ages 12 – 17)arbitration pgav destinations family vacation theme parks

As teenagers get older, they crave the challenge, risk, intensity, and excitement of extreme rides. Those aren’t the experiences they can get staying home to play video games; even the best games can’t replicate the adrenaline.

Teens seek thrills, but also authenticity. Parents of boys over 12 and girls over 15 look actively for authentic experiences they can share with their child before the days of family vacations come to an end. Abstract ideas have begun to matter, and can be adroitly manipulated, dissected, and compared. Historic sites are becoming more interesting, because a teenager’s sense of time is sophisticated, and she can consider events from different points of view and put them in context. She also has enough knowledge of the world to make connection with what’s she learning.

Section 3:  How Families Plan Their Outings

The travel industry keeps a tight focus on Mom, because study after study indicates that women make about 85% of travel decisions. What many people forget, though, is that women aren’t necessarily choosing what they want. They tend to be altruists, taking their partners into account, and above all, listening to their kids.

In our study, 70% of families said that their kids help plan their trips. A full 13% of parents said the initial choice of what attraction to visit was made by their child. In 37% of families, the child may have not been the sole instigator, but he or she played a major role in the decision to visit.

Some families are dictatorships, with the grown-ups making all of the decisions. Asked what they do to encourage their child to visit an educational attraction, for example, 37% of parents said they simply insist the child go along. In other families, it’s the child’s power that’s absolute.  24% of families said that if their child did not want to visit an educational attraction, they simply would not go. Perhaps most interesting, in situations where a child balked at visiting, 39% of parents sweetened the deal with some kind of “trade-off.” We call this “arbitration.” 

In our study, we identified several models for how children are involved:

1.    Checks and Balances:  Sometimes, for practical reasons, the children’s power must be limited by certain realities – budinteractivity pgav destinations theme parks zoos aquariumsget, logistics, available time, etc. 
2.    Consensus:  In this model, families talk through every decision and get creative finding ways to make everybody happy. It’s as collaborative as life gets.
3.    Democracy:  Everybody gets an equal vote, and majority rules. It can be bluntly egalitarian, with the six-year old vote just as important as Dad’s.
4.    Meritocracy:  In this model, kids’ roles expand with their age and knowledge of the world. As toddlers, they wield scant influence; by the time they’ve reached their teens, they’re making most of the choices.
5.    Apprenticeship:  Travel is a training ground, with parents actively teaching children how to research a decision, work from a budget, and make arrangements.
6.    Arbitration:  Nearly every family resorts to this at some point, and just about everything can be negotiated:  where to eat, how much to spend, which souvenir to buy.

Section 4:  Real Thrills and Authentic Experiences: A Trip to Remember

We learned what motivates families and how they plan their trip. But it’s what happens once they arrive that determines whether they will leave happy, already making plans to return. 

Here are some of the elements that make a difference:


The delight in thrills is nearly universal, appealing even to adult couples without children. And among families, 24.9% cited thrills as one of their top motives for visiting an attraction. Wild animals, extreme environments, knock-your-socks-off science exhibits, roller coasters . . . even “family rides” aren’t as tame as they used to be. Ideally, family members can see each other’s faces during the experience, or at least watch from the perfect vantage point. Neuroscientists might use mirror neurons to explain how empathy intensifies the experience, but we know that it’s as simple as laughing:  the fun of thrills is contagious.


Families rated the importance of interactive experiences as 4.23 on a 0-5 scale, much higher than adults without children. That’s because for the kids, especially under 12, interactivity’s the secret to holding their attention:  it’s howauthenticity pgav destinations theme parks vacations they learn and how they enjoy themselves. SO you give them something to do, a way to participate. Maybe that means virtual reality, a simulated experience as a pilot; maybe it’s a DIY crafts activity, or a role-playing game in which a child crouches on a battlefield and envisions the enemy approaching.


Of the families old enough and savvy enough to have an opinion, more than three-fourths preferred attractions that made the most of technology. As children get older, their hunger for technology increases. Will they become more selective when they’re adults, adopting their parents’ attitude towards technology? Not likely. Experts say that an individual's values are in stone by age 10, and these values shape the way you view the world for the rest of your life.


Families gave authenticity, the desire to experience real or genuine activities, a rating of 4.14 on a scale of 0-5. “Everything kids do is artificial these days, ” remarks Tom Owen, Vice President for PGAV Destinations. “But you can’t touch a real fossil through an iPhone.”  Authenticity can be as simple as a genuine smile on the face of an interpreter, or as nuanced as using historically accurate materials and construction methods. Kids are quick to spot what’s canned, fake, generic, or gimmicky. Make-believe isn’t a problem; when their little, the world’s one big storytime, told in installments. But fantasy recedes as reality grows more manageable, and by the time the kids turn into teenagers, they’re determined to experience the real deal.dining family vacations theme parks pgav destinations

Storytelling and Immersion

We’re all wired for beginnings, middles, and ends, no matter how old we are. Stories involve us, drawing on our imagination and experience, and they pull different sights and sounds, facts and feelings together. Until recently, Western education tended to present facts and ideas drained of emotion. Now neuroscience brings us plenty of good data that says that emotion is just as important as pure intellect – and if you want to make a memorable, lasting connection, especially with children, emotion is even more critical.


Not unexpectedly, families were far more likely to prefer informal food options than adult travelers. 33% preferred a “quick bite, and an additional 32% liked to order at a counter, and then sit down. Families visiting museums, science centers, botanical gardens, and state/national parks tended to prefer better dining experiences than the overall average. Parents of boys between 4 and 11 and girls under 14 were the most likely to prefer better dining experiences.


Four out of five parents told us that they typically do some shopping when they visit attractions with their children. Over one-third (35%) said they typically shop for souvenirs, while another 30% said that they just enjoy browsing and they might buy, if they find something of interest. 


Perhaps more than any of our other research projects, “The Art of the Family Vacation” will influence how we develop new destination strategies and products. The family as a unit is really a blend of needs, wants, and desires that evolves as the children grow and become more worldly.

To receive a free copy of PGAV Destinations’ complete monograph with much more information on “The Art of the Family Vacation, ” contact the author at To see our other national research projects, visit our website at

Images: From top- 1. Ocean Park Grand Aquarium, Photo provided courtesy of Ocean Park Corporation. Families love to gather beneath the stunning domed window into an aquatic world at The Grand Aquarium, Ocean Park, Hong Kong. 2. Busch Gardens Tampa Cheetah Hunt 3. Brookfield Zoo Great Bear Wilderness.

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