I put in a LOT of time researching for our spring break Arizona family vacation, and am putting even more time into publishing it so you can save time and quickly copycat for your own family trip! Where to stay, what to see, how to save money here and there, I've got it all, so let's go!!! Watch our super fun highlights videos below and keep reading for links, photos, and more details!
Here's our itinerary for 1 week in Arizona. I wanted to make sure to hit our "must see" spots but leave it very relaxed and flexible. I didn't want to be driving LONG distances daily (especially with 2 kids who get car sick), or changing hotels daily, so this worked out really well for us!!
Flying - we flew all day thanks to the 6 hour layover in Atlanta (which went super fast, we did lots of fun explorations of the airport running through the long terminals with art exhibitions and riding the Plane Train), I think it was a 19 hour travel day, arriving at PHX at 10pm and going straight to the hotel, Hyatt Place Phoenix Tempe Airport. They had free parking, free airport shuttle (check the hours), pool, and a great free hot breakfast. Our room had 2 queens and a pull out sofa, the size we always look for as a family of 5 not wanting to book 2 separate rooms.
With over 50,000 plants on 140 acres, we found Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix to be THE BEST way to kick off our Arizona vacation. I reached out and they were kind enough to provide us tickets in exchange for our review, but full honesty, we were 1,000% blown away and in love with the place!!! We just couldn't get over all the different kinds of cacti, and the volunteers were so helpful!! It got quite hot by midday so I recommend going when they first open in the morning. Also, go to the butterfly exhibit when it first opens - we waited til the end of our visit around 11am and the line was too long and sadly we gave up. They have water fountains allllll over so you don't have to bother lugging water bottles around, just stop for a few sips at each fountain. Also, it's incredibly stroller friendly, great paved paths throughout! A must-visit on your trip to Phoenix!!
Before heading out of Phoenix, we stopped by the super cute Scottsdale nabe for lunch and to walk around for about an hour (couple of photos below), then hit the road to our "long stay" hotel, Verde Ranch RV Resort located 1.5 hours north in Camp Verde. We checked in, unloaded the car, and quickly hit the nearby supermarket and CVS to buy breakfast and barbecue food, and sunblock since we packed so lightly we couldn't bring any.
After researching centrally located hotels to all the hot spots we wanted to visit, I reached out to Verde Ranch RV Resort who was gracious enough to provide us with a Deluxe Cabin for 5 nights in exchange for our review. It was an ABSOLUTELY amazing resort, and very budget-friendly, that I highly recommend!!! We loved our cabin, which had a comfy pull out sofa for Kenzo, a private primary bedroom for Ryoji and myself, and a little loft for the twins! AC, shower, full kitchen (but no oven or dishwasher), picnic table and gas grill, parking spot, it was simply perfection!! Huge bonus is that it comes with linens and towels, so if you're flying like us, no worries there!
They have a great pool with hot tubs, ping pong, corn hole, a beautiful clubhouse with pool table and shuffle board, a play ground, pickle ball, and lots of events going on! There's even a new laundry room if you need. We saved a lot of money by staying here, cooking some meals, and really enjoyed having an actual "house" where we didn't have to be as stressed about kids being loud and running around. And it's pretty conveniently located as a base for endless day trips - 90 minutes to Phoenix, 40 minutes to Sedona, 2.5hrs to Grand Canyon, 10 minutes to Montezuma's Castle! So whether you have an RV to park, or want to level up with a Cabin, a glamping tent (see my tour of one on IG here), or even a super unique Conestoga Wagon (see my tour of one on IG here), definitely check out Verde Ranch RV Resort!
Day trip to Sedona (40min drive). First stop was the visitor center, they were VERY helpful with maps and suggesting the best kid-friendly hiking trails and views. Parking can be tough, go early in the day and consider utilizing their free shuttle to get around. For example, we went to Chapel of the Holy Cross and could only drive by, in heavy traffic, couldn't actually park to get out of the car. Whomp whomp. We also had trouble finding parking but eventually did at beautiful Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village, where we had lunch at Oak Creek Brewery & Grill (got 10% off with a card from the visitor center) with a gorgeous view of the red rocks! Sedona is just a breathtaking area with a super cute town - I may shamefully have proclaimed "this looks like Disneyworld" LOL!!
Day trip to Grand Canyon (2.5 hr drive). We went to the south rim, as it was the closest. Parked and started at Mather Point, walked along to the next shuttle spot, took shuttle back to the car. Were there probably 2-3 hours. Some may want more time but for us, it was enough to take it all in. The paths were paved and stroller friendly, set back quite a bit from the edge with trees and what not so it felt pretty safe. Popular view points had nice rails which also helped with me so nervous about the kids falling over LOL! Though there are plenty of riskier spots, so if you have a runner, consider a stroller or leash or just never stop holding hands. It's not for the faint of heart I'll tell you that!!
On the drive home we stopped in Williams for lunch (Route 66 super kitschy town) and historic downtown Flagstaff for dinner, and caught a gorgeous sunset on the mountains!
Local day - Montezuma's Castle, Cliff Castle Casino for lunch (they have $12/hr/kid child care, bowling, Johnny Rockets and more), and hotel pool in afternoon.
This was a flex day we had nothing special planned, so we decided to go to Sedona again - we didn't get enough of it the first time! More specifically hiking at Fay Canyon and seeing the breathtaking view from Sedona Airport Overlook. Then, of course, hotel pool in the afternoon.
Checked out and headed back to Phoenix. Got early check in at Hilton Phoenix Resort at the Peak so we could use their River Ranch waterpark ALLLLLL DAYYYYYYyyyyyy. With a huge waterslide and lazy river, a couple of bathwater warm pools, it was heaven!! Dinner at on-site Hole in the Wall restaurant which was really delicious!!
Fly home! We had a 6am flight so ouch, it was a 3am wakeup and 17 hour travel day!
Noteworthy TIPS for this trip:
1. Stay on eastern time if going for a week or less, especially in warmer months. It'll help you wake early and get the most out of the cooler morning hours. We woke at 5 or 6am and were out hiking by 8 or 9am, and in bed around 7-8pm LOL! No shame!! Don't fight the jet lag, let it help you!
2. Find a balance of kid-focused and family / parent-focused activities. Our kids couldn't have cared less about hiking and all the spots that made mine and my husband's eyes go gaga over the natural beauty. They just wanted to go to the pool, or be on screens. You need to find a balance so everyone has something to look forward to, throughout the day and the trip.
3. Don't over extend yourself. Plan for down time, have a flex day or two built in in case someone gets sick, and have backups ready. Sure you could have a different national park scheduled for every day of the week, but you're going to be totally exhausted and stressed out. You can't see everything. Pick a couple of must sees and just enjoy your vacation!
4. Have a 4th grader? Print out the Every Kid Outdoors Pass and get free entrance for your whole family at all national parks!! We saved about $85 with free entrance to Grand Canyon and Montezuma's Castle!
5. Book a cabin or hotel that allows you to cook in the kitchen and grill outdoors, you can save a lot of time and money this way, not to mention it's healthier. We ate breakfast in our cabin's kitchen, had lunch out on the go, and had a combo of restaurant and home grilling dinners. Was really nice to have options!
6. Don't try to be frugal skipping a night at a hotel by doing a red eye flight with kids. If going to Asia you can't avoid it, but cross country?? Just. Say. No. Spend a whole day flying if budget doesn't allow for a direct flight, but get a good night sleep in a real bed!! Everyone will be in better moods. Trust me!!
7. Packing is difficult... it's desert which means DRASTIC change in evening and daytime temperatures. And while Phoenix could be warm, Grand Canyon could be snowing. We were there mid April and it was 40's over night and 80's during the day. By 10am we didn't need jackets or cardigans and it was mostly shorts and t-shirt weather. I will go on a limb and say spring is the BEST time of year to go. They had more snow and rain than typical this winter so we are told the flowers were blooming more than usual and they were absolutely spectacular!
8. Utilize these sites and apps to research trips & save money (* denotes affiliate link - I earn commission through purchases made):
Nearby spots we didn't have time for but you may want to consider:
Further away if you have time...
How to Save Money on Flights
If you have tons of miles, or a huge budget, you can just skip over this section. If you are trying to save money on flights, it may take some time and effort but it will pay off (pun intended). I was seeing crazy high prices, over $500 per person. But after playing around with dates extensively, I found this random combination through Frontier that gave us a really good price. I literally had to search every combination of days until it popped up, by chance, so try this yourself, or get a great travel agent!!
We ended up paying about $1300 (including the $99 annual discount club fee and 1 checked bag fee) round trip for our family of 5 from NYC to Phoenix, though we did have 1 stopover with a 6 hour layover, each way, it was worth the money saved!! There are some risks flying with budget airliners like Frontier and Spirit. The biggest concern is they have a limited schedule and no alliance with other carriers, so if you miss a flight or the flight gets canceled, you are just out of luck because it's going to be difficult to get another flight that day, or even the next day, especially if you have a big family like ours. Still, when you look at getting tickets for half the price as other carriers, sometimes it's just worth the risk, and usually it all ends up just fine (our trip was 100% smooth this time with Frontier, as well as last year with Spirit).
To save money with baggage fees, we packed very lightly, paying for 1 checked bag for the family (has to be under 40 pounds) and no "carry ons". We each carried a small backpack "personal item" with just the essentials (kids' Mifold booster seats, water bottles, snacks, tablet, book, change of clothes) - be careful here they are VERY strict with the size of your "personal item" and will charge a HUGE fee if it doesn't fit into the little box to test the size at the gate. We did not pay for assigned seats but got lucky with them assigning us in sets of 2 and 3 so no kids were seated without adults (but we did see flight attendants moving people around to get other families together, so they will try to help you but there's only so much they can do if passengers refuse to move around). If you have young children, you may want to splurge here. For us, we risked it and lucked out. We DID buy Allianz travel insurance, I think about $125 for the whole trip, worth it IMO to cover cancellations, interruptions, lost baggage, etc etc.
MORE TRAVEL IDEAS HERE!!!
We usually do our annual Family Vacation Guide to Lancaster in the summer and hit up Dutch Wonderland and Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, but when Cartoon Network Hotel invited us down for a winter visit, we were excited to discover what kid-friendly fun was to be had in Amish Country in winter and year round... and to share with you all, of course!!
Watch our highlights video and read on for more details about each of the attractions, restaurants, and hotels!
Cartoon Network Hotel
Whether you have a lover of cartoons in your home or not, adults and kids of all ages will LOVE Cartoon Network Hotel!!
We were provided 2 nights in the Steven Universe Dream Suite in exchange for our review, but don't worry, all thoughts and opinions are my own and completely unbiased. In full honesty... IT IS AMAZING!!!!!
They have 4 dream suites that can sleep 6: Steven Universe, Ben 10, Power Puff, and Adventure Time. Ours had a private primary bedroom for the parents, a huge bathroom with 2 sinks and a shower, a 6-chair dining table, small kitchen with mini fridge / Keurig / microwave, large living room with 75" TV, and kids room with 2 double bunk beds and a TV in each bed (this didn't have a door, unfortunately, but was off to the side so you could have lights and TV on in the living room and it wouldn't bother kids if deep sleepers like ours, or simply head to your own bedroom and close the door ;)
The dream suite costs quite a bit more than the regular rooms that sleep 2 or 4 people, but are the only rooms inside the main building and are totally worth the splurge IMO! The only negative I have is that because it is right over the lobby, we heard the music pumping down there (they were doing karaoke I think?) on Saturday night til 10pm. It didn't bother me and my kids didn't notice and passed right out, but just a heads up. Nothing some ear plugs or white noise app on your cell phone can't take care of!
Inside the main building, you have the Cartoon Kitchen, regular character meet & greets, a cafe, the gift shop (a dream for Cartoon Network fans!!!), Omnicade (arcade), and the favorite of me and my kids: the Toon Room. Here you can play VR (even 2 can play together in the same game/cube), scavenger hunt, arts and crafts, and more!
They have an outdoor pool and splash area open in summer, and they have a lovely heated indoor pool open year round but you have to go outside to get there and ooooooof it can be cold in winter! It didn't have any locker rooms but we changed in the bathroom, not a big deal. Be sure to BYO puddle jumpers / floaties.
Book your room on cartoonnetworkhotel.com or Hotels.com (affiliate link).
There are a ton of companies out there with "Amish tours" and museums and what not. Some are authentic, others not at all. I ran across LoKal Experiences on Discover Lancaster's website and am SO glad I reached out to work together on a review. The "Unique Amish Immersion Experience" tour we were taken on went above and beyond my expectations in teaching us all about Amish / Mennonite history, culture, and such great tidbits. I never realized how misinformed we are about them! Here are some things I found most fascinating:
Mike, the co-founder of LoKal, is passionate about working with local Amish businesses and families, and giving his clients an authentic, memorable, and fun experience. He took us in his beautiful 14 passenger van to several homes (including one that was featured in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness) and farms and even Down on the Farm Creamery that had the BEST ice cream I've EVER had. (Yes, at 9:45am. Don't judge.) He also had these great ear pieces so you could hear him and ask questions no matter how far back in the van you sat, which was really helpful!
They offer tons of experiences and tours, so you can find the best one for your family - from lunch with an Amish family to a Sweet & Savory tour of Lancaster City, even some craft beer & dive bar options for adults!
Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre
Founded 35 years ago and serving 15,000 guests annually, this 328 seat theatre is a great stop on any family-friendly Lancaster vacation!! Check their calendar to see which performances will be held during your stay! Their main theatre lineup includes Singin' in the Rain (~April 16), Rock of Ages, The Little Mermaid, Chicago, Saturday Night Fever, and Elf the Musical. They also have workshops and performances geared more toward children, which is what we were invited to join! I had no idea what to expect but we went for the matinee lunch and show of Pinkalicious the Musical and honestly, I LOVED IT! The buffet for the kids show wasn't spectacular, to be honest, it was "kid-friendly" foods (think hot dogs and fish nuggets) but it did have a salad bar and yummy cupcakes and cookies! The show itself was one hour and pure fun. The acting, set, and music were top notch, and it was, frankly, HILARIOUS. All 5 of us had a fabulous time!! After the show the cast stayed on stage to take questions from the audience, which was a really nice touch!! It's running through April 15, I really recommend it!!
Choo Choo Barn
If you love model trains, the Choo Choo Barn is a MUST!! It's basically 1 HUGE Lancaster County themed train set in a 1700 square foot room! With over 150 hand-built animated figures and vehicles and 22 operating trains. There are buttons to press to activate different parts. Every 10 minutes the room darkens and the ceiling has starts that light up to simulate nighttime. It's just utterly fascinating to examine every single inch of this place! I wasn't sure if our kids would be bored but they couldn't get enough of it either! There's a zoo, ski slopes, airplane, Dutch Wonderland, a house on fire, a circus, so so so so much to see! SO FUN!! For older kids who need some help focusing, they have 2 great scavenger hunt lists - one for first timers and one for repeat visitors.
Aaron & Jessica's Buggy Rides
We had terrible luck with the weather, in the middle of a winter storm when it was time for our reserved time at Aaron & Jessica's Buggy Rides. Despite the wind and snow, they were more than happy to take us out and tell us all about the Amish history and culture. The owner, or "Grandpa," as he said everyone calls him, was our driver and was so great with our kids. He let all 3 pile up front and help him steer the horse. Answering their millions of questions and taking photos with us afterward. I can't wait to go back for a longer ride during nicer weather! They have several tours to choose from such as the 20 minute "Cookie Run" with a stop at a farm stand to the 90 minute "Amish Journey" and private rides as well. Check out their website for hours and more details!
Fulton Steamboat Inn
We already had our accommodation settled for this trip but in all our years visiting Lancaster, we had yet to stop by the Fulton Steamboat Inn! So, I reached out and was delighted to be invited for a hotel tour and dinner! From the moment you see the "steamboat" from the road, til you step foot inside and get immediate "Titanic vibes", it's just one OOOOH after another! It's a truly unique experience and stunning property!
They have an assortment of beautiful rooms, and if going on a couples getaway or momcation, I highly recommend their spectacular rooms on the adult-only sun deck!! They have an indoor pool and jacuzzi, a small game room, a cute playground and pond outside (the Koi fish were wintering but we had fun feeding the ducks)! Dinner was delicious, they had a great kids' menu and coloring activities for them, and we were pleasantly surprised to have pianist Bill Horn playing during our meal! Whether you stay at Fulton Steamboat Inn or just drop in for a meal at Huckleberry's Restaurant, you won't be disappointed! Book your room at fultonsteamboatinn.com or Hotels.com (affiliate link).
Did we manage to squeeze in a TON in just 3 days or what!?!?! We loooooove Lancaster and can't recommend it highly enough for your next family vacation! Are there some must-sees and must-dos we missed? Leave us a comment below!! And if looking for more Lancaster ideas, see our past years' guides below!
Our previous Lancaster Family Vacation Guides:
I'm a NYC metro area mom blogger living in NJ with my Japanese husband & our 3 kids (twins plus 1), focusing on fun and honest product and travel reviews, saving moms time finding the best for their families! Find what you need in the menu bar or search section above!