Guilt-Free Family Vacation with Downtime for Parents

Oceanfront water balloon toss at Montage Laguna Beach

Does this sound like a dream not reality?

Kids’ clubs can be an essential amenity for parents seeking downtime on vacation, particularly at resort properties where families spend the bulk of their time onsite. Many parents hesitate to use kids’ programs because they don’t want to feel guilty that they are “dumping” their kids into glorified daycare or they feel uncomfortable leaving their kids in an unknown environment.

Good news: It is possible to have your kids participate in a kids’ club and have it be a guilt-free and comfortable experience! It’s all about the quality of the program, the instructors, and how well the program is organized.

We realized we struck kids’ club gold last week on spring break while visiting Montage Laguna Beach and Terranea Resort in Southern California when our 7-year-old woke up every morning and the first thing out of his mouth was, “When do I get to go to the kids’ club today?”

Secrets to a Guilt-Free Kids’ Club

Camp-style kids’ club format

I like programs that are camp-style vs. babysitting-style with thoughtfully prepared activities that change throughout the day and week. This creates an engaging and active environment. The constant stream of “new” activities means kids don’t get bored and are excited about participating.

The program at the Montage Laguna Beach is one of the best we’ve experienced. Kids that participate are made to feel like they’ve literally entered camp for the time they are there with a dedicated cubby and personalized program backpack. There was never a dull moment as the participants did everything from tag to art projects to kick ball to carefully supervised pool games.

Special activities kids don’t do at home

Programs should involve special activities kids don’t do at home. Incorporating local elements into the program is a must. If the resort is on the beach — build sandcastles or visit tide pools.If the resort is in a culturally distinctive area — do crafts that feature local materials.

Terranea’s program uses themes for each session — pirates of the peninsula (treasure hunts), wacky wild west (forts and lassos), holiday mix up (egg hunts, trick-or-treating, snowball fights all-in-one) — every theme is creative and engaging.

Fun and appealing program home-base

Properties that are serious about offering top-notch programs need to invest in a room or building to house the kids’ club. If space is limited, meticulous thought needs to be put into activities for a variety of age groups that are incorporated into a single place.

An excellent example of this is the kids’ club space at The Breakers in Palm Beach Florida. There is an enormous amount of real estate that is devoted to kids of all ages including a place just for toddlers, another space that is suited for school-age kids, and then finally, a massive game room that appeals to tweens and teens.

Kids’ Club program grouped by age

The more granular a program is in terms of grouping similar ages together the better. Kids’ clubs can be a wonderful social environment for children. We have an only child and a kids’ club is a comfortable opportunity for him to meet other children at a resort. Plus, grouping same-age kids together enables the best age-appropriate activities.

Ages 5-10 is the sweet spot for many programs, although it is a special treat for parents of toddlers when a program can also handle ages 2-4 in a safe and nurturing environment, including kids that are not potty trained.

Flexible program drop-off schedule

This is a conundrum. In order to run a program that has all the special features mentioned above, properties need to be able to effectively staff and manage the daily schedule. Set hours provide the best framework to facilitate a dynamic program as it allows instructors to do a wide variety of activities instead of sitting in one place waiting for additional kids to show up.

The key is a bit of flexibility where parents can choose half or full day programs (vs. having to sign your kids up all day). Also, it is really great to be able to drop your kids off for just an hour or two into a program in progress. Parents need to know they may need to jump through a few hoops for that to happen, but it is the ultimate gift in terms of feeling like you get to escape the rigidity of routines and schedules on vacation.

Minimal TV and video games

Kids can watch TV and play video games at home. Although this can be an acceptable form of downtime in a program, it should not be the focus. Instructors have explained to me many times that kids start asking to play the Wii instead of going outside (of course!) and become obsessed with it.If that is the case, I’d rather see TV and videos used for emergency use only instead of a crutch to keep kids happy.

Features That Help Parents Relax

Guilt is one thing, but parents need to feel relaxed that their kids are well cared for and safe at all times.

Instructor-to-child ratios

Ratios of 1 to 6 feels good to me, although it depends on what kids are doing. If the club involves sitting in one room, then the ratio does not need to be as strict, but the more kids do, the stronger that ratio needs to be.

Programs need higher ratios for younger children. At the Montage Laguna Beach, they have an entirely separate room dedicated to toddlers and the ratio is 1 to 3. This is exceptional and the success of the program is evident by the families that come back to use the program again and again.

Swimming alternative

Swimming requires an entirely different set of rules (stay tuned for more on that, I’m writing a follow up article). For now, I’ll just say that it is important that programs offer alternatives for parents that don’t want to have their kids swim in hotel setting without being present.

Know where your kids are at all times

It is disconcerting not to know where your kids are at a large resort property. Programs need to have a method of letting parents know where kids are playing at all times if they are away from the home-base facility. A note on the kids’ club door works well for this.

Driving is a no no

I really can’t think of a scenario where I’d feel comfortable having my children driven in a car outside of the property anywhere by random hotel staff.

Don’t be shy about asking for the kids’ club program director an interviewing him/her about what to expect. Either the program director will make you comfortable or you have your answer — the program may not be for you. Don’t assume that a expensive hotel or luxury brand means that the kids’ club is great. This is definitely not the case!

You can search for kids’ clubs on Ciao Bambino by using our Quick Search box at the top of every page. Our dynamic search feature allows you to search by destination, the age of your kids, and the cost of program.

Finding a fantastic kids’ club is a win-win. It’s like a visit to the spa for kids — relaxing and pampering, customized just for them. We’re going to circulate this post to all the properties in our portfolio and encourage them to adopt kids’ club best practices.

Relevant Links:

Swimming safety at hotel and resort kids’ clubs

Top family-friendly hotel chains (US edition)

Tips for finding toddler-friendly accommodations

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