Winter Family Vacations: Slopes and Waterslides Are Just a Drive Away

By Jessica McFadden
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, January 2, 2009

Winter is just beginning, but your family may already be in need of a vacation. Sure, you can bust open your emergency fund or charge to the credit card that tropical all-inclusive or fancy ski chalet, but in this economic climate, that's about as prudent as driving a jet ski into a hurricane. However, with holiday cheer still cozily enveloping you and a year's worth of new vacation days unused, one can't deny that early winter is a great time for a getaway with the kids. Although these options aren't free, they are certainly less expensive than flying off to a ski or beach resort.

So instead of springing for airline tickets, revel in again-affordable gasoline and plan a drivable family vacation. Here are three fun options, each just one to three hours from Washington, to satisfy weekend wanderlust:

Willow Valley Resort

2416 Willow Street Pike, Lancaster, Pa. 800-444-1714.

Willow Valley Resort is in the heart of Amish country and a mere two hours from Washington. Situated right by the Strasburg Rail Road, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the National Toy Train Museum, Thomas the Tank Engine fans will be in heaven. Opportunities to learn about Pennsylvania Dutch history abound. (It's also near theme parks Dutch Wonderland and Hersheypark for those warmer months.) The resort provides a complimentary bus tour of the scenic area.

Willow Valley combines down-home country charm with great amenities for families. It includes an on-site working farm, wagon rides, scavenger hunts and wholesome smorgasbord-style food. There are also three heated indoor pools, an indoor water park, spa, golf courses, an arcade, daily kids art projects and games, family movie nights and karaoke competitions. Seasonal celebrations such as a Chinese New Year weekend, an upcoming Valentine's Day weekend for families with evening babysitting and idyllic ice skating parties add to Willow Valley's charm.

"We're here with four other families, and for all of us and our kids, this place is the best find ever," said Cynthia Sikor, 35, of Morganville, N.J., who was visiting with her three boys, ages 17, 15 and 7. "The kids are having a ball exploring the place, taking advantage of the amenities, and they're so busy that I get a chance to relax. It's good for a family like ours with kids at a variety of ages."

Great Wolf Lodge Williamsburg

549 E. Rochambeau Dr., Williamsburg. 800-551-9653.

Just 2 1/2 hours from Washington and three miles outside Colonial Williamsburg, Great Wolf Lodge is a great alternative to a cruise or tropical all-inclusive family resort. The giant indoor water park is exclusively for Great Wolf guests and is packed with three days' worth of slides, wave pools, lazy rivers, spray parks and family raft rides. Highlights for all ages include Fort Mackenzie, a four-story treehouse with 12 levels of interactive water features.

To combat any eye-rolling, throw teens in the "gr8_space," a high-tech teen haven with Internet access, docking and gaming stations, daily Guitar Hero and karaoke contests, movies and snacks. Older kids might also enjoy an arcade with more than 100 games, a three-story funnel raft ride and a 25-foot rock-climbing wall. For little kids, the lodge has nightly story times, nature programs, crafts, an ice-cream-themed kids spa and 18 holes of mini-golf.

A unique feature for the whole family (especially Harry Potter or princess devotees) is the MagiQuest, an interactive high-tech adventure to be played throughout a family's stay. (The cost for this, the spa and other activities outside the water park are extra.) Six-year-old Natalie Glasser of Silver Spring said: "You buy a wand and go around waving it, and things all over the park light up, talk to you, tell stories. . . . I was part of the adventure and learning the secrets."

Or, for a getaway that doesn't require an overnight stay:

Whitetail Resort

13805 Blairs Valley Rd., Mercersberg, Pa. 717-328-9400.

Learning to ski or snowboard can be an intimidating feat for novices, be they age 4 or 44. Whitetail Resort, just 1 1/2 hours from Washington, is a good place to test the (frozen) waters. If you or your child have never skied or snowboarded, Whitetail offers a great incentive to keep learning: first-timers who purchase a lift ticket, take a lesson and rent equipment receive all three items free on their next visit to the resort, one free group lesson per day for the rest of the season and 40 percent off tickets and rentals for the rest of the season.

Fun and educational camps are geared for kids at all skill levels. There are half- and full-day ski camps for ages 4 to 7 and 8 to 12, evening ski classes for ages 4 to 7, and half- and full-day snowboard camps for ages 7 to 12. Kids class prices range from $35 to $120. Other family amenities include child care for ages 6 months to 12 years, unlimited kiddie-size tubing for preschoolers for $6 and regular-size tubing for age 5 and older. Regular tubing is $14 for one hour, $17 for two hours midweek and nonpeak times, $19 for one hour and $22 for two hours on weekends and the peak season.

Liberty Mountain Resort

78 Country Club Trail, Carroll Valley, Pa. 717-642-8282 or 717-642-9000 (snow report).

Liberty Mountain has skiing, snowboarding and tubing for all ages and ability levels. It's the closest ski resort to Washington; families need drive just under 1 1/2 hours from Washington for 16 trails. With reasonably priced lift tickets and rental rates, and unlimited night skiing beginning Sunday, Liberty isn't overly liberal with your hard-earned cash.

Liberty has a dedicated following among local ski and boarding enthusiasts. "Liberty has a lot of a variety," said Jamie Aylward, 14, of Chevy Chase. "There's tons of different slopes and trails. It seems like Liberty has the most open trails all the time of the nearby ski places."

Thanks to the installment of a Burton Learn to Ride snowboarding center for adults and kids, which also includes a clinic just for women, Liberty Mountain has joined the ranks of such resorts as British Columbia's Whistler and Colorado's Vail in offering complete instruction for first-time boarders.

For families seeking tubing, adults and kids age 5 and older can try the 15 main tubing runs on Boulder Ridge, and kids ages 2 to 4 can join in the fun on Pebble Ridge, with kid-size tubes and slopes. For large families and tubing parties of 10 or more, group rates are available.

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