New Yorker Angela Manna's family typically wouldn't choose an all-inclusive resort, but suddenly she's seen the light.
"It's great," she acknowledged. "Everything is so effortless." Her family, including a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old, were relaxing at the beachfront Now Amber resort in Puerto Vallarta for a family wedding. The kids could eat whenever and whatever they wanted, join organized activities, or not, and dad wasn't grumbling about the extra charges that are inevitable at other resorts every time the kids want a boogie board, a smoothie or a snack.
Chicagoans Sandra and Nathan Hayes think of themselves as adventurous travelers -- they got married in Thailand -- but with 10-month-old Ashlynn along, "being able to get food at all hours is a real plus when dealing with a baby's unpredictable schedule," Sandra Hayes said.
"We'd definitely do this again," added Nathan.
Here in Puerto Vallarta, all-inclusives account for 80 percent of the hotels and they are especially popular with families in Mexico and the Caribbean. They're certainly upping their game to appeal to families -- everything from Kids and Co. family rooms at the Melia Puerto Vallarta, complete with kids' bath amenities, sand toys and bunk beds to the Star Splash water play area at the Iberostar Playa Mita. "That's why we picked this resort," said one mom from Canada as she sat under the shade of a thatched palapa watching her kids play. "They love it and we can relax."
There were swim-up suites where families played just outside their rooms at Now Amber and an expansive kids' Explorer's Club overseen by a local teacher where there is ample outdoor space, including climbing nets, swings, water play area and hand-painted dinosaur murals. There's a dose of Mexican culture, too, pinata-making, for example.
Other all-inclusives are upping their game for families too. Azul Hotels by Karisma on the Riviera Maya, will be bringing Nickelodeon experiences to its hotels here and in Jamaica this summer, which means that Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be on hand for fun and games. There are also plans in the works to build a Nickelodeon hotel.
Club Med, which pioneered kids' clubs nearly 50 years ago, promises memorable adventures in Punta Cana where you'll learn more than 25 acrobatic and artistic activities, under the supervision of Cirque du Soleil-trained staff, all at Summer Splash prices starting at $119 per person. You could also head to Club Med Sandpiper Bay, Southern Florida: where the Sports Academies offer personal professional training for tennis, golf, volleyball and triathlon games. Both of these resorts also offer baby clubs, which offer child care starting at four months, so parents are guaranteed a break.
There are also adult-only restaurants and adult pool areas -- presumably for parents and grandparents to enjoy while the kids are engaged in organized activities.
In Mexico, as at other resorts, adults and kids can do as they like. There are yoga classes, tennis clinics, kayaking, pool volleyball, live music in the evening and pool parties in the afternoon, or simply hang out at the pool or the white sand beach. Think of it as a cruise ship on land. If you are the kind of traveler who abhors a lot of people around, all-inclusives aren't for you. The Iberostar, for example, can accommodate about 1,200 guests, and there are usually about 400 kids onsite. But if you like lots of different activities that don't require an up-charge, you and your kids will be very happy campers.
At the Iberostar Playa Mita, Win Cooper, 13, has been busy trying archery, playing ping pong and water polo. "I like that there is so much to do and I don't have to be with my parents all the time," the Ontario, Canada teen said.
His younger sisters, meanwhile, were happy to hang out at the pool with their parents, grabbing soft-serve ice cream whenever their mom allowed. "Even for breakfast," said Ruby, 9.
Troy and Melanie Cooper were delighted to be able to relax -- no navigating from place to place, no figuring out where to eat or how to entertain their three kids.
The requisite buffets offer all variety of eats, including Mexican choices like local fruits, ceviche, freshly made churros at breakfast, tamales and plenty of meat and chicken to craft into Mexican-style tacos.
Kids were wide-eyed at the Japanese Hibachi, as the chef chopped and diced and tossed dishes of rice. "How could you not like that?" said Melanie Cooper.
And despite a recent U.S. State Department warning about travel to certain parts of Mexico, the Coopers and the other families I met didn't seem at all worried about bringing their kids to resort areas in Mexico.
Leigh Needham, traveling with her husband and 6- and 8-year-old from San Diego, said this was her fourth trip to Mexico in the past 18 months. "We feel totally safe," she said.
Of course, many of these travelers rarely, if at all, leave the confines of the resort, even though there are wonderful sites and experiences to be had (more about that in another column), lament local tourism officials.
Families like the Coopers explain they just want to relax. "I just want everyone to have a good time," said Melanie Cooper.
And that, after all, is what vacation is supposed to be.
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.