5 Natural Theme Parks off The Beaten Path

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Now that summer is in full swing, many families are enjoying time off with their kids to local theme parks. While most theme parks offer fun activities such as roller coaster rides and life-size cartoon characters, traditional theme parks are also a sore spot for for many parents – especially the long lines and endless junk food options.

But there are other kinds of theme parks that don’t have a single ride or cartoon characters. In fact, these theme parks are natural and off the beaten path… a must-experience opportunity for eco-minded families.

Take a Snuba in Aruba

Snuba diving at La Palma in Mexico

Snuba Diving at De Palm in Aruba

Aruba is not necessarily what you expect with a Caribbean Island. The striking shoreline, with rugged rock formations, is in sharp contrast to the desert like interior. The eco attractions start at the beautiful white sand beaches for which the island is known.

Located a quick 10 minutes off the coast is De Palm Island, an all-inclusive family friendly attraction with all-you-can-eat buffet and open bar, snorkeling, organized games on the beaches, banana boat rides, water park, a Sea Trek underwater helmet walk, snuba and (yes, parents) a massage – the last three activities mentioned have additional fees.

What you ask is snuba? One of the easiest and safest ways to experience the world’s underwater beauty without dive certification. There is no heavy dive gear – allowing you to glide effortlessly under the surface and witness coral formations and massive parrot fish. The minimum age to snuba is 8 years old.

In addition, there is the Atlantis submarine experience for Jacques Cousteau-like underwater travel in a very cool vehicle to depths of 130 feet. Back on the island there is a bird sanctuary, butterfly farm and the Aruba Ostrich Farm.  Finish off your stay by getting up close and personal with one of the members of  the largest bird species.

Prices start at $107 per adult and $79 per child for a full-day adventure. For reservations and more information, visit the De Palm Island website.

Become a Junior Ranger at Canyonlands

Needles area Canyonlands, Utah by Jesse Varner via creative commons

Needles Area Canyonlands, Utah by Jesse Varner via creative commons

The Needles district in the Canyonlands National Park in Utah is known as one of the most beautiful natural parks in the United States. This Southwest setting of towering boulders and rock outcroppings makes for a breathtaking backdrop for a family camping experience.

This district has several short trails appropriate for young children. The Discovery Packs offered by the park system, turn your kids into explorers with binoculars, a hand lens, naturalist guide and notebook. City slickers will find new meaning for the word pothole on Pothole Point – especially if the holes happen to be filled with water and a magical ecosystem living within. Kids can work towards a Junior Ranger badge by completing different tasks and activities. The neighboring campground offers all the facilities for a basic night under the stars, and there are enough other parks and trails in the area to easily fill up a week of summer vacation.

Prices start at $5 for individual entrance fee and $10 single vehicle entrance fee. Reservations can be made for camping overnight, backcountry permits, river permits and group camp permits. Find out more at Canyonlands National Park website.

The Original (and All-Natural) Theme Park at Xcaret

A natural river in Xcaret, Mexico

A Natural River at Xcaret in Mexico

Xcaret is an ecological park about 45 minutes from Cancun, Mexico in Riviera Maya. Here you will find underground rivers, natural pools and lots of action. It houses the Butterfly Pavilion (the first and largest butterfly breeding facility in Mexico with nearly 38,000 square feet of free flying space), and a coral reef aquarium where reef structures can be seen in their natural habitat. The facility has even set a Guinness World Record for having achieved the highest number of macaws born in the same facility during a year.

Xcaret is dedicated to promoting marine turtle conservation for the loggerhead and green sea turtle that nest every year in the Quintano Roo coastline. Examples of their commitment to sustainable practices can be seen in the 250 samples of eco-friendly sunblock they go through on a daily basis and the 160 tons of monthly compost used to fertilize the green areas.

At nighttime the place comes alive with performances rich in cultural heritage and lots of color that will take you back to the days of the Golden Age of the Maya. If you and your family like a larger resort-type vacation, with loads of different activities sure to please everyone, then this is the place for you.

Prices for full-day admission start at $89 for 12 years and up, free for kids 0-4, 50% off full price for kids 5-11. For more information, visit Xcaret’s website.

 Take a Hike in the Everglades

Everglades photo via Abir creative commons

Everglades photo via Abir creative commons

Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist in the same area.  With 1.5 million acres of a bio-diverse ecosystem, the southern tip of the Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness of saw grass prairie, jungle-like hammock and mangrove swamp.

Unfortunately, development in Florida threatens the park with a diversion of water, and its reflected in the loss of wildlife in the area. But there’s still plenty to see. Boat tours take you to spots where you will feel like you’ve just stepped into a movie set, and it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine the Seminole or Miccosukee people in the area.

Park Rangers are available for advice on how to spend your time there and with over 750 animal species and 1,000 plant varieties, there is plenty to choose from. There are many trails that will take you through different parts of the system and some are wheel chair accessible. Rent a canoe, kayak or take a tour in the backwater country. Stay in one of the campgrounds or a local B&B.

Prices start at $5 per pedestrian/cyclist or $10 per vehicle. For more information about programs or camping fees, visit Everglades National Park’s website.

Trek through the Largest Marine Park in Europe

Toscano Archipelago by Rick&Ste via crative commons

Arcipelago Toscano by Rick&Ste via creative commons

Most people travel to Italy for the food and culture, but did you know that the largest marine park in Europe sits just off the coast of Tuscany? Made up of seven islands, each with it’s own personal identity and characteristics, Arcipelago Toscano offer the opportunity to see various species of flora and fauna.

The island of Elba is recommended for snorkeling, and you can observe dolphins, swordfish and perhaps even a migratory whale if you’re lucky. There are hiking trails of all levels for the family and plenty of opportunity to work up an appetite for the delicious Italian fare that no doubt awaits your return. Many of the B&B’s in the area pay strict attention to an eco-code with an emphasis on nature and there are many festivals in the area for summer travel.

For more information, visit the Arcipelago Toscano website.

Share Your Travel Experiences

Have you made plans to travel to a natural park this summer? I’d love to hear about any additions you might have to add to the list of parks a bit off the beaten path.

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