There are many factors that define a great youth destination, from affordability to family-friendly attractions and walkable downtowns. Travel planners looking for a reputable venue to host their next youth conference or retreat should consider these five prominent cities that frequently welcome family and youth travelers.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, draws more than 10 million visitors each year as one of America’s most beloved family destinations. This charming mountain retreat is home to a diverse range of attractions and entertainment, from beautiful trails and waterfalls in the national park to award-winning museums, dinner shows and restaurants.
“We have so much to offer our youth,” said Joy McNealy, senior sales manager at the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “We host outstanding youth conferences at the LeConte Center throughout the year, and while they’re here attending the conferences, they can visit Dollywood, dinner attractions and shows.”
Since the Smokies are within driving distance of 75 percent of the country’s population, it is no wonder why so many youth organizations gravitate to the city. Event planners can take advantage of the state-of-the-art, 232,000-square-foot LeConte Center overlooking Little Pigeon River, and attendees can easily explore the surrounding area through the city trolley system, which makes more than 100 stops in Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg.
During the colder months of the year, groups can escape the elements at indoor attractions like the Titanic Museum, the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, WonderWorks, the Hollywood Wax Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium, TopJump Trampoline and Extreme Arena, and the new Pigeon Forge Snow, an indoor snowboarding and tubing facility. Pigeon Forge also offers performance opportunities for student groups at local theaters and annual events like the Music in the Mountains Spring Parade, which attracts student bands from all over the country.
Established on the banks of the Mississippi River during the age of western expansion, St. Louis is famous for its lively music venues, mouthwatering barbecue and towering riverfront landmark, the Gateway Arch.
“We’re known for the three b’s: baseball, blues and barbecue,” said Anthony Paraino, director of communications at Explore St. Louis. “Kids love to come here because St. Louis is a very historic town, and you can learn while you’re having fun.”
Built in 1963 as the largest man-made monument in the country, the Gateway Arch is an iconic attraction for St. Louis visitors. Also known as the Gateway to the West, the 630-foot, stainless-steel arch pays homage to the western expansion of the United States. Groups can ride an elevator up 63 stories to see the incredible view at the top overlooking the city and the Mississippi River.
The museum and surrounding grounds recently underwent a $380 million renovation, unveiling new exhibits and other interactive features. One of the projects involved building pedestrian access from downtown St. Louis to the Gateway Arch and Mississippi riverfront.
“It really transformed the entire visitor experience,” said Paraino. “We always like to call the Arch the front door to St. Louis.”
Young visitors will find various forms of entertainment throughout the Gateway City, which hosts the largest collection of free attractions in the country outside of Washington, D.C. Some of these highlights include the St. Louis Science Center, the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis Zoo. One distinct attraction that groups will not want to miss is the City Museum, a 600,000-square-foot playground for all ages built inside a former shoe factory. This eccentric funhouse is constructed almost entirely of found objects, including old chimneys, salvaged bridge parts, construction cranes and two abandoned planes.
Celebrated as the birthplace of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Philadelphia provides a vibrant, historic setting for student trips. Visitors can trace the footsteps of the nation’s forefathers to treasured attractions like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, or delve deeper into history at some of the city’s world-class museums. Among these acclaimed institutions are the National Constitution Center, the Museum of the American Revolution, the National Museum of American Jewish History and the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the first major museum in the country dedicated to showcasing the heritage and culture of African-Americans.
As travelers wander the colorful streets, they will also discover a thriving arts scene and culinary culture throughout the city, from the beautiful shops and fine-dining restaurants around Rittenhouse Square to the Old City Arts District along the riverfront, which features more than 30 art galleries and 80 eateries.
“The ambiance of the city is quite unique for a Northeastern city. It’s a very dynamic, evolving destination,” said Jim DePhilippo, group tourism manager at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
One immersive experience that young groups often enjoy is a special tour called Independence After Hours, which begins with an 18th-century-inspired dinner at City Tavern restaurant. Afterward, participants are led to Independence Hall, where they watch and listen as costumed actors discuss the Declaration of Independence from the perspectives of notable figures like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
One of Ohio’s most dynamic destinations, the city of Cleveland developed along Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, leading it to flourish as a major manufacturing crossroads around the start of the 20th century. By 1920, it was the fifth-largest city in America. Today, visitors will find a beautiful spread of parks, restaurants, public art and performing-arts venues throughout the area, in addition to affordable hotels and dining.
“We’re large enough to generate that big-city excitement but small enough to make it easy to get around, said Kristen Jantonio, communications specialist at Destination Cleveland.
Cleveland is also home to the world’s only Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cleveland’s ties to the genre trace back to Cleveland radio deejay Alan Freed, who first coined the phrase “rock and roll” in 1951. Overlooking the shoreline of Lake Erie, the impressive seven-story museum explores rock history, culture and impact through interactive exhibits, videos, memorabilia and more.
Adjacent to the Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center provides another interactive educational opportunity for students, where they can learn about science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM sciences — through hands-on exhibits and activities.
Theater lovers will feel right at home in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, the second-largest performing-arts complex in the country after Lincoln Center in New York City. Showcasing Broadway, comedy, dance, concerts, family shows and more, these award-winning playhouses often work with student groups to organize events, workshops and classes.
For faith-based groups, Destination Cleveland can help planners organize a custom itinerary around the city that highlights religious sites such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Museum of Divine Statues.
Spanning more than 70 miles of sunny coastline along the Pacific Ocean, San Diego features some of the state’s most picturesque locations for outdoor recreation, from surfing and stand-up paddleboarding in the sea to mountain biking and hiking in the mountainous peaks surrounding the city. San Diego also acts as the home base for nationally recognized theme parks like SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Legoland California and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
“There are so many different activities you can do here, and that’s what really sets us apart from other destinations,” said Candice Eley, director of communications at the San Diego Tourism Authority. “There’s not just one thing that stands out, like entertainment in Las Vegas or theme parks in Southern California. We cater to everyone’s tastes.”
In Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the United States, young travelers can relish culture and nature in one splendid location. Beyond the property’s lush grounds, fountains and gardens are 17 museums that highlight a range of subjects, from dinosaurs to space travel and automobiles.
Groups can explore some of the city’s lovely historic buildings and boutique shops in Old Town San Diego. Because it was the first settlement in California, Old Town is often referred to as the Birthplace of California, and travelers can learn about early state history as they visit significant sites such as the Heritage Park Victorian Village, El Campo Santo Cemetery, the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the Whaley House, a historic residence deemed the most haunted house in America by the Travel Channel.