If you have to travel to see family for any distance, I recommend finding a city/town about half way through (assuming the trip is 4-6 hours. For longer trips, look into areas to stop every 2-3 hours) and looking into what is available there. We have a 4 hour trip to see family, so we stop at the half-way point, which also happens to be a major city, and we used to go to a really nice park we found if the weather was nice. It let the kids run around and burn off energy, though it didn't do much for me or for hubby.
Finally, we realized that the city's zoo was actually only a few miles away from that park. We purchased a membership to that zoo, and now we stop at the zoo every time, going to and from family. We pick a different area of the zoo to go to each time so we don't over-do it with two young children, but they get to see animals, burn off some energy, and it's educational. Even when it's really cold, we have things to do. There are inside areas to view certain animals during colder weather, as well as an aquarium.
The zoo has a reciprocal membership at other zoos, so we get 50% off at the zoos nearer to us. We rarely go that direction, so it's actually worth it for us to have this half-way point membership instead of one closer to us. Another deciding factor was that we wouldn't have to pay parking at this zoo ($8!), but with a reciprocal membership from a different zoo, we would. We'd rather pay the $3 once or twice a year at our local zoo than $8 every visit at this zoo (which would be roughly 10 visits a year).
Don't forget that zoos offer special events sometimes, such as trick-or-treating and holiday light shows! We will be taking the kids to the light shows this next trip, and we took them trick-or-treating at the zoo the last trip. Of course, most of what the kids got are things we don't let them eat, but there were a surprising amount of things like trail mix bars that were given out, and they were a big hit with the kids! We went through the candy to separate what they could and couldn't have (plain chocolate was fine, artificial colours are not) and then gave away what they couldn't have. They were more excited about going around in costume, anyway!
We also have a little notebook we made of various exits along our trip and what is available in terms of stores, gas stations, and changing areas. I do have a few things marked "dirty restrooms" and "no changing areas/not kid friendly" so we know not to stop there. I included places like retail stores so that we know where we can stop if we need something (and also let the kids stretch their legs). I know that everyone has GPS or smart phones and can look up places, but it's probably not going to tell you if it has changing rooms or how dirty the bathrooms are. That's why I keep a little notebook in the car with that info.
I hope you all have a lovely time this holiday season!
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