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Super Kids' Programs at Family Resorts

What makes a good kids' program? Leafing through the tour books, parents see groups of smiling tots, kids riding inflatable dragons around a lake-size pool, or siblings cavorting in flippers and masks? But do these photos reflect the reality? We once booked two weeks at a Jamaican resort that promised "free day care." The day care turned out to be "Ivy," a local girl who would build sand castles with the kids on the beach or, if it was raining, play endless games of Candyland in the hotel lobby. We loved Ivy and appreciated the occasional break from the demands of two preschoolers. But Ivy's thatched hut on the beach, barely big enough to orchestrate a game of pogs, was not what most parents would call "Day Care."

At the other end of the activity spectrum are the hyped-up programs we've encountered filled with Nintendo, ice cream sundaes, and pillow fights. The kids may have a rip-roaring time bashing each other with large foam pieces, waching movies, and stuffing themselves with pink-colored popcorn. But why bother spending so much money to bring them thousands of miles to do what you wouldn't want them doing for a whole day at home, let alone a week? It's wise to ask your travel agent a few pertinent questions-What are the kids club's main activities? Do the caregivers have ECE (Early Childhood Education) training? What is the child/caregiver ratio? Can parents participate? Is there time set aside for spontaneous fun or is every moment geared to activities?-before booking into a program that will have your kid either bouncing off the walls or clinging to you all week.

Happily, there are some great family resorts that know what makes a well-balanced activity week for kids. For those readers who have been asking where they should take the family this winter, here are a few suggestions:

BOSCOBEL BEACH, JAMAICA: This was the first all-inclusive family resort in the Caribbean and it still serves as a model today. Their SuperNanny program lets kids two to 16 learn about reggae music, tie-dye T-shirts, snorkel in the Olympic-size pool or feed the goats in the petting zoo. The good news is that families with three or more kids will appreciate the comfy suites (cribs and cots are free); the bad news is that with up to 600 kids on the premises, you may go crazy in this kiddie-happy atmosphere. Luckily, "adult-only" areas give parents a breather. Kids under 14 stay, eat, and play for free (one kid per adult). A Christmas week package costs about $2759, meals included.

FDR (FRANKLIN D. RESORT), JAMAICA: Here's a childcare program with parental bliss at heart: every one- and two-bedroom suite comes with a "Girl Friday" who will play with the kids, feed the baby, help with the laundry, cook meals in the equipped kitchenette-in other words, help with whatever needs doing. There's also a Kiddies' Centre with a computer centre and satellite TV, a separate pool, and donkey rides. The good news is that the suites accommodate up to 4 adults and 3 children so that two families can share; the bad news is that the beach is not the best on the island. But both kids and adults will enjoy the free bicycles and outings. Children under 16 stay, play, and eat free. A Christmas week package is about $2399, meals included.

CHEECA LODGE, FLORIDA KEYS: Your environmentally-friendly kid, the one who tells you to not to run the water while you're brushing your teeth, will love this place. They recycle everything, even water, and dim beach lights at night (although this is as much for the nesting turtles as for the energy savings). Camp Cheeca for ages six to 12 offers a nature-based program that has kids building habitats, fishing and releasing, and learning about sea turtles and island ecology. The good news is that you won't feel guilty about your kids missing a week of school; the bad news is that some sports options such as kayaking and biking cost extra. Cheecha Lodge will also pick up guests at the Miami airport, a 75-mile drive, for a fee. Camp Cheeca starts at $14 U.S. for half days.

ATLANTIS, PARADISE ISLAND, BAHAMAS: We checked out this sprawling new resort last March break and even the kids were impressed. Part hotel, part ocean theme park, Atlantis boasts waterfalls, tube rides along a lazy river, swimming pools, walk-through aquarium tanks, a man-made lagoon, a white sand beach and a 3 million gallon saltwater habitat with over 100 species of tropical fish. Smaller kids have their own water park. The good news is during holiday time, Camp Paradise has planned activities for kids five to 12 until 11 p.m; the bad news is that kids may never want to leave the premises and camp activities cost up to $45 U.S. per day. Kids under 17 stay free; kids under 5 eat free. A Christmas package is about $1729, no meals.

CLUB MED: Family camp counsellors are experts at what makes kids happy. Circus school will see your five-year-old swinging on a trapeze within days while older kids can learn to scuba or windsurf for the first time. As one mother said, "My kids thought they'd died and gone to heaven." The Baby Club in Florida welcomes infants as young as four months while Huatulco, Mexico, gives teens their own club house and activities. The good news is their Single Parenthood Programs; the bad news is that Kids Free weeks are for under 5 only, families of five may have to split up in some places, and holiday weeks are booked up ahead. Ask about the adventurous Family Escape that runs outside of holidays. Pay a fee starting at $1195 (for those over 12) and find out if you're headed to Bahamas, Mexico, Florida, or the Dominican Republic a week before departure. A Christmas package runs about $2499 (12 and over) including meals.





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