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By Eileen Ogintz
The concertgoers are swaying to the music, clapping and crowding the stage so they can reach out and touch their favorite stars -- who happen to be giant furry characters named Elmo, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie.
Welcome to Beaches Resort in Turks and Caicos -- the family resort of the Sandals brand (www.beaches.com) -- where the littlest vacation goers like Milo Greenspan rule. Milo may only be four but he drove his family's vacation decision -- straight from Chicago to this resort. "He's been asking for the last two years to come to Elmo's Beach," explained his mom Catherine. "And if he's happy, I'm happy."
That's why the four all-inclusive Beaches resorts here and in Jamaica are operating at 80 percent or more capacity, despite an economy that continues to wreak havoc on the travel industry. There are as many as 10 weddings a day, including many that involve blended families. (So many weddings that they are about to launch new Martha Stewart-themed nuptial packages.) The resort also recently completed a $125 million expansion that includes Italian Village with some of the best-planned family rooms I've ever seen. (Think separate space for kids with bunk beds, video games, sink to brush their teeth and a door that you can close!)
In fact, this may be the only resort I've visited and chatting up guests where no one -- not one person -- had anything negative to say. "We've been here four days and we already booked for next year," said an enthusiastic John Balamenti. Visiting from New Jersey, Balamenti watched as his toddler, Gia, stared transfixed on "Sesame Street's" fairy in training, Abby Cadabby.
There are many resorts that offer amenities and activities for older children -- and this place has knockout facilities for tweens and teens too, including a
Even the new Pirates Island water park has a terrific area for little water lovers with mini slides, cannons and barrels spraying water, sprouting geysers and a lazy river.
And unlike cruise ships and other resorts the smoothies the kids crave at those swim-up bars, the camp activities -- even for the babies -- and the alcohol for the grown-ups are all part of the package. Even the mini bars are free, stocked with an assortment of juices, soft drinks, beer, wine and more. "You definitely get a lot for your money," says Leora Tiloccia back for her fifth visit from suburban New York with her 4-year-old daughter Leah. "There's always something to do, the food is good and there are always kids for Leah to play with."
Vacation packages taking as much as 65 percent off the rack rate certainly help too, as does the drop-dead location -- the resort is spread over 60 acres spank in the middle of a marine sanctuary with a white-sand beach that stretches for miles.
Did I mention the 16 restaurants, huge fitness center and spa, seven pools -- five with swim-up bars (virgin pina colada anyone?) and complimentary diving daily? And though this is a huge resort (633 rooms) it doesn't seem that big because there are three clusters or "villages" each with its own check-in, lobby, shops, pools and more.
The day I visited there were nearly 500 children at the resort, most of them under seven. (On busy vacation weeks, there might be 1,500 kids here!) Some were busy doing "camp" activities like playing in the kid-sized pool at Camp Sesame, doing art projects (Beaches has partnered with Crayola to ensure the latest art materials) or doing "beach science" like making "volcanoes" from baking soda, vinegar and dish detergent.
Other families were happily building sand castles on the beach, lazing in the pools getting a burger at Bobby D's, the '50s-style diner, or helping themselves to pasta or fresh grilled chicken at another restaurant where high chairs and kids' menus are always at the ready.
But all of this doesn't come cheap -- a week even with discounts can cost a family of four upwards of $4,000, but families told me they felt it was well worth the tab.
"They make it so easy," said Pittsburgh mom Nicole Dallas who is lining up to take pictures with her two young sons and Cookie Monster while her husband is out diving. "We could have gone to Mexico for half the price but it wouldn't be the same."
No worries either if you have a child with special needs or food issues. The resort welcomes special needs children into its programs -- as many as 10 a month, says Camp Sesame Manager Federline Julien. A "culinary concierge" is also on hand to arrange special meals whatever the issue -- peanut free, gluten free, sugar free -- at any of the resort restaurants. "We have kids who ate their first cookie here," says executive chef Colin Watson proudly. Watson is himself the father of two.
Matt Hawley, a registered nurse from Boston, meanwhile, busily took pictures of his two young daughters with the "Sesame Street" characters. His family could only afford the trip -- the family's first "big vacation" -- because he snared such a great deal. "We're living our dream vacation," he said. "On a lot of cold winter days, we'll be looking back thinking of this."
© Eileen Ogintz
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