Fuss-Free Family Reunions

by Lisa Oppenheimer

On paper, it was a brilliant idea. My brother and I, residents of opposite coasts, planned a family reunion several years ago that would allow spouses and children to get to know each other. A theme park would be perfect. We’d ride the rides by day, enjoy quiet time with wine and cheese by night. What is it they say about the best-laid plans?

On our first day at California’s Legoland, we waited 45 minutes together for our inaugural ride. That was the last time we saw each other. Four children with multiple interests kept our families apart virtually the rest of the trip. And we made a crucial error: We didn’t share accommodations, which kept us from even catching up at bedtime. Meaningful conversations? They took place late at night—via telephone. For that, I could have stayed home and forked over a nickel a minute to Verizon.

It’s not that our little rendezvous was bad, it just wasn’t the warm, fuzzy gathering we’d hoped for. While it would seem that reunions require no more than finding the place and assembling the family in it, there is really more of a science to it than that. The following are some things to keep in mind if you’re planning a reunion:

Ponder the Age Spread

“You want to go somewhere that has activities for all ages,” says Pam Brown, a specialist in family reunions at Gatherings Plus (reunionpro.com) in Branson, Missouri.

Our first mistake, she says, was failing to take into account the age spread of our charges. Two school-aged girls (mine) and two preschool boys (theirs) meant widely divergent theme-park interests—not to mention height restrictions. Rides that were suitable for the younger ones were deemed “boring” by the others. And who could begrudge any of them skipping long lines that held no reward at the other end?

A better idea would have been a more placid environment—a beach, perhaps—that we could have enjoyed as a group. However, as Brown concurs, you don’t want to overdo the group dynamic, either. If you have everyone in the same place all the time, you’re going to get sick of each other.

A more successful gathering would have built-in options for different ages, with set meeting times for the group. A theme park might work as a day trip for teens who can go off on their own. You might take young children to the zoo, older children to a water park, and then meet up later for dinner.

Consider a Villa

You’ll see each other most if you share the same accommodations. But such closed quarters can be tricky. Sharing one roof, depending on the size of your group, might be best accomplished at some sort of a villa. Sure, it’s a splurge. But in Jamaica, for example, many multi-bedroom villas come with pool and staff (food, laundry, etc.), satisfying myriad requirements. That you’ll likely be removed from the cloistered resort atmosphere (as most villas are) might make some visitors uncomfortable.

Closer to home, many a reunion has been staged in and around Walt Disney World. Mickey himself rents out villas for up to 12 travelers in two on-site timeshare properties (just be sure to take into account the above tips for theme-park visiting). You’ll get a kitchen and laundry plus resort perks.

Many such setups exist in lake districts around the country. Woodloch Pines, in the Poconos, rents two- to five-bedroom houses as well as more traditional hotel rooms (homes are about two miles away from the resort; call 800/572—6658 for information). You also will find limitless online listings for villas and other domiciles. Some companies will weed through this information for you. At Cyberrentals.com, for example, you can search for available properties worldwide.

If you do go villa, decide in advance who gets the master suite. If you cannot reach a decision, donate it to some of the older kids; among other things, you’ll love the fact that their war-torn bathroom will be blissfully out of sight.

Reunion Rules

No matter what you do, consider the following advice.

Integrate down time. Swimming holes—pool, ocean, puddle—are perfect spots for grownups to catch up while kids entertain themselves (with supervision, of course). For especially large groups, Brown likes to book a hospitality room as neutral territory where the gang can retreat to eat, gab, and relax.

The latter, of course, will require a caterer—and a hotel. True, the hotel route might detract from the homey feel of family-style meals around the table, but it also eliminates arguments over who does the cooking, grocery shopping, and cleaning. “Doing all the work,” says Brown, “is a great way to ruin a vacation.”

Strive for equidistance. It might not always be possible. But it will be worth it to keep Uncle George from seething because he flew seven connections from Maine while Aunt Martha drove only six miles from Dubuque.

Arrange child care. You want to keep kids entertained, or they’re going to drive everybody nuts. Enough said.

Plan ahead. If you want to see a show and you’re planning to sit with your relatives (rather than alongside the beer-scented man with the postnasal drip), you need to book the seats well in advance. Brown books hotels, flights, and other arrangements months, even years, ahead; she and other service providers can keep you posted about tickets for activities and attractions as they become available.

Bring mementos and photos to create a family tree. Assemble the tree in a common area, such as a hospitality room. It will be a blast to create and look at throughout the reunion. Before you all scatter to the four winds, you can make a family activity out of turning the tree into a souvenir book and then photocopying it for everyone. If you have the opportunity to develop photos shot during the reunion before you all disperse, all the better to add these to the scrapbook.

Shoot a good group photo. Amateur shutterbugs are fine, but chipping in for the hiring of a professional photographer is money well spent.