Kids at Goldfield Ghost TownPhotos Mesa CVB

By Josephine Matyas

In an ideal world, the family that travels together is open to a world of adventure, shared experiences, happy memories and lifelong bonding. In the real world of family travel, things present more of a challenge (think: cranky toddlers, dining disasters and a lack of appropriate activities). But some destinations are a better, more natural fit for family travel – and Mesa is definitely one of those special spots.

Named one of the most family-friendly communities in the United States by KaBOOM! (a national non-profit dedicated to fostering play for children), Mesa is chock-full of unique, different and playful ways to keeps kids entertained and engaged on vacation. And the family market is a much sought-after sector: adults with kids in tow make up almost one-third of adult leisure travellers, taking an average of almost five family trips each year.

Where Exactly Is Mesa?
Juts minutes from Phoenix airport, Mesa has been dubbed “the nation’s largest suburb”; a city known for its low key and laid back lifestyle. The third largest city in the state, Mesa joined with neighbouring Chandler, Tempe and Apache Junction to promote themselves as Sunny Arizona…and it’s a tagline that hits the mark! Mesa’s unbeatable year-round weather and beauty of the surrounding landscape are a hit with Canadian travellers – including families that will find countless attractions, shopping stops and great eats at kid-friendly restaurants.

Head For The Outdoors
It’s hard not to head outdoors – something that is a welcome change for housebound-weary parents. Mesa’s landscape combines the best of the magical Sonoran Desert (a high desert of springtime blooms, towering cacti and desert critters) with the surrounding Tonto National Forest, the fifth largest and one of the most-visited “urban” forests in the country. Together, the desert and the forest make one fantastic outdoor playground for nature lovers and outdoors sports enthusiasts.

Red Mountain Family HikingPhotos Mesa CVB

Locals love Usery Mountain Regional Park’s 50-kilometres of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding – and they’re happy to share them with visitors. Desert programming at the park’s new Nature Center introduces kids to the unique high desert ecosystem. Budding naturalists can’t help but be entranced by stargazing sessions, scorpion hunts, full-moon hikes and hide-and-seek walks.

Salt River tubingPhotos Mesa CVBThe special Children’s Garden at Boyce Thompson Arboretum offers a hands-on, desert experience to challenge and strengthen the senses through four interactive stations – Texture, Color, Sound and Scent. Kids can learn how rainbows are formed, feel their way through a dark cave and learn to identify the sounds of desert creatures.

Just east of Mesa, the twisty Salt River is the spot to cool off on a hot summer’s day. Tubers float down the mountain stream waters of the Salt River while keeping an eye out for wildlife like wild horses and majestic great blue herons. There are three lakes and several rivers within minutes of downtown Mesa, opening a world of rafting, inner tubing, kayaking, water skiing and wake boarding.
For a cliffhanger of a road trip, the narrow, steep Apache Trail winds for 70 kilometres from Apache Junction, past the quirky Old West stagecoach stop of Tortilla Flat (population: six) to the Roosevelt Dam. Parents can leave the white-knuckle drive to the pros at Apache Trail Tours and join a jeep tour along this road that has been lauded as one of America’s most scenic drives.

Goldfield Ghost Town TrainPhotos Mesa CVB

Parks & Family Attractions
If the day is a scorcher, best head to Golfland Sunsplash, Mesa’s premier waterpark with waterslides, a wave pool, toddler’s pool and family-friendly games like laser tag, miniature golf and bumper boats. Open year round, Wednesday nights offer special family rates with one-price unlimited mini golf, laser tag and video games.

There’s a reason Mesa was named one of the nation’s most playful cities, and it includes the city’s play centres with games from traditional to high-tech. Amazing Jake’s Food & Fun is an indoor amusement park (a perfect rainy day activity) with go-carts, laser tag, mini-golf, rock climbing, bumper cars, bowling and a mini roller coaster. Stratum Laser Tag – the world’s largest technotainment arena – features state of the art sound, lights and technology in a massive 15-level arena of ramps, towers and bridges.

Mesa’s temperate climate means it’s growing season year-round, so visits to family farms and producers are a great way to pass a day and help kids to reconnect with the source of their favourite foods. One of Mesa’s original citrus growers – Orange Patch – offers special tours, and fresh, sun-ripened oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit in springtime. In the winter months, the 44 hectares of citrus groves are filled with fragrant blossoms.

Queen Creek Mill patioPhotos Mesa CVB
The combination of long sunny days and cool nights of the desert make the ideal climate for growing…olives! On the outskirts of Mesa, the Queen Creek Olive Mill offers farm tours, olive oil tasting and an onsite Mediterranean bistro.

And that most family-friendly of all food groups – ice cream – takes centre stage at Udder Delights Ice Cream, a part of Superstition Farm. In addition to the ice cream bar (which includes a wacky selection of flavours from cotton candy to Key lime pie), this working dairy farm has a petting zoo where kids get to touch the wings, hooves and paws of their favourite farm animals.

Along the famous Apache Trail, the Goldfield Ghost Town sits on an original 1880s prospecting site, but these days it’s all about retelling the rich history of the days of the Gold Rush. The Old West setting is fun for kids to pan for gold, watch a staged gunfight and go below the surface on an underground mine tour.

Great Museums
Banish the thought of boring museums with dusty display cases. Mesa’s museums are filled with interactive displays to draw kids into the world of natural history, the arts and modern day technology.

Inside the Arizona Museum of Natural History kids can walk among the giant skeletons in Dinosaur Hall, experience a flash flood crashing down a three-storey mountain, learn about deep space through pictures from the Hubble Telescope and dabble hands-on at the Exploration Station. The museum hosts A Night at the Museum events with themed activities, a movie and snacktime.

The Arizona Museum for Youth aims to educate children on the principles and techniques of art. Upcoming exhibitions include the art of Warner Brother’s cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, and a look at all things that fly.

Older kids may find the astronomy nights at the Mesa Planetarium very cool. Arizona is known for some of the world’s best night sky viewing – on the first Friday of each month the planetarium hosts complimentary, guided telescope viewing.

Cool Shopping
Mesa and its neighbouring communities are well known for their expansive lifestyle shopping centres, funky shops and upscale boutiques. There are even a few unique shopping stops for tweens and young kids with a little allowance to spend.

Girly Girlz, at the Dana Park Village Square, has shelves lined with thousands and thousands of girly items, funky room décor, slumber party must-haves and glitzy accessories.

Mrs. Potts Tea Party, in downtown Mesa, is home to customized, leisurely tea parties done with traditional flair. Girls can choose from over 250 dresses, 80 hats and 100 hairpieces to dress up for party time.

The shopping is a little more eclectic at the colourful Mesa Market Place Swap Meet – two kilometres of covered shopping lanes with 1,600 booths hawking everything from vintage games to the original Red Dirt Shirts from Sedona (featured on the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs).

Filling Tummies
Being named one of the country’s most play-friendly cities means that Mesa has an eye to the refuelling needed to keep kids in a happy mood. A wide variety of restaurants cater to toddlers, tweens and teens, often adding a dash of entertainment to the mix!

For music and a meal, the 6,000 pipes, xylophones, glockenspiels and countless traps of the 1927 Wurlitzer organ at the Organ Stop Pizza make the restaurant a favourite of kids, parents and grandparents (in addition to the awesome organ, there’s a build-your-own pizza menu)

Just outside Mesa, the Rockin’ R Ranch pioneer homestead serves up barbecue beef and chicken dinners, alongside staged gunfights, wagon rides, gold panning and western stage shows.

The line-up this winter at the Broadway Palm’s Children’s Theatre includes classics like The Nutcracker and School House Rock Live! It can be a “dinner and theatre” outing for kids at the theatre’s luncheon buffet of sliders, corndogs, macaroni and cheese, pizza and chicken fingers.

The kids may already know all about Sweet Cakes Café, featured on TLC’s Best Food Ever. The bakery is known for its scratch-made, plate-size cookies in flavours like chocolate chip,, peanut butter M&M and Snickerdoodle.

There’s More
• The pocketsize Sunny Arizona Family Guide is available online at or by calling 800-283-6734.
• Every year, Canadians staying in Arizona celebrate their home country at the family-friendly Great Canadian Picnic. It’s on February 4, 2012 at the South Mountain Park Preserve – and there will be tons of family-oriented games.
• Golf is still front and centre in this part of Arizona – thanks to year-round playing conditions. Many courses and resorts offer specials specifically for Canadians and services to help teach and groom young golfers.

Easy Access
• WestJet offers daily non-stop service from Calgary and has launched seasonal service to Phoenix from Kelowna and Victoria.
• US Airways flies non-stop service from Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to Phoenix.
• Air Canada has non-stop service from Toronto to Phoenix
• Allegiant Air flies from border towns Bellingham, WA, Great Falls, MT and Grand Forks and Fargo, ND to Mesa.

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