Family trips just a short ride away

Children enjoy a giant kiss at Hershey Park, Children enjoy a giant kiss at Hershey Park, PA Photo Credit: Handout

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A family trip can be anxiety-inducing for Mom and Dad: There's the expense of transporting, feeding and entertaining the kids, plus the pressure of making the trip worth all the effort. Following are a few destinations, all a car ride from New York City, that can save you tension, time or money (and possibly all three).

ALL-INCLUSIVE

Rocking Horse Ranch

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The beauty of Rocking Horse Ranch (600 Rte. 44/55, Highland, N.Y.; 800-647-2624; rockinghorseranch.com) is that they take care of everything. Meals, baby-sitting, evening entertainment -- RHR handles it all, making your vacation feel like a vacation and not an obstacle course.

A cheerful Catskills-in-the-summer vibe pervades. Younger kids will love the pony rides, the bounce house, scavenger hunts and the indoor water park. Older children can escape their embarrassing parents for the day with activities such as rock (wall) climbing, miniature golf, archery and, of course, horseback riding. Adults looking to escape their brood for a few hours can indulge at the spa, go line-dancing or hit the happy hour. Evening brings the family back together with a communal dinner and entertainment options such as karaoke, magic shows and musical revues.

TIP Kids stay free April 15-19. Other package deals in April start with rates as low as $129 per adult a night, $49 a child a night.

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GETTING THERE Rocking Horse Ranch is 90 miles north of New York City, off the New York Thruway (I-87 North).

SWEET SUCCESS

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Hershey, Pa.

Families love Hershey, Pa., for two good reasons: There's an abundance of kid-friendly activities, and they're all within a mile of one another. You won't waste valuable vacation time consulting the GPS and schlepping from place to place, and you can easily hit several points of interest in a day.

Although there is certainly a focus on chocolate in this town, alternative forms of entertainment abound. The main draw here is Hershey Park (100 W. Hersheypark Dr.; 800-437-7439;

hersheypark.com ), a theme park with roller coasters and water rides. Hershey Park opens only sporadically for weekends in April, but come Memorial Day weekend, it's open seven days a week. Meanwhile, stop by Hershey Gardens (170 Hotel Rd.; 717-534-3492; hersheygardens.org ), where the Children's Garden features meandering pathways, a picnic area and interactive exhibits.

If you like your entertainment a bit more animated, there are bears, wolves, bald eagles and porcupines in residence at Zoo America (201 Park Ave.; 717-534-3900; zooamerica.com ). The Hershey Story (63 W. Chocolate Ave.; 717-534-3439 hersheystory.org ), a museum dedicated to the legacy of the Hershey empire, features "Museum Experience," with interactive activities such as quizzes and puzzles, while "Sweet Innovations" gives an inside look at the evolution of the company -- from the creation of the various confections to the packaging of them. If anyone in your group is burned out on all things chocolate (we're talking to you, Dad), switch gears and head to the impressive Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) Museum (161 Museum Dr.; 717-566-7100; aacamuseum.org ), where you can check out vintage race cars, alternative energy vehicles and a visiting exhibit, "Dusty Jewels: Off-Road Motorcycles."

If simplicity is integral to your getaway strategy, plan to stay at the Hotel Hershey (100 Hotel Rd.; 717-533-2171; thehotelhershey .com ), an all-inclusive luxury resort with a spa, golf, pool, shops, restaurants and kids programs. It's not cheap (spring rates start at $289 a night), but the amenities are endless. There's also Hershey Lodge (325 University Dr.; 717-533-3311; hersheylodge.com ), where the accommodations are more than adequate for a family and include Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs, and refrigerators. A pool, a Wii Room, tennis courts and restaurants also are on-site. With rates starting at $219 a night, it will be hard to do better around town for the same level of accommodation.

TIP Both hotels offer spring package deals. Kids Stay, Play & Eat Free (May 3-24); and Family Fun (through May 24) combine hotel stays with admissions to Hershey Park, Hershey Gardens, The Hershey Story and more.

GETTING THERE Hershey is 160 miles west of New York City. Most of the distance is covered on I-78 West.

FARTHER AFIELD

Washington, D.C.

The nation's capital is one of the best family destinations on the East Coast. Not only because of its renowned cultural institutions and historical significance, but because so much of what D.C. has to offer is free. Unlike similar institutions in New York, the Smithsonian makes art, history and culture available to everyone at no cost. Museums such as the National Air and Space Museum (Independence Avenue at Sixth Street; 202-633-1000; nasm.si.edu); the National Museum of Natural History (10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; 202-633-1000; mnh.si.edu), with the cool new prehistoric exhibit "Titanboa: Monster Snake," and the National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-633-4888; nationalzoo .si.edu), featuring "Kids Farm Month" in April, are some of the best.

Two places worth shelling out a few bucks for admission are the Spy Museum (800 F St. NW; 202-393-7798; spymuseum.org ) and the Newseum (555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 888-639-7386; newseum.org ), whose permanent exhibitions include NBC News Interactive Newsroom and the temporary exhibits "First Dogs: Presidential Pets in the White House," and "Blood and Ink: Front Pages From the Civil War" (both running through 2012).

A visit this month will coincide with the National Cherry Blossom Festival (through April 27; nationalcherryblossomfestival.org ). Peak bloom may be past because of the warm spring, but events such as the Festival Parade (next Saturday) and Jazz at the Jefferson (April 19-22) are still fun and free.

There's a lot of ground to cover in D.C., so choose your hotel wisely. A good downtown choice, within 10 minutes of the National Mall is the L'Enfant Plaza (480 L'Enfant Plaza SW; 202-484-1000; lenfantplazahotel.com ). Great views, kids' programs and an outdoor pool add to its appeal (weekend rates start at $109; weekdays, $389 and up). Also downtown, close to Dupont Circle and Georgetown is Embassy Suites (1250 22nd St. NW; 202-857-3388; washington dc.embassysuites.com; weekday rates from the mid-$300s; weekends, mid-$200s.) In Dupont Circle, the hip boutique Hotel Helix (1430 Rhode Island Ave.; 202-462-9001; hotelhelix.com ) has family rooms with bunk beds (rates start at $99 and go up to $500). All these hotels have great spring package deals, so be sure to inquire when you reserve.

TIP Gray Line New York (graylinenewyork.com) is offering one-day trips to D.C. during the Cherry Blossom Festival. For $149 a ticket, the trip includes travel to Capitol Hill, a visit to Madame Tussauds; a look at the Capitol, Senate and White House and the Lincoln, Jefferson and Vietnam memorials; and a visit to the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum.

The Washington Metro (wmata.com) offers unlimited daily and weekly fare cards.

GETTING THERE Washington, D.C., is 225 miles south of New York City. The most direct route is via I-95. Traffic can be brutal along this thoroughfare, so plan to travel at off-hours, if possible.

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