As the summer sun sets, the change of seasons is not far behind. Fall begins on September 22, and with it comes special events, festivals, and a cornucopia of travel deals. We harvested five trips, each with a distinct personality that will open your family's eyes to boundless discovery — from a spectacular hot air balloon ride to the simple beauty of the changing leaves. Plus, we found comfy local lodgings and places to eat. Ready to taste the crisp autumn air?
Down on the Farm: Northeastern Connecticut
What to do: Pumpkins, apples, scarecrows, cider . . . you'll find these classics in northeastern Connecticut, appropriately called the Quiet Corner because it's full of sleepy farmland and tiny, charming towns. Start off at the Creamery Brook Bison farm in Brooklyn (860-779-0837), where 7 days a week you can wander the property to visit cows, chickens, peacocks, and emus. Some Saturday afternoons in September and October (call for dates), you can hop a wagon ride to see the bison herd out back.
Next, drive north about 30 minutes to the Horse Listeners Orchard in Ashford (860-429-5336) to pick your own fruits, veggies, or pumpkins. While you're there, say hello to Hannah and Irish, the two magnificent horses for which the place is named. Farther south in Griswold, a hot air balloon ride with the Eastern Connecticut Balloon crew is a pricey (but spectacular) experience (860-376-5807; $200 per person; ages 8-80). The funny and friendly team will get you gracefully into the air, where you'll pick leaves from treetops, take in a magnificent view, and wave to passersby below — who'll wave back!
Where to stay: We love the Safe Haven B&B in Hampton (860-455-1101). It's on an alpaca farm with plenty of outdoor space to frolic and explore, and it's run by kind folks who make the best breakfasts around.
Where to eat: The Vanilla Bean Café in Pomfret is where it's at (860-928-1562). This eclectic little hot spot offers outdoor patio seating through October and chili that can't be beat. For a slightly more upscale experience, check out the café's sister restaurant, 85 Main in Putnam (860-928-1660).
Soak Up the City: Philadelphia, PA
What to do: October 18 marks the grand reopening of the Please Touch Museum — one of the nation's most beloved kids' museums since 1976 — in its new, much larger home: Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park (215-963-0667). This palatial building has become a dream-like world of colorful and innovative exhibits for kids and their fun-loving parents.
Another way to enjoy the nation's first capital is by way of guided history tour. Our top choices are Independence After Hours (215-629-4026) and the Philadelphia Trolley Works (215-389-8687). On the first, you and kids 10 and up dine at historic City Tavern, "sneak" into Independence Hall, and finish with the Lights of Liberty show. The second allows families to hop on and off a trolley at will to see popular historic attractions. Tour or no, make sure to take a quick stroll down Elfreth's Alley (215-925-0560), the country's oldest continuously inhabited residential street.
Where to stay: Right in the oldest part of town is the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel. The location is fabulous (it's within walking distance from many spots you'll want to visit), and it's quiet, clean, and comfortable. Look into the Philly Overnight package offered at this and a number of other hotels in the area (gophila.com; 800-537-7676). It includes two nights' accommodations, free parking, and a teddy bear.
Where to eat: First stop: Reading Terminal Market. Inside this ancient marketplace, you'll find a smorgasbord of gastronomical delights, including Thai, seafood, Italian, barbecue — take your pick. We recommend the traditional Amish: There's nothing like a soft pretzel hot from the oven. For a casual family restaurant, try Jones (215-627-1060), which has stellar mac 'n' cheese.
Celebrate in the Rockies: Denver, CO
What to do: Say, "Happy birthday, Denver!" The Mile High City turns 150 this year, and November is party time. From November 7 to 22, many museums and attractions are offering free admission and activities. There is also a variety of festivals, sporting events, and free birthday cake for sweet-toothed celebrants. When you're worn out from all of that revelry, head to the hills (for a little reverie). The weather now is mild, clear, and breezy, and hiking among the Aspens is one of the most wonderful things you and your young explorers can do to relax together.
Where to stay: For a breathtaking view of the Rockies, request a room facing west at the JW Marriott at Cherry Creek (303-316-2700). This (affordable!) luxury hotel offers two great money-savers: the Easy Escape and Family Fun packages (each starts at $235 per night), including perks like gas vouchers, discounts at popular kids' destinations, and more. For other deals, check into the Mile High Holidays offerings starting November 1. Nightly rates start as low as $52.80 (honoring Denver's famous altitude of 5,280 feet).
Where to eat: For a sweet snack or light lunch, pop by the House of Commons (303-455-4832), an authentic English tearoom specializing in tea (of course), finger sandwiches, and scrumptious scones. For dinner, the Aquarium Restaurant rocks (303-561-4450). It may feel odd to eat seafood in an aquarium, but don't worry — your main course was never the main attraction in the big, beautiful tanks overlooking your dinner table at this exciting spot.
Life on the Lake: Sandpoint, ID
What to do: Some people think potatoes when Idaho is mentioned. We confess: We did, too — until we headed to Sandpoint, a small mountain town with a laid-back Western feel, on the Idaho panhandle about an hour and a half northeast of Spokane, WA. Located on Lake Pend Oreille (the fifth deepest lake in the United States), Sandpoint offers stunning natural scenery and plenty of opportunities for low-key, lake-based fun, even into the cooler months.
Fish for trout with Diamond Charters (800-487-6886), the local one-man show offering half- or full-day trips. The colorful captain, Ed Dickson, has years of experience and boatloads of wild stories. Weekends from September 20 to October 26, board the Shawnodese (208-255-5253) for a fall foliage tour that includes a bald eagle sanctuary. For those with weak sea legs, hoofing it is equally terrific. Sandpoint takes pride in being a walking town, so you'll fit right in as you stroll the paths along the water's edge or picnic on Sandpoint City Beach. The weather here is often mild through October, making a day (or three) by the shore irresistible.
Where to stay: Sitting right on City Beach, the Best Western Edgewater Resort (208-263-3194) has all waterfront rooms, so you're guaranteed a truly unbeatable view. We're also crazy about the Schweitzer Mountain Resort (877-487-4643), roughly 20 minutes north of town. This relaxed ski resort is slow this time of year, but the hot tubs, hiking, and mountain biking are available. Plus you can find rates as low as $135 per night.
Where to eat: We thought New York's pizza was unbeatable until we tried the pies at The Loading Dock (202½ N. First Ave.; 208-265-8080) and Bab's Pizzeria (208-265-7992). Try MickDuff's (208-255-4351), a family pub and brewery, for burgers and chicken strips. Don't skip the sweets at Hey, Cupcake! (204 N. 1st Ave.; 208-265-6767).
Something for Everyone: Orlando, FL
What to do: There's more to Orlando than the mouse. The city is famous for its variety shows and attractions, and a visit during the Endless Summer promotion (September 15 through November 15; 888-675-4386) will help you save on many of them, and on hotel rates, too. Deals include "free ticket" offers to unusual places like SkyVenture Orlando, which offers an indoor skydiving experience for ages 3 and up (800-759-3861) and Gatorland, home to thousands of gators and crocs (407-855-5496).
Though it's not discounted, see the Blue Man Group show at Universal Studios (407-258-3626). It's like watching an uproarious live cartoon on stage. But possibly the best part about the whole trip is that fall is this area's quiet season, which means smaller crowds and shorter lines everywhere you go.
Where to stay: When choosing your hotel, feel free to be picky. The promotion mentioned above offers a variety of "one night free" specials at hundreds of Orlando hotels. Our favorite is the whimsical Nickelodeon Family Suites (866-462-6425). It has two action-packed pool and waterslide complexes and nightly entertainment for the whole family.
Where to eat: If you're a guest at the Nick Suites, visit the Nicktoons Café downstairs for the buffet-style character breakfast offered daily. Somehow, the pancakes just seem tastier when SpongeBob SquarePants is around. For dinner, Maggiano's Little Italy (407-241-8650), a well-known restaurant with locations across the country, serves delicious, classic Italian fare, family style.