Vacations That Aim to Turn Cousins Into Friends
Big multifamily vacation homes are in demand as extended families who live apart seek shared experiences
By Sue Shellenbarger – May 19, 2015 – Wall Street Journal
Many parents want their children to form close ties with their cousins but live too far apart to visit often.
Is vacationing together under one roof with dozens of relatives the solution?
A growing number of families think so, and they’re sparking a run on big vacation-rental homes with enormous kitchens, dining tables that seat 20, and bedrooms lined with bunks.
Sharing a vacation-rental home affords more casual togetherness than most hotels. On a deeper level, many families are striving for the cousin effect—the emotional and social benefits children can gain from close ties with family members their own age.
“We want to be eating all our meals together. We want to be doing dishes together. We want to create that domestic intimacy,” says Amy Whitley of Medford, Ore. Her family has rented vacation homes twice in the past two years with her parents, who also live in Oregon, and her sister’s family in Massachusetts. Although the five cousins, ages 4 to 15, only see each other occasionally, vacationing in one house enables them to “jump into it and become comfortable with each other again,” says Ms. Whitley, founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids, a family-travel website.
Psychologists say relationships with extended family offer special benefits. Cousins tend to be more accepting of each other than peers at school and more tolerant of behavior that might elicit ridicule or rejection on the playground, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton, N.J., clinical psychologist and co-author of “The Unwritten Rules of Friendship.” Extended-family gatherings can be like “being enveloped in a social safety net.”
Jackie Schaefer, 16, says she didn’t know her 11 teenage cousins well before they spent the week together last August at The Camp, of Asheville, N.C., a 150-acre retreat with sports fields and courts, a pool, game rooms and a gym. Sharing three of The Camp’s big houses with 40 relatives, the cousins talked late into the night about school and college plans, then woke by 7 a.m. the next day to swim, hike and play soccer and dodgeball together.
Ms. Schaefer, of Atlantic Beach, Fla., has since been texting, calling or video-chatting at least once a week with several of her cousins. “The camp really brought us closer,” she says. A 19-year-old cousin who plays college lacrosse recently gave Ms. Schaefer, a competitive soccer player, advice about choosing a college team. Ms. Schaefer says she expects to stay in touch. “Friends might grow apart when you go to college, but with a cousin, you have that bond no matter where you are.”
Shared memories are a key part of that bonding. Ms. Schaefer’s mother, Sarah Schaefer, says her three teenagers and their cousins still reminisce about seeing their grandmother, Susan Coleman, bravely hurtle down the water slide. Ms. Coleman, who is 71, resisted the idea but gave in after coaxing from her grandchildren. The slide “was an absolute blast. We laughed so hard,” says Ms. Coleman, of Colts Neck, N.J.
Socializing across all generations is important for kids, psychologists say. They say children tend to remember multifamily gatherings more than other kinds, and enjoy hearing family stories. Both help them develop a sense of identity as part of a family with a shared past.
Children also can pick up new interests and social skills hanging out with a more socially savvy cousin, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says.
Jennifer Jones of Cancun, Mexico, says her 4-year-old son Owen wasn’t interested in soccer until he spent a week in a Park City, Utah, vacation home last March with two older cousins from Houston. Owen has since asked to join a soccer team, and he often refuses to take off a Lionel Messi jersey his cousins gave him, Ms. Jones says.
Ms. Jones also rented a vacation home in Mexico for her 11-member extended family on the HomeAway rental site last summer, and the group intends to get together again this summer. Although there is an age gap between her children, 2 and 4, and their cousins, who are 6, 8 and 10, both groups benefit, says Ms. Jones, owner of BoutiqueMexico, a vendor of fashions by artisan designers. “The older boys help out and get down to the little kids’ level, wrestling on the ground and playing hide-and-seek.”
Jean and Phil Frigon, of Clay Center, Kan., organized a four-day vacation in 2013 so 19 of their extended family could spend time together, Ms. Frigon says. They rented a six-bedroom cabin at YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park, Colo., with big living and eating areas. Ms. Frigon says their grandchildren, all under 11, “loved staying in the same house. They could pretend they were at a big slumber party.”
The kitchen was equipped with two of everything—two refrigerators, two ovens, two microwaves and two dishwashers. Each branch of the family prepared and served one meal. “The kids had someone to play with all the time,” doing crafts, hiking, and playing games and mini-golf, and adults helped watch the children so parents could grab an occasional nap, says Sally Lee, Ms. Frigon’s daughter. Her son Isaac, 12, says he had fun square dancing with his 6-year-old cousin one evening. The vacation, he adds, “really helped me know who my cousins are, and what they like to do.”
Nearly 1 in 4 travelers has switched in the past two years to vacation-rental homes from hotels or condos, according to a survey last February of 2,832 people by MMGY Global, Kansas City, Mo., a travel-marketing agency. Maria Kirk of Ocean City, N.J., owner of ShoreSummerRentals.com, which posts vacation rentals on the Jersey Shore, says demand for houses with eight or more bedrooms has risen 25% in the past three years.
Growth in online vacation-rental sites such as HomeAway, VRBO and Airbnb is opening up more big-house options for families. Brian Sharples, CEO and co-founder of HomeAway Inc., says postings of houses sleeping 11 or more have risen 50% since 2011.
Multigenerational groups spend more than other travelers on shared, kid-friendly activities, according to D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a McLean, Va., tourism and travel research firm. Many of the most popular destinations are near beaches, theme parks, water parks or museums, such as Orlando, Fla., Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head in South Carolina, Anaheim, Calif., and North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Organizing a successful shared vacation is a lot of work. “It’s not your dream vacation. It’s going to be annoying and aggravating sometimes. If you’re lucky, it will also be wonderful,” says Eileen Ogintz, Westport, Conn., an author on family travel and co-chair of TMS Family Travel, a producer of travel conferences. She recommends that family members agree in advance on how to handle all costs, cooking and chores.
Grandparents pay for extended-family trips 65% of the time when they organize the vacation, D.K. Shifflet’s research shows. When younger family members make the plans, grandparents pay 24% of the time, adult children pay 39% of the time, and all share the costs 33% of the time.
Cooking for 20 isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but extended families save money by preparing at least some of their own meals. Some vacationers have each branch of the family plan and prepare a dinner, and also assign each evening’s cleanup and trash-removal duties in advance.
Most vacation homes require minimum rentals of one week, which can be too much togetherness, says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine. Things that can help include looking for a shorter rental term, finding a house with enough room to allow privacy, or setting aside blocks of time for nuclear families to be together on their own.
It’s important to set dates for shared summer vacations at least a year in advance, and two years for larger groups, Ms. Wagner says. That gives families time to coordinate calendars and reserve the kind of housing they need. Eight-bedroom family cabins at YMCA of the Rockies typically are fully booked for the summer at least a year in advance, a spokeswoman says.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at email@example.com