Something about being married and traveling seems to have made me hyper-aware of the way families travel together and the way people respond to their children in public.
Now I will say that, because I am not a parent, I am currently not an expert on any of this. I have cared for lots of kids (including while traveling) and I still vividly remember being a kid and traveling with my family and being out in public in general. I also feel that I represent a good portion of the population who are forced to interact with these children and families who may not have children of their own!
First of all, I love the idea of family vacation. I think it's the best way to enjoy time together and experience new things. You don't have to go to a distant land or spend a lot of money to have some great family time together. However, what is right for one person or family isn't right for every person or family. You know your kids. They may love museums and history and learning things. Or they may not. Either way is ok. Go with what works for you. And if you have a mix of all kinds in your family, try to work in something for everyone and be even-handed in your decision making.
Remember that kids are generally creatures of habit. Even if they seem really flexible, they generally thrive on the familiarity and the control that comes with surroundings and routine that they know! Even something fun like a trip to Disney World can throw kids for a loop. Heck, it can throw grown-ups for a loop too! And when that happens, nothing good usually comes of it. Try to be sensitive to when people are reaching their breaking points and make sure your schedule isn't so jam-packed that a little down time becomes impossible. Naps really are a good thing for everyone. And even if it is vacation, try not to stay up too late, especially if you plan to get up early in the morning.
Pack snacks. And not just for the to and from or the down time. Take them with you ALWAYS. Especially water! Most people don't think about the fact that, in addition to the regular three meals, most kids (and many adults) eat at least one or two snacks in an average day. And it isn't a big deal at home where stuff is available. But suddenly when you don't have your pantry and you're on the go, it becomes a very big deal. When most kids say they're hungry, they usually mean it. NOW. Please listen to them! I would venture that most melt-downs are at least loosely related to being tired and/or hungry.
As the adult, please be the bigger person. If your kids are obviously miserable in the museum of fine art, don't drag them through this cultural experience (and also ruin it for everyone else who may be there). Yes, this is a family vacation, and you are a member of the family too. You should get to have fun. But if somebody has to bend, make it you. And if this is the one thing your trip will be incomplete without and your kids aren't having it, split up and let your traveling companion take the kids for a nap at the hotel or to run in the park or get some ice cream while you see what you want to see!
Always have a back-up plan. Stuff happens. Rides break down. It rains. Attractions get closed. Restaurants get booked. Shows get sold out. Just expect at least one of these to happen at some point during your vacation. Plan for any or all of them! Come up with some sort of alternative if at all possible. Even if it means doing something you can do at home like hanging out at the hotel pool or going to a movie. Others are a lot less likely to get bummed if you don't!
Stick by your limits and rules. Vacations are a great time for testing boundaries. I think kids have an internal radar that lets them know that they can usually get away with more during vacation. No room to get sent to, no toys to get taken away, (usually) no vegetables to eat. Lots more stuff to whine, cry, and beg for. A new, bigger audience for tantrums and shows. It can spell disaster if you let it. But it doesn't have to. Time out can happen anywhere, even in the corner of a museum. Souvenir money can be lost, privileges can be revoked, bedtimes can be moved, and limits can be enforced no matter where you are. And here's a little tip. If they figure out early and often that they can't get away with stuff, eventually they'll stop trying. But if you give in, it'll haunt you!
Kids learn by watching you. Please set a good example. And it is possible to "practice" vacation manners. Exposing your kids to new experiences and new places in small doses makes it easier for them to process. Obviously, theme parks are going to be hard to re-create. But the practical things like standing in line and keeping your hands to yourself and not always getting what you want can be done in new environments at home. Try new environments like a different grocery store or changing up the routine a bit on occasion. Reinforce restaurant manners, even at a fast food place. And most of all, PLAY this stuff with your kids if you can. Let them be the mom or dad for a change and act some of these things out at home, especially with little ones. Read books and look at pictures online with the bigger ones and let them help you plan, pack, and prepare. It makes the whole thing much easier to process.
If your family isn't ready for the major vacations like theme parks and road trips, don't feel like you HAVE to do it just because everyone else is doing it. Wait. It'll still be there. Go someplace low key like the beach. Take a mini vacation to someplace close to home. If a week is too long to be gone, take a long weekend. It's your family and your vacation, do what is best for you!