Adventures for families abound in Southern meeting destinations, with beaches, swamps and woods to explore, as well as aquariums, museums and amusement parks that are fun for groups of all ages. Here are some cities around the region that prove popular with event attendees and their families.
Surrounded on three sides by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is an arts and crafts community and a nature lover’s dream. A loop road around the city takes visitors to arts and crafts shops where they can buy art and participate in making it. The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts offers workshops in painting, woodworking, drawing and ceramics, and many visiting meeting groups will use the courses as team-building exercises.
The area’s major attractions include Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area, a year-round entertainment venue with an indoor ice skating rink, a snowless tubing hill, a mountain coaster and kiddie rides. It also can host receptions for up to 250 people.
Visitors love to walk across the Gatlinburg Skybridge, the longest pedestrian cable bridge in North America, stretching nearly 700 feet across the valley at Gatlinburg Skylift Park. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is small but a family favorite, with 8,500 sea creatures in a large saltwater lagoon. Dolly Parton’s 160-acre Dollywood theme park is only six miles away in Pigeon Forge and offers fun for kids of all ages.
Meeting planners can host groups of up to 6,000 people at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, which has 148,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. The facility is easy walking distance to downtown
attractions, dining, shopping and lodging. The largest full-service hotel in the area, the Park Vista, has 300 guest rooms and 25,000 square feet of meeting space. Glenstone Lodge, three blocks from downtown, has more than 200 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space.
Groups that want a great Florida beach experience will enjoy staying in Pensacola with its 52 miles of wide-open public beaches. Pensacola’s downtown area is full of restaurants, shops, historic museums and entertainment, making it a wonderful destination for families.
On the beach, Lagunas Adventure Park has a large ropes course, a zip rail and go karts, but visiting groups can also enjoy dolphin cruises, kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling, fishing and diving. Families enjoy taking in a Blue Angels Airshow or visiting Fort Pickens, one of four military forts in the area that is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Visitors can tour the fort, explore trails, bird-watch, fish or play on the beach.
The largest naval aviation museum in the country calls Pensacola home. It is free to visit and makes a great off-site event venue beneath the bellies of the airplanes.
The Hilton Pensacola Beach is the largest full-service hotel, with 30,000 square feet of meeting space and 272 hotel rooms. The Holiday Inn Resort Pensacola Beach Gulf Front is a family-friendly hotel with 10,000 square feet of meeting space and 206 guest rooms. It has a heated lazy river pool with waterfalls, two hot tubs, a tiki bar and live music. The Margaritaville Beach Hotel and Landshark Landing sits on a golf course and Landshark Landing, which is a great location for big retreats and outdoor activities that use the water. It has 3,000 square feet of meeting space and 162 guest rooms.
Bowling Green, Kentucky
Visitors flock to Bowling Green, Kentucky, because of its spectacular outdoor experiences and its caves, including the Lost River Cave, smack-dab in the middle of town. It offers the only underground boat tour in Kentucky, as well as zip lines, hiking trails, a playscape and a butterfly habitat. Groups can host meetings or events inside the entrance to the cave. Car lovers will want to make a stop at the National Corvette Museum or tour the GM Corvette Assembly Plant.
Downtown Bowling Green is very walkable, with locally owned shops and restaurants. The historic Rail Park and Train Museum is a two-story museum inside the old L&N depot. Guided tours take guests through the rail cars. Beach Bend Park and Splash Lagoon is an amusement park with miniature golf, go-karts, coasters and a water park. Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest known cave system in the world, is only one hour south of town and offers tours daily.
Meeting planners can find what they need at the 60,000-square-foot Sloane Convention Center, which was just renovated with a modernized lobby and new carpeting and lighting. The center is in the heart of town near the main strip of shopping and restaurants, and there are 444 hotel rooms surrounding it, including the 218-room Holiday Inn University Plaza, which is attached to it. The Embassy Suites is expected to open this spring with 199 rooms and 9,000 square feet of meeting space.
Crystal Coast, North Carolina
North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is famous for its white sand beaches and water activities, but it also has many attractions to keep visitors of all ages entertained. The North Carolina Maritime Museum houses artifacts from Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground near Beaufort, North Carolina, in 1718.
Beaufort, founded in the late 1600s, has about 150 restored historic homes. The Beaufort Historic Site in the historic district depicts 18th- and 19th-century coastal Carolina. The 2-acre site is open to the public year-round and features an old courthouse and county jail. Groups can take a guided tour of the buildings on the property year-round or take a Double-Decker Bus Tour of the historic site.
Kids will enjoy the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and history tours and fort adventures at Fort Macon State Park. Boat tours will take groups to see the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, spot dolphins and tour the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
The Crystal Coast Civic Center in Morehead City, North Carolina, has 20,000 square feet of space that can host groups of up to 1,000 people, including a waterfront patio that overlooks Bogue Sound. The Beaufort Hotel has a large ballroom that can accommodate up to 300 and outdoor venues for larger gatherings. The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Atlantic Beach Oceanfront features 200 guest rooms and meeting spaces that can host groups of up to 800. In total, the Crystal Coast has about 1,700 hotel rooms and more than 5,000 vacation rentals.
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Considered the Festival Capital of Louisiana, Lake Charles goes all out for Mardi Gras, with more than 60 krewes participating in its parade, gumbo cookoffs, a shoebox Mardi Gras float contest, glittery costumes bedecked with feathers and ornate masks, and all the king cake you can eat.
Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point in Sulphur, Louisiana, is a fun, free attraction that gives visitors a taste of Cajun/Creole cuisine, shows them where to spot alligators and birds in the nearby marshes and bayous and introduces them to the toe-tapping sounds of Cajun and zydeco music. It is the gateway to the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, a scenic byway that takes visitors through marshlands and along 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches fantastic for fishing, crabbing and water fun.
Groups can take guided kayak and ecotours through fresh and saltwater marshes, cypress swamps, native coastal prairies and pine forest plantations. Kids will enjoy Game2Life, an entertainment venue with iCombat, an immersive, tactical laser tag game, and axe throwing.
The 83,260-square-foot Lake Charles Civic Center is the largest meeting facility in the area; it sits right on the lake and has fabulous views of the water. The West Cal Arena and Events Center in Sulphur has 17,705 square feet of space. Lake Charles, Louisiana, has 5,734 lodge rooms across 58 hotel properties. The largest are the Golden Nugget Lake Charles, with 1,100 sleeping rooms and 29,305 square feet of meeting space, and the L’Auberge Casino Resort, with 1,000 sleeping rooms and 26,000 square feet of meeting space. Unique venues include a former grocery store turned events center and the Historic Calcasieu Marine National Bank, where groups can host events inside the former vault.