Ready for summer? Family vacation season opens with Memorial Day

The summer travel season, whether its visiting Coney Island, Disneyland or Yellowstone, opens Memorial Day weekend. Time to schedule those flights and check the highways for this year's family vacation.

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    The summer travel season opens Memorial Day weekend, so it's time to plan the next family vacation. Consider a visit to the new rollercoasters on Coney Island in New York. Sunbathers enjoyed the warm weather there on April 17, 2012.
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• A summary of reports on Memorial Day and summer travel.

Whether you’re headed to the nation’s No. 1-ranked beach – Coronado, near San Diego – or going to stand in line for rollercoasters like Disney World’s new family-style Barnstormer or Coney Island’s new Italian screamer, or just packing off to visit Grandma, Memorial Day weekend is America’s start of the family summer vacation season.

Pools will get filled, barbecues will be dusted off, and airline schedules will get Googled as a taste of summer heat blankets the US – high 80s and 90s are forecast for much of the US.

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The summer vacation season stretching 101 days begins and ends with federal holidays – Memorial Day, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the US armed forces, and Labor Day celebrating the social and economic achievements of American workers.

More than 34.8 million people will travel more than 50 miles during Memorial Day weekend, a 1.2 percent increase over last year, estimates the AAA. Of those on the move, 30.7 million (88 percent) will be driving. Gas is 20 cents cheaper than a year ago, with the current national average at $3.66 per gallon. South Carolina has the lowest price in the nation at $3.33 and California the highest with $4.32.

Looking to minimize holiday traffic fatalities, the national “Click It or Ticket” seat belt and child-restraint awareness campaign will have extra law enforcement officers on the highways. Virginia and Kentucky are two states that are increasing enforcement for seat-belt and child-restraint use.

Even though most travel will be on the ground this weekend, air travelers are advised to still leave plenty of time to get through airport security. ABC News reported that the busiest towns for air travel this weekend are expected to be Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Denver, Seattle, and Boston.

Chicago officials, for example, expect 1.5 million people to pass through the city’s two international airports, Midway and O’Hare, a 3 percent jump from last year. O’Hare will feature the United Service Organization’s jazz band to serenade the traveler crowds.

Airlines say the Memorial Day is a good time for travelers to think about summer air reservations, suggesting that reservations be made two to three months in advance if you want your family to be able to sit together. Some irlines are starting to reserve window and aisle seats for passengers who are willing to pay extra – about $25 each way. Base fares are also on the rise: the average roundtrip summer ticket will cost $431, or 3 percent higher than last year, forecasts Kayak.com.

And where will people go?

Close to home are the all-American flag-waving parades in small towns and cities. One parade threatened with cancellation because of financial and participation troubles in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. was resuscitated after a local resident, Paul Brisson, started a Facebook campaign (with 540 likes) to raise the minimum $1,500 needed and find volunteers.

Major theme parks are on a renovation binge in this era of ever-increasing need for speed and thrills – sometimes delivered virtually on the couch at home with video games.

Brooklyn’s seaside attraction, Coney Island, is opening a new rollercoaster (made in Italy) and go-kart track – part of a redeveloped Scream Zone and other plans to include movie theaters, restaurants, and hotels.

Universal Studios Hollywood opens early this weekend – 7:30 a.m. – to give people a chance to try its new Transformers ride, inspired by the movie.  

Disney Parks is also completing renovation of Fantasyland, the parks largest project in 40 years.
 
"It's a big deal," said Dennis Speigel, president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services. “Parks have realized it takes more than a Space Mountain by itself or one ride and attraction. It has to have a combination of all the elements now."
 
Part of the Disney expansion opened in April including one of two dueling Dumbo rides, a Barnstormer family roller coaster. Opening later this year is a Princess Fairytale Hall where visitors can meet Disney princesses. In June, Disneyland California Adventure will unveil Cars Land, a replica of the film’s town, Radiator Springs.

There are nature-themed parks as well: the National Parks. Yellowstone, in Wyoming, opens today for the summer season. Fishing season in the park starts tomorrow.

And then there’s the beach. A study released Wednesday rated the top beaches in the United States.

Coronado Beach, across San Diego Bay from downtown skyscrapers, was ranked No. 1 by Stephen Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research who has been studying beach environment and safety for 20 years.  He bestowed the ranking on the 1.5 mile beach for its warm climate and stunning backdrop.

“I think it's one of the most super beaches around,” said Leatherman, also known as “Dr. Beach.”

Criteria for judging the best beaches include the sand’s look and feel, water quality, crowds, facilities and weather.  Other beaches that made the top of the list are Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki, Honolulu, Hawaii; Main Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.; St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle; Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Mass.; Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, S.C.; and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

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