Family fun in the Arizona sun

From trail rides to trampolines, Phoenix’s ’burbs cater to kids (and to kids at heart)


“Mommy, where are all the cactuses?” my six-year-old daughter asks half way through a trail ride in Chandler, Ariz.

Never mind that we’ve just watched wild horses gallop past our plodding steeds and marvelled at scruffy coyotes trotting through the bush—Avery just needs to see a fleet of Arizona’s long-armed Saguaro cacti waving to her across the Sonoran Desert. Not because she loves the spiky sentinels but because, according to her kid logic, “There are supposed to be cactuses in Arizona.”

Soon after, our guide points out a group of the iconic plants in the distance (it may have been a mirage) and all is right again in Avery’s world. Fortunately, her other notions about the state—that its sky is always blue; its warm sun omnipresent—also bear out during our winter visit.

“Sunny Arizona,” encompassing the greater Phoenix satellite cities of Chandler, Mesa and Tempe, lives up to its name. During our visit, we experience four of its 325 annual days of sunshine, donning short sleeves thanks to an average low temperature of 21°C.

“Wow, everything here is so great, Mommy! Can we move here?” Avery asks shortly after our arrival, squinting from the sun as she sizes up Dr. Seuss-like foreign plants on our hotel grounds. Yes, she is ready to call it quits with Canada, even prior to the trail ride and long before she visits the Sea Life Arizona aquarium or shops at Chandler Fashion Center during some mommy-mandated retail time.

Indeed, the great thing about hopping a direct flight south with your kids is they’ll be happy as long as it’s warm and sunny. They’ll envision a whole new life that involves breakfast buffets, turndown service, xeriscaping and an outdoor pool. And, if you can tear them away from those distractions, you’ll be amazed by the bounty of family-friendly attractions and activities in the Phoenix ’burbs.

Around 650,000 Canadians visited Arizona in 2010, with nearly 10 per cent of travelling parties bringing their kids. The family demographic is expected to grow in coming years as more snowbirding grandparents buy second homes and entice their adult children and grandchildren to the state for a holiday.

Avery and I don’t have time to see and do everything, but we agree on four favourites.

Wild Horse Pass

The entire holiday is going to be a bust, as far as Avery is concerned, unless she saddles up and rides a horse—by herself. Forget those rides where a guide leads the reins and the child sits there clutching the saddle horn; at the Koli Equestrian Center at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Avery gets to command Cannonball Bob for a full 90 minutes. Our mounts kick up dust as we ride through the desert in the Gila River Indian Reservation looking for coyotes and road runners, jackrabbits and wild horses (hence the name). Whenever I rein in my ride to see how Avery is doing, she just grins.

Avery’s fave

Riding Cannonball Bob, who plods along at the back of the pack. Every couple of minutes she leans over, pats his neck and says, “Good boy!”

Mom’s must

Spotting wildlife while guide Emmett Miguel regales us with southwest folklore.

Phoenix Zoo

Frankly, I am usually ambivalent about visiting zoos, but this one has me at Galapagos tortoises. Its impressive collection of unusual suspects includes Komodo dragons, a rhino, baboons and cheetahs; all are located in outdoor exhibits thanks to Tempe’s climate. This zoo—in the Top 5 for kids in America—is all about experiences where kids can interact with animals. The Breakfast with the Animals program, for two- to five-year-olds, for example, connects tots to zookeepers and their charges: warthogs, elephants, African wild dogs and more—way more.

Avery’s fave

Touching the stingrays and then feeding them fish after a worker assures her their stingers have been removed. “That tickled!” she exclaims. “They’re so soft.”

Mom’s must

Exploring a zoo where animal encounters are a daily occurrence. Kids can get cosy with the critters by feeding giraffes, riding a camel or walking through the squirrel monkey enclosure—the only one of its kind in North America—where 17 curious monkeys roam freely by your feet or crash through the trees overhead.

Chandler Art Walk

Two minutes into the monthly Art Walk in downtown Chandler, I utter a phrase that will become a mantra on this trip: “Look with your eyes, not your hands!” Avery skips along the trellis-covered sidewalks, fingering such artisan finds as cigar box guitars, hand-knitted sock dolls, patterned scarves and turquoise rings. The art galleries, chic boutiques and Arizona winery that populate this designated National Register Historic District speak to me, too. So does the charming architecture—mission-style, colonnade-lined buildings surrounding a landscaped central park with palm trees to spare.

Avery’s fave

Wearing an “alcohol ink” metal washer necklace she made at a craft booth.

Mom’s must

Ducking into Sibley’s West, a souvenir shop where everything from the pottery to the apparel is made in Arizona, including the bottle of prickly pear cactus syrup that I purchase.

Jumpstreet Trampoline Park

There should be a warning about bouncing around on 13,000 square feet of trampolines after eating a hearty breakfast of huevos rancheros. Fortunately, at Jumpstreet in Chandler, there is plenty of seating for me and my unsettled tummy. Avery’s brekky doesn’t seem to stop her from jumping, flipping, sliding and, yes, even bouncing off the walls. Indoor trampoline parks have been springing up in American cities (Jumpstreet has two locations in greater Phoenix), and kids love them. When they get bored of bouncing, they can dive into a massive foam pit or ride a mechanical bull (yes, you read correctly).

Avery’s fave

Staying atop the mechanical bull for eight seconds. She laughs hysterically when she loses her grip and tumbles onto the inflatable padding, and then insists on riding again.

Mom’s must

Reliving the glory days of elementary school gym class by engaging in some trampoline dodge ball.

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