UNLESS YOU CHOOSE SOMETHING SIMPLE, like renting a house on the Cape, planning a multiple-family vacation can be a study in constraints and compromises. So when my younger sister proposed that her family (based in New Jersey, with daughters ages 8, 7, and 4) and mine (based in suburban Boston, with kids 13, 11, and 7) take a joint trip this summer, what ensued was a process of offer and counteroffer. No planes, I decreed, having just taken my family to California. No beaches, she replied, having already booked a week in North Carolina. “Maybe an Adirondacks-style resort, like in Dirty Dancing?” she suggested, e-mailing a link to an all-inclusive place in the Poconos. “How about something with horseback riding, and closer to Massachusetts?” I countered. “What about this place?” my wife chimed in, sending along a link to Rocking Horse Ranch Resort (800-647-2624, rockinghorseranch.com).
Amid the Venn diagrams representing our various priorities, Rocking Horse seemed to bull’s-eye the overlapping area. Located near Poughkeepsie, New York, it’s almost equidistant from our homes. As the name implies, it has horses — along with kid-friendly food and a host of activities, including an indoor water park, boating, and entertainment. It looked pricey, but when I called the reservation line, a persuasive rep touted the all-inclusive package. And since it allowed an early arrival and late departure, we could spend three days enjoying the facilities but pay for only two nights. After a quick group consult, we put down a deposit.
So on a gorgeous August afternoon, six cousins and their parents (minus my brother-in-law, who has a bad back) climbed aboard horses and began our first trail ride up manure-dotted dirt paths. Down the hill, we could see a playground, tennis courts, and a kitschy trading post. In the center of the property, we spied a 250-foot-long water slide making loops as it descends. The physical structures aren’t the only attraction. Rocking Horse is the kind of place where guests receive a daily schedule listing the hour-by-hour choices: kayaking, water-skiing, a BB-gun shooting contest, line-dancing lessons, a pie-eating competition. In the buildings, every surface seems adorned with Remington statues, taxidermy, or horseshoes. The 119 rooms aren’t fancy but are spacious and functional, most sleeping six in dual queen beds plus bunks, each adorned with cowboy blankets and plastic bark. The dining hall has all the ambience of a Chuck E. Cheese’s, but kids love the place, and in a society that increasingly puts children’s happiness above all else, most of the adults seem content with the trade-offs.
It’s a resort with a colorful past. Built in the 1890s as a “rest home” that catered to city dwellers who ferried up the Hudson, during Prohibition it was taken over by gangster bootleggers. It had been vacant for years when, in 1958, it was purchased by Nathan and Gloria Turk, a Manhattan couple who loved horses and spent a decade rebuilding it and catering to a devoted clientele. In 1971 its main lodge burned down, but the Turk family rebuilt, and by the time Nathan died in 2002, his New York Times obituary called Rocking Horse “one of the nation’s largest dude ranches, with more than 100 horses.” Today that obit — along with the deceased owner’s boots and spurs — hangs on a wall off the lobby, but the Turk family remains in charge.
What you make of Rocking Horse depends largely on your expectations. If you hope for a rustic, cattle-herding dude ranch experience — like something out of City Slickers — you’ll be disappointed. While guests can take a one-hour horseback trail ride at least once a day, this is a volume production, with as many as several dozen guests sitting atop sturdy mounts who autopilot slowly up scenic paths in a long line. (The horses trot on intermediate rides; advanced rides, which guests have to pass a test to take, progress to a canter.) The riding staff is personable and safety-minded, making it comfortable for first-time riders and nervous parents.
Even when we weren’t on horseback, my family found much to like. For the kids and the fathers, the long water slide provided thrills without being over-the-top frightening. During our scheduled appointments at the motorboat dock, the kids each tried water-skiing and took rides on an inflatable boat. (The outdoor pool and some boating activities close for the season this weekend, but taking their place will be hayrides, apple picking, and, starting in December, skiing and tubing on the resort’s single slope.) After dinner, in the Silverado Saloon, parents sipped cocktails while kids sat close to the stage for shows by a ventriloquist or juggler. And when rain spoiled an outdoor evening bonfire, a cowboy singer moved to the lobby, where we sang along to John Denver tunes. At meals, we mixed with smiling first-time guests and families who come back every summer.
Other guests — including my brother-in-law — are less enthused about Rocking Horse. The prices are Disney-esque: Including taxes and resort fees, our families of five each paid more than $900 per night. (That’s the peak-season rate, and prices drop by as much as a third in the fall and winter.) What you’re paying for is the breadth of activities, but even these aren’t above reproach. The horse excursions would have been more fun in smaller groups. We’ve visited better water parks (particularly at the Great Wolf Lodge chain, which has a location in the Poconos). There’s better boating available on day trips to a good state park. Like a pan-Asian restaurant that offers decent (but not superb) sushi and Chinese and Thai food, Rocking Horse excels because of its variety — but to someone who’d prefer less variety and more authenticity, the broad choices can feel like a series of trade-offs. And while we all enjoyed the expansive buffet breakfasts, dessert bars, and fresh fruit, the adult dinners weren’t great — comparable to hotel wedding food.
Talking over these trade-offs as we sat beside the pool on our checkout day, I reminded everyone of the Venn diagrams. We could certainly have found a resort with a better water park, if we’d forgone the horse rides. The Poconos resort my sister suggested probably had better food, but would have required three extra hours of driving (each way!) for the Massachusetts contingent. Rocking Horse Ranch is probably the best family-oriented quasi-dude ranch that’s a manageable drive for our two contingents. And in a world of conflicting priorities, making reasonable compromises can be a necessary part of being a happy family.
Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Send comments to email@example.com.