Anyone who's seen a National Lampoon flick knows that family gatherings are loaded with potential for planning-related disasters and personality clashes (not to mention unhealthy competition over pickup softball games). But the payoff of a great family reunion is worth the effort. "Maintaining a strong connection with your extended family is an important part of helping children develop a sense of identity and connectedness with their past," says Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families (Jossey-Bass, $25). So how do you do it with little stress? By arranging the right get-together for your brood. You may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose your reunion.
whom to invite: Everyone, ideally. After all, sometimes it's the random second cousin you never thought would show up who ends up being the life of the party. If you can't include every branch of the family tree, "the general rule of thumb is that you should decide the parameters first--whether you'll invite first cousins, second cousins, or beyond--then include everyone that falls under that umbrella," says Haltzman.
when to start planning: Set a date as early as possible, preferably a year in advance. Families with school-age children generally need to plan around the school schedule.
how long it should last: For an annual reunion, a weekend will suffice. If reunions don't occur as regularly, plan a few extra days for those who can stay longer. But remember: "The longer a reunion lasts, the more space you should have to spread out," says Haltzman. "I don't recommend sharing a small cabin if it's a weeklong event."
how to organize it: Pick a point person from each nuclear family so that wires don't get crossed, and take an informal survey of what people are willing to spend and when they would like to go. If your gang is tech-savvy, create a reunion page on imin.com, a group-travel site.
choosing your reunion
the home-hosted affair
best for: Smaller groups, families with elderly relatives, or families concentrated in one geographic area.
pros: Almost everyone saves money.
cons: One family can get stuck footing the bulk of the bill. Collect cash before the event, or hold a raffle or a silent auction at the reunion with each family contributing something of value, whether it's a homemade quilt or a framed painting. The hostess can then use the money to replenish her pantry, pay the caterer, or enlist a maid service to help with the cleanup.
where to go: Ultimately, wherever someone is willing to host. If that someone is you, take heart in the fact that not everything has to take place in your living room. Give yourself a well-deserved break by planning a few activities--volleyball, tennis--at a local park (see if you need a permit). If you have more than one option, it can pay to check out the airline hubs that various family members live near.
dealing with downtime: Mark local maps with spots like coffee shops, walking trails, and bookstores for fidgety early risers or other folks who need to get out for a bit. "It's important to remember your limits as far as togetherness goes and to know that everyone needs his privacy at some point," says Laurie Bisig, a family-travel veteran based in Louisville, Kentucky.
organizing meals: If a majority of the guests live within an hour's drive, consider a potluck. If you do choose to cook most of the food, go to realsimple.com/reunionmenu for crowd-pleasing suggestions. And buy more ingredients than you think you'll need; it's easy to run out of food when you're not used to cooking for 40 (and who is?). If ordering in, consider a caterer, or tell the restaurant how many people you're ordering for. They can assess how much food you'll need for a large party.
the all-inclusive package
best for: People who are allergic to planning or talking about money.
pros: No one person gets stuck bearing the whole burden of organizing, and all the financial awkwardness is removed, since each family pays up front for everything (lodging, food, drinks, child care). Because group decision making is at a minimum, a lot of potential friction is eliminated. "At an all-inclusive resort, the group is not going to have to decide about where to eat, what to do for fun, and who's in charge," says Haltzman. Bonus: "If the activities end up being a disappointment, the blame lies on strangers," says Jeremy Greenberg, author of Relative Discomfort: The Family Survival Guide (Andrews McMeel, $15).
cons: Some family members may feel cooped up at an all-inclusive. In many cases (on a cruise, say), families can't tailor the length of their stay to their budgets or vacation time, says Suzette Mack, a family-travel specialist based in San Jose, California. And for some families the cost of the entire trip can be hard to swallow.
where to go: Many cruise lines offer special services for family reunions, as do some beach resorts and ranches. Carnival Cruise Lines (carnival.com) offers free event-planning assistance before departure and can provide private parties in lounges and dining rooms on a ship (from $2.50 a person for coffee, tea, and cookies to $38 a person for a two-hour affair with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres). Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.com) offers group rates for families booking eight or more staterooms, plus a cocktail party, passes for on-board bowling, and other perks. If your family is less obsessed with sun and sea, a deluxe dude-ranch trip can fit the bill. The Red Horse Mountain Ranch (redhorsemountain.com), in Harrison, Idaho, offers private cabins, meals, cocktail hours, horseback riding, fishing, and kids' activities from $1,718 per adult for a one-week stay. (The entire ranch can be reserved at a reduced rate for groups of more than 30.) Tip: Don't count out international destinations; they can be cheaper and easier to reach than some domestic spots. Mack likes the Riviera Maya, in Mexico, for its kid-friendly resorts.
dealing with downtime: The primary entertainment is provided by the cruise, the resort, or the ranch. But pick a few events over the course of the trip that almost everyone will want to participate in, or have sign-up sheets for different events that people can attend together to help retain the reunion feel.
organizing meals: Fortunately, this is not your problem. To get the most out of the mess-hall (or banquet-room) experience, however, consider mixing up the nightly seating arrangements so that everyone gets to mingle.
the great-outdoors reunion
best for: Camping fanatics, the cash-strapped.
pros: It's low-cost, and everyone can choose lodging that fits his own budget.
cons: "National parks tend to book six months in advance, so that requires early planning," warns Mack. Access can be difficult, too, as many parks are several hours away from a major airport. And if bad weather strikes, you could face several long days of playing Go Fish.
where to go: If you can reserve a spot in time, national parks are a great bet, as most offer year-round activities for kids. The nationwide chain of KOA campground facilities (koa.com) provides another affordable option. Most offer cabins, RV hookups, and no-frills campsites to suit any level of outdoorsmanship; many also have swimming pools and other amenities onsite. The Newburgh, New York, location, in particular, throws in arts and crafts, basketball courts, and nighttime movies and offers a full-service reunion-planning package with activities, outings, and meals orchestrated specially for your group (from $87 a night for a cabin for four; reunion extras not included). Church-retreat grounds, like the Windermere Baptist Conference Center (windermereusa.org), in Roach, Missouri, are another alternative and have abundant outdoor activities (think cave tours, hiking trails, and parasailing) and the facilities to feed groups (motel-style lodging from $66 a night per family, with basic cabins for less and luxe lodges for more; three meals a day for $20 a head; some recreation costs are extra). Even the YMCA has reunion-appropriate destinations: The YMCA of the Rockies (ymcarockies.org), in Estes Park, Colorado, offers hotel-style lodging and family cabins and can arrange campfires, meals, and activities just for your clan (from $119 a night for a cabin for four; reunion extras not included).
dealing with downtime: Be sure to bring plenty of board games, puzzles, and books to carry you through any foul-weather days. Or create a conversation-sparking deck of cards that features a family photo (about $20 a deck at shutterfly.com or kodakgallery.com).
organizing meals: For meals not provided by the facility, designate each family to be the provider of a different meal for the whole group--whether it's cooked over the campfire or trucked in from the nearest takeout joint.
the destination vacation
best for: Families that need a little extra motivation to get together or families who have trouble getting time off work and need the reunion to double as a vacation.
pros: The base price will probably be lower than for a cruise or an all-inclusive resort. Families can tailor their accommodations or length of stay to their schedules and budgets.
cons: More of the burden of planning activities rests on you. You're on your own for meals.
where to go: Look for a destination with a wealth of entertainment opportunities for all types of interests. Mack likes San Diego for its mix of family-friendly attractions (the zoo, Sea World), great year-round weather, beach activities, and fine dining. Even a resort that is not all-inclusive, like the Atlantis in Paradise Island (atlantis.com), in the Bahamas, can be a good compromise, since families can choose which features they want to shell out for ($179 a night per person for four nights; kids under 11 stay free). Other factors to consider: Choosing a location you can navigate on foot relieves a lot of the logistics and the expense tied to car-pooling, parking, and arranging designated drivers. Wherever you stay, be sure to book accommodations that have large communal areas that people can gather in. For the best rates on multiple-room reservations, book through Groople.com, a group-travel site.
dealing with downtime: Designate someone to bring along a portable DVD player or a laptop and several family-friendly movies for times when the adults are content to "just talk" and the kids are dying of boredom.
organizing meals: Do research in advance to find local restaurants that are friendly to large groups, and make some reservations. You don't want to be stuck in a strange city trying to find a table for 40 on a Friday night.
BEYOND THE BUFFET: MAKING THE MOST OF THE TIME BETWEEN MEALS
1. Play Guess Who?: Have everyone bring old photos (especially those so dated that you think people won't recognize the faces and the hairdos), then tack them up on a wall.
2. Host a talent show: Yes, it's nerdy, but who better to be nerdy with than your relatives?
3. Hand out a Lifetime Achievement Award: Choose one family member to honor, soliciting testimonials from friends, coworkers, and family members in advance. Read them aloud and present the hard copies to the honoree.
4. Go on a scavenger hunt: Give each group a list of things to capture with digital cameras (birds in flight, two people kissing), and see who can snap the most items in the allotted time.
5. Or "hunt" for family members: This time the list consists of trivia about relatives. Everyone works the room to tick off who served in Vietnam, was raised on a farm, or has traveled to the most states.
6. Mark milestones: Prereunion, create a collaborative family time line on timetoast.com, and ask each family to post highlights from the previous year. Review the finished product when everyone is together.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
What's a family reunion without souvenirs? Fortunately, you don't have to find out.
1. Check out Cafepress's new Groups tool (cafepress.com), which lets reunion-goers order commemorative T-shirts to their own specifications (good-bye, one-size-fits-all tee!) and pay for them individually.
2. Consider a reunion shirt that doesn't need updating every year, like the I [HEART] FAMILY REUNIONS baseball T-shirt from zazzle.com (from $27; type "family reunions" into the search field).
3. Supply family members with their own copies of the family tree by downloading free templates at familytreetemplates.net or uftree.com.
4. Encourage everyone to send a postcard of his or her favorite memory from the trip to the group organizer, who will put the cards in an album the family can add to after each reunion.
5. Have each family bring a dish, along with a corresponding recipe card. Collect all the recipes in one place, then make a book ($9.50 each for a minimum of four books, heritagecookbook.com) to distribute at the next reunion.
These photographs were shot on location at the Atlantis in Paradise Island, in the Bahamas. Want to win a family reunion at the Atlantis? For info on how to enter the sweepstakes, plus details on special rates available to Real Simple readers, go to realsimple.com/summerfun.