NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The family vacation has changed from the days when kids in the back of the station wagon pestered their parents in front with the unending refrain, "Are we there yet?"
Experts say these days the family getaway often encompasses three generations, and when it comes to calling the shots, it's the kids in the driver's seat and the grandparents with the bankroll.
"We are seeing more multigenerational travel -- the parents, their children and their parents," said Mike Weingart of Travel Leaders, a Texas-based travel agency.
"When planning a traditional family vacation, the decision maker or requestor is the child," Weingart added, "and grandparents pick up the tab."
Multi-generational means multi-tasking, according to Marcia Hurley of San Francisco-based Rascals in Paradise, which specializes in customized family travel.
"Consumers are looking for their kids' enrichment as well as their own relaxation," she said. "So a family in Costa Rica will combine beach time with a visit to the local plant-and-bug expert, or they'll commune with marine turtles while in Akumal Bay, Mexico."
Peter Yesawich, CEO of Ypartnership, a travel marketing company, has been studying family travel for over 20 years. He says multi-generational travel is the fastest growing segment of the industry.
"The incidence of travel with children is now higher than the incidence of households with children," Yesawich said. "No other segment has reflected that growth."
Yesawich says that's because an aging population has resulted in more grandparents, just as parents' work habits have become more frenetic.
"In 60 percent of households both parents are working. They have compelling parental guilt," he said. "Yearning to spend more time with the family becomes more pronounced."
He agrees that children hold the reins. "They're empowered to drive a lot of decision making. We estimate that kids play a very instrumental role in one out of every two family vacations."
So it comes as no surprise that the industry is scrambling to entice youngsters with all manner of childish things. Norwegian Cruise Line is spending more than $20 million to enhance its island in the Bahamas with more family-friendly activities, according to CEO Kevin Sheehan.
And it has partnered with Nickelodeon so little cruisers can rub shoulders with their favorite cartoon characters, like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.
"The characters will be on the ships," he said.
Sheehan added that the industry is exquisitely attuned to kid power.
"I heard recently of a father who had booked a cruise to Alaska, but the kids didn't want the cold weather, so he's booking a trip to the Caribbean instead."
Once known for its singles scene, these days Club Med is all about family.
"Before 2000 few resorts catered to families. Now families are the majority of our clientele," said spokesperson Kate Moeller.
Amenities include baby gyms for infants, circus and cooking schools for older kids, and for those hard-to-please teens, their own lounge.
"We've built themed hangouts in the middle of our resorts," Moeller said, "Staff supervised, but no parents allowed. We've noticed that if the teen isn't happy the parents can become pretty miserable."
Hurley says the options for kids are endless.
"Behind-the-scenes zoo visits, a gladiator school in Rome, making pizza from scratch, so many choices," she explained. "I haven't found one in Spain that teaches them to tilt at windmills but I'm looking."
Reporting by Dorene Internicola; Editing by Patricia Reaney