When the most important place to be is together, these family reunion destinations deliver

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Scenic Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a popular vacation destination year-round, but not one Christina Miltsch might have picked on her own.

"I'm a beach girl," she said with a smile. "But my aunt put this all together. She worked her whole life and said, 'I really want to do a family reunion.' "

It had been about 20 years since the extended family got together on a cruise. For years her aunt, Trish Floyd, saved money and banked timeshare credits so they could reunite this past summer.

"Seven families were able to go, and she paid for it all," Miltsch said. "I literally can't express how thankful and grateful I am to my aunt. This has been in the works a long time."

Trying to find a spot that caters to large groups spanning multiple generations can be a Herculean task, but not all destinations are created equal. Places like Gatlinburg – just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park – and Orlando have built-in options for everyone.

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Going big

Joseph Greene hopes his family reunion next year in Tampa, Florida, will be their biggest yet, and they're already big.

"Average turnout is about 100," he said, noting many more trace their lineage back to his great-great-grandparents, Reecie and Isom Hardnett.

Every other year, their descendants gather for a Hardnett Family Reunion, though they skipped last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I have cousins that I haven't seen or met, and I think that's kind of sad," Greene said. He prides himself on being close to much of his family and wants the same for his kids. "We want to make sure that we always stay connected."

Usually there's a whole organizing committee for their reunions, but he’s handling most of it this time. He has a background in event planning.

He has already locked in a hotel and weekend full of activities including a meet-and-greet, beach time and a day at Busch Gardens, where they'll all wear matching T-shirts. He got a group admission rate to the park and found a place where they can share a meal, but he doesn't expect everyone to stick together all day.

"You can go along and do your own thing, but we want to get together at least once and eat and pray at the same time," he said.

His family goes all-out for reunions, but Greene says others don't have to follow their example.

"You don't have to do much," he said. "It could be one day, just for a simple picnic. We've added things over time."

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Splitting up

Mitsch's extended family split up during the day but shared dinner every night of their reunion.

"Since there were seven nights, each family took a night and we did dinner," she said.

She made Mexican one night. Her mom made lasagna. Another family hosted barbecue. After dinner, they would all hang out.

"It was a great time to regroup and come together and talk about what we all did that day," she said.

She appreciated the flexibility, noting how difficult it can be to juggle everyone's interests and budgets across multiple households.

"My sister and I are as opposite as the day is long," she said. "All she wanted to do is be out in nature, and all I wanted to do was go shop, and we could do that and still go on vacation together and still have a great time."

Her son loved Ripley's Believe It or Not! and multiple family members enjoyed Dollywood in nearby Pigeon Forge.

"Boy was I blown away with the park," she said. "It was clean. It was beautiful. The music was peaceful. You felt Dolly."

Everyone paid for their own park tickets there, which added up, but Mitsch said it was worth every penny.

"I rode every roller coaster twice," she said. "And to see the smile on my aunt's face ... to see the smile on her face was everything."

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Building bonds

Nancy Voellm rode her fair share of coasters during a reunion with her husband's side of the family at Walt Disney World over the summer.

"My husband doesn't ride roller coasters, and my little ones are still a little scared," she said, so she rode along with the teens in her extended family.

The self-professed Disney lover ran point on everything from rides to dining reservations across all four parks.

"I'm that person. When I know that I have (60) days to book it, I'm on the phone or online (first thing)," she said. "I would check every single day to see if there have been any cancellations."

Travel agents can help families plan Disney vacations free, but for those who want to do it themselves, Voellm said communication is key.

"My husband and I were on the same page of 'OK, this is what I'm doing, this is what you're doing. Now send this text over to the family to see if this is what they're interested in,' " she said. "We're lucky that everyone was on board with whatever."

Six families shared an Airbnb.

"The house had a pool in the backyard, so the kids enjoyed the pool," she said. "Honestly, we were more worried about what we could do with the kids during downtime, but the kids were so happy to see their cousins that they just were playing, following the older cousins around. They were doing their own thing."

Voellm was thrilled the kids remembered one another from their first family reunion last year in Lake Tahoe. She loves seeing their relationships grow, knowing how close her husband is with his family, even though they live far apart.

"I think they just wanted to just be together and enjoy their time together no matter what they were doing."

Have you coordinated a family reunion vacation? How was that experience?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Family reunions: Where you go isn't what matters most, but it helps