"Our Family's Fresh Take on Turkey Day"

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big bird small thanksgiving

Our holidays had always been pretty normal. We'd spend Thanksgivings at my parents' house in suburban New Jersey, where all the (deep breath, please) aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, siblings, significant others and friends we consider family would gather around the table for a feast lovingly prepared by my mom. But when my brother and I fled the state (for college and work), tradition changed.

We headed to Orlando, a midway spot for everyone and home to the most logical place to give thanks: Disney World. The happiest place on earth had long been a family favorite.

I thought it would feel strange sitting down for a holiday dinner with a menu delivered by characters other than the ones in my family. And it did, for all of us. But when we saw how relaxed my mom was -- no huge recipes to prepare, no dirty dishes to wash -- we all relaxed, too.

After that came San Diego, because my brother, Josh, and I lived in California that year. We spent time at the beach, the zoo, even a vegetarian restaurant (a nod to me, the non-turkey-eating herbivore), where my mom polished off her tofu lasagna. Our non-Jersey Thanksgivings quickly became a tradition, the four of us running amok in touristy locales, either because of convenience (we spent one holiday in Seattle, where Josh then lived) or long-held wishes (my mom had always wanted to go to Vegas).

On these long weekends, we bonded in a new way, with the laughter and silliness that can only come from knowing you don't have to peel a single potato. We filled the days with cheesy entertainment: a tour of underground Seattle, a bowling match (kids versus parents), a gaudy show of celebrity impersonators -- the more outlandish, the better. It was all about escape. But on Thursday night, no matter where we were, we sat down to feast. Only the meal was not hosted by my mom or delayed two hours until everyone arrived, but served in an orderly fashion by neatly pressed waiters. It was always freeing...and a little decadent. My mother took to it easily, with just one complaint: "You don't have leftovers of your favorite side dishes."

This November, we'll be getting back to those time-honored plates: broccoli casserole, sautéed cabbage and onions and (for me) vegetarian vegetable soup. But we won't have to give up celebrating Thanksgiving in strange and exotic places: My parents have moved out of that old colonial where they hosted turkey dinners for 38 years. This November, we'll all travel to the new homestead, a whopping 20 minutes north of the old one. And we'll cook up some new traditions -- we've had plenty of practice.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Timeless tips for spending Thanksgiving away from home:

Go beyond the bird

You're not obligated to eat at a hotel buffet. Try a holiday feast inspired by the region, like seafood in the Northwest. Make a reservation at opentable.com.

opentable.com

Think way ahead

It's the busiest travel weekend of the year, so the sooner you decide where to go, the better -- aim to book your flight at least six months ahead. In the meantime, search currentcodes.com for travel discounts.

currentcodes.com

Embrace the cheese!

Every tourist destination has at least one blissfully corny activity. Check local tourism-board Web sites, as well as events-listings magazines and sites as the date gets closer.