I know it's early, but if I don't share this now I'm going to forget it. (Yes, I use Style Lush as an idea locker and sometimes bookmark my own posts, WHAT?) If you can't stand to think about Christmas yet, though, just file this under Gift Giving, General and it'll work just as well.
Every year since my son was born, we've bought a family membership to a local attraction; the first year it was the California Academy of Sciences; the next year, Children's Fairyland (one of old Walt's models for Disneyland); and this past year, the Oakland Zoo. Each of the memberships paid for themselves after the second visit, but just knowing we had those member cards in our wallets meant we used them each at least half a dozen times over the course of the year. Major value.
Whatever we have a membership to becomes our easy, automatic, cost-free, no-brainer way to spend a few hours--or an entire day. Having a membership also takes away the tension and hurry out of feeling like we have to cram in the whole experience of a place in a single visit to get our money's worth. Back when we had a kid who still napped, the membership meant we could make the outing just a few hours in the morning or afternoon and never feel like we were wasting a full-price ticket on a half-day visit.
While we were at the zoo again last weekend, my mother-in-law heard that our membership was about to expire and offered to buy us a family pass for next year. (One of the reasons she thought it was such a great idea is that our membership card can with a free admission for two guests, which means she and her boyfriend got in for free too.) What a brilliant idea for a gift, I thought, especially when the alternative might be another singing, blinking plastic toy. One year some friends gave my son three free tickets to Children's Fairyland for his birthday, and I still think that's one of the best gifts we ever got.
I always have a hard time buying gifts for other people's children (will their parents think it's just more clutter? will they outgrow it in six months?), so this year for Christmas I'm going to give the families on our list the gift of an experience--something they can enjoy together, and not have to store in a closet somewhere. Children's museums, science and nature centers, amusement parks, zoos and aquariums, even theatre tickets or one-day ski passes. Some of the best birthday gifts I've received have been tickets to events--a Giants baseball game one year, a Colin Meloy concert another--and I remember and cherish those gifts much more than I do a lot of the stuff I've been given. This also answers the question of what you get the person who has everything.
Money-saving tip: Make sure you watch for deals on group coupon sites (we got our Fairyland and zoo memberships for 50% off through Living Social). If you're buying for people who live out of town, it might even be worth it to sign up to receive emails for deals in their city. I've bought Groupons for my parents this way, and they love it.