Family workshop at Draper Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center. photo courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
The Ten Best Family Destinations for Learning Vacations
When it comes to vacations, the “best” for each family is a subjective choice based on circumstance and timing. When my family is exhausted from work and school, a “flop and drop” beach vacation sounds ideal. In mid-winter, an active ski break is irresistible. But when it comes to those long, lazy weeks of summer, parents like to make sure there’s an educational element in every excursion.
Even though travel itself is a learning adventure, I nominate the list below of 10 educational vacation destinations (listed alphabetically) for being the best at engaging kids in a fun way.
1- Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown New York www.baseballhall.org
Nothing’s in the same league as this stadium-size, multimedia showcase for the memorabilia of baseball’s greats. Though fans no longer defend Abner Doubleday’s claim to inventing the sport, Cooperstown remains a magnet for Little Leaguers.
The pretty Victorian-era town in upstate New York has a walkable Main Street packed with collectibles and ice cream parlors, and an impressive American Art collection at the Fenimore Museum (former estate of author James Fenimore Cooper). The celebrated Glimmerglass Opera does free lawn concerts in summer and the Farmers Museum has a petting “zoo” of ca. 1845 heritage farm animals that are tiny and cute. On warm days, head to laek Otesaga for a swim, boat ride or picnic.
2- Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody Wyoming www.bbhc.org
Cody, Wyoming is a small town with enough natural and manmade attractions to suit its namesake, William Frederick Cody better known as Buffalo Bill. The “Wild West Show” legend left behind a large museum devoted to the arts of the West, as well as the historic Hotel Irma where gunfights are re-enacted on summer evenings.
In addition to learning the history of the West and appreciating its painters, families can tour an authentic teepee in the Plains Indian Museum and learn about the West’s animals in a natural history museum. There’s a trolley tour of the old town, a summertime Cody Nite Rodeo and each July, the Cody Stampede rodeo championships. Yellowstone National Park and the Shoshone National Forest and nearby for day hikes and Ranger tours.
3- High Desert Museum, Bend Oregon www.highdesertmuseum.org
Claiming to have more sunshine than the rest of Oregon, the hip Cascade Mountain town of Bend has become home to outdoor adventurers, sportsmen, and eco-friendly families. The prize High Desert Museum complex contains a replica mining camp filled with costumed interpreters, and several living history displays about the Oregon Trail, a route used in the mid-19th century by settlers hoping to find gold in the Pacific Northwest.
Another part of the complex houses rescue animals from the region, including bobcats, lynx and falcons. The Desertarium introduces young children to indigenous reptiles and to our forefathers’ chores by teaching them how to churn butter. Bend is surrounded by natural wonders such as Mt. Bachelor (for skiing and hiking), the Deschutes National Forest and the volcanic Paulina Lake. Around the Old Mill shopping and entertainment complex families will find a riverfront beach and a logging mill-themed playground.
4. International Folk Art Museum, Santa Fe New Mexico www.moifa.org
Home to the world’s largest collection of folk art, Santa Fe’s remarkable collection of 135,000 artifacts originates from more than 100 countries and six continents. Families who find most art museums inaccessible, dull or overwhelming will be delighted by the permanent exhibition “Multiple Visions: A Common Bond.” The objects from every day life around the world include toys, dolls, costumes and masks that dazzle children and delight adults.
Interactive galleries with drawers full of toys, hand puppets, miniature trains and books will turn your visit into an all-day affair. The super charming town of Santa Fe is home to great restaurants and a fine children’s museum, as well as collections of work by Georgia O’Keefe, the Pueblo Indians and many contemporary artists. In addition to hiking, horseback riding and outdoor adventures, families should plan an excursion to the Taos Pueblo, an adobe village built by Anasazi Indians.
5. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax Nova Scotia website
The sea defines Halifax, the capital of Canada’s Nova Scotia province, and most visitors today arrive by cruise ship. Families will find a walkable, picturesque town topped by a working Citadel with a fine museum that celebrates its long history with the Atlantic. The best way to learn about events such as the 1912 sinking of RMS Titanic is to examine the museum’s model ships, naval paintings and items in the Titanic Gallery. Because Halifax was the closest port to the doomed vessel, Nova Scotia had the first relief boats on the scene.
The artifacts they recovered are startling; the wrinkled child’s shoe is enough to make the lyrics of Celine Dion’s hit “My Heart Will Go On” pop into your head. The Pier 21 Museum honors the million immigrants who entered Canada at this authentic waterfront. When history takes its toll on young attention spans, book a whale watching cruise at Cable Wharf.
6- Mystic Seaport: Museum of America and the Sea, Mystic Connecticut www.mysticseaport.org
Founded in 1654, the seafaring town of Mystic was once the shipbuilding capital of New England. In addition to the pizza parlor made famous by the Julia Roberts’ film, “Mystic Pizza,” there’s a 19-acre Seaport complex that is the largest maritime museum in the United States. Families can follow guides through 30 restored shops and businesses dating to the 19th century, including a printing office and a chapel. At the Discovery Barn, kids ages 8 and up play old-fashioned card games and learn how captains used flags to communicate at sea.
There’s a 30-minute children’s show “Tales of a Whaler” that teaches the basics of whaling and a kids-only museum and play area. The nearby Mystic Aquarium has trained sea lions who put on daily performances, and more than 5,000 creatures in its displays and touch tanks. The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat give families a chance to sit back and enjoy a ride into the yesteryear of this classic New England town.
7- National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City Oklahoma www.nationalcowboymuseum.org
Located in Oklahoma City, the former Cowboy Hall of Fame has evolved into a more serious collection of fine Western art including themed galleries devoted to The American Cowboy, The American Rodeo, Native American Art and The Western Performers.
Kids will especially enjoy the Firearms Gallery and Prosperity Junction, a replica of a turn-of-the-century cattle town. This large hall encompasses a railroad depot, blacksmith shop, school, church, and homes. A separate children’s building is home to ongoing programs and exhibits to delight (and educate) younger students. Grandparents will likely relish the drive to see the Gene Autry Museum in Gene Autry, the town named for the popular “Singing Cowboy” of radio, movie and TV fame. The Chisholm Trail Museum, about 40 miles northwest, chronicles the cattle drive trail that ran between Texas and the railheads of Kansas.
8.- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio www.freedomcenter.org
Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, crossing from Kentucky to the northern state of Ohio meant a new life for escaped slaves. That bit of history is what brought the remarkable Freedom Center to the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati, where it illustrates the horrors of slavery and the fight for freedom.
The museum’s centerpiece is the Slave Pen, an authentic wooden storage that held up to 75 slaves at a time in a nearby town. The Visitors Information Desk will alert parents to exhibits that may be too intense for young children, but the museum’s multimedia exhibits are also surprisingly inspiring. Cincinnati has many other attractions for visiting families including the Newport Aquarium on the Kentucky shore, and the large, well established Cincinnati Zoo with its very popular Zoo Babies exhibits.
If the kids start to suspect they’re learning something, take in a Cincinnati Reds baseball game or spend a day at the classic Kings Island Amusement Park in nearby Mason.
9- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland Ohio www.rockhall.com
Native son Alan Freed, the DJ credited with coining the term “rock and roll,” brought this Temple of Rock to Cleveland, where it tells the story of the music’s power over world culture. The crowd, the beat, and the soaring I.M Pei design make visitors tap their feet. Dozens of galleries feature permanent and rotating exhibits, movie theaters, and interactive listening stations including “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
Depending on how many kids or grandkids they’re toting, most adults are found in the displays designed to explain rock’s rebellious spirit to today’s audience. In addition to special events, more than 100 musicians perform or participate in panel discussions every year. Explore multimedia exhibits about the gospel, blues and folk genres, and admire items such as Elvis Presley outfits, Jim Morrison’s Boy Scout uniform, the report card from John Lennon’s Liverpool grammar school, and memorabilia of Jimi Hendrix’s days as a high school football star.
Dance out the front door and take a boat tour of Lake Erie, or make the kids’ hair stand on end at the Great Lakes Science Center. Allow another day for the wonderful programs at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, then hit the city’s many kid-friendly brew pubs for a wurst and local ale.
10.- Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Center, Saskatchewan www.rcmpheritagecentre.com
For more than a century, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have kept crime to a minimum across Canada. The RCMP Heritage Center in Regina, Saskatchewan explores the role of the red-clad Mounties while allowing visitors to see their training facilities. Housed in an elegantly designed stone and glass building are art exhibits, multimedia presentations, special programming and tours. Pepper, Salute and Falcon – the trained horses beloved by all Canadian children – board here and are available for petting and photos.
Depending on when you visit, you may also be able to catch the RCMP Musical Ride, the show of intricate cavalry drills performed by 32 highly skilled equestrian Mounties and horses who tour the world as ambassadors of Canadian culture. The weather in Regina has been known to range from 58 below to 110 above, so plan on staying long enough to enjoy boating on Wascana Lake or taking in one of the many summer arts festivals.
In “The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Best Family Vacations," the family travel community at MyFamilyTravels.com recommends many more fun destinations in the US, Canada and Mexico for your next learning (shhh!) vacation.
Kyle McCarthy, author of 12 guidebooks for the Frommer series on Southeast Asia, Greece and Turkey, helps families plan their adventures at Family Travel Forum.
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