Summer vacation will be here before you know it! Stymie the lazy-day choruses of “I’m bored…” before they start with a visit to one (or more) of these 10 spots that every kid should see. Ticking off this treasure-trove checklist of close-to-home U.S. sights – each within the scope of a weekend getaway – is sure to mount childlike wonder in kids of all ages, with each destination offering enriching experiences that are both educating and entertaining. From iconic emblems to engineering marvels, and natural wonders to theme park fantasy lands, these attractions for kids promise to spark the imaginations of young dreamers. Perhaps the only better alternative to seeing these sights as a child? Seeing them through the eyes of one. Catch a sneak peek at our 10 picks with the Spots Every Kid Should See Slideshow.
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Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, New York City
Sailing past Lady Liberty is a must for any visit to the Big Apple, and combining the trip with a stop at neighboring Ellis Island packs the iconic image with new meaning. More than 12 million immigrants entered the U.S. through the country’s first federal immigration station between 1892 and 1954 (maybe great-great-grandma was one of them!), and the historic island’s museum vividly demonstrates what life was like after crossing the Atlantic. A top attraction for kids is the carefully restored Main Building’s computerized Passenger Record, which lets visitors trace loved ones’ lineage as far back as 1892 (for free). Map out the family tree before circling back to Liberty Island for an up-close-and-personal look at the country’s most famous statue. Access to the pedestal can be reserved through Statue Cruises day of (note: the company monopolizes access to the isles), but the crown is currently closed while Lady Liberty undergoes a major renovation; the reopening date has not yet been announced. Cruises leave from Battery Park daily every 30 minutes between 10:00am–4:45pm; $24 adults, $12 children.
Fenway Park Baseball Game, Boston
Boston is home to a handful of must-see historic sites, but there’s none quite as kid-friendly as the oldest operating ballpark in the country – legendary Fenway Park. While the baseball greats that have played here may have changed over the years (Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Jim Rice), the venue itself hardly has since its 1912 debut, still maintaining a manually operated scoreboard and keeping in place a ladder that was long used to retrieve home run balls from the net above the Green Monster (the aptly named 37-foot-high green wall in left field). Diehard fans and curious spectators alike fill the ballpark every game to root for the home team, known in Boston as “The Sawx,” and the intense energy that fills the park makes this one attraction for kids that no youngster will soon forget. Fenway’s small size means there’s really no bad seat in the house – if you’re lucky enough to get one. Plan ahead – single-game tickets typically go on sale in late January (though if you can’t score tix, tours of the park are also available). Buy some peanuts and crackerjacks, and let the all-American sports revelry begin. Baseball season runs March–Oct.; game tickets start at $12. Fifty-minute stadium tours are held daily 11am–5pm; $16 adults, $12 ages 3–15.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
For the best views of Alaska’s frozen wonders, take the youngsters to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, where glaciers cover over a quarter of the 3.3-million-acre park, located about 50 miles northwest of Juneau. Sailing along the preserve’s coastline, you’ll enjoy close encounters with the icy behemoths; also be on the lookout for a variety of majestic sea creatures, including humpback whales, orcas, and sea lions. (Eight-hour day cruises depart daily from Glacier Bay Lodge from May through early September; tickets are $185 for adults or $92.50 for ages 3 through 12). One way to make the experience more impactful for kids: participate in the Junior Ranger program (available May through September for ages 6 through 12; kids ages 2 through 6 can become a Pee Wee Ranger) – after exploring the park and filling out an activity book, participants receive their very own ranger badge. Sadly, Glacier Bay is one attraction for kids that might not be the same for future generations. Though glacier melting here is not directly linked to global warming, the frosty namesakes of Glacier Bay have steadily retreated over the past 200 years. Today, there’s still plenty to see and do, but note that the only way to reach the park is by boat or “flightseeing” tours, so odds are you’ll visit with a cruise ship or tour company. Be sure to dress the kids in layers, as summer temperatures average in the 50s during the day. Glacier Bay is open 24 hours a day year-round, though winter services are limited. Visitor center is open daily late May–early Sept., 11am–9pm. Park entrance is free.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Spanning 277 miles and plunging to depths of close to a mile, the Grand Canyon rightfully earns its spot as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. It’s also a spot every kid should see, thanks to abundant wildlife (think California condors and unusual tassel-eared squirrels), remnants of thousands of years of human settlement, and fascinating geological features. The attractions for kids aren’t limited to the scientific, either. Appeal to little ones’ adventurous spirits with plentiful outdoor activities, from hiking to whitewater rafting to mule rides down into the canyon (book ahead). The park offers two types of Junior Ranger badges year-round (one for all enlistees and a special badge for those who venture to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon) for children ages 4 and up, with additional programs in the summer months to spark kids’ interest in hiking and nature. When off exploring, be sure to pack plenty of water and sunscreen – summertime temps soar into the 90s and above, especially inside the canyon. The South Rim is open 24 hours a day year-round, the North Rim is open mid-May–mid-Oct. Visitor center hours are 8am–5pm (till 6pm for North Rim). Entrance fee is $25 per car for a 7-day period.
Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral
The out-of-this-world concept of man in space has long captivated the inner child in us all, but as we plow forward into the new millennium, one fantastic chapter in the history of space aviation has come to a close: The last manned shuttle mission launched from NASA’s Florida headquarters in Cape Canaveral (about 45 miles outside of Orlando) in summer 2011. However, you can still watch unmanned rockets take off from the Cape Canaveral base if you plan in advance. Check the NASA website for launch days and information on purchasing tickets; note these launches are subject to change, and may be canceled at the last minute due to weather or other factors. If you miss liftoff, the Visitor Complex offers plenty of attractions for kids that entertain and educate in their own right, including a shuttle launch simulator, astronaut encounters, behind-the-scenes tours (like to the actual Mercury Mission Control Room from the 1960s), and cool hands-on exhibits (including a moon rock to handle). A $100-million exhibit showcasing the retired Atlantis shuttle and the history of the Space Shuttle Program will open in summer 2013. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is open daily 9am–5pm (except Dec. 25); admission is $50 adults, $40 ages 3–11.
San Diego Zoo, San Diego
Frank the gorilla, Otis the hippo, Charlees the rhino – these are just a few of the new friends your kids will meet on a visit to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, home to over 3,700 rare and endangered animals, including three resident pandas and the largest colony of koalas outside of Australia. Large natural-looking enclosures and huge glass-viewing areas allow kids to get close-up views of the animals. Top attractions for kids include watching polar bears swim at the Polar Rim exhibit; meeting the zoo’s newest panda, named Yun Zi, at the Panda Trek exhibit; or experiencing an “eye-to-nostril encounter” with massive hippos through the underwater-viewing window in the Lost Forest. Special programs for tykes include Zoo Sleepovers, where families can camp out and see what kind of animal shenanigans take place after hours (schedule varies by season; $119 to $149 per person depending on sleepover theme; includes tent, dinner, evening snack and breakfast, and take-home gift). If you want to cover the whole property, which spans 100 acres, in one visit, use the hop-on, hop-off bus or the Skyfari tram. For an African safari experience, try the Safari Park, the zoo’s sister attraction located in Escondido (about 35 miles from the zoo), where caravan excursions guide little explorers through a Lion Camp, Elephant Valley, Gorilla Forest, and more. Open daily year-round, hours vary by season. One-day zoo pass costs $44 adults, $34 ages 3–11; two-day pass to zoo and Safari Park costs $79 adult, $61 ages 3–11.
The Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.
Few things stir childhood dreams like rock star and astronaut memorabilia, and the Smithsonian Institution has them both (and much more) in spades. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and its National Zoo (all but two are located in the D.C. area) are open to the public and boast a collection of scientific, historic, and cultural artifacts that is downright dizzying – 137 million specimens, to be exact. It would take eons to tour every nook and cranny, so choose a few attractions for kids that are primed for sparking even the littlest travelers’ imaginations. The massive National Air and Space Museum – with airplanes dangling from the ceiling, lunar basalt rocks up for inspection, and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 helmet on display – will launch any wannabe astronaut’s career. One of the museum’s most interactive exhibits, “How Things Fly,” offers paper airplane-making lessons and even puts kids behind the controls of a stationary Cessna 150. Across the National Mall, pay homage to pop culture greats at the National Museum of American History, where Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, Michael Jackson’s fedora, and even Elvis Presley’s first recording are all on display. Open daily except Dec. 25, hours vary by location; free admission to all Smithsonian museums.
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Walt Disney World, Orlando
There’s something simply magical about visiting Walt Disney World as a kid. For all its touristy hoopla, the four-park resort captures childlike merriment – via castles, roller coasters, and the requisite fairy-tale princesses – in a way that’s hard for anyone who doesn’t believe in the tooth fairy to grasp. Quintessential Disney reigns at Magic Kingdom, where Mickey and Minnie hold court and the signature Cinderella Castle towers over the entire property, but the rest of the mega-destination’s attractions for kids are just as enchanting – and arguably more impressive. Epcot’s 300 acres (more than twice the size of Magic Kingdom) recreates 11 countries in its World Showcase section, and Hollywood Studios brings Tinseltown to life with backstage shows and some of the parks’ scariest rides. The 14-year-old Animal Kingdom – Disney’s newest, and possibly most underrated, addition – celebrates Mother Nature’s own breed of magic, with 250 species of wild animals roaming the property and a full-fledged safari winding through a faux savanna. Open daily, hours vary by park; tickets start at $89 adults, $83 ages 3–9.
Willis Tower, Chicago
Chicago’s former Sears Tower might have lost its iconic name (London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings bought and renamed the building in 2009), but the Western hemisphere’s tallest skyscraper still boasts the same vertigo-inducing views that made the attraction an instant tourist magnet after its grand opening in 1973. For kids, the bird’s-eye look at the country’s third-largest city is revelatory (especially when those ears start popping on the elevator ride up!), but even parents can’t help marveling from the 103rd floor of the office building as it sways slightly in the wind. On the clearest days, spot four states (Illinois and its neighbors, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan) from the 1,353-foot-high Skydeck, and zoom into local neighborhoods with the high-powered telescopes on hand. Don’t worry about lifting the littlest visitors to peer out the windows, either: The observation deck is lined with knee-high exhibits and attractions for kids, including coloring sheets, a Chicago scavenger hunt to see who can spy the most city landmarks, and four retractable glass-bottom balconies that cantilever 4.3 feet off the building’s edge (they’re sure to drive parents to nail-biting). Open daily, 9am–10pm April–Sept., 10am–8pm Oct.–March; $20.50 adults, $14.50 ages 3–11.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park has long made the list of spots every kid should see – the region’s stunning natural landscapes wowed the earliest Western visitors enough to designate it the country’s first national park in 1872. That year, just 300 people came to take in the wonders of the area’s 290 waterfalls, over 300 geysers, and the vast Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – a far cry from the 3 million who visit each year today. A highlight of a visit here then and now is surely Old Faithful, the mind-blowing 130-foot geyser that erupts every 45 to 90 minutes. The diversity of the park’s living creatures is equally as awe-inspiring, with 67 species of mammals and 322 species of birds, including iconic American animals like bison and bald eagles, as well as elk, wolves, and falcons. The park holds plenty of outdoor fun and attractions for kids of all ages, from hiking to camping to horseback riding (book in advance) – just be prepared for extremes in temperature, even in the summer, when daytime highs in the 80s and nighttime lows in the 30s are not unheard of. To kick-start your kids’ Yellowstone adventure, pick up a Junior Ranger activity book (for ages 5 to 12) at one of the visitor centers. Open 24 hours a day year-round. Visitor center hours vary by season and location. Entrance fee of $25 per car for 7-day period includes admittance to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.