We searched all over the West for places that love children, that challenge them, that let them have fun. We found them everywhere. Even Las Vegas, the most adult of all destinations, claims to be kid-friendly. So we sent an expert, age 12, to check out the Strip.
1. A jackpot for children
When my mother visited Las Vegas in 1965, she was 9 years old and the grand sum of the fun she had consisted of eating two BLTs and a couple of hot fudge sundaes courtesy of hotel room service. All the shows were way too adult, so Mom had to stay in the room with nothing but an old movie for company. In the year 2000, kids in Las Vegas are sure to have fun. When we went there recently, my 8-year-old brother, Eric, and I discovered that the big problem nowadays is not too little to do, but too much. From the dizzying myriad of choices Las Vegas has to offer, here's my personal recipe for a great time.
Start your visit to Las Vegas at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory. Although most parents will probably think of this as an educational excursion, like the factory tours on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (and indeed, this is a clean, well-organized, informative facility), most kids will think of it solely as a food experience and will look at the production line about as long as Chevy Chase looked at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon's Vacation ("Yep. Grand Canyon.") before running straight to the chocolate sampling. At least, that's what we did. Midtour, we each devoured a white chocolate- smothered macadamia cluster, fresh off the conveyor belt, before dashing through the rest of the assembly line and delighting over the impossible choice of which kind of free chocolate to savor at the end of the tour. The best moment came in the gift shop when we got to fill our own one-pound box with whatever variety of chocolates we wanted ($23.50 a pound and up). I hate to admit it, but we wolfed them down in the car. Short entertainment this tour, but oh, so sweet!
Following your pig-out at the chocolate factory, I'd suggest you visit the Lied Discovery Children's Museum, which is not only an oasis of calm in this frenetic city, but also the best place for kids to engage in interactive play. On the first floor, children age 5 and under can band together to run a mining operation using an overhead conveyor belt, telephones, and telescopes to coordinate group activities. Although the assembly line is designed for the younger set, Eric and I found ourselves enthusiastically joining in with the little ones. The second floor and science tower are designed more for older kids. Here you can touch a smoky, 4-foot-tall tornado (disrupt it with your hand and watch it form again), pedal a bike to generate light in a tube, and pilot a small model space shuttle from a mock-up shuttle control console. Although each of these flashy, hands-on exhibits will occupy your attention for only a few minutes, there are so many of them that a long-lasting ooh-ahh experience is inevitable.
Another place to stop is definitely the grand, fairy-tale castle Excalibur. Each night (at 6 and 8:30), Excalibur hosts a medieval feast designed to enthrall guests who are into fantasy and revelry. We ate with our fingers, banged on the table, cheered, and booed while kings and sword-wielding dragons battled it out in front of us. There's enough jolly song, expert sword fighting, thundering horseback riding, and magical pyrotechnics to keep everyone, regardless of age, well entertained. You're almost certain to be covered with grease and hoarse from all the shouting, but you'll also be jubilant after this performance.
Next, get your adrenaline up with thrill rides at Circus Circus's glistening, UFO-shaped Adventuredome, the biggest indoor amusement park in the world. Drop four stories and take a shower on the Rim Runner water ride, turn flips on the bungee trampoline (thanks to the stretchy cords, we didn't need 10 years of gymnastics training or Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscles to perform tricks), and play miniature golf while a double-loop, double-corkscrew roller coaster, the Canyon Blaster, screams by overhead. This place has rides for the very adventurous (notably, the stomach-emptying Inverter), rides for younger kids (bumper cars, mechanical dinosaurs, merry-go-round), and traditional midway games for the agile (basketball shoot, skeeball). One caution: If you tend toward the queasy, avoid the Fun House Express IMAX ride. Both my father and brother got thrashed around here and felt like barfing afterward.
Saving the best and the truly Vegas-unique for last, you can hop on board a full-size starship at the Las Vegas Hilton and travel to the 24th century at Star Trek: The Experience. Once there, we played with a pretend food replicator (I made a dish that had slithering worms in it), cringed at a dead-on model of the Locutus of the Borg, and talked tough with a live Klingon. We then perused video clips, original costumes, and an extensive time line that seamlessly integrated Star Trek history with actual history, all en route to the pièce de résistance of this locale—the motion simulator. Here, you'll fly through space, dodge phaser fire, and spiral headfirst through wormholes. A great adventure for the 6-and-up crowd (you must be at least 42 inches tall), whether you like Star Trek or not. One 10-year-old I heard about has taken the journey 109 times.
If all this is still not enough for you, check out the landmark skyscrapers at New York-New York, marvel at the Sphinx and pyramid at Luxor, or watch a battleship get sunk at Treasure Island. At night, be dazzled by 2 million lights dancing above you at the Fremont Street Experience or millions of lights twinkling below you from the top of the 1,149-foot Stratosphere tower.
Whether kids are into food, interactive play, pretend, action rides, skill games, or pure spectacle, Las Vegas is a jam-packed, eye-popping cavalcade of attractions that they will love.
2 where the deer and the okapi play
by Scott Gummer
Kids love going to the zoo and seeing the animals. Heck, even pulling our children out of the pet store in the mall is like trying to yank three swords from the stone. But for every kid gawking at gibbons swinging "free" inside their "habitat" and thinking it's totally cool, there is usually an adult standing back thinking it's nothing short of cruel. Room to roam is what makes the San Diego Wild Animal Park a horse of a completely different color. Spread out over 1,800 acres in San Diego's rugged North County, a half hour north of downtown, the Wild Animal Park gives guests a look at more than 3,500 exotic animals including perennial crowd favorites—elephants, lions, tigers, zebras, gorillas—all in surroundings similar to their native Asia and Africa. Yes, there are fences, but they are for the most part discreet. Giraffes wander among rhinos; rhinos stroll past impalas; impalas ignore buffalo.
Our 2-year-old, Calvin, cried for an hour after my wife dropped his brother and sister off with Daddy at the airport. I felt awful but knew I'd made the right decision, to bring only Swen, 4, and Ella, 9, shortly after we set off on the Wild Animal Park's 55-minute Wgasa Bush Line Railway tram. Two Calvin-size toddlers spent 53 minutes squirming and squealing as we rode the perimeter of the park.
The tram takes you back into areas not accessible by foot and gives a terrific overview of the entire reserve. Sit on the right-hand side for optimal viewing, and go early. Not only are the animals up and around in the morning, but nothing ruins a nice day quicker than restless kids having to wait in a long line on a hot afternoon.
Summer evenings are another great time to go. Not only do the animals get livelier as the temperature drops, but the Wild Animal Park also offers "Roar and Snore," a truly wild sleepover package for kids ages 4 to 7 and their favorite adults at a campsite overlooking the "Plains of East Africa."
The path down into the "Heart of Africa" offers a closer encounter with all kinds of fascinating animals. The giant eland are huge antelope as big as horses. Nyala, a distant cousin, look like gruff billy goats. The okapi are truly odd: The only relative of the giraffe, they have the same snout and long tongue but are roughly the size of a giant zebra, with the same stripes on their behinds.
Fear not; informative signs at every turn will answer most of your kids' questions. (Though I was stumped when Swen asked, "What do giraffes say?")
Swen's favorite, and mine, was the Hidden Jungle, a hothouse filled with butterflies and a long line of leaf-cutting ants. Ella got a kick out of Lorikeet Landing, where the colorful little birds perched on her arm and drank nectar right out of her hand.
We had hoped to take the Photo Caravan Tour, which, for $85 to $100, gets you up close and personal with the animals. Swen, however, fell four years shy of the minimum age. Maybe next time, though we all had so much fun this time we won't wait that long to come back.
Whatever you do, bring your camera, because you can't get much closer to exotic animals without having to leave the continent (much less this side of the country).
San Diego Wild Animal Park. Open at 9 a.m. daily. Admission: ages 12 and up, $21.95; ages 3 to 11, $14.95; ages 2 and under are free. (760) 747-8702, www.sandiegozoo.com.
3 clicking with creativity
by Elizabeth Wray
How about this, Mom?" my son asked. "I'll go to the museum if you take me to a movie."
"And we'll walk through Yerba Buena Gardens in between," I said.
We'd just completed one of our high culture, low culture deals that Kit, at age 11, is still willing to make. One of our favorite destinations is this south-of-Market cultural hot spot, located in between San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and the Metreon movie mecca. We've had good luck finding fun things to do there. Once last fall we caught part of an outdoor concert by Israeli singer David Broza. Another day, we followed a parade of singing and dancing teenagers to Zeum, an arts and technology center for kids ages 8-18. We were engrossed by their original musical—full of high energy, gritty stories, and hip-hop dancing. That day we never made it to the movie.
But this day it was raining. We had just spent an hour plugged into an audio tour at the Museum of Modern Art. After wandering among pink- and green-toned dancers by Degas, I found Kit squinting his eyes and wagging his head in front of a Picasso. It occurred to me that the purpose of every outing is to alter our perceptions.
We pushed out the door and into the drizzle. "Let's go to Zeum," I said, as we walked across a bridge toward the Rooftop—an entire city block devoted to family and youth culture and activities. We had an hour to fill before the movie.
He shrugged. "I don't want to do anything with little kids," he said, eyeballing the glass pavilion I was steering him toward. I reminded myself that 11-year-olds think they're way beyond kid stuff like the Yerba Buena Gardens Carousel that stood before us. I climbed on as he feigned interest in watching hot pretzels rotate in a glass case. I rode a hand-carved jeweled camel on this relic, which had operated for 60 years at Playland-at-the-Beach. Carousels make me smile—something about the way the wind and kaleidoscoping images rush past me. I let myself ignore my embarrassed child as I whirled around, and then bought him a pretzel for his time.
We followed a spiral ramp up the inside of Zeum's media gallery, which is shaped like an inverted cone. At the top, in the Production Lab, kids were making their own multimedia show—acting, using a video camera, composing digital pictures and graphics, and creating sound effects. Since the median age of the kids looked to be about 9, Kit left me and moved on to the Learning Lab where teenagers and a few preadolescents sat in front of candy-colored iMacs running 3-D modeling and animation software. I was sad that Kit missed the talking Mona Lisa images in my lab but when I saw him distorting faces using a program called Super Goo, I realized that if Picasso had played with today's software, there's no telling what might be hanging on museum walls.
There was a lot we didn't do that day. That's one great thing about Yerba Buena Gardens—there's always something more to do. We could come back and make a mural or animation. We could visit the Rooftop's ice-skating rink or bowling center. This kid- and adult-friendly cultural junction can always be counted on to instruct, to entertain . . . and even to alter your perceptions.
Oh, we did get to our movie; that was part of the deal.
Zeum and the Rooftop are located between Third and Fourth, and Mission and Folsom streets in San Francisco. Zeum admission: ages 5 to 18, $5; adults, $7. (415) 777-2800, www.zeum.org.
4 how the west was fun
by Richard Moreno
My 5-year-old daughter, Julia, loves Piper's Opera House in Nevada's Virginia City. But it's not the rich history of the building—it opened in 1885—that she likes. Rather, she wants to stand on its big stage and belt out songs to bemused onlookers. During our most recent visit, she sang several verses of "Jingle Bells."
Belcher MineTour Guides such as Bax, above, will take you through Virginia City's Best & Belcher silver mine. Afterwards, your minors can enjoy fresh-made fudge. Piper's, which hosted many of the biggest names in show business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including magician Harry Houdini and actress Lillie Langtry, is just one of the many historic attractions found in Virginia City, a Nevada mining town 25 miles southeast of Reno.
But just because Virginia City is historic doesn't mean it's a boring place for kids. With its wooden sidewalks, rows of buildings sporting Old West facades, and candy shops that fill the air with the smell of just-made fudge, Virginia City, which was founded in 1859, is more like an interactive Western movie set than a historic site.
A visitor wandering C Street, the town's main thoroughfare, has a chance to explore dozens of little shops—my 12-year-old son, Hank, likes stopping in the rock shops to look at the trilobites and other fossils—as well as a handful of old-time saloons, some of which have sections appropriate for families. My kids' favorite watering hole is the Bucket of Blood because it not only has a good, gory name, but free popcorn and a big picture window with a great view of nearby Sugarloaf Mountain.
In fact, I think it's Virginia City's tangibles—being able to actually do something—that makes the place an attractive destination for my kids. For instance, one of their favorite activities when we are in Virginia City is touring the Ponderosa Saloon mine.
Tucked in the back of the Ponderosa Saloon on C Street is a re-creation of a 19th-century Virginia City silver mine. About three decades ago, the saloon's owners discovered that the main shaft of an old Comstock Lode mine ran through the hillside behind the bar. So they dug a corridor from the saloon into the abandoned Best & Belcher silver mine, which operated until 1917, and began giving tours.
These days, a guide leads you into a muddy tunnel—my kids love sloshing around in mud—and explains the basics of mining in Virginia City in the 1860s and '70s. During our visit, my kids thought the best part was when the guide turned off the lights to show how dark it is in a mine. After all, there's nothing more startling than standing in pitch-black darkness and having a 12-year-old softly blow on your neck.
Not all of Virginia City's attractions are underground. The Virginia and Truckee Railroad (V&T) offers a 35-minute, 5.6-mile ride on an oil-burning steam train between Virginia City and Gold Hill, another historic mining town.
For my kids, the question of whether to sit inside or outside presents a dilemma. Inside means sitting in an enclosed V&T passenger car, while outside means riding on a bench on an open-air platform car, where the wind tears at your hair and you inhale oily engine fumes, which are particularly strong when the train passes through a tunnel.
Naturally, they usually choose to sit outside.
The Ponderosa Saloon mine is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: adults, $4; children under 12, $1.50. (775) 847-0757.
The Virginia and Truckee Railroad operates daily from May to October. Admission: adults, $4.75; children, $2.50. (775) 847-0380.
Piper's Opera House is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May to October. Admission is $3. (775) 847-0433.
Chamber of Commerce. (775) 847-0311.
5 adventures in underland
by Hilda Anderson
For kids with active imaginations, exploring the Oregon Caves can be the ultimate fantasy—haunting, mysterious, and spectacular all at the same time. Underground Cave Gargoyles, goblins, and E.T. spanking a baby—these are just a few of the figures kids have found among the stalactites and stalagmites of the Oregon Caves. In the complex of marble corridors and chambers that penetrates deep into the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon, shadows from stalactites and stalagmites become gargoyles and monsters. Voices and footsteps echo in the vaulted rooms. Narrow passageways hold the promise of a surprise around every bend.
Acidic groundwater has hollowed out the marble over the course of thousands of years, creating the caverns. The musty smelling, damp rooms vary in size from ones that are small and narrow to the Ghost Room—at 250 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 40 feet high, it is the largest chamber in the monument. In the Imagination Room, clusters of rock can resemble a pipe organ, a banana grove, a buffalo head, or strips of bacon.
The story of the discovery of the Oregon Caves reads like an episode from a Mark Twain novel. In 1874, a young hunter by the name of Elijah Davidson came across them when his dog, Bruno, chased a bear into a dark hole high on a mountainside. Davidson followed the dog into the hole and, using matches, discovered the passageways leading to the cave rooms. When his matches ran out and he didn't know where he was, he heard the sound of an underground stream (today known as the River Styx). He found his way to the stream, waded into it, and followed it out of the cave.
Today the caves lie within a 480-acre national monument. Guides lead tours through them from mid-March through early December. On the 90-minute tour, participants cover just over half a mile, climb 218 feet, and negotiate 575 stairs. The temperature inside the caves is a cool 42 degrees year-round with nearly 100 percent humidity. Warm clothing and good walking shoes are essential.
For their own safety, children must be at least 42 inches tall and able to pass a stairs test in which they may be asked to walk up and down a flight of stairs to prove their ability to take the tour of the caves.
Mike McCullough, assistant head guide, says that youngsters have helped him see the caves with new eyes. "One young man," he says, "pointed out a formation that he thought looked like E.T. spanking a baby. Now I include it on all my tours because it really looks like that."
Within the monument are five miles of day-hiking trails that pass through tall stands of Douglas fir, rhododendrons, madronas, Oregon grape, and salal. And you're apt to encounter squirrels, chipmunks, and bold Steller's jays all around the park.
Children can earn an Oregon Caves Junior Ranger badge by requesting a free Junior Ranger Activity Book at the monument. When they finish the activities—which include identifying birds, animals, and flowers along the park's trails—they turn the book in and receive the Junior Ranger badge.
The rustic Oregon Caves Lodge, across the road from the entrance to the caves, is a family-friendly place that provides games such as Monopoly, checkers, and chess for guests to play around the fireplace in the spacious lobby. There are no campgrounds at the monument itself but Cave Creek and Grayback Forest Service campgrounds and several private campgrounds and RV parks are just a short drive away.
Oregon Caves National Monument is 50 miles south of Grants Pass on State Route 46. Cave tours depart from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from May 26 to September 4. Reduced hours are in effect in spring and fall, and the cave is closed in winter. To avoid midsummer congestion, plan to arrive before 11 a.m. Admission: 12 and over, $7.50; 11 and under, $5. (541) 592-3400, www.oregoncaves.com.
6 san jose's do-touch museum
by Laura Hilgers
A few months ago, thinking that my children needed to be exposed to the nation's great museums, I took them to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. They were ecstatic. Sitting squarely in the Walker's main gallery was a life-size fiberglass sculpture of a wrecked Pontiac Grand Am—perfect, by my son Devin's estimate, for crawling upon. That's when I had to acquaint Devin, 3, and Willa, 5, with one of the more unfortunate, and cardinal, rules of grown-up museums: Do Not Touch.
Everything about the Children's Discovery Museum, including the walls, seems to call out Touch me! You can imagine Devin's glee, then, when we entered the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, where the first exhibit that visitors see is a real fire truck. Just behind it are a real Model A Ford, a Wells Fargo stagecoach, and an ambulance. (If you think "real" doesn't matter, you haven't spent enough time with 3-year-old boys.) Even better, touching is actually encouraged. Devin, apoplectic with joy, wasted no time in crawling into the front seat of the fire truck and madly twirling the steering wheel, as though racing to a fire.
Everything about the museum, even its architecture, has been designed to engage children's minds, bodies, and imaginations. In downtown San Jose's Guadalupe River Park, the museum boasts a bold geometric exterior design, whimsically painted in lilac. Inside, the 52,000-square-foot museum is home to 13 galleries and 150 exhibits, all of which scream Touch Me!
Geared to the 1- to 10-year-old crowd, the Children's Discovery Museum has something to pique every kid's curiosity. First floor exhibits range from Bubbalogna, an entire room devoted to bubbles, to Kids' Bank, a system of pulleys and mazes through which children move a tennis ball, to Rhythm Huts, where children can affect the speed of music with an electronic baton.
Although the toddler set can participate on the first floor, they reign on the second floor, which is home to Jessie's Playhouse, a wooden play structure, and the Early Childhood Center, a room filled with blocks, a sand table, dress-up clothes, and a Messy Play table, for projects like finger painting or soap drawing.
The second floor also houses one of the museum's more imaginative exhibits, "Magic Beans, Creative People," a fresh look at seeds and how people around the world use them. This multiroom exhibit, geared to school-age children, includes a Create a Seed station (where Willa used a sizable number of the museum's art supplies in making her creation) and a computer that plays music made with seed-filled shakers (and which so thrilled Devin that he placed his ear on the speaker, the better to hear the "Water Maiden Dance").
Beginning June 17, there will be another reason to visit: Arthur's World. This 2,500-square-foot exhibit will feature the characters and places of Marc Brown's wildly popular books and television show about an aardvark.
If parents need one piece of advice before visiting the museum, it's this: Bring a bag. Whatever exhibits kids are visiting, they make so many projects that it's impossible to carry them all otherwise. And you might as well forget about asking them to carry anything. They are too busy touching.
Children's Discovery Museum.180 Woz Way, San Jose. Admission: kids and adults, $6; ages 1-2, $5. Children less than a year old are free. (408) 298-5437,www.cdm.org.
7 delightful little pests
by Kimberly Brown Seely
The day I discovered Seattle's Tropical Butterfly House at the Pacific Science Center, a bone-chilling rain was coming down hard. My co-conspirators (sons Sam, 10, and James, 8, plus a friend, also 10) were shivering and short-tempered, but the minute we entered the glass-walled butterfly room it was as if we'd strolled through magic weather-altering doors and emerged in Costa Rica.
The temperature inside the exhibit was a balmy 80 degrees, and the humidity enveloped us like a warm embrace. We were there to see the butterflies all right, but as far as I was concerned, we'd stumbled upon a mini-tropical vacation—boys smiling, everyone calm, the pleasant drip, drip, drip of water from small pools and tiny streams, and, of course, hundreds of brightly colored butterflies fluttering overhead.
Clouds of iridescent blue morphos, just like those in the rain forests of Central America, sailed by. Paper kites from the Philippines sunned themselves on flowering plants. Monarchs and swallowtails sipped from pools of water on aggregate paths. (Visitors are warned to tread with care.) The longer we looked, the more we saw: nocturnal brown owl butterflies sleeping on the thin trunks of orchid figs and even a giant Atlas moth with an amazing 8-inch wingspan, resting before its short life—the Atlas lives only a few days after emerging from its pupa, we learned—was over. At the end of our tour we were cautioned to check our clothes, hair, and bags carefully lest any lepidopteran hitchhikers tried to catch a ride out.
Next to the Tropical Butterfly House in the Insect Village, the boys ogled a display case packed with giant scarab beetles. A herd of big (6-inch-long) elephant beetles really got their attention, and before we knew it we were eye to eye with all sorts of Arthropoda Insecta. Giant South American spider wasps pinned alongside tiny American paper wasps made us glad to live in the United States. Madagascar hissing cockroaches prompted a round of disgusting-but-true cockroach stories ("Mom, remember the guy you worked with in the rain forest who put on his boots and found out they were full of cockroaches?"). The giant millipede from Africa with its hundreds of legs and the velvety African tarantula elicited both horror and respect.
By far the most impressive exhibit, however, was the working bee colony sandwiched between two panes of glass. Inches from hundreds of worker bees, drones, and their queen (the mother of all bees), we could watch the bees coming and going through a tube in the floor, and even observe them building their hive. (Bees chew beeswax then spit it out to shape honeycomb.) The determined queen was surrounded by hundreds of her own offspring—nightmare!—but was clearly a mom in charge.
With newfound respect for queen bees, and feeling practically carefree by comparison, I shepherded my small swarm back into the rain.
The Tropical Butterfly House and Insect Village, at Seattle's Pacific Science Center, are open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: adults, $7.50; kids 3 to 13, $5.50; children under 3, free. For more information: (206) 443-2001.
24 other great kid spots
by Jennifer Reese
So summer is just around the corner and your kids are champing at the bit to get on with their three-month vacation. Don't worry. Whether it's in your backyard or a few states away, the West offers endless summer fun for kids. Here are a few (more) of our favorites:
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Just outside Tucson, this living museum features endangered Mexican wolves, parrots, ocelots, and a hummingbird aviary. (520) 883-1380, www.desertmuseum.org.
Vancouver Aquarium. When you watch the pallid beluga whales, you will wish you had a fishbowl big enough to take one of these creatures home. (604) 659-3474,www.vanaqua.org.
Victoria Bug Zoo. Scorpions, Mexican red-legged tarantulas, and praying mantises are always on display, along with edible insect snacks. (250) 384-2847, www.bugzoo.bc.ca.
Año Nuevo State Reserve.San Mateo coast. In winter thousands of obese northern elephant seals clamber onto the beaches. Tours are thrilling. (650) 879-2025, www.anonuevo.org.
Hearst Castle. San Simeon. Built by one of the world's oldest and richest children, the castle will never be forgotten by real kids who are dazzled by the indoor pool inlaid with blue and gold-leaf tiles. (800) 444-4445, www.hearstcastle.org.
Bay Area Discovery Museum. Sausalito. A bayside paradise for tots, with art studios, a science lab, and a 100-foot model river scattered across a former military base. (415) 289-7266, www.badm.org.
Exploratorium. San Francisco. At the Palace of Fine Arts, this place has been making science fun for kids since 1969. Hear echoes, distort perception, cast shadows. (415) 397-5673, www.exploratorium.com.
Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey. There are aquariums and then there's the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which re-creates marine habitats from shallow tidepools to the deepest sea. The Outer Bay exhibit has the largest window on the planet. (831) 648-4800, www.montereybayaquarium.org.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This old amusement park has it all: a mile of great sand, saltwater taffy, and the Giant Dipper, a 1924 wooden roller coaster that is also a National Historic Landmark. (831) 435-5590,www.beachboardwalk.com.
Winchester Mystery House. San Jose. Rifle heiress Sarah Winchester began building this wacky, 160-room Victorian mansion in 1884. Stairs go into the ceiling and doors open onto blank walls. (408) 247-2000, www.winchestermysteryhouse.com.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum. The world's biggest indoor model railroad display. Enough said. (619) 696-0199.
Bodie State Historical Park. An eerily well-preserved ghost town east of Yosemite that had 60 saloons and 10,000 residents less than 120 years ago. (619) 647-6445, www.bodie.net//.
Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits. Los Angeles. Forty thousand years ago, oil oozed onto what is now Wilshire Boulevard. The mammoths and saber-toothed cats who stumbled onto the stuff were stuck. Now you can see their bones. (323) 934-7243,www.tarpits.org.
Joshua Tree National Monument. Three hours east of Los Angeles. The desert landscape here is gorgeous. There's also the chance of glimpsing bighorn sheep, golden eagles, or snakes. (760) 367-5500, www.joshua.tree.national-park.com.
Columbia State Historic Park.Real shops, hotels, and restaurants are housed in Gold Rush era buildings, kept in pristine 1850s condition. (209) 532-0150, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552/?page_id=552 . Free.
Craters of the Moon. West of Arco. As recently as 2,000 years ago, magma spewed through the earth's crust, leaving 83 square miles of lava fields, cinder cones, and other structures in the middle of Idaho. (208) 527-3527.www.nps.gov/crmo/
Oregon Coast Aquarium. Newport. This spot explores the world above and below the waves with touch pools, seabird aviaries, and the new Open Ocean exhibit. (541) 867-3474, www.aquarium.org.
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Portland. OMSI couldn't be cooler, with Omnimax movies, a planetarium, motion simulator, and real submarine. (800) 955-6674, www.omsi.edu.
A.C. Gilbert's Discovery Village. Salem. Named for inventor of the Erector Set, this museum features, appropriately, a 40-foot climbing structure modeled on an Erector Set, and the Toy Hall of Fame. (503) 371-3631, www.acgilbert.org.
Dinosaur National Monument. Near Vernal. Kids can see the real thing—1,600 dinosaur bones embedded in the desert. (435) 789-2115, www.nps.gov/dino.
Children's Museum of Utah. Salt Lake City. In the old Wasatch Hot Springs Spa, you will now find a phosphorescent shadow room, an antigravity mirror, and a human hamster wheel. (801) 328-3383.
This Is the Place Heritage Park. Each summer at Deseret Village mid-19th-century Mormon pioneer life is re-created, with adobe buildings and people in period dress. (801) 584-8391, www.thisistheplace.org/.
World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame. Long Beach. Thirteen hundred kites are housed in a cottage. Also offered: kite-making workshops. (360) 642-4020,www.worldkitemuseum.com.
Seattle Children's Theater. This is one of the country's best children's theaters, featuring original plays as well as adaptations of much-loved children's books. (206) 441-3322, www.sct.org.
This article was first published in May 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.