Look Touch Play Learn
By Shilo Urban
Museums, collections and exhibitions that both you and the kids can get excited about on your next vacation
Want to plan a family vacation that affords you at least a few hours out of the sun, unexpected rain showers and a chance to learn while being entertained? Coast to coast, museums are great escapes from the elements, and many keep the squad engaged, mentally and physically. Designed with children in mind, these museums, aquariums and immersive attractions offer a big bonus: They also captivate the all-ages crowd.
Please Touch Museum
Kids can let their innate curiosity run free at this Philadelphia play space where no one shouts, “Don’t touch!” Watch imaginations ignite in fascinating landscapes, from a fairytale garden to a rocket station where you can build and launch a projectile. Fill a basket with favorite faux foods in the supermarket. Tumble down the rabbit hole into Wonderland for Alice-inspired silliness such as painting rosebushes red and sipping tea with the Mad Hatter. Float pint-size boats on a miniature river, complete with pumps and locks for splashing around. And be sure to stop at the Roadside Attractions exhibit, where children play grown-up by driving a bus, operating a tiny backhoe and running an ice cream stand. Whimsical and hands-on, the exhibits are designed to engage children ages 6 months through 8 years old, but everyone has a giggly good time.
Pro Tip Snap a print-worthy pic of the family on the beautiful 1924 carousel with handcarved horses, cats, pigs, rabbits and goats.
Memorial Hall, 4231 Avenue of the Republic, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 215-581-3181, pleasetouchmuseum.org
The Houston Museum of Natural Science
Dinosaurs, lions and mummies — oh, my! Adventure your way through five awe-inspiring floors of exhibits focused on the wonders of nature. Stroll through a rainforest (complete with a 50-foot waterfall) at the Cockrell Butterfly Center and take a deep dive into a black hole at the planetarium. Travel to the center of the Earth on a simulator ride and back in time in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. Go eye-to-eye with African wildlife and marvel at the largest seashells in existence. And humans of all ages can’t resist pulling open the drawers in the Cabinet of Curiosities to find treasures such as colorful feathers, strange artifacts and more natural and manmade objects. But the museum’s pièce de résistance is the massive Morian Hall of Paleontology, an impressive Land of the Lost-type place filled with skeletons of dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts of every size.
Pro Tip Check the museum’s calendar and plan your trip around top-notch traveling exhibitions that have included China’s terra-cotta warriors, Princess Diana’s wardrobe and artifacts from the Titanic.
5555 Hermann Park Drive, Houston, 713-639-4629, hmns.org
St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum
Roll out your best “arrrrgh” for this Florida gem, which artfully blends interactive displays with multisensory atmospheres that set a shiver-me-timbers mood, from pirate hangouts on land to a fierce battle below decks (designed by Disney’s Imagineers). Turn the wooden helm of a creaky pirate ship, “fire” its cannons and get hands-on with a 400-year-old treasure chest. An exceptional collection of authentic artifacts includes a Jolly Roger flag and gold coins salvaged from the wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Children can embark on a scavenger hunt throughout the museum that promises a reward of treasure from the gift shop. Afterward, walk across the street to visit Castillo de San Marcos, a 350-year-old Spanish fortress that withstood actual pirates.
Pro Tip This attraction is ideal for older kids. On the flip side, note the lifelike exhibits might spook younger family members.
12 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, Florida, 877-467-5863, thepiratemuseum.com
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Everything’s bigger in … Indianapolis? Welcome to the self-proclaimed largest children’s museum on the planet, boasting close to 500,000 square feet of fun — that’s more than eight football fields. That much space allows for a very broad range of exhibits, many of which dive deep into storytelling and culture (with subjects as diverse as comic book art, ancient Egypt and Black Lives Matter). Discover replicas of Malala Yousafzai’s home and Anne Frank’s secret annex. Budding world travelers can explore foreign countries at the unique Take Me There area, now boarding for Greece. Grab a seat on the life-size mock-up of an airplane for a simulated flight to Athens, where you’ll visit modern Greek homes and markets. Learn traditional dances and bake make-believe baklava. Nearly 48,000 items, including art and archaeological artifacts, in the World Cultures Collection further transport you and yours around the world. As for STEM-loving kids, well, you might have to drag them out at day’s end. From space travel and dinosaur digs to hands-on experiments, they’ll learn what it feels like to be a real scientist.
Pro Tip Wear comfortable shoes and have a plan of action for this enormous attraction. Plot out your perfect day with the help of the interactive 3D models of the museum on its website.
3000 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, Indiana, 800-820-6214, childrensmuseum.org
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Penguins shuffle about. Sea otters clown around. A hammerhead shark slinks by as it gives you the stink eye. Children are enchanted by the underwater magic all around them, from the plantlike leafy seadragons to the globular glowing jellyfish. Thousands of silvery sardines flash and shimmy in unison. A three-story kelp forest sways with the Pacific Ocean currents. And just outside, you can spot wildlife frolicking amid the stunning coastal scenery of the Monterey Peninsula. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s best, this California aquarium is a pioneer in marine research and conservation. We know that is a good reason to visit, but kids just think it’s cool. Talk to sea turtles, pet the starfish and observe numerous animal feedings throughout the day. There’s even a large play zone for the smallest tots, complete with a padded floor and eye-level exhibits.
Pro Tip To build the excitement before you go, give the kids a sneak peek of what’s to come via live cams on the website, where you’ll see the antics of sea otters, sharks, jellyfish and penguins.
886 Cannery Row, Monterey, California, 831-648-4800, montereybayaquarium.org
Boston Tea Party & Ships
We all know the story: Patriots dumped shiploads of British tea into Boston Harbor in an act of defiance that stoked the fires of the American Revolution. But do you know what that tea tasted like? Or how it feels to throw a chest of tea overboard? Floating on the waterfront near the site of the 1773 protest, this high-tech museum manages to turn the iconic event into an exciting new experience. Start by participating in a rowdy colonial town meeting led by Samuel Adams. Board a replica of the 18th-century ships that were raided on that fateful night, and commit high treason by tossing tea into the same body of water. Costumed actors and storytelling holograms keep the historical information entertaining, and a panoramic movie theater brings the birth of the nation to life through sight, sound and shudder — it’s impossible not to have a visceral reaction at some points. Finish up at the museum’s open-air terrace with a sampling of the five types of tea that were flung overboard.
Pro Tip Plan ahead. All tickets are scheduled entry; order yours in advance to get the time you want (especially in summer). Guided tours last about an hour, but you might want extra time to sip tea and peruse the excellent gift shop.
306 Congress St., Boston, Massachusetts, 866-955-0667, bostonteapartyship.com
If Meow Wolf sounds like a strange name for a museum, just wait until you see it. Or experience it, as it were, because this mesmerizing spectacle will make you feel like you’ve entered an alternate dimension. Which is exactly the goal. Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe the glowing, kaleidoscopic worlds that children and adults alike walk through, climb on and crawl into. Clamber up a multistory treehouse that pulsates with dancing flowers and singing mushrooms. Giant purple tubes and green rabbit holes sprout inside tilted, Dr. Seuss-style dreamlands. Secret portals abound, such as the washing machine/wormhole passage into the black hole of lost socks. You might find yourself inside a motherboard, newspaper cartoon or genie’s bejeweled bottle. Dress comfortably and allow two hours to wander, crawl and squeeze through this mazelike installation (and to travel back to planet Earth). Pro Tip Meow Wolf is coming to Texas, so the trip will get shorter. While Santa Fe is the home of the original (and many say the best), the empire is expanding rapidly. There are locations in Denver and Las Vegas — and one is opening in 2023 in Grapevine.
1352 Rufina Circle, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 866-636-9969, meowwolf.com