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Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Destinations and tips for traveling with kids this summer

Taking a trip with tykes in tow often sounds better in theory. There’s plenty that could go potentially wrong, from incessant choruses of “Are we there yet? Are we there yet now?” to (in my case) dealing with the fallout from disrupted naps or potty-training calamities.

Despite all that, we can’t forgo summer vacations and impromptu road trips until the kids are grown. Where’s the fun in that? Sometimes it’s best to just sit back, relax and (at least try to) enjoy the ride. From a full-scale vacation to a quick jaunt in the car, we’ve got some ideas for your next family car, train or plane getaway.

Quick Daytrip by Car

Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia

When kids are young, the Please Touch Museum is a must-go destination. Don’t expect a whisper-quiet, slow-walk experience here. It’s a destination built for kids with kids in mind, and, as the name implies, touching is not only allowed—it’s encouraged.

Housed in the huge, historical Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, the museum welcomes visitors with a 40-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch constructed of toys and games. A water area, where kids don vests to protect their clothes and play with rubber ducks and plastic boats on long, winding water tables comes next, followed by a floor piano (like the one in the movie Big) and the Rainforest Rhythms section, where kids can bang on drums jutting from an elephant’s trunk and shake percussion instruments attached to “vines.”

In the next room, you can’t miss the carousel. Nearby is the science exhibit, where you can shoot foam rockets and “fly” a toy Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. Downstairs, you’ll find a kid-size city, with shops, houses and other buildings for children to enter, explore and play pretend in. Not to be missed is the astounding Alice in Wonderland exhibit, complete with flamingo croquet, a hedge maze, funhouse mirrors, and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

4231 Avenue of the Republic; www.pleasetouchmuseum.org; 215-581-3181; tickets: $15 for adults and children; free for kids up to age 1.

Weekend Getaway by Train

Pittsburgh

Cost from Harrisburg: $78 round-trip per adult; $234 round-trip for a family of four; www.amtrak.com; www.visitpittsburgh.com; www.popularpittsburgh.com/.

There’s a reason Pittsburgh is nicknamed “Kidsburgh”; the Iron City is chock-full of fun stuff to do with kids of all ages.

Traveling by train to Pittsburgh will take a couple hours longer than going by car, but if you’re trying to curb your driving a bit this summer and expediency isn’t a big concern, riding Amtrak is the way to go. It’s a great way to really see the Keystone State, instead of just zipping through it on the Turnpike. And what kid doesn’t love trains?

Once you arrive in Pittsburgh, the downtown area and most of its surrounding neighborhoods are accessible by public transportation, namely bus or light rail, called the T. (Visit www.portauthority.org/paac/ for information.)

Here are a few places that shouldn’t be missed:

Carnegie Science Center/Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
Located on Pittsburgh’s North Shore and overlooking the Ohio River, the four-floor Carnegie Science Center gives budding scientists lots to see and explore. Kids can stargaze in the planetarium, have a look under the sea in the 2,000-gallon aquarium, launch parachutes and blast air cannons in the AIR Power! exhibit, control a 4-foot tornado, or watch trains travel across the Western PA landscape in the Miniature Railroad & Village.

Just a 15-minute walk or bus ride away is the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Its philosophy is “Play With Real Stuff,” and the museum’s MakeShop allows kids to make their own birdhouses, stuffed animals, electric speakers, or an animated short film. Children can take a seat on the life-size replica of the Neighborhood Trolley or play dress-up at King Friday’s Castle, from the venerable Pittsburgh TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Outdoors, the Backyard and Garden offer play spaces where kids can climb, swing, and get a little dirty in soil, sand, water and mud.

Carnegie Science Center: 1 Allegheny Avenue; www.carnegiesciencecenter.org; 412-237-3400; tickets: $17.95–22.95 for adults; $11.95–16.95 children ages 3–12.
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh: 10 Children’s Way; www.pittsburghkids.org; 412-322-5058; tickets: $12 adults; $11 children-18.

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens/ Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Founded in 1893, the Victorian glass and steel greenhouse is situated in the 456-acre Schenley Park in the city’s Oakland neighborhood. The conservatory is home to tropical plants from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as well as formal gardens and many species of exotic palms, ferns, succulents, bonsai, orchids and even tropical fruit and spice trees. From spring to fall, visitors can walk through the Butterfly Forest, and kids can pot their own plants and climb, touch and smell in the hands-on Discovery Garden.

Follow up Phipps with a trip to another of Oakland’s main attractions: the nearby Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Kids love this place for one big reason: dinosaurs! Not only are the big bones on view, but kids 10 and under can play paleontologist in Bonehunters’ Quarry. In addition, the museum features Native American and Egyptian artifacts, a Hall of Geology, and natural-habitat dioramas, complete with thousands of wildlife specimens on view. 

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens: 700 Frank Curto Drive, Schenley Park; phipps.conservatory.org/; 412-622-6914; tickets: $12 for adults; $9 for children ages 2–18; free for children under 2.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History: 4400 Forbes Avenue; www.carnegiemnh.org/; 412-622-3131; tickets: $17.95 for adults; $11.95 for children ages 3–18; free for children under 3; closed Mondays.

Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Just a few miles from downtown, the 77-acre Pittsburgh Zoo was ranked as one of the top four children’s zoos in the United States by Parents magazine, and for good reason. The zoo is home to more than 400 animal species (roughly 20 of which are threatened or endangered), including giraffes, bears, apes, monkeys, lions, elephants, kangaroos and black rhinos. Completed in 2000, the aquarium contains octopi, several breeds of penguins, sharks, turtles, stingrays, sea nettles, and lots of fish. Kid’s Kingdom includes interactive exhibits and a petting zoo (with domesticated animals, of course).

7430 Butler Street; www.pittsburghzoo.org; 800-474-4966; tickets: $10 for adults; $9 for children ages 2–13; free for children under 2.

Station Square and the Inclines

Until the early 1970s, Station Square was an actual train station, but since then, the seven-level historical landmark has been converted into one of the city’s best-loved shopping, dining and drinking spots. Station Square is also the launching point for duck-boat tours of the three rivers and horse-and-carriage rides.

A trip to Pittsburgh just isn’t complete without a ride on the famous Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines, whose lower stations are located close to Station Square on West Carson Street and are a short walk across the Fort Pitt Bridge to downtown. The trip by funicular to the top of Mt. Washington offers stunning views of the city and its rivers and even a small Pittsburgh-history museum and gift shop at the Duquesne’s upper station.

Family Vacation by Plane

It’s one thing to be able to load up the minivan with all of your family’s essentials and just hit the road, but traveling by plane is a different story. Luggage must be efficiently packed, kids and their belongings must get through security in an orderly fashion, and children must be as well behaved and entertained on the plane as humanly possible. That old Emerson chestnut about the journey rather than the destination counting doesn’t apply to traveling by plane with children.

Even so, full-scale vacations don’t have to be chaotic. Take it from Amy McHugh, the owner of the award-winning Lancaster-based travel agency Dream Makers Vacation Services and mother of four, who flies with her family to the Caribbean, Florida and elsewhere several times a year.
First, McHugh says, start packing far in advance to minimize stress and potential for forgetting something important. She lays out suitcases in her bedroom weeks before a trip and adds clothes and other essentials as she does laundry or thinks of something to include.

Next, bring things to keep kids busy. Each kid gets his or her backpack. They pick out a few special toys or books from Kmart or the dollar store, which they can’t play with until departure. The older kids bring homework, a Kindle, and playing cards. McHugh packs healthy snacks, as well as gum and candy for takeoff and landing. She also makes sure everyone brings a bathing suit and change of clothes in a carry-on.

Next, McHugh does her research. Her experience as both a travel agent and an avid traveler provides her with insider information about the best resorts and travel spots for kids. She opts for places that offer all-inclusive packages, because, she says, families can actually save money rather than paying for things a la carte.

“With kids, it does help to go to all-inclusive places,” she says. “There’s less stress and surprises. If your kid has one sip of a Shirley Temple and doesn’t like it, you don’t have to worry about paying $10 for it.”

As her two boys and two girls range in age from 13 to 4, McHugh looks for places that offer plenty of activities and accommodations for children of all ages. Many resorts offer childcare or kids’ day “camps,” which she thinks are great perks for parents who want to take a break and have even just a couple hours to themselves.

Finally, she and her family try to map out their days before they leave for their trip. Everyone shares what they’d like to do, and as a family, they budget their time accordingly.

“We come up with a game plan and an idea of who wants to do what,” McHugh says. “Vacations do go really quickly, and a little planning goes a long way.”

Dream Makers Vacation Services: 513 Bald Eagle Court, Lancaster; www.dreammakersvaca.com; 717-285-3946.

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