Travel

I believe there is no better way for a child to learn than through experience.  Children should be active in their learning, not passive.  Our family is always looking to our next adventure, whether it be a trip to a local farm or a day at the museum.  Below I have compiled a list of educational attractions that we have visited.  For fun, I’ve also included some tips that we have found useful while visiting Disney World and Disneyland.  Sometimes you just got to have a little fun!

Things to Do Around Washington D.C. and the Surrounding Area

The best part about D.C is not only is there a lot of things to do and see, but a good deal of it is free!

Smithsonian Institution:  I won’t go into detail about every museum as there are many we haven’t visited.  Our favorites so far are Air and Space and the National Museum of Natural History.  The newest addition is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  The museum has been very popular and issues timed passes, so be sure to plan your visit ahead of time.

Air and Space Museum:  The museum features artifacts from our early days in flight to crafts from our space race days.  If your interests are geared toward outer space, then the first floor will be where you spend most of your time.  On the second floor you’ll find the original 1903 Wright Flyer amongst other Wright Brothers artifacts.  There is also an interactive exhibit for the kids located on the first floor.

National Museum of Natural History:  This is my son’s personal favorite.  If you have ever wanted to see a giant squid, you’ll find one on the first floor.  The museum is filled with hundreds of “dearly-departed” residents from various continents and biomes.  If taxidermy is an interest of yours, then you will enjoy the exhibits on the first floor.  Our favorite exhibit is the Butterfly Pavilion located on the second floor in the Insect Zoo.  The creatures on display here are alive and well.  There is charge to enter the Butterfly Pavilion, except on Tuesdays.

National Zoo:  Admission to the zoo is free (yay), but parking is $22 (boo).  If you must drive to the zoo, then I recommend springing for a membership if you plan to visit more than once a year.  If you plan on bringing a stroller, be prepared to park it outside of the indoor exhibits.  Our personal favorite is the Giant Panda exhibit (although they seem to be sleeping every time we visit).  The zoo is open daily from 8 am – 5 pm.

The National Archives:  Located just behind the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art on Pennsylvania Ave., the National Archives is one of my favorite museums to visit.  While the highlight of your visit to the museum will doubt be seeing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, there are many other interesting exhibits to see.  Exhibits are open from 10 am – 5:30 pm daily and admission is free.  Visitors may enter the archives on Constitution Ave.

National Mall and Memorial Parks:  Until the Spring of 2019, you will have to admire the Washington Monument from afar while its elevator system is under repair.  There is still plenty to see along the Mall from the Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials to the various memorials honoring those who served during times of war.

Virginia

George Washington’s Mount Vernon:  I highly recommend a tour of Washington’s estate if you are in Alexandria.  The grounds are open 365 days a year, but check the website for hours and events when planning your trip.  While the tour of the house is interesting, we really enjoy the view of the Potomac from the back porch.  There are many special events and tours throughout the year.  We recently attended the Trick-or-Treat event at Mount Vernon and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Old Town Alexandria:  If you are looking for a picturesque shopping and dining outside of D.C., this is the place for you.  Located along the Potomac River, this is a great place for those looking to get away from chain restaurants. This is also one of my son’s favorite locations for playing Pokemon Go.

Monticello:  Located just a couple of hours south of D.C., Monticello is well worth the trip.  There are various tours available on top of the basic house tour, including a family friendly tour for those with young children.  We took the regular house tour and were offered a house stroller for my son (having him contained kept me from having to worry about him touching anything).  Monticello is open every day except for Christmas and a slight discount is offered on tickets if purchased online.

Colonial Williamsburg:  This was perhaps a more commercialized experience then I had expected.  While we did go on guided tours of the Governor’s House and several other buildings, we accidentally wandered into the nearby college bookstore.  Our 4 year old son was not quite ready for a day of tours, so this might be best suited for older children.  He did enjoy the military demonstration which featured a cannon (okay, so he just liked the thing that went “BOOM”).  Admission rates vary, but members of the military are offered one complimentary visit a year.

Maryland

National Harbor:  Located across the Potomac from Old Town Alexandria, Maryland’s National Harbor offers a more modern setting for shopping and dining.  The highlight of the harbor is it’s giant Ferris Wheel.  The Gaylord National Hotel features a large atrium and family friendly events such as ICE which features over 2,000 pounds of hand-carved ice.

National Aquarium:  Located in Baltimore, this aquarium not only features marine life, but various animals from the Rain Forest as well.  My son’s favorite exhibit is Dolphin Discovery.  Patrons can enjoy a 15 minute session in which trainers demonstrate the different types of enrichment provided for dolphins in captivity.  Admission is rather pricey with adult tickets costing $39.95 and children (3-11) $24.95.

Things to Do Around Pittsburgh, PA

National Aviary:  The aviary was one of our favorite places to visit during the winter months!  Bird exhibits are categorized by their biomes and you can have your picture taken with Santa and a penguin friend during the holidays.  Admission costs $14 for an adult and $13 for children ages 2-12.  The aviary is open daily for 10 am – 5 pm and paid parking is available on the street and in the adjacent lot.

Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium:  One of our favorite places to visit in Pittsburgh.  First of all, parking is plentiful and free!  Yay!  Located along Allegheny River on the outskirts of the city, this was one of the easier destinations for those of us living in the suburbs to travel to.  The zoo has several new exhibits, including The Islands which features Clouded Leopards and other exotic animals.  The Penguin Parade is a must-see and runs through the winter on Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 am (as long as it is chilly enough for our feathered friends).  My son highly recommends the zoo classes and the summer camp if your child want and up-close and hands-on experience with some of the zoo’s residence.  Admission rates and hours very throughout the year.  Active duty military receives free admission.

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh:  Of the museum’s permanent exhibits, the Waterplay area (located on the 4th floor) was by far my son’s favorite.  Make sure you bring a swimsuit, change of clothes, water friendly shoes and a towel for your little one to enjoy this section.  The water is not heated, so it may be a bit chilly for the kiddos in the winter time.  If you are looking for something to do with your preschooler, the museum offers a variety of classes for little ones.  The museum is open form 10 am -5 pm daily with paid parking available in the lots.  Admission costs $16 for adults and $14 for children (ages 2-18).  Active duty military and their dependents receive free admission from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Carnegie Science Center:  The center has some great permanent exhibits, including Roboworld where you can see C-3PO and R2-D2.  My son’s personal favorite is the Miniature Railroad and Village (a large-scale replica of Western Pennsylvania).  The center is a great place to visit with preschoolers, but is geared more towards school-aged children.  I recommend avoiding the place in May.  There are tons of end-of-the year field trips taking place that month and the place is packed.  The center is open Sunday through Friday from 10 am – 5 pm and Saturday from 10 am – 7 pm.  Note that the center is located within walking distance from Heinz Field and PNC Park, so you may want to avoid game days to avoid the traffic congestion that occurs on those days.  Basic admission is $31.90 for adults and $23.90 for children ages 3-12 (includes USS Requin).  Military and student discounts are available with appropriate ID.  Parking is available on site for a fee.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History:  Located next to Carnegie Mellon University on Forbes Avenue, this is the place to go if you want to see a real Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton.  While there is plenty to look at here, the museum has some interactive exhibits to entertain your little ones.  My son enjoyed the Bonehunters Quarry where he got to dig for fossils just like a paleontologist.  Note that children are required to where goggles while participating in the quarry.  Check the website for days and hours as times vary.  Admission for adults is $19.95 and children, ages 3-18, are $11.95.  Admission includes access to the Carnegie Museum of Art.  Discounts are available to students with ID and a 50% off discount is available after 3 pm on weekdays.  Paid parking is available in their parking garage.  A complete list of discounts can be found here.

Carnegie Museum of Art:  This museum is located in the same building as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Unfortunately, I have only seen a small portion of their collection as it is not the type of museum that will capture the interest of a toddler (especially since they can’t touch anything).  Their hours vary, so I recommend checking the site prior to visiting.  Admission for adults is $19.95 and children, ages 3-18, are $11.95.  A complete list of discounts can be found here.

Farms:

Round Hill Park:  Round Hill Farm is an exhibit farm located in Elizabeth, PA and is part of the Allegheny County Parks system.  Since this is a working farm, the animals are given a specific diet and they ask that you not feed any of the animals.  This rule also includes the ducks and geese who will come and greet you at your car in hopes of a snack.  The farm features everything from small animals, like rabbits, to livestock.  My son’s favorite was one of the very friendly barn kitties.  During the summer, you can take your children to enjoy the nearby spray park.

Triple B Farms:  Located approximately 40 minutes south of Pittsburgh, this is a must-do for the “pick-your-own” produce experience.  My husband always complained that we were paying to do the work ourselves, but given that the deer ate all of the strawberries I planted at our house, this was a great opportunity for our son to learn about where his food comes from.  When your done picking your produce, your children can enjoy the playground as well as feed the goats.  There is also a small shop if you would like to pick up a fresh baked pie.

Soergel Orchards:  Located north of Pittsburgh, this is more of a farmer’s market than a farm.  They have a nursery, several gift shops, grocery store and an allergy friendly market called Naturally Soergel’s.  They hold several seasonal events and have a small barn where you can feed several farm animals.  My son’s favorite was the playground which features a large pirate ship.  Although we never participated, they do offer a pick-your-own produce.

California

Northern California

Yosemite National Park:  Yosemite is my absolute favorite park and a must-see if you are in California!  If you enjoy wildlife, you will definitely get your fill of it here.  We’ve seen everything from deer to bears.  I even once caught a coyote checking out the food in the trunk of our car while we were setting up our picnic!  There is plenty to do and see here.  While Half Dome is probably the park’s most famous landmark, there are plenty of waterfalls, meadows, giant sequoias and other rock formations to see.

Columbia Historic Park:  Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 2 hours southeast of Sacramento, Columbia is a working 19th century mining town with shops, restaurants, lodging and a blacksmith’s forge.  You can pan for gold, ride a stagecoach and even take an old-time family portrait.  You can even catch a show at the Sierra Repertory Theater.  I always enjoyed visiting the ice cream parlor as a child and my brother liked their Sarsaparilla.  Columbia is a very budget-friendly day trip with free admission, parking and guided tours.  You will have to pay for some experiences like panning for gold.

Jamestown:  Jamestown is another historic gold rush town located in the Sierra Nevada foothills.   There is not as much to experience here as in Columbia, but there are plenty of shops and a variety of restaurants to choose from.

California State Railroad Museum:  The museum is located in Old Sacramento and is open daily from 10 am – 5 pm.  Admission costs $12 for adults and $6 for children (ages 6-17) with children 5 and under getting in for free.   The museum features over a dozen steam locomotives as well as dining cars, cabooses and rail equipment from various eras.

Monterey Bay Aquarium:  This is another one of my favorite family-friendly attractions and a must-do if you can swing the expensive admissions price.  If you don’t have access to a discounted rate it is $49.95 for adults and $29.95 for children ages 3-12.  (Ouch!)  You can see if you qualify for a corporate or credit union discount here.  There is a discount for military members (not dependents) at the aquarium or tickets can be purchased at the participating military bases listed on this page.  There really is a lot to see and do here with many hands-on experiences for the little ones.  If you are fortunate, you might see wild sea otters out in the bay during your visit along with the many sea lions who can often be found lounging on the rocks.

Exploratorium:  It has honestly been a couple of decades since I visited the museum, but I remember enjoying it as a child and therefore had to add it to my list.  The museum exhibits feature a mesh of art and science and is, therefore, a great place to go for STEAM education.  Located in San Francisco, you will have to first find and then pay for parking.  Admission is $29.95 for adults and $19.95 for children ages 4-12.  The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am – 5 pm.

Southern California

San Diego Zoo:  Remember how the animals in the movie Madagascar were looking forward to moving here?  Well, there is good reason.  This massive park is home to thousands of species and well-known for its conservation efforts and has received numerous awards for their work.  The zoo is open every day of the year, but be sure to check the website for current hours.  Admission is a bit expensive at $52 for an adult and $42 for children ages 3-11 (at least there is free parking). Active duty members of the military may receive a complimentary one-day pass.  See the zoo website for a complete list of discounts and details.

Balboa Park:  Once you have finished visiting the San Diego Zoo, I recommend heading over to the Balboa Park Carousel.  This extensive park features a carousel, miniature train, numerous museums, restaurants and playgrounds.

Old Town San Diego:  If you are looking for a bit of history, head over to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.  Here you will learn about the Spanish colonization of San Diego as well as Mexican and American settlements of the area.  There are also plenty of hotels and restaurants in the Old Town area if you are simply looking to relax.

Disneyland and California Adventures:  Okay, so maybe this isn’t “educational”, but you can’t visit Southern California without a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim.  With single-day tickets starting at $97 on a value day, I highly recommend looking for discounts and promotions.

Universal Studios Hollywood:  This may also not be what one would consider an “educational” attraction, but now that they have added The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you an always have the family read the books prior to a visit.  Just like Disney, you’ll want to look for discounts since park tickets start at $105 for a single-day pass.

Things to do in Colorado

United States Air Force Academy:  Pay a visit to my husband’s alma mater and take in the breath taking views of the Rocky Mountains or come see the Falcons take on Army/Navy in football.  Make sure you pay a visit to USAFA’s most iconic structure, the Cadet Chapel. The Academy is located in northern Colorado Springs just off of I-25.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo:  I will start off by saying I have yet to find a zoo as visually stunning as this one.  Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, you will find breathtaking views of Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor as you trek through the Zoo.  If you are not accustomed to breathing at a high altitude, you may find traversing this zoo a bit of a challenge (it is all up hill).  Despite the rigorous hike, the zoo is well worth it.  The zoo is open 365 days a year, but be sure to check the website for current hours and ticket prices.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway:  We received several recommendations for this one while living in Colorado Springs, but never found an opportunity to experience it for ourselves. Your journey will start in Manitou Springs and take you up the famous Pikes Peak (over 14,000 feet).  Rates and times vary with the seasons.

Manitou Springs:  This historic artisan community is located near Pikes Peak.  Here you’ll find local eateries, Victorian bed and breakfasts and “mom and pop” shops.  Manitou Springs is home to various museums and historic sites such as the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and Cave of the Winds.

Garden of the Gods:  Admission to the park is free and offers breathtaking vistas with walking paths that even the youngest hiker can easily navigate.  If you are looking to update your family photo, this is a popular outdoor spot amongst local professional. photographers.

Seven Falls:  If you are up for the challenge of climbing up over 200 steps in high altitude, then this is the attraction for you (don’t worry, there is an elevator).  Be sure to visit at night when the waterfalls are illuminated by a variety of colored lights.  While parking is free, there is a per person admission fee.  Adults are $14 and children (3 and up) are $8.

Things to do in Florida

Kennedy Space Center:  Although the space shuttle fleet has been retired, the Kennedy Space Center is still worth going to.  Check out the events page for information on visiting astronauts (astronaut encounters are included with admission).  I had the honor of meeting Apollo 13 astronauts James Lovell and Fred Hayes during the Astronaut Scholarship Federation Autograph Show.

Disney World:  Once again, not necessarily “educational”, but worth mentioning.  You could head over to The Hall of Presidents for a brief history lesson.  I won’t even get into pricing here, let’s just say it is “expensive”.

Disney Travel Tips

  1. Discounts:  Whether you are traveling to Disney World or Disneyland, this is an expensive trip even with the use of discounts.
    • Military Salute:  I mention this program first because it is the best discount if you have access to it.  Disney offers discounts for active duty military to Disneyland, Disney World, as well as their cruise line.  Offers and discounts vary each year, so check their websites when planning your trip.  Spouses may purchase tickets and travel without the active duty member (so yes, you can go while your husband/wife is deployed).  Disney usually allows six tickets to be purchased each year (they have changed this in the past).  If you are looking to stay on property, the discounts are tiered (i.e., you will get a larger discount when booking a deluxe resort versus booking a moderate or value resort).
    • Disney Visa Card Members:  Cardholders can check the website for year-round perks and limited-time offers on park admission and resorts.  Year-round discounts include select park restaurants and store purchase over $50.
    • AAA: I have never booked through AAA given that the Military Salute seems to offer the best discount for us, but my mom used them when booking our family trips.  If you are a member of AAA and do not have access to any other discounts, I recommend giving them a call.
    • Off-Season Travel:  Disney will often release their own promotions for off-season dates (I’ve seen them offer free meal plans during these times).  If you are willing to travel during this time you will enjoy smaller crowds as well as the opportunity to attend special events (e.g., Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party).
  2. Start Early:  If you the are type to just wing your vacation plans or not have any plans at all, then you are probably not going to get to do much on your Disney vacation.  If you are traveling with small children and are looking to eat at some of the popular character spots, like Cinderella’s Royal Table, then you to need to book your reservation in advance.
    • Dining:  These reservations can be booked 180 days in advanced.  If you are looking to book a popular spot, like Cinderella’s Royal Table Character Breakfast, then I recommend calling or booking online 180 days out.  Disney’s reservation system normally refreshes around 7 am E.S.T.  (The site kept crashing at that time for me due to the high traffic.  I ended up calling to get our Cinderella’s Royal Table breakfast reservation.  Be prepared to be on hold for a bit if you are calling around 7 am to make dining reservations.  You will at least be listening to songs from Disney and not your typical elevator music.)
    • Resorts:  According to Yourfirstvisit.net you can current book as far 499 days out.  The earliest I booked a trip was a year out.  Remember, if you are using a room discount like the Military Salute, Disney only allots so many rooms towards this program so it is best to call early and reserve a room.  You can always cancel or modify the reservation later on as long as you are not too close to your travel date.  In the past, I have been required to give a $200 deposit when booking my room.
    • FastPass+ (Disney World):  If you are staying at a Walt Disney World resort, you may book 3 FastPass+ experiences 60 days out or you can book 30 days out if you have tickets.  I recommend researching the most in demand rides/character experiences.  For example, when we last visited in October 2015, the Seven Dwarves Mine Train and visiting Anna and Elsa were two of the most in demand things on our list.  Like the crazy, dedicated mom that I am, I stayed up till midnight when our trip countdown reached 60 days out to nab my son a pass to see Anna and Elsa.  I managed to snag a time slot the last day of our trip, that is how popular those ladies were at the time.  This also meant that for the entirety of our trip, we only had 2 FastPass slots that we could use.