Beat boredom without breaking the bank


Day trips around town By Russell Lissau

Photo: Courtesy of the DuSable Museum

Storytelling at the dusable Museum

As the nation’s economic woes stretch into another year, many parents are rethinking how they spend their money—especially when it comes to luxuries like family entertainment. Group activities can be frightfully expensive, given the ever-increasing ticket prices for movies, theme parks, sporting events and other traditional group outings—and that’s before you pay to park or buy snacks once you get inside. But countless sources of inexpensive family fun are available in the Chicago area. There are forest preserve trails to hike, world-famous sights to see, theatrical productions to enjoy and plenty of other entertaining activities available—many costing less than a hot dog at Wrigley Field. All you need is a little imagination, a sense of adventure and maybe a map or two. Love your library Libraries are good for much more than borrowing books and doing research for school reports. Most area libraries offer free classes, film screenings, musical performances, artistic activities and other programs designed with families in mind. The Evanston Public Library holds a chess night on the first Thursday of every month, while the Arlington Heights Memorial Library features book discussions for kids and adults, youth-oriented theatrical performances and musical events. In the western suburbs, Naperville’s two public libraries host seasonal craft programs for children and parents, as well as shows by jugglers, puppeteers and magicians. "We want to offer opportunities for families to do something together that will give them a common experience," says Susan Strunk, manager of Naperville’s Naper Boulevard library. "And a lot of the times, the parents enjoy it as much as the kids." The Chicago Public Library system is a particularly rich source of entertaining activities, including art exhibitions, dramatic performances, lectures, poetry readings and appearances by some of the nation’s best-selling writers. Advanced registration often is required for library programs, so be sure to call ahead when something strikes your fancy. Marvelous museums Chicago long has been known for its magnificent museums. Museums that sit on publicly-owned land repay their landlords—us, the tapayers—with free days. The Chicago Historical Society offers free admission to everyone on Mondays. The Museum of Science and Industry welcomes people without charge on select Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the year, as does the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium. The Terra Museum of American Art doesn’t charge admission on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the first Sunday of each month, while the DuSable Museum of African-American History offers free admission every Sunday. The Chicago Children’s Museum is free for families every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. The Mexican Fine Arts Center is free every day. The world-famous Art Institute of Chicago is free on Tuesdays, but every day offers a remarkable pricing plan: Rather than charging set amounts, the museum asks visitors to pay whatever they wish, as long as they contribute something. Children 5 and younger always get in free. "Families can come, pay whatever they choose, and enjoy the museum. That’s the important part—to just come," says Eileen Harakal, executive director of public affairs for the venerable Michigan Avenue attraction. "Money should not be an obstacle to visiting this wonderful museum. Our founders wanted it to be accessible to every man, woman, and child in Chicago, and it is." Move over, Broadway When it comes to live theater, Chicago is a top-notch town. Broadway shows play to packed houses every night here, sometimes even before the performances hit New York. And homegrown troupes at the Steppenwolf and Goodman have yielded countless award-winning productions, not to mention some of America’s favorite actors and actresses. Of course, tickets to the most popular shows can cost as much as $100 a piece—which prices some families right out of the theater. But marquee shows such as "West Side Story," "Macbeth" and "Damn Yankees" also are playing that venues with more affordable prices—at area high schools and colleges. "I think it’s a great alternative—especially for junior-high and high-school age students," says Frank Lestina, the fine arts director at Vernon Hills High School, which last year teamed with nearby Libertyville High to stage a rare high-school production of "Les Miserables." "It is very important for people to make the effort to attend live performances. This is true of music concerts, theater and even art shows." Student-run theatrical performances aren’t limited to timeless musicals or Shakespearean classics. Many schools put on cutting-edge dramas, dark comedies or original pieces written by the students themselves. This April, Highland Park High School will stage "The Laramie Project," an off-Broadway play and HBO movie about the 1998 hate-crime murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. The same month, students at Oak Park and River Forest High School will perform George Bernard Shaw’s "Arms and the Man." In April and May, DePaul University’s Theatre School puts on "The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See…" a musical for adults and children based on Edward Lear’s comical characters. Also in May, Northwestern University’s Theatre and Interpretation Center hosts the Spare Rib Festival, a collection of pieces created, directed and performed by undergraduates in the department of performance studies. Tickets to many student productions are free. Other troupes charge a minimal fee, often as little as $2. Into the woods Thousands of acres of woodlands are protected by the various forest preserve and conservation districts in northeastern Illinois, and your tax dollars pay for their care—so why not see your money at work and visit them? The preserves in Chicago and the collar counties feature twisting trails, scenic bluffs, beautiful lakes, winding rivers and other natural attractions. During the winter months, paths normally used for biking and hiking often are good for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. If mountain biking or skiing isn’t your family’s thing, grab walking sticks, notepads and pens and stroll through a preserve at a leisurely pace. Tell your children to write descriptions of animals and plants you pass, then use the Internet or an encyclopedia to identify them when you get home. If your kids aren’t old enough for such a project, simply take them for a walk along a forest-preserve trail and point out the interesting species you see, then perhaps make a game out of it by awarding points for each animal spotted. "Families wanting to spend quality time together can find a whole host of free or inexpensive things to do in their forest preserves," said Lake County Forest Preserve District President Bonnie Thomson Carter. "The outdoor recreational and learning experiences provided in our forest preserves help us maintain a high quality of life and sense of community." Forest preserves offer more than just bucolic landscapes. Many feature man-made recreational opportunities such as canoe launches, picnic shelters and historical exhibits. For example, the Lake County Discovery Museum on the grounds of the Lakewood Forest Preserve near Wauconda is home to the world’s largest postcard collection, the official Lake County history archives and a rotating selection of fun exhibits. Kline Creek Farm at the Timber Ridge Forest Preserve in Winfield is a working recreation of 19th Century farm life. Self-guided tours and an array of free or inexpensive programs are offered at Kline Creek Farm throughout the year. And the McHenry County Conservation District offers nature-related scavenger hunts, story-time sessions, a maple syrup festival and many other family programs at various locations. Tour de force Many entrepreneurs offer guided bus or boat tours of Chicago’s architectural and historical landmarks, and they’re usually pretty entertaining, although they can be prohibitively expensive for a family. But you can design your own tours of Chicagoland without spending a dime. The possible topics are endless. Do your kids like sports? Then visit as many of the Chicago area’s athletic stadiums as you can in one day, from U.S. Cellular Field (Comiskey Park) on the South Side to Ryan Field in Evanston. Are you a fan of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright? Try searching for the many homes and other buildings he designed that still stand in the area. Are your teens movie buffs? Check out area locations that were used in major motion pictures, such as Marina Towers (seen in Steve McQueen’s "The Hunter"), the Rookery Building (a South LaSalle Street landmark that served as Elliot Ness’ headquarters in "The Untouchables") and the Richard J. Daley Center (seen during the climactic chase in "The Blues Brothers"). "And let’s not forget the Wrigley Building, featured significantly in the movies ‘The Fugitive’ and ‘Soul Food,’" said Dann Gire, film critic for the Daily Herald and president of the Chicago Film Critics Association. "One of the great things about living in Chicagoland is that you can go scouting for movie locations after they’ve been filmed. It’s easy, convenient, and what’s more, fun!" Gather the family together and use the Internet to find destinations for your tour. Web sites such for the Chicago Film Office, the Internet Movie Database and the Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations include information about locally shot films, and many official and fan-created Web sites feature information about Wright’s architectural masterpieces, area ballparks and other potential sightseeing subjects. You can create maps at a variety of geographically minded Web sites, too, including those for Mapquest and Rand McNally. Zoo review Not only is Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo a world-famous tourist destination, welcoming more than 3 million visitors every year, it’s also one of only a handful of zoos in the country that doesn’t charge admission. Managed by the Lincoln Park Zoological Society, the zoo, the nation’s oldest, primarily is funded by the Chicago Park District and private donations, which means you can see the lions, tigers and bears any day of the year without first having to save up for tickets. The free entry policy is vital to the zoo’s mission, says spokeswoman Kelly McGrath. "How many families would not be able to come to the zoo if we charged admission?" McGrath says. "They definitely appreciate it." The zoo’s most famous feature arguably is its recently renovated farm, where you can feed cows, churn butter and participate in many other fun activities. Lincoln Park is home to traditional zoo animals, too. Teach your kids about aquatic animals by visiting the penguin and seabird house, the sea lion pool or the scenic swan pond. Or, if your youngsters like to monkey around, call on the gibbons, mandrills and pygmy marmosets in the primate house. Additionally, this spring marks the debut of the zoo’s Regenstein African Journey, a habitat for aardvarks, giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, warthogs and other African species. The exhibit will replicate the animals’ natural ecosystems, such as rain forests, dry forests and savannas. Located at Lake Shore Drive and Fullerton Parkway, Lincoln Park Zoo is easily accessible by car, taxi, bus, bicycle, in-line skate or just about any other means of travel. Parking costs $9 per vehicle, however. All aboard No doubt about it: Kids love trains. Inspired by stories such as "The Little Engine That Could" or perhaps the sight and sounds of scale-model trains zipping around a miniature track at home, children have been fascinated by railroads for generations. And if your children would like nothing better than to ride the Hogwart’s Express or to accompany Thomas the Tank Engine on one of his many exploits, Chicago definitely is the right place for you. Long considered a key railway hub, Chicagoland is home to hundreds of miles of railroad tracks used by freight carriers, long-distance passenger trains and two commuter lines, Metra and the CTA. So make your young train fan’s dream come true by hopping aboard for an unforgettable adventure. "Being exposed to trains at a young age helped me to grow into a lifelong hobbyist of model trains," recalls Bill Halupka, a vice president of the LGB Model Railroad Club of Chicago. "When I was younger, my dad would take us on the Burlington (now called Metra) to downtown Chicago to visit the train shops, and the ride was half the fun." For suburbanites, Metra might be the easiest way to ride the rails. Ticket prices depend on your starting point and destination and start at $1.85 per person. Metra offers special family fares on weekends and selected holidays when up to three kids under 12 ride can free when accompanied by a fare-paying adult. Metra also offers a special $5 weekend pass that’s good all day Saturday and Sunday. During the week, kids between the ages of 7 and 11 pay half-price for one-way fares. Additionally, kids under 7 ride free when accompanied by a fare-paying adult during the week. Other discounts also are available. Riding a Chicago Transit Authority train is an even bigger bargain: one-way tickets cost $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for kids, regardless of where you board or what your destination may be. Even better for your wallet, reduced-fare cards are sold at currency stores, area supermarkets and other locations. CTA Visitors Passes offer a discount, too. Not that you really even need to go anywhere if you’re traveling through the Windy City on the railroad. Seeing Chicago or the suburbs by train is a remarkable experience on its own, far more memorable than the traditional view from a car. Pack snacks and drinks and make a day of it, riding the rails until it’s time to head home.


Just the facts

Libraries Arlington Heights Memorial Library (847) 392-0100;

Chicago Public Library (312) 747-4300;

Evanston Public Library (847) 866-0300;

Naperville Public Libraries (630) 961-4100;

Museums Adler Planetarium (312) 922-7827;

Art Institute of Chicago (312) 443-3600;

Chicago Children’s Museum (312) 527-1000;

Chicago Historical Society (312) 642-4600;

DuSable Museum of African-American History (773) 947-0600;

Field Museum of Natural History (312) 922-9410;

John G. Shedd Aquarium (312) 939-2435;

Museum of Science and Industry (773) 684-1414;

Terra Museum of American Art (312) 664-3939;

Student theater Highland Park High School (847) 926-9233;

DePaul University’s Theatre School (312) 922-1999;

Libertyville High School (847) 327-7000;

Northwestern University’s Theatre and Interpretation Center (847) 491-7282;

Oak Park and River Forest High School (708) 434-3157;

Vernon Hills High School (847) 932-2000;

Forest Preserves Lake County Discovery Museum (847) 968-3400; Kline Creek Farm (630) 876-5900;

Lake County Forest Preserve District (847) 367-6640;

McHenry County Conservation District (815) 338-6223;

Self-made tours Internet Movie Database Chicago Film Office (312) 744-6415;


Rand McNally

Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations

The zoo Lincoln Park Zoo (312) 742-2000;

Trains Chicago Transit Authority (888) 968-7282;

Metra (312) 322-6777;




Russell Lissau is a staff writer for the Daily Herald. His work also has appeared in Chicago magazine, North Shore and The Advocate.


Kids Eat Chicago

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