This year, the theme is "Chicago’s Great Hotel Extravaganza" and more than 25 downtown hotels are working with Chicago museums, attractions and events to offer weekend city escape packages. Some are romantic getaways for lovers. Some are food and wine adventures for grown-ups only. Others are sports, music or history themed.
But six are fun, kid-friendly and aimed squarely at families.
We sent out our crack team of Chicago Parent reviewers to check them out. We spent the night at three and visited the other three to find out whether they are inviting places for kids.
Sleeping with the fishes
Swissotel Chicago, 323 E. Wacker Dr., (312) 565-0565. Jan. 7-8. "Animal Encounters" includes four tickets to the Shedd Aquarium and an animal encounter in the hotel lobby that allows kids to look at, learn about and maybe touch a tarantula, a gecko lizzard, a bullfrog and snakes. Price includes transfers to the Shedd and back. One-night stay starts at $384 for a family of four in a standard two-double-bed room and includes parking, which otherwise is $41. A second night is $145.
The review: This is a world-class hotel with European elegance in the heart of Chicago. Nope, that’s not just a line from the brochure, it’s how you feel when you stay here. And the general attitude toward children is as wonderful as the skyline views from the oversized rooms.
On a recent weekend, kids were everywhere. They are treated as special guests, starting at the VIK (very important kids) check-in desk, next to the big people’s check-in desk, where kids can sit, play, draw and get a goodie bag while their parents take care of business. There are even two two-room Swissotel kids’ room suites that include a separate room designed and decorated for kids, from the bedding to the table, chairs, night light, bathroom and the Nintendo. These suites, which start at $699, are available any time. The price includes four tickets to the Shedd and kids under 14 eat free in most hotel restaurants.
My teen boys and I stayed in a similar suite, sans the little kid decorations. There was a lovely lounging living room area with a big-screen TV, office area, wet bar and a bedroom—king-sized for me—while the boys had double beds in the comfortably laid-out adjoining room. (If they had been younger, I might have wanted them closer to me. This is a big suite.)
The boys felt pampered, as did I, because you get luxury, service and a welcome for kids—things that do not often go hand in hand.
The health club is on the 42nd floor, so the view is great, but kids under 17 are allowed only in the pool—rubber pants for toddlers, please. Susy Schultz
Clowning around the hotel
Chicago City Centre—a Holiday Inn Hotel, 300 E. Ohio St., (888) 465-4329. Jan. 27-29 or Feb. 3-5. "Family Circus" is all about clowning around. Weekends include circus workshops by CircEsteen and Actors Gymnasium, performances by the Bumblini Brothers and the Kapoot Clowns, a circus brunch on Sunday and balloons and clown noses for everyone upon check-in. One-night stay is $147, two-night is $292 for two adults and up to four kids. (The lowest rate includes a standard room with two queen beds. Rollaway beds are $20 per night; cribs are free.)
The review: This is a comfortable, welcoming hotel with a staff that ranks among the friendliest I’ve ever seen. Soft string music in the lobby and a smiling concierge were just what my husband and I needed after our blustery walk from the Red Line a few blocks away. If you drive, parking is $28 per night.
Our 23rd-floor room had a great view of the city skyscrapers and Lake Michigan in the distance. And though the standard rooms are not huge, they are comfortable and will accommodate a family. You can fit only one rollaway and one crib inside, though, according to fire code. So if you have four kids who all need to sleep in a real bed, you’ll have to book a second room.
You may also want to ask the hotel staff where the room thermostat is—my husband and I woke up cold, and a woman I met in the elevator said her room was too hot.
There aren’t any designated kids’ areas here but there’s plenty to keep kids occupied when they aren’t watching the Bumblini Brothers or learning to juggle in the CircEsteem workshop.
The in-room TVs offer GameCube games ($6.95 for 60 minutes—although there is only one controller), and on-demand kids’ shows ($2.95 per episode). Hotel guests can also use the adjacent gym and pool for free, though kids can only swim during designated family hours. So plan ahead. And bring flip-flops and a robe or cover-up—I didn’t, and had to walk (sopping wet) through a long, winding corridor and the hotel lobby to get back to the elevator.
Dao, an amazing Thai restaurant, is just down the block at 230 E. Ohio St., but you can easily eat all your meals in the hotel—morning coffee and pastries at Corner Copia, and breakfast, lunch and dinner at the 300 East restaurant, where kids eat free.
If you feel like braving the cold, the American Girl Place, Chicago Children’s Museum and Michigan Avenue shopping are all close by—a short walk if the winds aren’t too brutal or a short cab ride if they are. Lorien Menhennett
Girls’ weekend out
Comfort Inn & Suites Downtown, 15 E. Ohio St., (888) 775-9223. Feb. 1-3. "Little Women and American Girl Revue" includes a private reception with a cast member from "Little Women" on Friday night, two tickets to the play at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Saturday, lunch for two at the American Girl Café and two tickets to the American Girls Revue there on Sunday. A two-night stay is $561-$894, depending on room type and number of guests. Parking is next door, $21 a day with in-and-out privileges.
The review: This hotel opened just three years ago, so the rooms are in tip-top shape. Our one-bedroom suite was small but cozy. The separate sitting room included a microwave, small fridge, sink, television and writing desk. The view over Ohio Street was wonderful, particularly as big flakes of snow drifted down onto the pedestrians hurrying by, packages in hand. The couch was not terribly comfortable but, pulled out into a bed, it would make a great place for kids to sprawl out and watch their own TV while the adults stretch out in the bedroom. My daughter and I didn’t use the sitting room, preferring to cuddle in the bedroom and watch a chick flick on HBO.
The Comfort Inn staff was unfailingly pleasant. A self-serve continental breakfast is included. It offered a decent spread, including fresh fruit, bagels, pastries, yogurt and cold cereal. There was no attendant on duty while we ate, so there was no one to refill the empty hot water pot, leading to some disgruntled tea drinkers.
On the downside for kids, there is no pool, although there is a hot tub in the fitness center. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
The Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, is 10 blocks from the hotel and American Girl Place, 111 E. Chicago Ave., is eight blocks. Transfers to the shows are included. Cindy Richards
Food as art
Sheraton Hotel & Towers, 301 E. North Water St., (800) 325-3535. Jan. 28-29 and Feb. 11-12. "Kids Kulinary Weekends." One-night stay in a standard room is $193 for a family of four, suite is $293.
The review: Kids love to make art and they love to eat candy. So what could be better than making art with candy? And that is the goal of "Kids Kulinary" weekends at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers.
On Jan. 28, kids will create art out of sugar, icing, edible glitter, edible color markers and food coloring. The result: edible art to hang on your wall at home.
At the Feb. 11 session, kids will decorate Valentine’s Day cookies and then they can enjoy eating their art projects.
The sessions will be led by Executive Chef Norbert Roesch and Executive Pastry Chef Omar Martinez and their children, Sydney Roesch, 8, and Nathaniel Hatch/Martinez, 8. Sydney, obviously a regular at the hotel, joined my daughter, Tess, 9, and me in the hotel kitchen for a test run of the eatable art project.
Tess, a budding cook, was a little disappointed that this wasn’t a cooking "class" as advertised in the promotional literature, but she quickly got into the spirit of the art project.
We got individual attention from Martinez and worked in the hotel kitchen, but if the hotel gets the expected 50 to 75 kids for the weekend session, the project will be moved to a basement exhibit hall and be overseen by a number of other kitchen employees along with Martinez and Roesch.
In short, it was fun, but not something my daughter felt she had to do. I thought it would be a great way to spend a pleasant afternoon, particularly for artistically inclined children, and then head for a swim in the gorgeous pool. (Beware: it’s 3 feet, 6 inches at the shallow end and it’s a long, cool walk to the water so bring a wrap to keep warm on the way back to the room.)
This is a huge, relatively new hotel although it has a small lobby that offers a intimate feel.
Please note that we didn’t spend the night at the Sheraton, but we did tour the hotel. The rooms we saw—a standard with two double beds and a small suite with a king bed, pull-out couch and dining room table—were nice and offered great views of the Chicago River and the city. Cindy Richards
American Girl is worth a trip My American Girl-loving daughter had been to lunch at American Girl Place, but I hadn’t. Frankly, I wasn’t that excited about going. The whole American Girl experience seems so over-hyped. It’s why we haven’t written much about American Girl; you don’t need to read Chicago Parent to find out about this company or the glitzy store at 111 E. Chicago Ave.
But American Girl is a part of Chicago’s Winter Delights promotion so, in the interests of thorough reporting (and to the delight of my daughter, Tess, 9), we headed downtown for tea and a show as the guests of American Girl.
Now I’m a convert. Yes, the store is overrun with girls, their moms and grandmoms all burdened by red shopping bags. And, yes, you can spend a fortune there. But you also can spend nothing and simply wander past the historical displays and let your daughter tell you about each of the dolls, who they are, when they lived and which accessories go with them.
And then you can sit down (with your doll, if you remembered to bring it, or with a loaner doll if you didn’t) for a lovely tea with your favorite little girl. The table includes a small box of conversation starters. They include questions such as "What is your biggest dream?" that might have been met with an eye roll from my very sophisticated 9-year-old if I had attempted to ask it outside of the magic of the American Girl Cafe.
After tea, it was on to "The American Girls Revue." These girls, ages 7-13 (and four adults), were incredibly talented and the show was impressive. The 75 minutes sped by as we watched these girls pretend to be members of an American Girls club introducing their dolls’ stories to a newcomer.
It’s not cheap—tea is $16 per person and tickets to the show are $28. But, as we headed back out into a cold Chicago evening, my daughter was beaming and so was I.
For reservations or information, call (877) 247-5223 or visit www.americangirlplace.com Cindy Richards The places we didn’t stay These two hotels were not "kid-tested" so they don’t get a grade. But we did head over for a quick tour to check out the facilities.
Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza, 350 N. Orleans St., (312) 836-5000. Feb. 10-12. "Chocolate Dream" includes a visit to Chocolate Fest at the Garfield Park Conservatory, a chocolate reception and a live Food Network production. Transfers to the conservatory are included. Parking is $23 a day with in-and-out privileges.
This is primarily a business and convention hotel. But it’s nice and even the standard two-double-bed rooms are spacious enough for a family.
This is a Holiday Inn, so kids 12 and under eat free at the Regions restaurant. The fitness center and lap pool are open to kids accompanied by an adult. But bring the water wings—the shallow end of the pool is 3-feet, 6-inches deep and the deep end is 7 feet.
Best Western River North, 125 W. Ohio St., (312) 467-0800. Feb. 17-19. "Family Auto Show" is aimed at car lovers. It includes tickets to the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place, a look at the No. 99 NASCAR Busch Series Show Car and a NASCAR goodie bag. Two-night stay is $353-$359 based on room type. Includes transfers to the Auto Show, parking and breakfast.
This is an old hotel and, while the staff is friendly, the hotel looks tired and in need of a facelift. The elevator and hallways smell musty. The rooms (which did not smell musty) are utilitarian. On the plus side, it’s across the street from the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s and the Rain Forest Cafe.
Cindy Richards is Chicago Parent senior editor and travel editor, Susy Schultz is editor and associate publisher and Lorien Menhennett is associate editor.