5 tips to survive museum free days

One of the tremendous benefits of raising kids in the Chicago area is the proximity to world-class museums and amazing cultural institutions. Museum free days offer free admission for Illinois residents with an ID and can be a great opportunity to visit, but they can also be a little wild and crowded. With some planning, though, they can be great family experiences.

Here are tips for not only surviving, but making the most of museum free days.

Arrive early

The best time to go is right when the museum (or aquarium, or planetarium or wherever you’re visiting) opens. Let’s face it, you and your kids are up anyway, right?

Make the most of the early morning wake up call, which also means the best chance of enjoying the exhibits without having to fight the crowds. That’s especially true on weekends, but also true on weekdays, too. An early arrival can also make finding parking easier, and you may even find a metered spot at the Museum Campus.

Do your research ahead of time

Be sure you know what exactly is included in the free day. Often, not everything is included. For example, shows at the Adler Planetarium, the aquatic show at the Shedd and the Coal Mine at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) are not included in free admission. Know ahead of time that you still have to pay some if you plan to see the dolphins flying through the air or catch a movie.

Also, check and see what events are taking place when you’re there, be it an Artist’s Studio event at the Art Institute or the Meet a Scientist opportunity at the Field Museum. These can make a day at the museum extra special for everyone.

Make a plan and prioritize

One of the benefits of a free day is not feeling like you have to do absolutely everything to get your money’s worth. It takes the pressure off. Remember, there will be more free days. The Shedd, for example, has 52 free days per year when Illinois residents can enjoy free general admission, and the Field Museum is free for the entire month of February.

Instead of doing it all, pick just a few exhibits. If your kids are older, check out the museum’s website with your kids and have each family member pick one thing they really want to see or do. When those priority items are done, make a game-time decision about whether if it’s time to head home (museum fatigue is real) or if you want to keep going.

Some places have already done the planning for you. Check out the different itineraries suggested by the Adler Planetarium, including one specifically for families with small children, on their site here, and the Art Institute has mini-tours that are great for kids.

Avoid the feeding frenzy

If you are going for only a few hours, you can plan around meal time and if you go early, head home for lunch. That helps keep the “free” in free day, as paying for food at the museum can add up quickly.

If you are staying all day, lunch doesn’t have to be a budget buster, though. Some museums permit you to bring your own food and you can pack a lunch. At the Field Museum and the Shedd, guests have designated areas for eating food they have brought with them. It’s wise to eat on the early side and beat the lunchtime rush to ensure you can grab seats for everyone and not be crowded. Not everywhere has such space, though.

At the Planetarium, consider saving that for a warmer day when enjoying a picnic outside on the shores of Lake Michigan offers an amazing view, and at the Art Institute, take advantage of the serene garden on the south end of the building for a picnic, or head across the street to Millennium Park. (Although the new kids menu at Museum Café does look yummy.)

Also, consider having just a sweet snack. At MSI, step back in time at Finnigan’s Ice Cream Parlor, which is based on a real Hyde Park ice cream parlor of the same name, which opened in 1917.

Keep kiddos close

If you are visiting during a busy time, it can be tough to keep your kids close by in the crowds, and losing track of a child in a crowded museum does not make for a fun day out. To lessen the chances of that happening, dress your kids in bright colors, preferably all the same so it’s easy for you to keep track and they know what to look for themselves. Just in case, take a photo on your phone when you first arrive and review what to do should a kiddo get lost.

At the Mini Masters class at the Art Institute that I attended with my daughter, the teachers would tell the kids, “Please keep track of your grown up!” It worked like a charm. Putting them in charge gives them a sense of responsibility and also makes it fun. Have kids take turns being in charge of leading the family and keeping everyone together.

Have a wonderful time checking out the many treasures and wonders that call Chicago home!

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