Rockford offers all the fun at a fraction of the cost

Dinosaurs. Sock monkeys. Sports arenas. Water parks. Swedish pancakes.

All these attractions await families during an interesting and economical weekend getaway less than two hours away from Chicago in Rockford.

Where to stay

Accommodations range from small bed-and-breakfasts to large brand-name hotels. When you’re traveling in Illinois, an indoor pool is a must for kids. We chose Clock Tower Resort, which has a great pool within the hotel, plus it includes CoCo Key Water Resort with slides, dump buckets, sprayers and a lazy river. If you arrive before check-in time, you can spend time in the water park while you wait. Many area hotels have packages with local attractions, so it pays to do your homework.

CoCo Key and Clock Tower have plenty of food and drink options, from sit-down dining in the Sun Dial Restaurant to fast food within the water park, making it easy to never leave the resort. But you won’t want to miss some of Rockford’s other unique offerings.

Seeing the sights

While Chicago is home to amazing museums, Rockford also gives families the chance to explore local history, science, art, natural history and even botanic gardens on a smaller scale and better price.

In fact, the Burpee Museum of Natural History is home to Jane, the world’s most complete juvenile T. rex. Burpee researchers are so busy in the Montana Badlands that the museum is currently renovating to make space for a Triceratops and other important discoveries. Beyond dinosaurs, families will literally walk through millions of years of local history in life-size immersive exhibits. Peepholes and plenty of “Please Touch” signs keep it fun for kids.

We also liked the Native-American exhibits, with their assortment of full-sized dwellings. Looking for all the hidden details within each scene became a game and a good excuse to read signs and information.

If you’re traveling with younger kids, your best bet is the Discovery Center Museum. My sons spent hours in this well-designed children’s museum pushing buttons, playing “arcade” games, building and even exercising. My oldest loved the sports area where kids can guess different sport balls based only on feel, learn about arc and bounce with basketball shots and discover angles in the tennis game. They felt like pros when they played against a green screen direct to a live video feed. We also spent a long time in the human body exhibit, with its many interactive stations to teach kids about their brains, nutrition and circulation.

To get a real understanding of Rockford’s history, you can visit Midway Village Museum, which includes a 19th-century village with dozens of historic buildings in a park-like setting. Start inside the museum with exhibits on the popular sock monkey and Rockford’s own Rockford Peaches, the women’s baseball team featured in the movie “A League of Their Own.” While the indoor museum is primarily “no touch,” venture outside to experience what life was like in Rockford in the late 1800s. Costumed docents and interactive activities make the experience realistic and fun.

Since each of these museums can entertain kids for a couple of hours, it’s easy (and affordable) to visit two in one day. Beyond watching kids play, parents will find enough to do and read so no one will be bored. By the end of the afternoon, everyone will have learned something-and had fun doing it.

Where to eat

Breakfast, lunch and dinner options are nearly endless. Rockford has its share of chain restaurants if you want to play it safe. But why not sample some Rockford originals?

Lino’s is a very popular Italian option, crowded and lively. Kegel’s Harley Diner is attached to the world’s oldest family-owned Harley dealership and offers items like Throttle Dog chili dog and Dip Stick cheese sticks. The Stockholm Inn celebrates Rockford’s Swedish heritage with must-try Swedish pancakes topped with lingonberries. If you spend the day at the Museum Park museums, Beefaroo is a good lunch option, conveniently located with well-priced burgers, beef sandwiches, chili, potatoes and salads.

With only a couple days in Rockford, we could not experience all Rockford’s attractions. My sons would have loved to see the Rockford Icehogs hockey team play at the MetroCentre. We’re also looking forward to a warmer month when we can visit the Anderson Japanese Gardens, ranked as one of the finest in North America.

With such unlimited options for lodging, food and fun, a good place to start is the Rockford Area Convention& Visitors Bureau. Its Web site can help you navigate options, hours and pricing, allowing you to maximize a weekend getaway. You can also find information about some of the area’s fun family events.

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