Last-minute spring break ideas

Kid-tested travel

Another spring break is right around the corner and once again you failed to make plans. Who can blame you? It’s not as if you don’t have enough to do playing chauffeur, cook, nurse, maid, parent and lover. They expect you to play travel agent as well?

Never fear. Chicago Parent is here to help with five last-minute spring break ideas, from day trips to several day trips. All are kid friendly and relatively easy on the wallet. Best of all, none require plane tickets. So pack up the kids, load up the car and head off for a little R&R.

Explore the skies

Here we offer two great ideas: the Kalamazoo Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Mich. and the EAA AirVentures Museum in Oshkosh, Wis. Both are within three hours’ drive, both have features that work for kids from toddlers to teens, and both have plenty to keep adult air aficionados occupied.

The Kalamazoo Air Zoo, part aviation history museum and part amusement park, has a slight edge for spring break travel. Teens will love the F18 flight simulators that give them control over the turns, twists and flips. Toddlers have the mini version of the simulator, a handful of tamer rides (think supermarket rides that take quarters, but without the quarters) they can make go up and down.

If you wait until summer, though, head north to EAA AirVentures. There’s a museum with a really cool kids’ area. During the week of July 23-29 this year, the EAA will host its annual Fly-In, which includes the most amazing air show I have ever seen. Plan to drive the three hours home at the end of the day if you haven’t made hotel reservations. We hadn’t, and drove nearly 100 miles to find a vacancy.

Go underground

Western Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park is a wonder of nature and a fascinating place to take kids. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like above ground. Underground at Mammoth Cave, it’s always a steady 54 degrees Fahrenheit. The U.S. Parks Service operates the national park and runs several tours daily.

Just beware: Babies must be carried. No strollers or backpacks are allowed. The strollers simply won’t work inside the caves, with their uneven surfaces and many stairs, and backpacks are banned because of the many places where walkers have to bend over to duck low hanging rocks, only to have the baby take the hit. And when your park ranger guide warns that a tour includes 233 stairs and may not be appropriate for some people, pay attention. They’re not kidding.

It’s a long seven-hour ride to Mammoth Cave and you’ll want to spend at least one entire day exploring the park. So plan to make this at least a three-day trip. There is a nice hotel on site but if it’s booked, try nearby Bowling Green, a charming small town with friendly people and a number of hotel options.

And while you’re in the neighborhood, check out some of the other caves and caverns of the karst system that runs throughout southern Indiana and western Kentucky. Each offers a different and interesting perspective on the world beneath the surface of the Earth.

Commune with history

Illinois’ capital, Springfield, is where history is made each legislative session. But it’s also where history is housed, particularly the history of Illinois’ favorite son, Abraham Lincoln.

The Abraham Lincoln Museum is a gem. Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic is a great place for young’uns to play. There’s a dollhouse replica of the Lincolns’ Springfield home, period clothes to try on and pioneer games to play. The museum has two parts, Journey One, his life before the presidency, and Journey Two, his life while president. Journey One is fine for all ages, but Journey Two includes some intense exhibits that can be overwhelming to younger, more sensitive children.

If it’s a nice day, take a detour from the 3½-hour drive and stop for a walk around charming New Salem, the recreated pioneer town that was home to Honest Abe for six years. Check the Web sites to be sure the attractions are open before you go.

Check out another city

Our favorites for kids: Milwaukee and Indianapolis. Both have amazing children’s museums and plenty of other great family-friendly stuff to see.

In Milwaukee, start at the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum but don’t miss the Public Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum or a walk along the lakefront. It’s a reasonable day trip, particularly from the north suburbs. If you stay overnight, check out the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, a grand hotel with a water park in the basement.

In Indianapolis, plan to spend an entire day at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. NASCAR fans will want to make a pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its Hall of Fame Museum.

Go natural

Mother Nature is creator of some of the most amazing vacation destinations in the world, including several here in Illinois. Our favorites include Starved Rock State Park in Utica and Wildlife Prairie Nature Preserve 10 miles west of Peoria.

Starved Rock has 13 miles of trails and 18 amazing canyons. The spring thaw revs up the waterfalls and makes for even more breathtaking views that will captivate you while the kids find the biggest mud puddle to splash in. There’s a lodge and cabins, but if they’re booked, make it a day trip. The drive is less than two hours.

Wildlife Prairie State Park reopens March 1 for hiking or biking the 2,000-acre park to get up close looks at the wolves, bison, bear, elk, cougar, otter and deer that live there. Fishing resumes April 1 (anyone over 16 needs to buy a license). It’s a reasonable day trip, but if you can get reservations, stay onsite in one of the converted railroad cabooses, stables or cottages. The weekends fill up fast, but it’s often possible to get weeknight reservations as late as a week ahead. And sleeping overnight in a caboose or stable is just plain fun.


• EAA AirVentures,

• Kalamazoo Air Zoo,

• Mammoth Cave National Park,

• Wisconsin Dells,

• Abraham Lincoln Museum,

• New Salem,

• Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association,

• VISIT Milwaukee,

• Starved Rock State Park,

• Wildlife Prairie State Park, www.wildlifeprairiestate

Cindy Richards is travel editor of Chicago Parent and the mom of Evan and Tess.

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