Kid-tested travelThe spirit of St. Nick is alive and well in a corner of southern Indiana, where you’ll experience a bit of Honest Abe history, dramatic roller coaster drops, swift canoe rides, beautiful scenery and many curiosities of nature. A driving trip to Santa Claus, Ind., will offer something to delight every member of your family, from the history buff to the spelunker, from the water park aficionado to the mini-golf enthusiast. Just 360 miles and six hours from Chicago, it’s well worth a long weekend trip.
Pack a picnic and head south on Interstate 65, reaching your first stop in time for lunch at the park that stands on the site of the Lincoln family farm: Abraham Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. Lincoln spent 14 years on the Indiana farm, from ages 7 to 21.
Hike the historic trail of Twelve Stones: each stone marks a significant event in Lincoln’s life, and the trail passes over the farmhouse site and past his mother’s gravestone (Nancy Lincoln died after drinking the milk of a cow infected by the toxic white snakeroot plant when Abe was just 9).
Take a moment to reflect with your children on what it must have been like to set off as a pioneer family into the wilderness and build a farm from practically nothing, as the Lincoln family did when they arrived at this 160-acre claim near the Little Pigeon Creek in the frigid depths of December 1816.
Lincoln Pioneer Village in next-door Rockport will give you a better idea of how the Lincoln family actually lived: 14 WPA-era cabins re-create pioneer life and include examples of a typical schoolhouse, church, law office and a replica of the Lincoln family cabin.
Just a short scenic drive through the forest is Santa Claus, Ind. The main attraction of this small vacationers village is Holiday World, the world’s first-ever theme park, family-run since 1946. Relive a year of holidays in a single day by visiting each block of the park: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July and Christmas.
Splashin’ Safari, the park’s on-site water attraction, and Fun Town, a play area geared towards the smaller set, round out the festive fun. Start your day with a whirl around Mother Goose Land by stepping aboard a 1940s’ original, the Freedom Train. Don’t miss the three-story drop on Liberty Launch, a log ride down Frightful Falls, a whiz around the sky on Blitzer’s Airplanes and of course, a 154-foot drop at 67 mph and 2.4 seconds of"air time” on the best wooden roller coaster in the world, the Voyage.
Overall, Holiday World is a first-class theme park: affordable, bright, safe and enjoyable for children and adults, minus packed-to-the-brim crowds. Free sunscreen and soft drinks make for a more affordable (and comfortable) day. Don’t forget to stop and chat with Santa Claus (available for chats with both bad and good boys and girls all day long, in Christmasland).
You’ll find more signs of the bearded man in red and his accomplices throughout Santa Claus. Visit the local Santa Claus Museum and send a Santa Claus-postmarked, Christmas-themed postcard to your friends from the post office next door. Play a round of mini-golf at a course that circles around a melting snowman at Frosty’s Fun Center. Grab a frozen hot chocolate and a variety of colorful candy canes at Santa’s Candy Castle. After the sun goes down, catch a movie at the Holiday Drive-In Theater.
We spent the night at the Lake Rudolph Campground in a deluxe rental RV. Adjacent to Holiday World (free shuttle service to the theme park is provided), the campground features tent and RV sites (rates start at per night) as well as RV rentals ( and up). My 7-year-old son got a kick out of our"hotel” on wheels. With its mini kitchen, bathroom with shower, dining area, mini sofa, double bunk beds and master bedroom, our RV was roomy, clean and comfortable. A playground, pool, rental golf carts, game room, lake with rental kayaks and paddleboats, s’mores on a campfire and a wide starry sky rounded out the fun.
Book a site during the month of October and take part in the spook-tacular Halloween festivities, including a popular RV Halloween decoration contest, ghost storytelling by the bonfire and tent-to-RV trick-or-treating.
Far below the rolling, bluegrass hills of southern Indiana is a network of subterranean passageways and caverns. In 1883, two school children discovered the Marengo Cave. At 4.6 miles in length, with upper-level passages and two parallel underground rivers, the caves were formed more than a million years ago. Choose from a variety of underground tours, with itineraries for both claustrophobes (the 35-minute long Crystal Palace Tour) and the ambitious spelunker (the five-hours-long Marengo Explorer adventure; helmets, lights and back-up lights are provided). For above-ground fun, rent a canoe and paddle down the Blue River (half-day trips start at ).
We spent the night near Marengo at the historic Leavenworth Inn, a gem of an inn located on a bluff overlooking the Horseshoe Bend of the Ohio River. I delighted in the cozy library and our elegant room with its vintage decor and dreamy, oversized king bed. My son appreciated the afternoon cookies and milk in the dining room and the extensive selection of DVD rentals for free, in-room use.
Before heading back home to Chicago, gobble up a breakfast of fresh homemade biscuits and gravy at the Overlook Restaurant, with a magnificent view of the Ohio River. Pop some quarters into the patio viewfinder and see if you can spot an eagle or the cows grazing across the river in Kentucky. stle, 15499 North State Road 245, Santa Claus, Ind., (812) 544-3900
If you go:n Holiday World, 452 East Christmas Blvd., Santa Claus, Ind., (877) 463-2645, holidayworld.com
n Lake Rudolph Campground, 78 North Holiday Blvd., Santa Claus, Ind., (877) 478-3657, lakerudolph.com
n Marengo Cave, Marengo, Ind., (888) 70-CAVES, marengocave.com
n Leavenworth Inn, 930 West State Road 62, Leavenworth, Ind., (812) 739-2120, leavenworthinn.com
n Overlook Restaurant, 1153 West State Road, Leavenworth, Ind., (812) 739-2229
n Abraham Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, 2916 E. South St., Lincoln City, Ind.
n Lincoln Pioneer Village, 416 Main St., Santa Claus, Ind., (812) 649-9147
n Santa Claus Museum, 41 N. Kringle Place, Santa Claus, Ind., (812) 937-2687
n Frosty’s Fun Center, 15 South Cedar Lane, Santa Claus, Ind., (812) 544-3338
n Santa’s Candy Castle, 15499 North State Road 245, Santa Claus, Ind., (812) 544-3900
n Holiday Drive-In Theater, U.S. 231, Rockport, Ind., (812) 649-2857, holidaydrivein.com
Amy Souza is a freelance writer and mom. She is a featured blogger at ChicagoParent.com.