Some families take trips to explore local history, some to play on a beach, some to pursue a sport. While my family has done all three, we have also traveled to see dolls. Not just any dolls, but American Girl dolls, whose personal Mecca is the American Girl Place in Chicago, Ill. Understand, this is not just a retail emporium, but a raison d’être for thousands of girls, who descend with their dolls, some in matching outfits (the girl and doll, that is) to see a show, have tea and, of course, shop.
Now, we did not skimp on Chicago’s other family attractions: the huge, wonderful Children’s Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium, and both the Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos. But first, there was money to be spent and dolls to be ogled. We had pre-ordered tickets to the “American Girls Revue” which often sells out. I thought my 7- and 9-year-old girls (the show is only for ages 6 and up, though I saw a few younger kids smuggled in) would compare the show unfavorably to the many Broadway and high-quality children’s shows they’d seen, but from their glassy-eyed stares, it was clear they were entranced. The hour-long show is performed by local children and offers a rousing anthem exhorting girls to “be the best that I can be.”
Though there wasn’t a single boy in the theater, there were some in the restaurant, where fancy lunch, tea or dinner is served. Best of all, there are special booster seats for those American Girl dolls, so they can sit at the table. If you’ve forgotten your doll, you can get another, naturally, at the store, where there are outfits and accessories for the dolls; Bitty Babies, baby dolls; and Angelina Ballerina dolls and books (this was where my 3-year-old fell into a trance). If your daughters are particularly well-versed in American Girls, they will hone in, as mine did, on the goodies available only at the store.
The John G. Shedd Aquarium, the largest indoor aquarium in the world, has the new Oceanarium, with dolphins, beluga whales and penguins, all seen along a recreated ‘nature trail’ where there is a spruce forest. Don’t miss the underwater viewing area. The Caribbean Reef is the center of the older part of the aquarium, with a new exhibit, ‘Amazon Rising’. Here, you can see the seasonal changes and floods that affect the people and ecosystem. You can walk to both the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium from the aquarium.
Chocolate lovers should head to The Field Museum, where an exhibit tracing chocolate’s Mayan origins and place in the world marketplace, runs through December 31. There is a rainforest with a reproduction of a cacao tree, an Aztec market, and an exploration of chocolate’s health benefits, both real and imaginary. The Field Museum also has Sue, the most complete T Rex so far.
The downtown Lincoln Park Zoo is free. There is a children’s zoo, with a very appealing nursery, where kids can see baby animals up close. Despite the urban setting, there is a “farm in the zoo” with dairy cows, pigs and sheep. There is also a beautiful endangered species carousel. Further afield, the gargantuan Brookfield Zoo has a new baby aardvark, Angelina. In addition to a children’s zoo, Brookfield has a new Family Play Zoo, where kids can touch animals, dress up, build a nest or look for insects. There is a wooded area where animals and kids roam free, a play stream, and a garden where visitors are invited to lend a hand. And for tired feet: a narrated motor safari tram ride.
The Chicago Children’s Museum is on Navy Pier, where a carnival atmosphere pervades. A huge Ferris wheel, along with smaller rides, cotton candy and souvenir stands give this area a seaside feel.
In the center of the museum, the 3-story climbing structure, The Climbing Schooner, with rope ladders and bridges, gives children the idea that they are on a ship. The structure is not for kids under 5, but there is a separate preschool and baby area where younger kids can cavort.
The museum has an amazing ‘Waterways’ exhibit, where kids put on raincoats and explore the wet stuff. They can use pumps and pulleys to move water, designing dams and fountains and turning a huge water wheel. In ‘Playmaze’, a kid’s city, there is a gas station and car wash; we love to put on hard hats and go to the construction zone, or role play in the grocery store.
At the Museum of Science and Industry, you can go in to a coal mine (not for anyone claustrophobic); explore genetics, from genetic engineering to cracking the human genome; or visit a farm, with huge farm machinery.
Wednesdays in summer there are free outdoor concerts on the lawn at 11:30am; you can picnic, too (food is available).
A fun way to see downtown is on a Loop Tour Train, a free 40-minute narrated elevated train ride. The tour focuses on the architecture, history and culture of the loop area, but kids may just enjoy the ride.
• American Girl Place, 111 East Chicago Avenue, is across the street from the indoor vertical mall, Water Tower. Tickets to the new ‘Circle of Friends: An American Girl Musical’ are $26. For reservations, call (877) AG-PLACE
• Shedd Aquarium is open 9am-5pm on weekdays thru Labor Day; till 6pm on weekends. Hours are extended in the summer months. Admission: $8 adults, $6 ages 3-11; with Oceanarium, tickets are $15 and
$11. www.sheddaquarium.org; (312) 939-2438
• Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., is open daily, 9am-5pm.
Admission: $15 ages 12-64; $11 ages 3-11. (312) 922-STAR
• Chicago Children’s Museum is open Sunday-Tuesday, 10am-5pm; Wednesday-Saturdays, 10am-8pm; free admission Thursdays, 5-8pm. Admission is $6.50 adults and kids over age one. www.chichildrensmuseum.org; (312) 527-1000
• Navy Pier (312) 595-PIER
• Field Museum, 1440 S. Lake Shore Dr., is open daily. Tickets to ‘Chocolate’ are by timed entry, and no strollers are allowed in this exhibit. Admission $8 adults ($13 with ‘Chocolate’), $4 ages 3-11 ($6 with ‘Chocolate’). www.fieldmuseum.org; (312) 922-9410
• Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N Cannon Dr., is open daily, 8am-6pm. Admission is free. Carousel rides are $2 apiece. www.lpzoo.com; (312) 742-2000.
• Brookfield Zoo is open daily, 10am-5pm, with extended summer hours. The zoo is 14 miles west of downtown Chicago, and can be reached by Metra transit; call (312) 322-6777 for directions and schedules. Admission is $7 adults, $3.50, children 3-11, free 2 and under. www.brookfieldzoo.org
• Museum of Science and Industry, in Hyde Park, is open daily, 9:30am-5:30pm. Admission is $9adults, $5ages 3-11; Omnimax and tickets to the special exhibit ‘Titanic’ are extra. www.msichicago.org; (773) 684-1414
• Tickets for Loop Tour Trains must be gotten from the Chicago Office of
Tourism Visitor Information Center, 77 East Randolph St., at Michigan Ave.
For more information on the train and other Chicago attractions, call (877)
Chicago or visit www.877CHICAGO.com or www.cityofchicago.org/Tourism
• You can avoid lines and save money with a Chicago CityPass. The
CityPass, $39 adults, $29 ages 3-11, has tickets to the Planetarium, Art
Institute, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium and Sears Tower. You can buy a CityPass at any of the six attractions, or at
Where to Stay:
— Four Seasons Hotel, 120 East Delaware Pl., has a “Kid for All Seasons”
package, with museum admission, gift certificates, along with the Four Seasons’ regular offerings, an indoor pool, a games and toys lending library, kids’ menus and small-size bathrobes, and best of all, free milk and cookies.
(312) 280-880; www.fshr.com/chicagofs.
— Swissotel, 323 East Wacker Dr., has packages that include tickets to
‘Chocolate’ and Swiss chocolates in your room. (312) 565-0565;