Some of the most memorable vacations are about learning and doing interesting new things. So why not start planning a truly remarkable vacation for 2017? To that end, we rounded up 10 of the most cool and geeky places to take your kids next year.
Situated at farflung points on the map, these spots are specifically designed for kids and adults alike who are fascinated by animals, outer space, fish, computers, insects, and even stamp collecting. We just have one request: If you go to one of these places, can we come along?
1. Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL.
Who hasn't fantasized about venturing into outer space as an astronaut? Kennedy Space Center gives you and your kids a chance to project yourselves into that thrilling role, as well as to talk with a real astronaut.
At a simulated "astronaut training center," you can take the controls of the Shuttle Atlantis and launch and dock the shuttle. You can also get a close-up look at the Atlantis itself and make a virtual trip into outer space.
Stroll through KSC's "rocket garden" and walk beneath one of the few remaining Saturn V boosters, the largest space ship ever built. Touch a piece of real moon rock that astronauts brought back to earth. By making arrangements in advance, your family can even have lunch with an astronaut.
2. Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, CT.
Aquariums are springing up in all sorts of places, but the one in Mystic, CT is particularly special. Located at a historic seaport, this aquarium supplies decidedly cool interactive activities for the whole family, including family sleepovers!
You can touch the back of a docile shark in the Shark Encounters exhibit. At the Discovery Lab, get tips on safe ways of holding a crab. Let stingrays suck food right out of your hand in the Raytouch Pool.
The aquarium is also the home of the green sea turtle Charlotte, plus bunches of beluga whales and California sea lions. The sea lions take to the stage each day to show off their natural behaviors in the Foxwoods Marine Theatre.
You and the kids can even sleep over right next to an exhibit of marine animals, after other visitors have gone home for the day, by doing a "family overnight" at the aquarium. The overnights include evening activities, geared to kids five through 12, such as crafts, scavenger hunts, and workshops about frogs and endangered species. Pre-registration is required for the overnight stays.
On top of that, right nearby is the Mystic Seaport museum. Your family can tour the intriguing maritime exhibits there any time--and in warmer months, take a boat cruise from there down the Mystic River or learn how to sail.
3. Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA.
If your family is into star gazing, the Griffith Observatory is a great place to go, in more ways than one. You can take a gander at the Hollywood Hills--including the famous "Hollywood" sign--as well as at the galaxies above.
The observatory's telescopes, exhibits, and marvelous grounds are available free of charge to the public. The huge exhibit space includes the siziest astronomical image in the world ("The Big Picture") as well as rare meteorites ("Pieces of the Sky") and tons of additional intriguing astonomical artifacts.
Each day, the observatory runs three reasonably priced shows at its Samuel Oschin Planetarium: Centered in the Universe, Light of the Valkyries, and Water is Life. Kids under five can attend the first show of the day, but must sit in adults' laps.
4. Atlanta Botanical Garden, Atlanta, GA.
The Atlanta Botanical Garden is a wonderful place for learning about plant life, with lots of kid-specific attractions, too. If you can get there by January 7, you can still view spectacular winter lights. With 52 miles of string lights, the unique display includes a 25-foot-high Ice Goddess, two "candy cane" cobra" sculptures, and 150 LED-driven orchestral orbs in the orchid center, choreographed to glow in time to holiday music. By the way, the Atlanta Botanical Garden also boasts the world's largest collection of orchid plants.
You'll also find cool things to do throughout the year, in areas that include a newly revamped children's garden. Kids can climb on nets, create water color paintings on a wall, build stuff from balsa wood, play music on an assortment of outdoor instruments, and join in on gardening and other nature play lessons and activities.
During story hours at the children's garden, young children accompanied by adults listen raptly to tales about bugs, butterflies, and bumblebees.
From May through October, kids can visit the Children's Soggy Bog or Native Bog Garden to see carnivorous, bug-eating plants like the Venus Fly Trap in action, after these plants have woken up from their winter dormancy.
5. Living Computer Museum, Seattle, WA.
If your family loves computers, head on out to Seattle to the Living Computer Museum, put together by Paul Allen, a co-founder with Bill Gates of Microsoft. Most of the old computers at this museum really work, and you can even play around with a lot of them.
Areas to explore include an actual cold room, containing vintage mainframes and supercomputers, along with a terrific collection of about a dozen important microcomputers of the late 1970s. These ancestors of the personal computer (PC) include the MITS Altair 880, Commodore PET, Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Atari 400, just for starters.
If your nostalgia leans toward gaming, play old-time computer games like Oregon Trail and SimCity.
Oh, and a bonus suggestion: While you're in Seattle, be sure to check out another geeky Paul Allen-backed tourist stop, MoPOP, which includes Seattle's rock and roll museum and the Science Fiction Museum. It's located in the shadow of the famous Space Needle.
6. Thomas Edison National Historic Park, West Orange, NJ.
Before going on to make world-changing inventions like the lightbulb and alkaline battery, Thomas Alva Edison was such a curious boy that his teachers punished him for asking too many questions. Home-schooled by his mother during his teens, Tom was allowed to run experiments. After too many disasters, his parents asked the boy to move his lab to the basement, but explosions still shook the house.
As an adult, though, Edison sold some early inventions for the then princely sum of $40,000. He invested the money in a property in Menlo Park, NJ, proceeding to turn it into what he called his "Invention Factory." In 1878, he rose to global acclaim with the phonograph, the ancestor of the record player, tape player, DVD player, and MP3 player. The facility in Menlo Park has since been converted to a museum--the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park--which is defintely worth a visit.
In 1887, however, Edison moved his operations to a much more expansive place in West Orange, NJ. He spent the remaining 44 years of his life there, turning out further inventions that included the first "talking dolls" and first motion picture camera. You and your kids can check out these later inventions and how they were made at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange. Guided tours are available at both Edison museums.
7. Insectropolis 'Bugseum,' Toms River, NJ.
Also located in New Jersey is Insectropolis, a large insect "learning center" for all ages. There, you can watch bees building honeycombs in an observation hive and ants carving tunnels in a live ants nest, for instance. Many of the other bugs are much more exotic.
If you dare, touch a live tarantula, scorpion, millipede or hissing cockroach.
Kids will get a kick out of pretending to be termites as they crawl through a gigantic mock "mudtube."
8. Bronx Zoo, The Bronx, NY.
In the neighboring state of New York, the Bronx Zoo offers one of the biggest collections of animals in the world. Within a relatively small physical area of 267 acres, the 6,000 animals are organized into exhibits both by species ("Baboon Reserve" and "Birds of Prey," for example) and by specific geographic regions ("African Plains.")
Fun activities for all ages include camel rides, penguin feedings, a carousel, and the Wild Asia Monorail. The zoo also offers educational fare such as classes for adults; conservation workshops for teens; and Zoo Play sessions for "toddlers" (ages two to three) and "kinders" (ages four to five).
9. New York City (NYC) Transit Museum, Brooklyn, NY.
Sure, NYC is home to well-known toutist stops like the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum and the Freedom Tower's "One World Observatory" observation deck. But while you're in New York City, why not hop over to a decidedly less known geeky stop: The Transit Museum? This unique museum focuses on the history, technical workings, and future aspirations around NYC's massive subway, bus, commuter rail, and bridge and tunnel systems.
The museum offers tons of tours and special events, including story telling sessions for two-to-five year-olds held on vintage subway cars. People of any age can also check out these vintage cars, of course,. Find out what it's like to drive a bus. You and the kids can also swing through subway turnstyles, labeled by year, from the early days to today.
In a separate, nationally award-winning after school program, kids on the "autism spectrum" are brought together to share their interests in transportation vehicles while improving their social skills.
10. Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Washington, DC.
Any philatelists (aka stamp collectors) in the family? How about wannabes? Yes, indeed, there is a museum for stamp and postal enthusiasts, and it is colossal. The National Postal Museum's William H. Gross Stamp Gallery is the biggest of its kind in the world, and the museum' s many exhibits cover colonial to current times. Permanent exhibits include "Systems at Work," "Moving the Mail," "and "Pony Express: Romance vs. Reality," for example.
With its 90-foot-high ceiling, the museum atrium is awesome in and of itself. The atrium contains a reconstructed railway mail car, 1851 stagecoach, 1931 Ford Model A postal truck, and present-day Long Life Vehicle postal truck.
If your enthusiasms run in additional directions, check out some of the 18 other museums in the Smithsonian family. Targeted at science, art, history, and culture, these museums contain some 136 million carefully curated objects, including Edison's first real lightbulb, the Wright Brothers plane, and the ruby slippers used in the movie "Wizard of Oz.". So the number of cool things to see and do is just about endless. Oh! And don't forget the Smithsonian-run National Zoo.