CHEAP KID STUFF
ST. LOUIS SCIENCE CENTER
Known for its awe-inspiring OMNIMAX Theater and the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, the St. Louis Science Center is entirely free for both kids and adults. The center features more than 700 exhibits as well as special traveling exhibitions. The Science Center is not the only attraction in St. Louis that's free. The St. Louis Zoo, known for its attractive park setting, is also free.
TILDEN NATURE AREA AND MERRY GO ROUND
A 740-acre preserve where admission is free, the Tilden Nature Area includes 10 miles of hiking trails showcasing a blend of native and introduced plants. A 750-boardwalk through the woods leads to Jewel Lake, a historic reservoir and waterworks where visitors can observe wildlife. Another highlight for families is the historic, 60-year-old merry-go-round. With its four rows of hand-carved horses, chariots, cats, dogs, lions, tigers, toads, giraffes, and sea monsters, it's a kid favorite. Tickets aren't free, but they're a reasonable $3 a ride.
Kansas City, Missouri
A free creative art space for kids, Kaleidoscope is part of Kansas City's 85-acre entertainment complex Crown Center, opened by Hallmark Cards 50 years ago. Children are invited to use their imaginations to make art with materials from Hallmark's manufacturing processes. Children of all ages and their adults are welcome to create art together at free, 50-minute creative art sessions.
BROOKLYN CHILDREN'S MUSEUM
Brooklyn, New York
Offering three floors of interactive exhibits and hands-on cultural and science programs, the Brooklyn Children's Museum is designed for those six months to 10 years old. On Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., the museum is free. General admission outside of the free Thursday hours is just $11.
CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART
Not only is the Cleveland Museum of Art a stellar institution that's known for its Asian and Egyptian art, it also offers numerous activities aimed at kids, including an Art Stories program every Saturday at 11 a.m. that combines children's books, CMA artwork, and interactive fun. Each week a new topic is explored. Each session begins in the atrium and ends with a gallery walk. Not only is entrance to the entire museum free, there's also no charge for the Art Stories sessions.
RAPPAHANNOCK RAILROAD MUSEUM
It's no secret that kids love trains, so what better way to explore that fascination than a visit to the Rappahannock Railroad Museum? Kids can see the tools and equipment used by railway workers of the past century, tour restored railway express baggage cars, and ride The Little Yellow Train. The train is made up of restored pieces of former Maintenance of Way equipment. Admission to the museum is free.
JOSLYN ART MUSEUM
In addition to hosting special programs and events, the Joslyn Art Museum provides children and families with the tools to engage in independent art exploration. The exhibit "Art Works: A Place for Curiosity" features nine hands-on activity stations related to art that's showcased in the gallery. The Scott EdTech Gallery offers printed gallery guides and an Art Pack that allows for exploring art using an iPad. General admission is free.
THE ARCADE AT BRISTOL'S BURGERS
It's a rare child that doesn't love being let loose in an arcade — which typically means spending quite a bit of money to play the games. That's not the case at Bristol's Burgers, where the arcade is free. The timeless burger joint is located at the Diplomat Beach Resort along the intracoastal waterway. What could be better than burgers, a free arcade, and Florida sunshine? There are also complementary outdoor games such as ping-pong, corn hole, and giant Jenga for those who need still more entertainment.
SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM
Not only is admission to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum free, it offers numerous activities geared toward children. During story time (for kids two to six years old,) volunteers and museum staff read tales about famous aviators, hot-air balloon flights, and even trips to Mars. The museum also offers an opportunity to view the sun and other wonders of the universe at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory.
THE STEVEN F. UDVAR-HAZY CENTER
A companion facility to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is also free. This facility includes two large hangars displaying thousands of aviation and space artifacts, including a Lockeed SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, and the Space Shuttle Discovery. The center also includes the Airbus IMAX theater.
QUEENS COUNTY FARM MUSEUM
Floral Park, New York
Queens County Farm dates back to 1697. It sits on New York City's largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland, a 47-acre plot that is the longest continuously-farmed site in the state of New York. Today, the site includes historic farm buildings, a greenhouse, an orchard and herb garden, farm machinery and goats, pigs, and other animals. In addition to exposing kids to farm life and animals, there are hayrides for kids on the weekends and special events such as wreath-making workshops. And yes, it's free.
HARD ROCK HOTEL & CASINOS' THE SOUND OF YOUR STAY PROGRAM
No, it's not free to stay at a Hard Rock Hotel with children, but the hotel is aiming to entertain families with its new complimentary program that allows kids to live their rock star dreams. Called "The Sound of Your Stay," the program gives kids a chance to learn more about music. While staying at the hotel, parents can call the front desk and request one of 20 Fender guitars for their little ones to test out. The guitar is delivered to the room, complete with an amplifier. The delivery also includes premium headphones for a high-volume jam session with zero noise complaints.
GEORGIA O'KEEFFE MUSEUM
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Many of the museums in Santa Fe offer free admission every day. Children under 18 are free at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, which showcases not only the artist's paintings, but also her creative process and the light and landscape that inspired O'Keeffe. Additional options include the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, both of which offer free admission for children 16 and under.
LINCOLN PARK ZOO
Open 365 days a year and always free is the motto of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. Located within a park just a few minutes north of Chicago, millions of people visit this attraction each year. Highlights include a penguin encounter, a Lionel train adventure, and an endangered species carousel.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE MARINE CORPS
Prince William County, Virginia
Exhibits at this free museum were designed by a team of former Disney Imagineers — the creative folks that develop the rides and more at Disney theme parks. Interactive displays tell the history of the Marines through the eyes of those who were actual members of this legendary branch of the military.
CATALINA ISLAND MUSEUM
Catalina Island, California
While it's not cheap to get to Catalina Island, admission to the Catalina Island Museum is always free for children age 15 and under. The only restriction is that the child must be accompanied by an adult. During their visit, children are given a treasure map with questions that can be answered by reading the text or viewing the images and artifacts in the museum's galleries. Founded in 1953, the museum is dedicated to Catalina Island history.
MANASSAS NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD PARK
Take a guided walking tour or spend a day hiking at Manassas National Battlefield Park, where the first and second battles of the American Civil War were fought in 1861 and 1862. Both parking and entry to the park are free. There are occasional living history demonstrations at the park and an entire network of trails designed specifically for kids as part of the Kids in Parks TRACK Trails program. Kids can earn free prizes by registering their adventures on the Kids in Parks website.
USS HORNET MUSEUM
Kids six and under are free at the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda. A piece of American history and a national and state historic landmark, the aircraft carrier-turned-museum showcases the USS Hornet's role in naval aviation history as well as the defense of our country. Tours include visiting the ship's control room and tower.
WORLDS OF FUN
Kansas City, Missouri
Worlds of Fun, a Kansas City amusement park owned by Cedar Fair, is offering a special pre-K pass that grants complimentary admission to children between three and five years old. The passes will be good for all of 2019 as well as the rest of 2018, but in order to obtain one you must register online before May 27, 2019. The pass is also available at several other Cedar Fair parks, including Carowinds in North Carolina and Kings Dominion in Virginia.
TGI FRIDAY'S | TUESDAY AND WEDNESDAY
While there are plenty of restaurants across the country where kids can eat freeon certain days, you can usually count on there being a TGI Friday's nearby. With more than 900 restaurants in 60-plus countries, the Texas-based chain offers free children's meal with each purchase of an adult meal every Tuesday and Wednesday. The offer can vary by location and they don't specify an age, so be sure to check in advance.
NATIONAL NAVAL AVIATION MUSEUM
In addition to being the world's largest naval aviation museum and one of the most visited museums in Florida, this attraction is also free. The museum features more than 150 restored aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The aircraft are on display both inside the 350,000 square foot museum and on its 37-acre grounds.
INDEPENDENCE HALL AND THE LIBERTY BELL
Philadelphia offers numerous free and engaging activities for children, many tied to our nation's history. Top choices include Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. No tickets are required for the Liberty Bell, where visitors can go beyond the iconic crack to learn about how the bell was transformed into an iconic symbol. At Independence Hall, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, walk-up tickets on the day of a visit are free, or you can reserve tickets for $1.50 ahead of time.
BOSTON FIRE MUSEUM
Showcasing objects from centuries of fighting fires in New England, the Boston Fire Museum includes vehicles, photographs, and even historic tools. Some of the engines on display date back to the late 1700s. There's also a collection of fire helmets from all over the world. Admission is always free.
BALLAST POINT PARK
JELLY BELLY FACTORY TOUR
What could be sweeter for a kid than a behind-the-scenes look at how colorful Jelly Belly jelly beans are made? The tour includes interactive exhibits and, better yet, free samples. If you're not on the West Coast, Jelly Belly also offers free warehouse tours at a facility in Wisconsin.
IJAMS NATURE CENTER
The possibilities are endless during a free visit to Ijams Nature Center: Kids can say hi to "animal ambassadors" at the Visitor Center, take a hike along more than 12 miles of trails, tackle beginner mountain-bike trails, or claim their own fairy house in a natural playscape called Jo's Grove.
STATEN ISLAND FERRY
The Staten Island Ferry is free for everyone, and what better way to give your child a great view of New York City than from the water? You'll also spy the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on the 25-minute ride. More than 115 daily trips mean you can hop aboard practically any time, too — though avoiding rush hour is probably a good idea.
UNITED STATES BOTANIC GARDEN
This gorgeous space on the National Mall is always free, and kids will love exploring the lush landscape to see plants both familiar and far-flung. Exhibits include a newly improved Children's Garden that encourages hands-on exploration as little visitors dig, plan, water, and tend plants.
What differentiates Adventure Playground from any other run-of-the-mill park? Kids are encouraged to build their own play structures using real tools and materials like wood, old nets, tires, and paint. There's also a zipline, and a playground next door suitable for smaller tots. And while families are welcome to enjoy the park for free, parents can drop off kids 7 and up for up to three hours for a fee.