Sometimes winter weather is just too extreme for frolicking outside. Escape to a more comfortable environment may be the only solution. This time of year, indoor attractions in each of the 50 states offer families respite from the elements. Some are free or cheap, while many cost more than a night at the movies but provide a full day of entertainment, occasionally garnished with a dollop of learning. Attractions targeted at kids are cheaper all around, and seniors, children, and military typically pay reduced fees; the youngest kids often enter for free.
Opened in the fall of 2015, GulfQuest is the only maritime museum dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico. Located in downtown Mobile, the interactive museum features 90 90 exhibits, theaters, displays, and simulators, including the Junior Mariners play area and a 16-minute film detailing the culture and history of the Gulf and Mobile Bay. Visitors can use a simulator to "navigate" vessels around the Port of Mobile, Mobile Bay, and the Tombigbee River.
The Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock has something for everyone: It's both art museum and children's theater. Art lovers will revel in special exhibits such as "Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work" and families can catch performances such as "The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats," including at "Pay What You Can" preview performances.
The town of Folsom, about 30 minutes northeast of Sacramento, is home to BusyKidz, an indoor play space modeled after businesses in and around town. Exhibits range from an art studio and music space to a farmers market, doctors' offices, post office, and engineering space. Come for story and craft time on Tuesdays and free Wi-Fi for parents in the lounge every day.
Located in Stamford, Chelsea Piers Connecticut is the place to stay active during the winter months. There's a 6,000-square-foot Splash Zone with pools and slides, batting cages, an indoor skating rink, a trampoline court, and a 22-foot-tall climbing wall. For children 5 and under, a separate play space offers a foam pit and secret passageways.
The First State is home to numerous Gilded Age mansions, but probably the most famous is Henry Francis du Pont's home, Winterthur, near Wilmington. The 175-room mansion is furnished with some of the nearly 90,000 antiques and objects in du Pont's vast collection. To help preschoolers experience the exhibits, a pack filled with stories, puzzles, and games is available at the reception desk. The Touch-It Room on the first floor features an 1830s general store and colonial-era kitchen.
Yes, Florida has Mickey and Minnie and Legos, but it also has astronauts. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, young and old can live out their space travel dreams at a hefty price ($50 for adults; $40 for children) but still spend less than the cost of a Disney vacation. Stand under the largest rocket ever flown, touch a moon rock, explore the space-themed playground, and strap into a custom-designed crew cabin to experience a virtual takeoff.
A 50,000-square foot facility in Macon hosts three floors of hands-on exhibits, including a mini zoo of more than 70 animals, a scientist's workshop, an "Artist’s Garret" and poet's corner, and a map room. Current exhibits include stunning holiday trees decorated by regional designers and artists and a look at Georgia’s Miss Americas, both through mid-January.
Maui Ocean Center offers visitors a chance to see a variety of sharks, turtles, stingrays, tropical fish, and one of the world's largest collection of Pacific coral. They also can walk along a 54-foot tunnel that winds through the 750,000-gallon Open Ocean exhibit. Guests can also book a behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium and its lab.
Pack up the kids, extended family, and friends and head to the Silver Rapids Indoor Waterpark. Although it's for guests of Silver Mountain Resort, groups can arrange access for day use and there's a limited number of individual tickets available too. There's a 60,000-gallon wave pool, a 315-foot-long "lazy river" that runs around the park, a spray deck, a multi-level interactive play structure, and warm springs.
The Dinosphere exhibit at Children's Museum of Indianapolis contains full-size dinosaur skeletons and an area to dig for dino bones. "Take Me There: China" invites kids to play traditional musical instruments, learn to use chopsticks, and find out about modern and ancient traditions. There's also a carousel, interactive exhibits that put you in a circus or get you dancing, a play space with an art studio, and an elaborate looks at trains big and tiny.
Admission and programs are free at the Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, where hands-on exhibits, animatronics, and art bring to life the Lewis and Clark expedition. Daily DVD presentations about Native American culture in the Keelboat Theatre, which recalls the expedition's vessel, and an exhibit featuring more than two dozen traditional native games keep visitors fully engaged. There are children's programs most weekends.
Exploration Place in Wichita features more than a dozen kid-oriented exhibits, each with a science, creative, historical, or cultural twist. The just-opened "Design Build Fly" includes 5,100 square feet of exhibits about aviation, including a full-size executive jet interior and chance to operate a drone. Movies and light shows are screened in the theater/planetarium.
Perhaps more appropriate for preteens and older, The National WWII Museum is a must-see in New Orleans. Housed in five pavilions, the museum houses more than 250,000 artifacts, including two full-size planes and thousands of recorded personal stories from the war; some are retold in a 4D movie narrated by Tom Hanks.
Activities and exhibits abound at the Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine in Portland. Youngsters can learn about healthy living in the teddy-bear-filled, interactive Be Well Center; explore the camera obscura, a fire truck, and a lobster boat; romp around an indoor playground; and see a play or try out for the Children's Theatre company. Started in 1923, the Children's Theatre is the oldest continuously operating children's theater in the country; "James and the Giant Peach" is slated for February.
The Railroad Museum in Baltimore boasts the world's oldest and most comprehensive American railroad collection. Kids can visit the Choo Choo Blue Kid Zone in the roundhouse and participate in story and activity time on the weekends. Look for demonstrations in which staff operate the 1884 roundhouse and its 60-foot wooden turntable to move a historic rail car.
Rock Spot Climbing in Boston is one of New England's largest indoor bouldering facilities. It offers 9,000 square feet of climbing surfaces with up to 100 "boulder problems," and 35 top-rope walls. Before and after the climb, use the cardio machines for warm-ups and cool downs. The facility is open seven days a week, as are sister locations in South Boston and Rhode Island.
What's more Detroit than cars? Get up close and personal with favorite makes and models at the North American International Auto Show, Jan. 13-28 at Cobo Center. On display are hundreds of vehicles from 180 makers, including electric cars, full-size trucks, and ultra-luxury brands. Jan. 24 is Education Day, customized for school groups coming to to check out the inventory (kids are welcome on other days, too).
Located in Edina, the completely enclosed Edinborough Park sprawls over one acre and houses a pool, track, indoor amphitheater, and Adventure Peak, one of the country's largest play parks (with a 30-foot-tall oak tree for climbing and four tube slides). The amphitheater offers free entertainment through May in the form of concerts, movies, and the like.
Sponsored by Hallmark, whose Kansas City headquarters and visitors center is nearby, Kaleidoscope offers free 50-minute hands-on family art sessions daily except Sundays and holidays. Tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis, and the line starts forming at 9:30 a.m. The place is packed full of leftovers from Hallmark's production process -- think ribbons, dots, stars, melted crayons, and more. Spend time in the glow-in-the-dark room and use the watercolor paint dryer and jigsaw puzzle maker.
Exhibits at ExplorationWorks in Helena include "Women in Space," "Water Works," and "Little Sky," a special play land for children under 5. There are drop-in workshops and science programs for youngsters as well as learning opportunities for adults. Next door at Great Northern Town Center is the Great Northern Carousel with 37 hand-carved animals found in the state.
Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha is the place to visit for a little winter doldrums pick-me-up. The 17,500-square-foot conservatory houses numerous exhibits that can brighten gloomy days. "Metamorphosis," (Jan. 20 to May 13), features transformed found, recycled and reused plastic objects that vows to change the way visitors see plastic.
Not much is free in Vegas, but there's no charge for entry to the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden. Five times a year (Chinese New Year, spring, summer, fall, and winter) the gardens are transformed into a different celebration of the season with flowers and plants that complement the grounds and architecture. The conservatory ceiling, adorned with oxidized copper sculpted into floral patterns, is worth an admiring gaze. This indoor attraction is open 24 hours a day.
Funspot in Lanconia claims to be the world's largest arcade. With an 18-hole indoor mini golf course, bowling (candlepin and 10 pin), and more than 600 games, including 300 classic arcade games, it just might be. Bingo (ages 18 and up) is offered five days a week. The facility includes a tavern with a pool table and dart board, a family-friendly dining spot, and two party rooms.
The Garden State boasts an array of outdoor winter activities, but there are also options for those who prefer the indoor life. The Funplex, with locations in Mount Laurel and East Hanover, is filled with go-karts, bumper cars, indoor arcade games for all ages, laser tag, and much more.
Albuquerque's ABQ BioPark hugs the east side of the Rio Grande and houses botanical gardens, a zoo, a beach, and an aquarium. The aquarium shows films and features numerous exhibits (some interactive) ranging from a shark tank with six types of sharks to a coral reef tunnel, all in support of BioPark's eco-conscious mission.
A visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown can tide over fans until baseball season starts again in April. Interactive exhibits intertwine with video and audio first-person stories by Hall of Famers. Fans can pay homage to their favorites at the Hall of Fame Gallery. This winter offers personalized visits to fans with a favorite team, including a private artifact spotlight featuring items not on display in the museum, followed by a one-hour guided museum tour.
Canad Inns Destination Center in Grand Forks, the chain's only U.S. location, contains 40,000-square feet of watery fantastical madness known as Splasher's of the South Seas, and is open to the public for day use. This indoor waterpark features a lazy river, slides and pools, an adult-only hot tub, and a play area for the little ones with a bucket that pours water over the area. Dry off at the concession stand, pizza shop, or arcade.
The Center of Science and Industry, or COSI for short, sits in a 320,000-square-foot building in downtown Columbus. Home to Ohio's largest planetarium, COSI also hosts numerous ongoing and permanent exhibits, such as the new Dinosaur Gallery, running with a 6-foot-long mechanical T. rex model that walks in place and climbable full-scale model of an oviraptor nest discovered in China. There are live shows and demonstrations, and 3D science and nature films.
A family trip to the movies is a fun diversion on a cold winter afternoon. It can also be expensive. That's why theaters such as Northpark 7 in Oklahoma City are hidden gems. Movie tickets are just $2 (upcharge for 3D films) and $1 all day Tuesday. Hot dogs go for a buck, as well. The theater shows more than oldies; "The Lego Ninjago Movie," "Marshall," and "It" were playing in December.
At the World Forestry Center in Portland's Washington Park, the 20,000-square-foot Discovery Museum is the star of the show. Try interactive river rafting in an actual raft or riding an indoor chairlift for a bird's-eye view of a forest. In addition to the forests of the Pacific Northwest, learn about those in Russia, South Africa, and Brazil.
Located in Philadelphia's East Fairmount Park, Smith Memorial Playground is the size of six football fields. Opened in 1899, the space was designed especially with kids in mind. Among woodlands, fields, and hills, there's a giant wooden slide and a 16,000-square-foot indoor playhouse. The Smith has always been free to explore.
There's more than just indoor go-karting here -- a massive indoor entertainment complex includes bowling, laser tag, paintball, an arcade, the KR Baseball Academy and Rock Spot Climbing, but cold weather provides a great excuse to tear around a track for drivers as young as 6. A single race is $25 for adults, $18 for youth.
The EdVenture Children's Museum in Columbia features ongoing "edventures" to help kids learn about fire prevention and pet care and explore their inventive side; the Cooking Lab offers cooking classes, and a Newsroom lets aspiring newscasters and meteorologists learn how news is created and practice giving reports. But the museum's literally can't-miss feature is Eddie, a 40-foot, 17.5-ton 10-year-old boy whose vertebrae can be climbed to visit the brain, heart, stomach, and intestines to see how the human body works.
What's more Nashville than music? The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is an attraction that appeals to all ages. There are ongoing music-themed exhibits showcasing musicians such as Keith Urban, Eric Church, and Sam Phillips, and programs including songwriters' sessions, film screenings, and family-themed events.
Anyone heading to Salt Lake City's City Creek Center this winter should plan to do more than shop. There are weekly fish feedings at the trout pond on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and a self-guided architecture tour of the waterfalls, sculptures, fountains, and pedestrian sky bridge. The mall's fountain was designed by the creators of Las Vegas's famed Bellagio fountains; the musically choreographed show shoots water as high as 40 feet, with fire elements added after dark.
Historic buildings, art, and Americana are just some of the eye candy on display at the Shelburne Museum. The museum's 38 buildings house a collection of more than 150,000 pieces, from circus figures, decoys, and quilts, to dolls, toys, paintings, and more. If that isn't enough to keep your whole party occupied for hours, the museum offers craft sessions in its art studio.
Located in Portsmouth, the Children's Museum of Virginia features exhibits from daily life, such as replicas of doctors and dentist's offices, a grocery store, bank, and firehouse, complete with costumes and props. Kids can blow bubbles and create giant bubbles around themselves and sign up for classes, such as "How do you Robot?" and a hands-on how-to with the 3Doodler Printing Pen, during the winter.
Seattle Center is the place to be during Seattle's notoriously wet winters. There are basketball games at KeyArena; performances at the Seattle Children's Theatre; free Festál cultural festivals (Tết Festival: Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Feb. 10-11); a Tropical Butterfly House, two IMAX theatres, and five buildings of interactive science exhibits at the Pacific Science Center; and the Seattle Children's Museum.
Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia in Charleston contains a theater, art exhibits, and science galleries under one roof. Family fun days keep everyone occupied with special activities. Tiny Tales Story Time (for "our smallest visitors") takes place every Thursday.
Located in Cody, The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is dedicated to the history, art, science, and culture of the American West. The center houses five museums and a research library. Family fun days are hosted once a month; Jan. 19 is a "WinterFest" event. Fans of raptors can attend the Draper Museum's Raptor Experience for a chance to meet live birds and learn more about them.