Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

So glad we saved this museum for our final day in Chicago, because unlike some of our other stops where a half day sufficed, we needed every minute of the day to experience the Museum of Science and Industry.

The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. We arrived just before 10 and stayed until closing.

Located on the south side of Chicago, we opted to visit this museum last because it was on our way back home. Had we visited in the middle of our stay in Chicago, we would have taken public transportation from downtown, but instead we drove down Lakeshore Avenue and paid $20 to park in the museum’s garage.

A general admission ticket was enough to keep us busy for the entire day, however, if you have specific interests not covered by the ticket, there are a few exhibits that require an additional fee.

We started our visit with two of the special daily programs. The first was an interactive game show in the theater on the lower level, and the second was a brrr-thday party featuring liquid nitrogen on the third floor.

From there we explored the Science Storms area, with hands-on activities about lightning, tsunamis, avalanches, tornados and more. (I’ll try not to say “hands-on” anymore because all of the exhibits are very interactive and offer hands-on activities.)

We toured a full-sized Boeing 727 before heading to the café for lunch.

In the afternoon, we saw the trains before going to the Toymaker 3000 area. For $5, each of the boys purchased a “Gravitron” that was created along an assembly line in front of their eyes. The souvenirs were engraved with the date and their names.

We also visited “YOU! The Experience,” an area that explores the human body. The boys strapped on a headset to participate in a game that monitored their brain waves. They also hopped on a “hamster wheel” to see how fast they could go.

With time running out in our day, we went to the basement to view the U-505, a German submarine that was captured near the end of World War II. A very detailed exhibit includes video about the war and the sub’s capture, as well as first-person accounts from the crew that commandeered the vessel.

An extra ticket is required to board the sub, however, the other exhibits and the chance to walk along the outside of the sub are included with the general admission ticket.

Our full day at the museum allowed us to see probably two-thirds of the exhibits. If you’re going to Chicago, allow at least one full day to experience this treasure.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Lincoln Park Zoo

Is there anything better than a free zoo?

Located on the north side of Chicago, the Lincoln Park Zoo opens at 10 a.m. daily and offers free admission. The zoo is part of a larger park and has multiple entrances.

We entered by the seals, and after watching them swim for a few minutes, encountered a very active male lion prowling around his enclosure. We proceeded to see monkeys, gorillas, zebras, camels, flamingos, bears and more.

The only money we spent during our visit was for a carousel ride ($2.75 even for parents who have to stand to accompany small children) and lunch at one of the cafes.

We needed about three hours for our visit but didn’t quite see everything. Another hour would have been well spent.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Willis Tower

What’s it like to stand 1,353 feet over the sidewalk with just four inches of glass between you and a fall to the ground? If you’re brave enough to find out, step out on one of four glass ledges at SkyDeck Chicago and take a look.

Willis Tower is the tallest building in the United States and offers stunning views of four states from the 103rd floor. A nine-minute film and some interesting exhibits preclude boarding the elevator, which makes the climb in about one minute.

On a clear day, which unfortunately it wasn’t for our visit, you can see four states: Illinois (obviously), Indiana, Wisconsin and all the way across Lake Michigan into Michigan.

The highlight for many though is the four glass enclosures that extend outside the building and perch you over the ground below.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Museum Campus - Chicago

Just south of the downtown area are three world class attractions located at the Museum Campus – which is also adjacent to Soldier Field and the convention center.

Several bus lines run express routes with minimal stops between downtown and the museums, and the subway’s red line stops at Roosevelt, which is a ½-mile walk to the museums.

Worth seeing are the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and The Field Museum. During our visit, we only had time and budget for two of the three. We chose the Planetarium and the Field Museum. Both took about half a day.

The Planetarium is one of the oldest in the country and offers two floors of exhibits as well as several theaters, including a 3D theater.

Detailed information is offered about each of the planets as well as a history of space exploration. The “Planet Explorers” area is a kids area with a lot of hands-on activities and a chance to climb, run around and get out some energy.

An interesting history of telescopes is located on the lower level.

The Field Museum of Natural History is home to Sue, an intact T-Rex skeleton that stands in the lobby. In addition to the dinosaur exhibits, our kids were fascinated by the Ancient Egypt exhibit, exploring a pyramid and its mummies and artifacts..

There’s much more to see here, including animals, DNA, plants, underground adventure and more.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Navy Pier - Chicago

Navy Pier was just a few blocks from our hotel. We walked over mid-afternoon and stayed 3-4 hours. The highlight for us was the giant Ferris Wheel that offers a seven-minute ride to heights offering a beautiful view of the Chicago Skyline.

A carousel and a few additional rides are also available. The cost is $6 per person, although a discount is available if you purchase tickets to more than one ride.

Numerous cruise tours depart the pier, offering cruises out onto Lake Michigan or through downtown Chicago via the Chicago River. Segways and bicycles are also for rent.

An inside mall features a food court and all sorts of souvenir shops. An IMAX Theatre, Children’s Theatre and the Chicago Children’s Museum are also located at Navy Pier.

A number of restaurants and a beer garden provide opportunities for food and drink. We opted to eat at Harry Caray’s, the legendary Cubs announcer. The portions were large, and the food was good. Inside the restaurant, is a collection of autographed pictures, bats, baseballs and items from other sports.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Embassy Suites Chicago Lakefront

When deciding to visit Chicago for our summer vacation, one of the first daunting questions was where to stay?


Downtown hotels are closer to the sights, but the nightly rate can be more expensive as well as adding a hefty parking charge.


Staying in the suburbs could mean paying less for a hotel, but then you’re faced with either commuting in and out every day via car – and paying hefty parking fees once you arrive – or traveling in via a regional train. Either way you’ll probably spend at least 30-40 minutes in transit on both ends of your day.


As I mulled these over, I opted to stay downtown and bite the bullet on the slightly higher prices in the name of being closer to the sights.


Embassy Suites was one of the first hotels on my list as I started looking for a place to stay. I’m a sucker for their made-to-order omelets, and every room is a two-room suite. The main bedroom features two double beds while the living room has a fold-out couch. With a family of five, we were able to have two kids sleep on the couch in the living room. They had access to their own TV. My wife and I slept in the bedroom with our youngest child.


The lakeshore location is about five blocks from Navy Pier, so after settling in, we were able to walk over there for a few hours before coming back and enjoying some time in the pool, hot tub and sauna.


Walking four blocks in the other direction, we were easily able to make it over to Michigan Avenue and board the busses or the subway.


A final bonus – the manager’s reception from 5:30-7:30 with free drinks and snacks.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Menno-Hof Shipshewana

The Menno-Hof Museum in Shipshewana is an interesting place to learn the history of three related Christian denominations - the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites.

A 15-minute introductory film precludes 23 additional exhibits that tell the history of the early church through the present.

The beginning of the Anabaptist movement is highlighted in one exhibit followed by a dungeon room that showcases 16th century persecution. A "rack," tongue screw, and other torture devices accompany the video.

A model of ship's quarters demonstrate how many Mennonites traveled to North America in the late 1800s, and the next room includes a registry of ships and passengers from the 1850s through the 1870s. I found my great-great grandparents on a ship from Europe to the US in 1877.

Further exhibits demonstrate the industriousness and prosperity of the three groups.

Menno-Hof is an interesting place to visit. We spent almost two hours learning about the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

St. Louis, baseball and public transportation

St. Louis has a lot to offer. I’ve experienced some of those attractions in the past, and I’ll have to experience others in the future. On a recent trip to the “gateway to the west,” there was only one purpose – baseball.

I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to get to major league games in Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, but it had been a few years since seeing the Cardinals.

St. Louis is a baseball town, they’ve got a relatively new ballpark, and it’s only a four-hour drive from Indianapolis.

Well, it was slightly more than four hours. If you’re driving that direction this summer, prepare to come to a stop in a long construction zone just east of Terre Haute. (There’s also some construction between Terre Haute and Effingham).

St. Louis has a great downtown – but again, that’s another trip.

This time, in the interest of saving some money, I opted to stay in Collinsville, Illinois. In addition to paying less for a hotel, it gave me the opportunity to try out the St. Louis Metro.

Many Indianapolis residents would love to see a light rail system in our city, but who knows if politics and the cost to build will ever allow that to happen.

Somehow, St. Louis did make that happen. And remarkably (to me at least), the system includes a line that extends into Illinois.

We took advantage of the free parking at the Fairview Heights station, and my sons and I took the metro to the Stadium station for a total of $8.80 roundtrip.

It was a comfortable 25-minute ride that took us across the Mississippi River without the need to fight traffic or search for game night parking.

The metro station is across the street from the third base gate into the stadium. The “new” Busch Stadium opened in 2006 and is an absolute gem. Filled with 44,000 Cardinals fans on a weeknight in early June, you can’t ask for a better atmosphere to watch a baseball game.

There doesn’t appear to be a bad seat in the house. Our seats were in section 160 just past the third base bag.

Fans in St. Louis are incredibly knowledgeable, passionate – and friendly! We were wearing the opposing team’s gear, but heard nothing but warm greetings all night long.

There are a myriad of concession choices at the ballpark – Asian, beef brisket being two options that I recall. Call me boring, but we opted for hot dogs and fries. Very good grilled hot dogs!

The night was perfect and memorable for me and my sons.

If you want a fun baseball experience, take a trip to St. Louis.