When it comes to family vacations, we're always on the lookout for areas that are affordable, easy to navigate, and offer walkable urban centers, kid-centric entertainment and access to nature. That leaves us with a soft spot for small-to-mid-sized cities. That's not to say we don't love big cities, but there's a sense of discovery that comes with getting off the beaten path and exploring places that offer all kinds of excitement for kids and parents yet also manage to avoid the trendy spotlight.
City of Cowboys and Culture
Fort Worth, Texas
True to its slogan, you'll see hints of cowboys and culture everywhere in Fort Worth. Start in the Fort Worth National Stockyards Historic District, where the Old West is so strong it's like you've just wandered onto the set of "Bonanza." First, shop for boots and cowboy hats for the whole family at Fincher's White Front Western Wear to suit up for the cattle drive. That's right. Twice a day, at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., drivers dressed in period-style getups from the 1800s drive a herd of Longhorn cattle over the brick-lined streets while crowds gather to watch. Next, check in at the Stockyards Hotel to keep the theme going. Bonnie and Clyde stayed here in 1933, and the suite bearing their name is filled with memorabilia, including newspaper clippings, photos and a poem Bonnie penned to Clyde. When you're ready to step into the 21st century, the Fort Worth Zoo, Museum of Science and History and National Cowgirl Hall of Fame are perfect for the whole brood.
Need an excuse to book a trip to Indianapolis? Try this: the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center opens at the Indianapolis Zoo at the end of May, and it sounds like the coolest primate project … ever. The four-acre exhibit cost $26 million to build and offers new and exciting opportunities to visitors: like using a touch screen to actually play a computer game with an orangutan; riding a tram 40 feet in the air, within 20 feet from the orangutans; watching an orangutan flip a light switch each night that casts a 150-foot light into Indy's skyline. Plus, you may actually recognize some of the eight residents, who were once in the entertainment industry and have resumés that could rival some of Hollywood's most famous actors. If you can tear yourself away from the primates, Indianapolis is also home to the largest—and one of the best—children's museums in the world, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, as well as an IMAX Theater playing kid-friendly movies at the Indiana State Museum and the Dallara IndyCar Factory, where visitors can get a taste of the Indy 500 through interactive race exhibits and can even visit the factory where IndyCars are made.
Open the Gateway to the South
Louisville has way more in store than bourbon and a derby. Families of young kids love going to the Kentucky Science Center because the early childhood playdates allow little ones ages 0 to 4 to have free range of the place—no big kids allowed—for free the last Tuesday and Saturday of every month. Older kids, ages 4 to 8, also love conducting science experiments, building robots and playing to their hearts' content. Take a stroll, and perhaps a picnic, to Waterfront Park, an 85-acre green space along the Ohio River lined with hiking and biking trails, picnic tables, an amphitheater and plenty of room to fly kites or throw a Frisbee. Zip through the Mega Cavern, literally, on the world's only underground zip line, and learn about geology and the history of the 17 miles of passageways from your guide along the way. And because no trip to Derby country is complete without horses, stop by the Louisville Equestrian Center for a riding lesson or just watch as others learn.
Go Walkin' in Memphis
Want a synonym for kid magnet? Peabody ducks. Every day, at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., kids are given front-row seats to watch the "Duck Master" at the Peabody Memphis guide the ducks through the Grand Lobby into the hotel's central fountain. And that's just the beginning when it comes to pint-sized entertainment. During the summer months, cross the pedestrian bridge to Mud Island, where you can walk along a scale model of the Mississippi River and listen to music at the amphitheater. Commune with the giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo, and save a couple of hours to play to your heart's content at the Children's Museum of Memphis, where it can be hard to tell who's having more fun: parents or kids. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel recently reopened and is an educational eye-opener for the whole family (we'd suggest ages 8 and up). In the evening, before it gets too crazy, wander up Beale Street, where live blues music fills the air outside of the clubs, complementing the sweet scent of barbecue from Blues City Café.
Show the Kids the Show Me State
St. Louis, Mo.
When it comes to climbing, playing, oohing and aahing, the City Museum has cornered the market. Part fun house, part jungle gym, and part lesson in sustainability (it's located in a former shoe company and filled with repurposed materials), this place is beloved by residents and visitors alike (ages 3 and up). Next, the day is yours to head over to Grant's Farm, home to more than 900 animals, including a fantastic petting zoo; take a trip to the top of the Gateway Arch for stunning city views; and head to the St. Louis Science Center to try your hand at some hair-raising (no, really!) interactive displays.
Traverse City, Mich.
The gorgeous beaches of Michigan are one of the Midwest's best-kept secrets, and the area around Traverse City has more than 180 miles of shoreline and more than 100 lakes. Kids love the annual National Cherry Festival, July 5-12, where there are kids' games, kids' races, cherry-spitting contests, an air show, live music and other family-friendly activities. But if you can't make it then, you won't want for things to do. Should you tire of building sandcastles and enjoying the lakes, Pirate's Cove has mini golf, zip lines, a ropes course, bumper boats and more. Counter all that fun with some nature-filled lessons at Boardman River Nature Center, where families can learn about the Grand Traverse Conservation District before exploring 3,000 acres of park land, hiking along nature trails, paddling through the river, fishing or just communing with nature. Parents might also enjoy Traverse City's burgeoning brew pub scene, many of which (like North Peak Brewing Company) have kids' menus.
Water Park City
The Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
Aquaphiles, unite. The Dells is known as the "Water Park Capital of the World" and is packed with indoor water parks; outdoor water parks; amusement parks; golf; zip lining; and more than 90 restaurants, breweries and wineries. The resorts here are self-contained vacation destinations. Take the Kalahari Waterpark Resort Convention Center, for starters. It's home to an indoor water park, an indoor theme park, an outdoor water park and an arcade. Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort, located on 600 acres, is part of a consortium of three properties, and together they offer four indoor and four outdoor water parks, a golf course, laser tag, 3-D black-light mini golf, bumper boats, go carts, a ropes course, zip line and more. With so many options, the challenge at The Dells is convincing the kids to leave one water park so you can check out the next.