What is America’s Best Museum for Play?

If Willy Wonka and Dr. Seuss could’ve designed a modern day wonderland, it would look a lot like City Museum in St. Louis. Never before have I climbed through so many hidden passageways, discovered so many works of art (also climbable), and laughed down so many speedy slides. My admonition to the inner kid in you: plan a trip to City Museum today.

That crack in the ground that looks like it’s under construction? It’s actually a planned passageway to an underground slide. Those caves that twist through darkness and crystals? They lead to the base of a 10-story slide. That giant pencil? It’s… actually a giant pencil (world’s largest, too).

Advice: wear athletic shoes and comfy pants for climbing (consider bringing knee pads, or you can rent them from C.M.), put your cell number on your kids’ wristbands, and prepare for adventure. If you don’t climb with your kids (which is the most fun, anyway, hearing all their giddy shouts and sounding their barbaric YAWPS!), you will lose them in the myriad passageways. The only uncomfortable climb? Outside suspended in a wire crawl space underneath a walkway 40 feet off the ground. Everything else? Thrilling and euphoric.

Oh, the tunnels and rainbow slides you’ll go on! We got there right at 9am, and crowds arrived around 10:30. Try hitting the slides first, since that’s where lines mostly form. But you can’t go wrong following your curiosity. If you’re looking for the massive indoor slide (that used to be a factory chute for shoes) find the giant whale on the first floor, then go past it down into the cave land, and keep going till you spot the rainbow lit crystal sculpture.

(Looking up at the 10-story slide.)

Young kids?  The City Express train ride was a blast for our almost 3-year-olds and even our 5+6 year olds.  They also have arts, crafts and painting for your young artists.  We explored until about 1:30pm (due to much needed kids naps) and one thing’s for certain: we will be going back. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but definitely the day after tomorrow (provided the world is not iced-over and airfare from Oregon is magically cheap).

Every city needs one of these imagination-filled play-scapes. If you have other tips on City Museum, or know of other captivating playlands, please post below. Then grab a friend and get your golden ticket to City Museum. 

Happy Exploring!

To the Tennessee Hills, and the World’s Largest Treehouse

Part 3: The World’s Largest Tree-house

On Thursday after the beach morning/lunch, we drove north from Florida up to Chattanooga, TN.  Along the way we made a stop at a northern suburb of Birmingham, at a splendid place: Big Springs Park.  Friendly folks abounded, and I met the youth pastor of Crosspoint Church, then played soccer-pinball with my kids between the raised perimeters of the playgrounds.

And then—Friday.  The big day.  We veered a total of 346 miles east of Interstate 65 so that I could finally explore something I’ve wanted for the past three years.  Eight trees, and 10,000 square feet of climbing space, the grand-daddy tree house of ‘em all!

The Minister’s Tree-house in Crossville, Tennessee.


The heavens shone favorably on us and the rain held off for the morning while we explored the 97-foot structure.  First, we had to finagle our way through a hole in the tightly barricaded fence that was smaller than the opening to my fireplace.  Why?  Apparently the fire marshal deemed the structure a fire-hazard, and ordered it closed.  Only several years before, the place had tours and numerous visitors.

So, my kind wife stayed back with one of the boys, while I took the other three on a self-guided tour of arguably the world’s largest tree-house.  We took the spiral staircase up two stories and a couple of carved wooden statues welcomed us to the cathedral space, where two of my kids reclined in a swinging love-seat.

The spacious room had pews, balcony seating, and a basketball hoop, lit up from a skylight high above.  Later we found that most of the balconies overlooking the assembly space had rails, but a couple allowed unobstructed views, which reminded me of the book of Acts and a man named Eutychus, whom I could easily see falling off this 3-story structure, too (I was already on high Dad-alert mode due to broken glass from windows, so I had my two-year-old’s hand throughout).

Then my eldest found a way to climb above the pews on an archway above a hall, and we again ascended a spiral staircase.  Before the top, we found an impressive room with what looked to be the twelve disciples listening to Jesus.

Then we climbed up some uneven stairs to the bell-tower.  Over and over we just kept saying the word “Awesome…”

The bell-tower had a ladder in the middle above the open spiral stairs, rising ten more feet into the belfry, or crow’s nest, and I thought to myself, if this were twenty years ago and my Dad was taking me here, we would be climbing up that ladder right now.  But, I’m a little bit more cautious, so we called the upper window of the bell-tower a fine achievement.  And when I saw the loose boards of the crow’s nest from outside later, it reinforced my decision.

The final fun part of the treehouse?  The massive swing!

Each of the kids enjoyed their relaxing pendulum ride, and on my turn, I had to marvel at how the builder, Horace Burgess, had (among other feats) rigged a fifty-foot swing to the tree house.

Definitely worth the 346 miles.

Surf’s Up at the Emerald Coast in Florida

After 3.5 hours of driving south from Montgomery (And finally caving to eldest daughter’s request for blue slushies, and then face-palming about 15 minutes later when one of the twins poured his onto the seats, and then face-palming again 45 minutes later, when everyone shouted how badly they had to go potty, and we were in the back-country Florida roads with no stores in sight.  Solution?  Diapers in the car. You may think it’s gross now, but someday you’ll be there.  Or you’ll just will say no to slushies.  Or you may consider another family’s no-stopping method: kitty litter.), we made it to the emerald sand of Miramar Beach, Florida.  It really does look like sugar, but I did not advertise that to my sugar-loving kids, who only one summer ago needed no encouragement to start scooping sand in their mouths.

Before the trip, I thought we’d need several mini-excursions apart from the beach to keep kids amused, and so I researched fishing trips, boat cruises, and water parks.  (FYI—for our lodging, I price-compared VRBO.com, Airbnb.com, and local seafront skyscraper condos, and found the best value for a large family of 6 with VRBO.com.  For 3 nights in April for a ground-level condo [also helpful with young kids], we paid $530.)  But when we got there, and began swimming in the ocean and the pool at our Seascape condo, what did my kids really need?  Not more excursions, just more time with us in the water.

And since we have one swimming 6-year-old and three still-learning paddlers, it helped to get life-jackets with arm bands (We went with Paddle Pals; they allowed good head movement).  Once they were suited up, two kids swam solo fearlessly, one paddled happily within arm’s reach, and the eldest popped up for air long enough to get a breath before diving back underwater for the other side of the pool.

And so our middle-part vacation went, rotating between the beach, the pool, and our condo for meals and rest.   This Slow Movement philosophy for the beach (no other places we had to be at) worked perfectly.

In terms of animal sightings, at 7:15am on Tuesday a pod of dolphins cruised some two-hundred yards off the beach (Kids’ response: “Cool!  Now let’s throw clumps of sand into the water.”), lots of friendly dogs and owners let us pet them (maybe just the dogs), and while the brown anoles (small lizards common around Florida) were too speedy to catch, the plump toads came out at dusk, and my eldest daughter triumphantly nabbed a pair, shouting, “Toad-eeee!”

One thing I wished we had, but have no real use for outside a beach, is a giant umbrella.  So, we created our own makeshift canopy using towels and buckets.  It did the trick!

With four kids napping at the beach on Wednesday (first time this has ever happened), my wife and I threw a Frisbee back and forth by the surf.  Eventually I swam out to the sandbar, and we played from there, which is most amusing when you have to dive for the disc in the waves.  One thing I liked about this beach in the Gulf of Mexico versus the Atlantic: lack of jellyfish.  I saw one blob the size of a racquetball washed up on the beach in the morning, but no active ones in the water.  While there were cases of riptides, overall I felt the waves here were smaller (good for kids), and not as high as the Atlantic (better for body surfing).  And not as cold as the Pacific, because of the movement of the brisk ocean currents traveling south from Alaska.

For the fourth day, Thursday, we hit the beach at 9am, and since people were either in school or sleeping (or both), we basically had it to ourselves.  After 40 minutes though, the kids were clamoring for the salt-and-sand-free waters of the heated pool.  Sigh.  Well, they’ll appreciate the waves more when a two-foot one won’t knock them to the sand.  I have to admit though, a heated-pool was one item I didn’t give much thought to beforehand, but really enjoyed once we found it.  As the pool temp. was a balmy 86 degrees, we could swim nonstop!

At the happiest moments, and there are plenty of them, it’s hard to beat a family road trip to a hot destination during a cold spring.