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Fun for the Family

Discover why the Fox Cities are loved by kids of all ages
By Terri Dougherty

Laughter and giggles edged out conversation as my son and daughters took part in a tropical game of beach volleyball in the middle of downtown Appleton. It didn’t matter that the city's downtown is nowhere near the tropics, or that their toes were tucked inside their sneakers instead of digging into the sand. They were transported to a sunny beach courtesy of the virtual volleyball game at the Fox Cities Children's Museum.

Judging from their reaction, their virtual game was just as fun as the real thing. And when their match ended, they could jump from the tropics to the inside of a heart, or head down the hall to take the controls of a kid-sized crane.

Kids rarely sit still when they visit the museum, and parents will find that visiting the family-friendly Fox Cities can keep them on the go as well.

Parents can treat their kids to a ride on an indoor carousel or a baseball game packed with interactive between-innings fun. Families can take a peek at the rocks and minerals inside the earth, reach for the stars at a planetarium show and wind down with a hike on a tree-lined nature trail.

The Fox Cities is filled with activities for families, and the children’s museum in City Center is a great place to start. Admission is $4.50 for everyone over age 1.

Kids can let their imaginations go at the museum as they fly an airplane, shop in a miniature grocery store and put on a firefighter's coat and helmet. In summer 2004, the museum will feature "Hmong at Heart," a special exhibit on the life and culture of the Hmong in America.

While kids enjoy using their imagination at the children's museum, it's their coordination that gets some practice at Funset Boulevard. The indoor amusement area features rides, games and a soft play area.

Tickets and wristbands are available for the rides and attractions. The $9.95 wristband includes mini golf, admission to the soft play area and unlimited carousel, train and bumper car rides. The $11.95 wristband also includes laser tag.

My daughter celebrated her 10th birthday at the amusement center by bearing down on the bumper car accelerator and bumping head-on into one of her best friends.

She grinned as she and her friends collided, and then headed to the games area to spend some tokens bopping aliens, hitting ducks and playing air hockey. The machines spit out tickets, which she and her friends turned in for prizes.

Meanwhile, her younger sister was crawling through tubes in the Let’s Shrink the Kids playground, emerging to put on a puppet show and take a ride on the train. Their brother spent much of his time playing laser tag before heading to the movie-themed miniature golf course.

Kids can burn off even more energy across town at Air It Up, a play area with an inflatable slide, bounce house and maze. The inflatable indoor playground includes Air Junior for younger children, with a pirate ship and a smaller cushioned slide.

My son and daughters especially like to race through the inflatable maze, as they bounce past soft posts and over a giant cushion before sliding down to the finish line.

Air Junior costs $6 for an hour of air time or $8 for two hours. Extreme Air, for kids age 4 to 14, costs $7 for one hour or $9 for two hours. Adults are free.

Let's Play Ball

Another activity that's sure to be a hit with kids is a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers baseball game. The minor league team's season runs from early April to mid-September, and the action between innings is just as much a part of the game as balls and strikes.

On one of our trips to the ballpark, my kids sat quietly through the first inning, but when it ended they sprang to their feet, cheering and waving their arms in an attempt to catch one of the T-shirts being hurled into the crowd with a giant slingshot.

They haven't caught one yet, but they have hope. One of our family's fondest baseball memories is the night my husband snagged a bratwurst that was flung into the crowd from the sausage-shaped bratzooka.

The kids also remain on the lookout for Fang, so they can ask the snake-like team mascot for an autograph.

Family Acts

The glistening Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2002, hosts nationally touring shows. This year's shows include "Caillou's Big Party," a live-action version of the PBS hit, at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Jan. 31. Tickets are $7 for students and children, and $20 for adults.

The von Trapp children, the great-grandchildren of the captain whose family inspired the musical "The Sound of Music," will perform at 3 p.m., March 14. Tickets are $10 for students and $20 for adults.

Natural Phenomena

A different kind of star draws visitors to the Barlow Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. As my kids lay back in the planetarium’s plush seats and gaze at the star-covered ceiling, they don't realize that they’re learning about science.

Shows include information about constellations, the international space station and a mission to Saturn.

The planetarium's shows are presented on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as Thursday between October and May. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children and seniors.

Next door to the planetarium, the Weis Earth Science Museum brings people so far back to earth that they're inside it.

The official state mineralogical museum of Wisconsin shows kids what’s under the ground and explains how it got there.

To get a look at how sediment settles at the bottom of an ocean, my daughter spun a large tube containing water and sediment and watched as the grains settled into layers. Nearby, her sister jumped up and down in front of a “seismograph—actually a computer program that works like one—to check the intensity of her personal earthquake.

They examined thin sections of rock through a microscope with a polarizing filter and walked through a re-creation of a lead mine, where they could hear miners talking as their picks clanged against the rock.

In a room set off from the other exhibits, mineral samples from the F. John Barlow collection sparkled on black velvet cushions in lighted oak cases. We admired mineral samples from all over the world, including snow-like calcite, purple fluorite, silvery stibnite and sparkling pyrite.

We can take another look at what's under the ground at a new outdoor play area at Heckrodt Wetland Reserve. Kids learn about the world beneath their feet as they climb through tunnels and over mounds, scrambling over rocks and a fallen log.

And what good is dirt unless you can dig in it? Kids can borrow sieves from the nature center to sift the sand and other material in the digging area, which opens in early summer 2004. After enjoying some climbing, crawling and jumping, kids can take a rest on the nearby picnic tables and enjoy a snack with their parents.

Inside the nature center, kids gaze up at the vacuum-tube-like mouth of a 78-inch sturgeon, the fish species that draws anglers to ice-covered Lake Winnebago each winter. Live sturgeon and amphibians inhabit the center’s aquarium.

For families that want a more traditional look at nature, the park’s trails and wooden boardwalks take visitors through tree-lined paths and to the Lopas Channel, a small side stream of Lake Winnebago.

The wetland reserve is one of three centers in the area that gives families a chance to enjoy the region's natural beauty. On the north side of Appleton, the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve has hiking trails that lead through meadows and woods. In the winter, its gently sloping cross-country ski trails offer picturesque views of snow-covered cedars.

At the 1000 Islands Environmental Center in Kaukauna, we always make it a point to stop by the nature center for a face-to-face encounter with the mounted African and Asian animals, such as lions, tigers, rhinos, gazelles and antelope, on display. Deer and other North American animals also peer at visitors, and Jabber and Irish the parrots aren’t shy about chatting. In total, there are over 500 mounted animals.

Take a Dip

When your family needs to cool off on one of the hot and humid summer afternoons, take a dip in the Neenah Pool. Open during the summer months, the pool on the edge of Lake Winnebago offers a chance to slide and splash while enjoying a pleasant view of the lake. Young ones will enjoy the "zero grade" pool here, as well as at Appleton's Mead pool, Jefferson Park Swimming Pool in Menasha or the Kaukauna Municipal Pool. These pools start very shallow and gradually get deeper-great for parents with toddlers or young children. To entertain the older kids, these three establishments also have waterslides.

Swimming is not always my son's favorite activity, and he grumbled all the way from the Neenah Pool's parking lot to the changing rooms when we visited on a hot Sunday afternoon. But by the time I returned from the car with a bottle of suntan lotion, he was shooting out of a tube-slide smiling so big that his braces glistened in the sunshine.

His dad and sisters were having a similarly good time, dividing their time between the tube-slide and another waterslide on the opposite side of the pool. It’s worth climbing to the top of the twisting slide just to see over the treetops and get a clearer view of Lake Winnebago, from the sailboats near the shore to the cliffs and groves of trees on the other side.

The scenery on the drive to and from the pool is also worth noting, as a route down South Park and East Wisconsin avenues goes past historic mansions with stylish architecture, as well as Riverside Park. The "rocket park," as my kids have always called it in honor of a rocket-shaped piece of play equipment, is a wonderful place to relax along the Fox River, the common bond between the communities located along its shores.

Learning Fun

Families can learn more about the river and area communities at the Outagamie Museum and Houdini Historical Center, housed in a castle-like building in downtown Appleton. Admission is free for children age 4 and under, $2 for children age 5 to 17, $4 for adults, $3.50 for senior citizens and $10 for families.

Opening in June, "a.k.a. Houdini" is the new interactive exhibit honoring the life of the famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, a resident of Appleton during his early years. The 1,700-square-foot exhibit will span two galleries on the second floor of the Outagamie Museum and will feature hands-on activities, models and multimedia displays, as well as a history of his rise to fame.

Other exhibits highlight the World War II era, showing what life was like for soldiers from the area who served in the war. My youngest daughter busied herself by packing a canteen and army regulation book in her backpack, while her brother and sister examined the Camp Outagamie obstacle course.

Living Wild

We went from viewing the historic to the exotic when we drove over to Special Memories Zoo, west of Appleton.

The privately owned zoo is clearly a labor of love for its owners, Gene and Dona Wheeler, who populate it each summer with monkeys, bear cubs and exotic birds. Admission is $5 for everyone over 2 years of age.

A train ride, reptile house and picnic pavilion are recent additions to the zoo. And just like the Fox Cities, it's an attraction that keeps expanding its opportunities for family fun.

Terri Dougherty is a freelance writer based in Appleton

Fox Cities Visitor Guide

Fox Cities Visitor Center

3433 W. College Avenue, Appleton, WI 54914

800-236-6673

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