9 Things I Learned While Visiting the New York State Museum with a Three-Year-Old


What has luminescent rocks, woolly mammoths and a Native American longhouse? Unless you’re from upstate New York, you probably didn’t answer “The New York State Museum.” But if you did, congrats! This long-standing institution was one of my favorite places as a deeply-nerdy child. We brought Sprout there when he was a mere year and a half old, but he had very limited comprehension of the whole thing. This Christmas vacation, I thought I would give it another try.

Here’s what I learned:

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On the Bus and Down the Rabbit Hole: Philadelphia’s Please Touch Children’s Museum

Photo: Picture of Chesire Cat from Alice in Wonderland and big card; text: "Philadelphia's Please Touch Children's Museum; We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

The heavy lion statues in front of the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia belie the raucous energy of the smallest visitors inside. Visiting Philly for our friends’ wedding, we made a full trip of it and visited both the Liberty Bell and this renowned children’s museum. (We’re working our way through the children’s museums of the Northeast U.S.) Despite some whining, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The museum is split into several sections, each of which focuses on a childhood theme: transportation, construction, water, fairy tales, and pretending to be an adult.

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A Single Bell: The Saratoga and North Creek Railway’s Polar Express

There’s just something about little kids and trains. When you put Santa in the mix, it’s a guarantee for Christmas magic. So it was a lovely gift for our in-laws to give Sprout a ride on the Polar Express run by the Saratoga and North Creek Railway as his big Christmas present.

The Polar Express is an actual train ride modeled on the famous book that was made into a movie. Both are about a little boy waiting on Christmas Eve to hear Santa’s sleigh despite his friend telling him it isn’t real. A magical train picks him up, along with a number of other children, and brings them to the North Pole. When the boy is picked to receive the first gift of Christmas, he requests a bell off of Santa’s sleigh. On Christmas morning, he discovers it makes beautiful music, but his parents think it’s broken. As time goes on, his friends and sister lose the ability to hear it, but his belief in the magic of Christmas allows him to always hear it.

While I had read the book ages ago, my father-in-law adores the movie. With a local train company offering a “Polar Express” package, he wanted to bring Sprout on the real-life version.

We boarded the train at night in our pajamas, just like the children in the story. I chose pajama pants and a sweater, but my in-laws decided to go all-out in full-body one-piece fleece jammies. Instead of the train picking us up at our house, we had to drive out to the station, pay $5 for parking, and trudge through the parking lot in the rain.

Not the most magical, but they did a lovely job once you actually got in the station. A huge Christmas tree took up most of the entranceway, flanked by a Polar Express themed gift shop and murals.

Polar Express Christmas tree

The train further built upon the plot and themes of the story, decorated in its holiday best. Pine garland wrapped around the overhead luggage storage, bright presents stored there instead of suitcases. Once the train started, “chefs” and waitstaff pranced down the aisles, skipping and kicking up their feet. As they didn’t do anything “waiterly” except pass out styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and sugar cookies, their main job was to be hilariously enthusiastic, which they did quite well. Sprout slurped down his hot chocolate, which was little kid friendly lukewarm. In addition to distributing goodies – just like in the book – the waitstaff also sang Christmas carols and showed children the pages of the book as the narration played over the loudspeaker. The conductor even made his rounds and stamped our “golden ticket.”

After a very slow 30 minute ride, the train arrived at the North Pole itself. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or coincidental, but the cell service was so poor that there was no way to figure out its location. It did preserve the magic a bit! As we approached, we gazed out the window at a “village” bright with multi-colored lights staffed by “elves” dressed in red and green. The combination of the dark and the train slowing down created the illusion of it seeming quite large. As we approached, Sprout stared out the window, transfixed by the fantastical sight.

North Pole Polar Express

Unlike in the book, no one got out of the train. Considering it took 20 minutes to get everyone on the train in the first place and the weather was crummy, it was very much for the best.

Instead, the elves and Santa came to us! They boarded the train, elves in the lead. Although I asked the elves to take a photo with Sprout, I didn’t expect one of them to pick him up. Considering his earlier skepticism about sitting on Santa’s lap, I winced, but he didn’t cry. But in the one decent photo we have, he doesn’t look super-thrilled. Then Santa made his way down the train car, stopping at each family to take photos and bestow a single (not real) silver bell to each child. As he entered, Sprout cried, “Santa!” While he was excited to get the bell, there was also no way in heck he was allowing Santa to pick him up.

The only critique I have of the trip was the presence of one character who isn’t even in the book. As the book is just over 30 pages, they obviously had to add quite a bit to the movie to pad it out to a reasonable length. One of those additions was a hobo, who in the “real life” version yelled a lot and simply didn’t make a lot of sense. He was vaguely scary, confusing if you hadn’t seen the movie, and generally didn’t fit in with the whole aesthetic.

Overall, the Saratoga and North Creek’s Polar Express was a lovely concept come to life. The full-sized train was a delight and was the first time Sprout had been on a non-subway train. I can’t say it will be a holiday tradition – this may be the last Christmas for us in upstate New York – but I can see why it could become one for many families.

Visiting Las Vegas with Toddlers and Young Kids

Tips for Bringing Toddlers and Young Children to Las Vegas

Las Vegas isn’t usually a place for families with toddlers or young kids; except when it is. We recently visited Chris’s sister and brother-in-law, Melissa and Steve, who live in the Vegas suburbs. In planning the trip, we found plenty to do for families of young children and had a great time with four days full of kid-friendly activities. We even could have filled a few more days if we had the time.

Whether you’re visiting relatives in Vegas or en-route to somewhere else, here are a few tips for bringing a toddler or other young child to the Las Vegas region:

1) Know that you’re going to be judged and just deal with it.

You could be bringing your child to get medical treatment in Vegas and you’d get snark from someone on the plane. We had a couple different people comment to him “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” and warning him not to drink too much, despite my protestations that we were visiting family. And God forbid you bring your kid to the Strip. When I was with Chris on our night out, I know I silently judged people (then realized better), despite the fact that we brought Sprout there only a few days earlier! Just explain why you’re there (or not), smile and move on.

2) Be selective about the Strip.

Honestly, the Strip is far from an ideal location for little kids, amongst the sex, drugs and gambling. Thankfully, they’re too little to understand any of it and there are some neat things of interest. Personally, we spent a little less than half a day there and it was perfect.

Pink flamingos at the Flamingo Las Vegas wildlife exhibit

Before you go, know what you want to see. The place is huge and all of that walking can put a strain on even the most patient toddler or parent carrying/pushing them. We knew we wanted to see the Flamingo’s wildlife exhibit; the Bellagio’s gardens, glass ceiling, and fountain show; and the Mirage’s volcano show. We also planned to go the talking statues in Caesars’ Palace, but ran out of time. All of them worked out beautifully except the volcano show, which scared Sprout. He was fine until the end, which was really loud and bright and I think caused a bit of sensory overload.

Other activities in that area that seemed pretty family-friendly included the High Roller Ferris Wheel (very similar to the London Eye), the Mirage’s Secret Garden, the trip up the Paris’s “Eiffel Tower” and the Mandalay Bay’s Aquarium. However, all of those were pretty expensive so we skipped them. On the other end of the Strip, slightly older kids might like the lions at the MGM and the themes of New York, New York; the Luxor (Egyptian); and (medieval-lite castles).

3) Think beyond the Strip.

While many tourists never leave there, there’s a whole host of things to do for families off of the Strip. Las Vegas is an increasingly popular area for families to live – 350,000 kids in the school district! – and the area is trying to accommodate that growth.

A giant, multi-story playground that looks like a treehouse

I couldn’t get a good angle, but the playground was very cool.

A few blocks from Fremont St. is an upcoming area in the process of being redeveloped. One of the newest additions is the Downtown Container Park, a self-enclosed pedestrian shopping and entertainment era. Visitors are welcomed by a fire-breathing preying mantis and enter a lovely plaza with restaurants and shopping. We browsed an awesome retro toy store that is trying to “bring back pogs” (my mid-90s childhood appreciated the effort) and bought a shirt from the company Out of Print at a children’s clothing store. But the centerpiece of the complex is a giant, multi-story playground, with multiple slides, giant foam building blocks, and a sound/lights based movement game. I got excited and was a little disappointed that we needed to leave right after I finished shopping.

Sculpture of an emu made out of recycled metal at Springs Preserve

Another fabulous place to visit was Springs Preserve, a natural / state history museum / conservation center appropriate for all of the local schools’ field trip needs. Among its many exhibits, it included a simulated flash flood, live desert animals, the University of Nevada’s second place house for the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, desert adapted gardens, energy conservation arcade games, a desert-themed play area, and a train ride. Despite my deep love for state museums, we didn’t even get to the Nevada State Museum, which was also on the premises! Of course, Sprout’s favorite parts were the sandbox and water mister, but I admit they looked pretty fun. We didn’t have time, but the Discovery Children’s Museum also looks fantastic, with another multi-story climbing structure.

4) See some non-party animals.

Besides the flamingos, parrots, hummingbirds, and fish at the Flamingo and the tortoises, rabbits and tarantulas at Springs Preserve, there are also two mom-and-pop animal rescue facilities right near each other in the Vegas suburbs.

Peacock on top of a porch swing

The Farm in Las Vegas is a homespun facility featuring a variety of farmyard critters, from huge cows to fluffy chickens. It features handwritten signs, old-fashioned mall toys (that no longer run, but are apparently awesome to climb up on), a number of local foodstuffs, and a substantial flock of peacocks. We actually bought peacock and bantam hen eggs and fried them up for breakfast at Melissa and Steve’s later on. While it isn’t a “petting zoo,” the manager did allow us to pet the giant potbellied pig, Kevin Bacon. Of course, among all of this, my kid and a few others decided their favorite thing was the sun-bleached toy kitchen in a weird little fenced-in area. It was a little slice of rural country life in suburban Las Vegas.

A goat standing on a fence

They escaped pretty easily. This one literally jumped straight up.

Right down the road, the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary is another volunteer-run, passion project that seems to take in any animals the greater Las Vegas region has to offer them. Goats that escaped their pen – including an adorable baby – roamed around, horses mixed with chickens, emus eyed my shiny phone, and ducks and swans swam together. While not nearly as polished as a tourist attraction, it’s hard to beat for only $4 a person. Plus, it’s nice to support a local, family-run organization that’s working to help animals that would have nowhere else to go otherwise.

5) Go hiking.

Only a half-hour or less from Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area. Red Rocks is exactly what is says in the title – spectacular red rocks, ranging in hue from orange-red to dark blood maroon. There’s a substantial interpretive exhibit at the Visitor’s Center that looks at the earth, air and water and how they relate to the landscape and human history of the place. For the littles, there are cool brass animal sculptures to sit on, desert tortoises to spot, and a Zoetrope to spin.

Red rock formations on the Calico Trail at Red Rocks National Recreation Area.

The view from the Calico Trail.

Going down the 17 mile one-way Scenic Road, you catch a number of spectacular outlooks and hiking trails. We did part of the Calico Tanks trail, which wandered down a canyon and was 1 mile each way. Labeled as moderate, it had a little bit of mild rock-scrambling, but was totally doable with a toddler in a baby backpack. It isn’t well-marked at all (totally disorienting for someone used to forest hikes), but it’s also pretty easy to orient yourself. If you are sharp-eyed, you can often spot rock-climbers scaling Red Rocks’ famed cliff-faces. While Sprout was content gazing at the scenery for the first half of the hike, he decided he absolutely needed to walk Melissa and Steve’s little terrier halfway through. As much of the path was neither toddler or small dog friendly, this resulted in a public, loud and potentially dangerous meltdown on the trail. He calmed down enough for Chris to carry him sans-backpack, but it almost gave me a stress-induced aneurysm. So great trail – if your kid is a little more patient than mine.

We had originally planned to let him walk the 3/4 mile paved Children’s Trail. Unfortunately, between the meltdown delay, the closeness of naptime, and an approaching rainstorm, we left the park instead. The start of the Trail has picnic tables with beautiful scenery and ancient Native American pictographs that are worth stopping at even if you don’t have time to do the whole thing.

I also highly recommend bringing your own water and lunch. Red Rocks is run by the Bureau of Land Management, not the National Parks Service, so there is very limited food or vending on site.

5) Bring the baby backpack if you have one and leave the stroller at home.

Despite the Red Rocks rebellion, the baby backpack was immensely useful. I had to convince Chris to add it to our absurd amount of luggage, but it was worth it.

In Red Rocks, we would have been able to do only the simplest hikes without it. On the Strip, it gave him a birds’-eye view of everything, the opposite of what he would have had in a stroller. He loved looking at all of the bright signs, flashing lights and sketchy knock-off Disney characters (I’m looking at you, off-brand Olaf!). Plus, the narrow, crowded sidewalk would have been obnoxious to navigate in a stroller. While I love our stroller for everyday transportation, the baby backpack is much better when there’s a lot to see and you don’t want your kid stuck at looking at knees all day. Plus, no one handed my husband cards for “sexy ladies” while he was wearing the backpack. Even Vegas hawkers know there are some lines you just don’t cross.

6) Don’t assume the temperatures will be super hot.

Yes, Vegas can be very hot. But it isn’t all of the time. In mid-May, it barely went into the low-80s and it was usually too cold to go in Steve and Melissa’s pool. I was very glad I brought my jeans and spring jacket. Even when it’s climbing past 100, a lot of places are absurdly air conditioned as a response, making them feel freezing cold. Having back-up clothes and wells thought out extra layers is a good bet.

7) Visit a relative with a dog and a pool.

Obviously, this is not an option for everyone. But chasing Melissa and Steve’s little terrier around -and being chased back – was unquestionably Sprout’s favorite part of the trip.