Family Fun

Family Fun

With the release of this summer’s blockbuster film, this is shaping up to be a “dinosaur summer” for kids, and Connecticut is more than ready for the challenge. But we’ve also got sports, aquariums, zoos and thrill rides galore. And at the end of the long day, there’s ice cream for everyone!

The Age of Giant Reptiles

The Age of Giant Reptiles

Time to embark on a jurassic Connecticut adventure. Yes, there are dino attractions here, including some brand new ones, that will enthrall any self-respecting junior paleontologist, and provide a little extra learning along the way. Here are a few of the highlights.

The Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven has long been a place where kids felt they got their first feel for how big, varied and interesting dinosaurs actually were. In fact, the Peabody is home to one of the world’s top paleontology collections. Inside the Great Hall, you’ll see a juvenile Apatosaurus skeleton, a mesmerizing and world-famous 110-foot-long mural, “The Age of Reptiles,” painted by Rudolph Zallinger, and a fossil of the largest known turtle species, Archelon.

At Rocky Hill’s Dinosaur State Park, see 500 authentic sandstone dinosaur tracks (one of the largest collections of preserved Jurassic tracks on the continent), explore an arboretum filled with plants from families that flourished during the Age of Dinosaurs, and touch fossils in the Discovery Room. Then your kids can head to the museum’s casting area to make a trip souvenir – a plaster cast of a Eubrontes footprint. For details and tips about the casting process (a change of clothes is a good idea), check the website.

Dinosaurs also have a significant presence at the Connecticut Science Center, located on the Connecticut River in downtown Hartford. Among the highlights are a soaring Pterosaur, a lifelike animatronic Dilophosaurus, a real fossil, a dig pit and Julius the Apatosaurus, a surprising character in the Center’s rooftop garden. But really special is the Center’s new exhibition “Extreme Dinosaurs,” where a 37-foot Omeisaurus greets you, a 47-foot T-Rex will spy on you and all sorts of other dino features will take you into an alien world.

Lake Compounce Amusement Park in Bristol has a new emphasis on dinosaurs at its “Dino Exploration” feature. Here, visitors can dig in a fossil pit and then find their way through forest paths, where any number of lifelike dinosaurs might suddenly appear. A bit of Jurassic Park in Connecticut? You bet!

You can also spend some time in Montville at The Dinosaur Place, an outdoor park with easy walking trails that lead past 25 life-size dinos crafted from concrete and steel. In Monty’s Playground (named for the massive T-Rex that towers over the parking lot), kids can climb on a 3-dimensional climbing web and an enormous (but not real) Pachyrhinosaurus skull. If it’s raining, or even if it’s not, head inside to Nature’s Art, an activity building where kids can dig for “fossils” in the Bone Zone, pan for gold and search for gems.

Sports of All Sorts

Sports of All Sorts

With some kids, it’s hard to get them motivated and out of the house unless there’s a ball, a bat, a team or a competition involved. Luckily, Connecticut has something for just about every kid when it comes to sports.

Connecticut’s lone major league sports team is the Connecticut Sun, bringing the very best women basketball players in the world to Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville. The regular season runs through the summer and no home game starts after 7 p.m. It’s a great chance to inspire your junior hoopster by getting her, or him, close to some real talent.

Minor league baseball is uniquely tailored to young kids, and if you’d like to see how they do it, just head for a New Britain Rock Cats game. Every home game is tied to a promotion or giveaway of some kind (“Ninja Turtle Night,” “Harry Potter Night”), there are between-inning contests for fans, and they specialize in birthday parties. Oh, and the action on the field is good, too, for this Colorado Rockies farm team.

Have you got a little speed demon or two in the house? Take them to Lime Rock Park in Lakeville to experience cars racing like they’ve never seen them before. Lime Rock is located in a lovely rural setting where a curving Le Mans-style track (not an oval) takes the racers past fields and rolling hills. Spectators can move quite freely through it all, and if the kids get inspired, there’s even a Go Kart track.

Connecticut hosts a couple of major sports events every summer, and each happens to be very kid-friendly, too. Many of the best golfers in the world converge on Cromwell’s River Highlands golf course in Cromwell for the annual Travelers Championship – this year held June 22-28. Events include a Family Day and on-course features include a Kids Zone with golf-related challenges for young ones. Later in the summer, tennis fans get their fix at the Connecticut Open, held Aug. 21-29 at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale in New Haven. There’s a Kids Day, Family Night and autograph sessions with some of the world’s best women tennis stars.

Ice Cream: Nothing is Cooler

Ice Cream: Nothing is Cooler

There are those who say Connecticut is home to the finest ice cream in America, and who are we to disagree? We’ll only add that summer is the perfect time to go find out if these reports are true. It’s also the time of year when farm-fresh flavors find their way into cones and cups. Here’s just a sampling.

If you enjoy your ice cream with a view of cows grazing in nearby fields, we’ve got a few good choices for you. At Rich Farm in Oxford, the flavors on the big board change all the time, but some are tied in directly to summery traditions. Their Strawberry Rhubarb, for example, is produced only when rhubarb is in season. Even more special is Full Moon Chocolate, served only on nights of the full moon. (Look for this double chocolate ice cream with fudge swirl this year on July 2 and 31 and August 29.) Meanwhile, in nearby Newtown, Ferris Acres Creamery operates out of Fairfield County’s last remaining dairy farm. Its lineup of flavors is excellent, as are its views of cows and tractors, but the peach ice cream, made with the freshest fruit of summer, is worth a special trip.

The University of Connecticut, now known officially as UConn, began its life as an agricultural school, and it still retains an aggie degree program and a working farm. One great thing about that is a good portion of the cream produced by the cows there gets shipped across Horsebarn Hill and directly into the ice cream making machinery at the UConn Dairy Bar. There are many great flavors here – and the student servers know how to fill a cone – but the most distinctive is Jonathon Supreme, named for the university’s Husky mascot. It’s vanilla ice cream swirled with peanut butter and chocolate covered peanuts.

Toasted Almond. Sometimes just those two words are enough to send some of us out on a quest. In Connecticut, the search ends at Big Dipper Ice Cream Factory in Prospect, where the late Harry Rowe’s toasted almond is always on the menu and never fails to bring a smile.

Drive along a quiet country road past red barns and open fields, turn into a dirt driveway, and find your reward at The Collins Creamery in Enfield - “on the quiet side of town,” as they put it. The ice cream menu speaks right out loud, however, with Black Raspberry, Coconut Chocolate Chip and Rum Raisin leading the way.

There are old school ice cream shops, and then there are old school ice cream shops run by a school. Such is the case with Michael’s Dairy in New London, managed by students from Mitchell College. Everyone loves the milkshakes here, but we’d advise a side trip to a strawberry cheesecake cone.

And let’s not forget Route 10’s very nice daily double in Hamden and Cheshire. Wentworth’s Homemade Ice Cream in Hamden has been honored as Best of Connecticut a number of times by Connecticut Magazine readers. Meanwhile, just up the street, Sweet Claude’s in Cheshire is open for its 25th year with a menu of steady faves (Claude’s Cupcake, Caramel Cashew) and occasional specials such as Girl Scout Cookie. Can’t decide which to go to? There’s no law against trying them both.

Bold Adventure

Bold Adventure

There’s something new all the time at Connecticut’s amusement and adventure parks. Here’s this summer’s lineup for serious fun.

If you and your family are lovers of outdoor adventure sports, you really ought to check out Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park in Portland. Located in a historic old brownstone quarry by the Connecticut River, this park offers rock climbing, cliff jumping, wakeboarding, kayaking, scuba diving and more. This summer brings the addition of new zip lines, so there’ll be shorter waits for that ultimate crash-into-the-water thrill.

More zip lines await up in the trees at The Adventure Park at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport. Billed as “Connecticut’s first aerial adventure park,” the layout comprises a network of platforms, walkways and zip lines ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert. In all, there are 11 “trails” through the trees, ensuring a different adventure each time out. And for something really special, try night climbing and zip lining until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Zipping among the strings of lights can feel quite magical.

Lake Compounce in Bristol may be most widely known for its three roller coasters (the Boulder Dash having been named the No. 1 wooden coaster in the world), but the ever-expanding water park at Crocodile Cove is now officially giving the coasters a run for their money. New kid on the block is the Dino Expedition, a prehistoric-themed area featuring fossil digs and pathways through a forest filled with lifelike dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury there’s a water theme, too, from Saturation Station (a kind of watery jungle gym) all the way out to the pedal boats that ply the lake waters. On land, there’s the classic Wooden Warrior roller coaster and the brand new FRANTIC, recently named one of the best new thrill rides in America.

And then there’s the salt water at Ocean Beach Park in New London, with its sandy beach and impressive menu of things to do. The 50-acre park offers an Olympic-sized freshwater pool, miniature golf, a carousel, rides and a full schedule of summer events. There’s even a new nature walk and observation deck for viewing shore birds in their natural habitat.

Creature Features

Creature Features

There’s nothing like an animal to stir a kid’s interest, and if they’re big and maybe a little menacing, well that’s okay, too. Just off I-95, Connecticut offers three such experiences, not only for kids but for their parents as well. And not all of the creatures are beastly, some are downright friendly.

It’s not every day you can look a shark in the eye or spend time with a harbor seal – or observe river otters, rays, sea turtles and jellyfish. But you can do all that at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk. You can even get cute with meerkats and drop in on the special exhibition “Dragons! Real or Myth?” that features a rare black dragon (don’t worry, it doesn’t breathe fire) and other animals with “dragon” in their names. And don’t forget the aquarium’s IMAX movies!

A few miles up the turnpike is Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo whose 300 animals include a Siberian tiger, Andean condor, spectacled bear, red wolf and golden lion tamarin. Out on the Hoofstock Trail, you’ll find bison, pronghorn and white-tailed deer. And in the South American Rainforest, exotic reptiles and alligators slink through the lush vegetation. Check in for admission deals, discounts on carousel rides and other special offers.

A little further up the coast, Mystic Aquarium has long been a must-see for families visiting Connecticut. The one-acre beluga whale habitat is a huge draw, as are the enormously entertaining 25 African penguins and the endangered Stellar sea lions. In addition, there are shows at the marine theater, a 4-D theater (check the schedule) and the great new exhibit “Exploration: Wild,” a tour of Earth’s most captivating habitats – rainforest, Arctic, wetlands, desert and open oceans.

Parks Are for Kids!

Parks Are for Kids!

When it comes to places for kids to get out and enjoy, don’t forget about Connecticut’s state parks! The first park was established in 1913 with the purchase of what is now known as Sheffield Island State Park on Long Island Sound in Westport. Once the precedent had been set and residents saw the benefits of public land ownership, Connecticut’s park system began growing rapidly. Today there are more than 100 parks and forests in the system, many with unique features that kids will love. Below are some examples. Further details on these and all the other parks can be found here.

Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden. As you take in the views from the stone tower at the top, consider you are located on the hip of what for all the world looks like a . . . sleeping giant. The park offers an impressive network of hiking trails, ranging from expert to nearly child-proof.

Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill. A state park located where dinosaurs once roamed the earth? Really? Here you’ll find the fossilized footprints of the giant lizards that crisscrossed the Connecticut River Valley 200 million years ago. Kids can make plaster-of-Paris casts of actual dino footprints to take home.

Gillette Castle State Park, East Haddam. The centerpiece of this magnificent location high above the Connecticut River is a really weird house built by 19th-century actor William Gillette (known chiefly for his stage role as Sherlock Holmes). His “castle” is well worth touring, but be sure to bring a picnic to enjoy on the extensive grounds.

Kent Falls State Park, Kent. One of the best hikes in Connecticut runs along this 250-foot waterfall, plunging a quarter-mile down through a thick forest.

Talcott Mountain State Park, Simsbury. As you take in the view from Heublein Tower, be sure to take in the tower itself, in its day one of the most unusual and spectacular summer houses in Connecticut. Views from the 165-foot tower stretch from Mt. Tom in Massachusetts to Sleeping Giant to the south.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison. At over 2 miles in length, this is Connecticut’s longest beach, and its most-attended state park. There are campsites, a nature center, a network of trails and, oh yes, swimming in the cool waters of Long Island Sound.

All Aboard

All Aboard

One of the great ways of taking in the Connecticut countryside is aboard one of the many trains that put real pleasure in riding the rails. All of them harken back to an earlier day when the pace of life was slower and “getting there” really was half the fun. And if anyone in the family happens to be a train buff, the pleasure will be more than doubled.

The Danbury Railway Museum operates out of a fully restored 1903 station. You’ll be able to inspect the rolling stock on display, including locomotives, passenger equipment, freight equipment, self-propelled cars and even maintenance equipment. The train rides through the rail yard include a spin on a real operating turntable!

Views of the Naugatuck River Valley are part of the package when you ride out from the Railroad Museum of New England/Naugatuck Railroad Company in Thomaston. The ride begins at the 1881 Thomaston depot, rolls past industrial sites, through forest and then runs across the face of Thomaston Dam, the only train in America that crosses a dam in such a fashion.  Many locomotives, railroad cars and work equipment are on display as well.

The thrill of travel under steam power is part of the thrill at the Essex Train & Riverboat in Essex. Here, the excursions run through the Connecticut River Valley, where the broad river and surrounding hills are gorgeous in any season. The Steam Train offers many special events, but perhaps most special of all is the opportunity to take a ride on a riverboat as part of your journey! You’ll board the train at the 1892 Essex Station, meander through the countryside to Deep River Landing, board the Becky Thatcher, take an hour-long cruise on the river, then return to the train for the ride home. Nothing like it.

Trolleys are the rail vehicles that take center stage at The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven. You’ll not only get a great look at the history of travel on city and suburban streets before cars took over, but you’ll also be able to take a three-mile trip through woods and wetlands aboard a vintage trolley car.

There’s also a focus on trolleys at the Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor, and there’s a three-mile journey you can take here – as many times as you’d like for one price. The visitor center includes not just examples of rolling stock, but also a theater where you can watch a short film on trains and trolleys. As an added bonus, this site is also home to the Connecticut Fire Museum, with many examples of vintage firefighting equipment on view.

Running Wild

Running Wild

There’s nothing quite like the days of summer in Connecticut, when all of nature is fully alive once again. Luckily, there are many places in the state where you and the kids can out into the woods and fields, take nature classes or view how animals enjoy the warm days. There are dozens of nature centers (you can find a pretty comprehensive list right here), but the following offer some special pleasures:

The 118 acres of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center is a wonderland for young (and older) lovers of nature. There’s a museum with 4,000 square feet of exhibition space, an 18-acre working farm, an observatory, nature center, playground and interpretive trail system. Kids of all ages are taken into consideration here, and summer is bursting with events.

Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton is a member of the Children’s Museum family. You’ll find live animals and mounts of local animals in the main building, a replica of an Eastern Woodland Indian longhouse, a beaver habitat and more. Get outside for five miles of trails and a refuge that’s home to more than 150 bird species. Summer offers many seasonal viewing opportunities of local plants, wildflowers and animal activities.

Manchester’s highly-regarded Lutz Children’s Museum oversees the activities at the nearby Oak Grove Nature Center, a 52-acre preserve featuring a pond, covered bridge and walking trails. The museum’s programs onsite include bird searches, bug hunts and the doings many years ago of the local Podunk Tribe of Native Americans.

Kids wondering what they can do to have a positive impact on the future of Connecticut’s wildlife and other natural resources might well benefit (and greatly enjoy) a visit to Sessions Woods Wildlife Management Area in Burlington. Here, the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection runs regular programs, demonstrations and workshops pertaining to wildlife and natural resource management – as well as miles of hiking trails.

Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic is a 300-acre preserve that offers eight miles of trails for hiking, walking and excellent birding near the shoreline. The nature center also offers a museum and small meadow theater, live reptiles, amphibians and birds of prey. There are also on-site picnic areas.

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