Florida would be fine, and Mexico would be marvelous, but sometimes a vacation doesn’t fit into the family budget or calendar. This winter, spend a “staycation” getting to know local attractions that aren’t just for tourists.
Explore the streets
With its cobblestone and candy sticks, the Streets of Old Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Public Museum has entertained kids for decades. This past fall, the iconic exhibit received a million-dollar facelift. It reopened in December, and visitors now enter through a streetcar that appears to travel back in time. On the other side, three new buildings and a newsstand greet passengers. Throughout the remaining “streets,” visitors will find many subtle changes; for example, “Granny” has a new dress, and the smells of a bakery linger in the air. A downloadable app provides an audio guide and additional information about the familiar, much-loved displays. See photos of the reimangined exhibit: Streets of Old Milwaukee
Go for the gridiron
In April 2015, the newly renovated Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field opened to adoring fans. The 15,000-square-foot museum is worthy of a pilgrimage to Green Bay even when the team’s not there. The Hall of Fame not only chronicles the organization’s history but celebrates the team’s championships and traditions. Exhibits tackle the long-standing rivalry with the Bears, the origins of the Lambeau Leap, the wild success of franchise stock sales, uniform changes over the years, and more. Each of the 154 members of the Packers Hall of Fame is honored with an engraved metal football—and, yes, Brett Farve’s is already on display. See more Wisconsin travel spots: ABCs of Wisconsin Travel
Pretend it’s summer
The Mitchell Park Conservatory, colloquially known as the Domes, advertises itself as Milwaukee’s living landmark. In the middle of winter, its three greenhouses deliver the joy of summer. The dry heat of the Desert Dome is home to succulents from Africa, Madagascar, and the Americas. In the humid Tropical Dome, visitors will find more than 1,200 plants (and a few tropical birds) from Earth’s rainforests. Throughout the year, the Floral Show Dome changes themes: Jan. 16 through March 6, a model train show called Attack of the Giant Monsters will be on display. Bonus: Saturday mornings through April 9, the Domes is home to the Milwaukee County Winter Farmers Market. For more spots that feel like summer: Taste of Summer in Wisconsin
Take a tour
Come thirsty to Sprecher Brewery in Glendale. Free tours are offered most weekdays and weekends, but reservations are required. Guides lead guests from the gift shop through the brewery to the warehouse. Tours conclude in an indoor beer tent, where adults can sample four of 20 beers on tap; kids can enjoy all the soda their parents will allow.
Reservations are also required to tour the Palermo Pizza factory in Milwaukee. For $10, adults and kids 5 and older will learn company history and receive a birds-eye view of the factory, a souvenir T-shirt, a slice of pizza, and a drink to wash it down. Other packages are available, including pizza-making classes.
Satisfy a sweet tooth any day of the week in Pleasant Prairie, where visitors can take a free train ride through the Jelly Belly warehouse. The train stops at intervals so guests can watch short clips about the company and marvel at famous artwork re-created with jelly beans. Tours conclude with free samples and time in the gift shop.
After 14 months of sporadic gallery closures, the Milwaukee Art Museum reopened in late November with 20-percent more space and 1,000 new pieces of art on display. Within the museum, Kohl’s Art Generation educational programs offer kids hands-on experiences to create their own masterpieces, explore different media, and more. Storytime on Saturdays introduces families to artwork within the galleries and invites kids to make drawings inspired by what they saw. A new downloadable app also has games, scavenger hunts, and videos that will enhance the experience for technology-loving kids.
It’s just 20 minutes from Madison, but stepping into Cave of the Mounds is like visiting another planet. A staircase descends from the gift shop underground, where dramatically lit caverns brim with crystals. The cave stays about 50 degrees year round, which can feel downright balmy in winter. Called America’s jewel box for the variety of mineral formations and natural beauty, the cave itself is more than a million years old. Tour guides lead visitors along sidewalks and point out items of interest, including a 6-foot-long fossil of an ancient squid. While children 3 and under are free with a paid adult, no strollers or frame carriers are allowed inside the cave.
The Madison Children’s Museum is a place where kids 0 to 12 can explore science, art, and history in a hands-on way. They can run in a giant gerbil wheel, cross a suspended “bone” bridge, play inside a water dome, build with magnetic tiles, paint on a glass wall, and more. There’s so much to do, the museum even offers “adult swim” events when grownups can play. Exhibits are always changing, and drop-in events include clay molding, English/Spanish story time, and environmental programs in the rooftop garden.
Have fun with fossils
The Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha explores the evolutionary link between meat-eating dinosaurs and modern-day birds. Visitors will be impressed with the 18 large skeletons on display and learn all about dinosaurs: what they were, how they looked and acted, and what happened to them. On Saturday and Sunday afternoon Dino Digs, kids 3 and up can play paleontologist—excavating bones from a simulated site.
Visitors will get a taste of the Ice Age at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Geology Museum, where a 10-foot-tall Boaz mastodon skeleton, glow-in-the-dark minerals, and a walkthrough cave are on display. To make the most of a visit, guests can download a guidebook beforehand that includes fun facts for school-aged kids and details about each exhibit. Located near Camp Randall, this free museum is perfect for kids who love dinosaurs, Earth science, and Bucky, too.
Laura Baird is a freelance writer, travel addict and mom to three in Oconomowoc.