Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Rd.
This time of year–winter break after Christmas–most of the parents I know are in search of two things: a way to entertain the troops that does not include TV, and a little warmth. Last year we discovered the wonders of a place that offers both when we ventured to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Since our first trip there, we’ve since become much more acquainted, so here’s a little guide to the garden with kids during the winter.
The Model Railroad
This pint-sized but sprawling model railroad is the star of the garden in the winter and it’s open now through January 6, 2013 in the Regenstein Center. It is a must-see indoor exhibit, especially if you have train lovers; but even so, the intricate detail of the scaled-down famous Chicago landmarks, like Navy Pier, are so remarkably designed even adults will find themselves marveling at the exhibit.
One of my favorite things about the model railroad is how the artists and designers use all natural materials to build the landmarks, scenery and buildings — think pine cones, sticks, leaves and bark that have been carefully crafted into St. Patrick’s Church, the Bean at Millennium Park and the Shed Aquarium. In total, there are 80 landmarks to find, and this year there’s a scavenger hunt to find four of them — and winners get to sip a free hot cocoa after playing the online hunt with their smartphones. To play simply download the SCVNGR app from iTunes or Google Play and answer the 4-question challenge correctly to redeem your free cocoa at the Garden Café or Caboose Café. Of course, the offer is limited to one free cocoa per visitor.
Our boys, 3 and 5, spent a good hour following the trains as they chugged through the gardens past buildings, over bridges and around Navy Pier and an exquisite waterfall. We only were able to drag them away with the lure of lunch. Tip: The Wonderland Express requires tickets for both members and nonmembers. Tuesdays are half-price days, which is a great deal, but as with most free or half-price days, you might expect the exhibit to be more crowded.
The Caboose Cafe and The Garden Cafe
Speaking of dining, we’re pretty big fans of the on-site cafes at the garden despite the cost being higher than, say, dining at casual eat-in restaurant. The chef at the cafe uses food grown by the Green Youth Farm, a program where students at four different garden-sponsored farms around the Chicago area focus on organic urban farming and sustainability. All of our meals have been delicious, and the kids never have any problem finding something relatively healthy to satisfy their hunger. We also love the composting and recycling efforts made at the cafes. Tip: The Caboose Cafe offers lighter fare and is located in Burnstein Hall adjacent to the Wonderland Express; the cafes are not open for dinner so plan on lunch, breakfast or a snack.
Winter Garden Walk
During the wintertime especially, our youngsters are just itching to run. After checking out the Wonderland Express and refueling with lunch or a snack, head outdoors and take a winter garden walk! Follow the kiddos as they run the garden paths and breath in the crisp air of winter. The garden info center can give families tips on what to look for during the winter months, including winter birds and other special winter flora and fauna. Tip: Bring snow boots, gloves, scarves and hats for everyone! You might be surprised at how long you’ll all enjoy the outdoors on a calm day boasting sunshine.
Indoor Garden Greenhouses
The three indoor gardens are also a great place to take the family during a day at the garden; my kids are especially smitten with the greenhouse that features the towering cactus. Tip: The warmth of the tropical and arid gardens is a nice break from the blustery cold after a winter garden walk, making the indoor gardens a great place to end your winter garden adventure with the family.
A few extra tips:
*Be sure to marvel at the thousands of twinkling lights in Heritage Garden on the way out. There are more than 750,000 lights sparkling on the trees!
*Because parking is $20 for nonmembers, plan out your day in advance so as to be able to take advantage of all the garden has to offer.
*While the kiddos shouldn’t run around the exhibits and greenhouses like hooligans, people generally expect for young children to be at the exhibit. It is truly family friendly. Same with the cafes — just remind them per normal to use restaurant manners.