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6 Fun Cave Tours With Kids

September 2nd, 2015

Caves are a great place to explore with the family, and they’re especially a cool place to go when the temperatures soar outside. Consider a visit to one of these caves with your family.

Cave at Inner Space Caverns

Inner Space Caverns – Georgetown, Texas
This amazingly preserved cave in Georgetown, Texas, was hidden for thousands of years until discovered by a construction crew who was working on the nearby freeway. Listen closely and you can hear the traffic over head. Once upon a time, there was a hidden entrance to the cave, where animals left their bones to be discovered later as fossils. An artist painted the animals who left their fossils behind on a man-made wall — see which ones you recognize. You’ll enjoy using your imagination to look at shapes, learning about the cave’s development, and searching for the tiny bats that call this fascinating cave home.

Carlsbad Caverns – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Inside, you’ll find one of the largest limestone ‘rooms’ in the world. It is just shy of 4,000 feet long and 255 feet high. Carlsbad Caverns has lots of rooms with really cool names. You’ll love exploring the Balloon Ballroom, King’s Palace, and the Spirit World. Enjoy discussions with the kids on how each room was named. The Balloon room was once only accessible by a rope with balloons attached that could float into the cave. The King’s Palace has a formation in the center that looks like a castle. The Spirit World has formations that look like angels. Can you guess how the Bat Cave got it’s name? That’s right! It is home to 17 species of bats, including the most famous residents, Brazilian Free-Tailed bats. Until 1932, visitors had a long climb into and out of the cave, but now elevators take people down to the caverns below. Enjoy visiting the cafeteria and museum, too.

Fantastic Caverns – Springfield, Missouri
This truly fantastic cave is the only one in North America in which there’s a ride! Guests ride in a large tram that is pulled by a propane-powered jeep. Ride along while admiring the formations and see the names painted on the wall by the very first 12 explorers in 1862 — all ladies. One really fantastic moment is when the lights are all turned off and you can experience true darkness in the cave — an experience teens will love. On the ride, you’ll also learn how mushrooms grow in the dark and see a former fungus garden.

Jewel Cave National Monument – Custer, South Dakota
Interested in a little bling to go with your cave visit? Then Jewel Cave is the cave for you! The cavern, lined with calcite crystals, was found in 1900 when explorers found a hole that exhaled cool air. After blasting a hole big enough in which to crawl, they found what is now the third longest cave in the world, with 175 miles of mapped passageways. Visitors see just a small portion of the cave system and have three trails to choose from for touring.

Ruby Falls – Chattanooga, Tennessee
Inside Lookout Mountain, 1,120 feet below the ground’s surface, is North America’s highest underground waterfall, which drops 145 feet. Ruby Falls (named after the wife of the discoverer) has a whole list of curious tidbits. It was the setting for a beauty pageant and as a fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This cave was one of the very first to use electric lights!

Caverns of Sonora – Sonora, Texas
This cavern is formed from 100-million-year-old limestone. Ponder how old 100 million years really is during your visit — dinosaurs roamed the Earth then! While lots of caves have stalactites (hanging tightly from the ceiling) and stalagmites (reaching mightily upwards), these are pink and rose colored. The nearly translucent formations grow in interesting shapes. The most famous is called The Butterfly. Most caves are chilly, but not this one. The temperature stays around 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, with 98 percent humidity.

–Natalie Tanner, The Educational Tourist

Natalie Tanner, The Educational Tourist, has hundreds of thousands of miles under her belt — business trips with her geologist husband to places like Scottsdale, Jackson Hole, New York and Denver — and family adventures to far-flung destinations like Rome, Paris, Tangier, and Istanbul. When she isn’t traveling, The Educational Tourist stays busy planning the next adventure while being mom to two kids, three dogs, Sushi the fisand a hamster. Follow her adventures at The Educational Tourist.

More From Family Vacation Critic:
9 Wacky Museums for Families
11 Botanical Gardens for Families

Where Selfie Sticks Are Banned

August 8th, 2015

Six Flags recently announced the banning of selfie sticks in parks nationwide, citing safety as a concern. Earlier in 2015, Disney did the same for all parks. As more attractions and events shun the devices, we’ve compiled a list of popular family destinations where it’s best to save the selfies.

Mom and Son With Selfie Stick

– Six Flags, Nationwide
– Disneyland, California
– Disney World, Florida
– Disneyland Paris, France
– Disneyland Hong Kong, China
– Lake Tahoe, Nevada and California
– Colosseum, Italy
– The National Gallery, London
– Museum of Modern Art, New York City
– Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
– Lake Winnepesaukah, Georgia
– Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.
– The Palace of Versailles, France
– Kentucky Derby
– Minnesota State Fair (Partial Ban)

Visit (a newly launched site) to search attractions you’ll be visiting and see what the policies are on selfie sticks.

More From Family Vacation Critic:
Family Guide to Six Flags Amusement Parks
10 Best Amusement Parks for Families in 2015

Pontoon Boat Rides On Lake Lanier

August 7th, 2015

My idea of boating is flopping on my couch and sinking into a glossy coastal-decor magazine. Living close to a sparkling lake, however, I knew a day of real boating with the kids was in my future.

Kids On Pontoon Boat on Lake Lanier

Gorgeous Lake Lanier sprawls about 45 minutes north of Atlanta, and is the quintessential spot for pontoon boat rides. If you’re remembering your grandpa’s fishing pontoon — wrong century. Today’s pontoons are souped-up beauties that deliver a 5-star lake experience. Grandpa would be speechless. Here’s what to expect and why you should go:

Dining with a View
Be sure to pack lunches and snacks, and know that you don’t have to worry about any of your food getting wet. You won’t get wet unless you choose to jump into the lake.

Safety Matters
Prior to boarding our pontoon of choice — called the Platinum Tritoon (there are several pontoon choices) — Lake Lanier’s Harbor Landing staff had us sign several forms and watch a 10-minute video on boating safety. Also, kids 13 and under are required to wear life jackets. Because I’d been warned by locals that speed boats and jet skis can kick up a lot of wake and cause actual tragedy (risky behavior and/or inebriation combined with boating can lead to devastating consequences), we kept our pontoon activity to quiet coves where the speed boats weren’t. When we were boating on the “highway,” we kept the boys safely on-board.

Bring Your GPS
You can plug in your car’s GPS on the pontoon. This helped us avoid getting lost. You don’t have to worry about your phone or GPS getting wet while on the pontoon boat, though if you’re concerned, purchase a plastic case in advance of your trip.

Visit the Islands
Lake Lanier is immense (39,000-acre reservoir) with zillions of tiny private islands. At one island, my boys bottled up Fool’s Gold, and at another island, we stopped to have lunch. If you want a party, head for Sunset Cove, but if you want quiet family-time, motor to an island.

Rent a Raft
The raft is de rigueur for maximum pontoon enjoyment. At Harbor Landing, you’re given the choice between a single ($35) or a double tube ($50). The kids hold onto the raft and get the ride of their lives as the pontoon carts screaming, euphoric children behind. (Seeing your dumplings screeching in sheer joy from the back of a pontoon is right up there with holding your swaddled baby for the first time or watching your toddler absorbed in her first ice cream cone.)

Rates and Best Times to Go
Prices vary for a beautiful summer day of pontooning on Lake Lanier, but in a nutshell, weekdays are less expensive than weekends and you can rent from two to 24-hours. For your first time out, we recommend renting a pontoon for at least a four-hour day (say, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.). A four-hour summer day — Monday through Friday — comes to $310 while an 8-hour day is $435. (Cheaper pontoons are available, but they offer less speed.) Want to pontoon on the weekend? Add approximately $40 more. Optional insurance is an additional $30. Gas clocked in for us at about $30, but the price depends on how much gas you use. Want the best deal? Rent a pontoon in the off-season beginning on October 1 and the price on the Platinum Tritoon drops to $270. (And if you live near Atlanta, or have friends who do, watch for 25-percent-off coupons in ValuPak.) In Georgia, October racks up about a dozen 80-plus degree days, but even in 70 degree weather, you’ll score a dazzling day on the pontoon.

— Wendy Irvine

Wendy Irvine is a homeschooling mom of twin 12-year-old beach fanatics. Follow Wendy’s family travel tips on Twitter @WendyIrvine.

Where to Find Duckpin Bowling

July 27th, 2015

Bowling is a surefire family activity in any travel destination, especially when bad weather derails your outdoor plans. But did you know there are different varieties of the sport? On a recent rainy day, I took a day trip with my two kids to Danbury, Connecticut to try duckpin bowling at Danbury Lanes. Now we’re raging fans!

Duckpin Bowling at Danbury Lanes

The main reason is because duckpin bowling is perfectly suited for kids. Everything, from the pins to the balls, is smaller than traditional bowling. The balls are less than five inches in diameter, and don’t have finger holes. They can be held with one hand — or two small hands.

Like traditional bowling, duckpin bowling is played with ten pins. You play ten frames, but during each frame, you have three chances to knock them down instead of two. At Danbury Lanes, you are charged by the amount of time you play, not by the number of ten-frame games you play. These lanes are charmingly non-automated, so the only bumpers blocking the gutters were made of something resembling PVC pipe. The balls were returned to us from the pit deck on a sloping ball return by nothing more than the force of gravity.

My 8-year old daughter enjoyed it so much more than any regular bowling game, when she usually complains that the ball is too heavy. Like Goldilocks, she found this place to be “just right.”

Duckpin bowling has been around more than 100 years, and I had never heard of it. Danbury Lanes was built in the 1940’s, and re-built after a fire in 1955. Not much has changed since then, and in this case, it’s a good thing. I was thoroughly charmed by the glittery Formica benches forming semi-circles around the scoring tables, the black and white framed photos of past league champions hanging on the walls, and the turquoise shelves holding the leather bowling bags for local regulars.

Where can you find a duckpin bowling lane? There are only about 60 left in the United States, since the equipment is no longer manufactured. The sport is said to have originated in Baltimore, so you’ll find alleys there and in other parts of Maryland. There’s a concentration of duckpin bowling alleys in Connecticut, as well as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Beyond the mid-Atlantic and northeast states, a few alleys can be found in Indiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. See for a list and more information about the sport.

— Traci L. Suppa

Traci L. Suppa drags her small-town family to see a quirky array of the world’s largest, longest, or tallest things, and blogs about it at Go BIG or Go Home.