Monday, September 16, 2013

Denver for Kids

Boy, Girl, and I spent six months filling our time before school started this month. Denver usually isn't on the radar of Foreign Service families, if for no other reason than the Centennial State is not home to a thriving and influential foreign affairs community. Because, you know, it's not Washington D.C.*

I spent much of my youth in the D.C. area and Washington really is great for kids. Fantastic schools, free museums, plenty of historical sights. Traffic, humidity, cutthroat competition, ridiculous housing prices. Well, maybe those things aren't so great. (Washingtonians, don't feel defensive! I am one of you. Always will be. But let's be honest...Washington takes a couple years of your life.)

Anyway, for those who missed it: Why Denver? We picked Denver because it's in Colorado (der) and it's not Colorado Springs, Boulder, or Ft. Collins. Colorado Springs ain't my cup of tea for a number of reasons. Boulder is expensive and a little too Berkeley-esque. Ft. Collins is wonderful, but unless you run a brewery or teach at CSU, your employment options are limited and that wasn't a great strategy lest we end up staying here for the long run.

Denver is a little weird and accepting and relaxed. It's politically moderate, which cannot be said of the Springs or Boulder. People move to Colorado from all over, but I've never lived in a town with so many cheerleaders. Denverites are excited to be here. They drunkenly ride bikes through their town once a week. They support local breweries and businesses and bands. EVERYONE LOVES THE BRONCOS. Wow. Everyone.

This place is also great for kids. If you are looking for something a little different than squeezing your family of five into your parent's guest room this R&R or home leave, I recommend a swing through Colorado. While the mountains are an obvious destination, the capital city is worth a visit.

You will most likely need a car unless you stay only downtown, though cabs are plentiful and both Zipcar and Car2Go can be found around town. You can zip from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes.

Below are my recommendations:

*True fact. It's not.


The Children's Museum of Denver

One of the best children's museums we've been to, and we've been to a lot. Boy could spend hours constructing and shooting paper rockets and Girl loves the room filled with chutes and balls. Both enjoy the bubble area, the firetruck, and the forest make-believe area. There are activities for older kids--such as a recycling construction zone--and for littles as well (there is a designated 0-4 area that's large and lovely). Walk out the door to a chalkboard cow and a great playground along the Platte River. Parking is free.

It's also right next door to...

Downtown Aquarium

The aquarium isn't cheap, but it's just the right size for a 5 year old to enjoy a 90 minute visit. There are diving experience packages for older kids, but mine are happy to start with a ride on the carousel out front. They particularly enjoy the shark tank, which includes windows in the floor so you almost always have a shark underfoot. The inexplicable tiger exhibit is actually pretty neat, as the tigers can be very close to the crowd. You can feed and pet rays, walk through a rainstorm, and talk about how piranhas would just devour you if given the chance. Parking is $7 for non-members, $3 for members.

Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum

This is Boy's ceiling:

So it is a bit embarrassing that I didn't even realize there was an air and space museum until recently. Husband is home on R&R and took the kids there yesterday. Wings Over the Rockies is a lot like Udvar Hazy. No space shuttle, alas, but they did have an X-wing. Husband said it was great and definitely worth the trip. Parking is free.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science

The Science Museum has the advantage of being less than half a mile from our house in the southeast corner of City Park, so we've been there a lot. It's no Field Museum, but it again has something for all age groups, including a Discovery Center for kids 5 and under. There is an interesting and interactive body exhibit that again caters to the full range of kids, providing a small exploration area for little ones and virtual bike riding tests for older ones. The space exhibit is a personal favorite, and I love that it has a play area for toddlers and preschoolers in addition to interactive exhibits that target a slightly older crowd. You'll note that I use "interactive" a lot for this museum, and it certainly is. It's a snowy day favorite. Parking is free! There is also a bike share station right at the museum.

Denver Zoo

The zoo is less than one mile from our house, and a stone's throw from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The zoo is in the middle of city park (more on that later). The elephant exhibit is new and impressive, and we can always count on giraffes entertaining Girl. Boy loves the bat exhibit. The carousel near the hippos and birds is a nice little break from strolling around. The park is littered with climbing areas that will amuse kids from about 18 months on for as long as you let it. Peacocks roam the park, because I guess some private owner just let them out one day? The zoo has an abundance of programming for little kids and the occasional sleepover, so check out their website in advance of a trip to take advantage of their offerings. Girl is a big fan of the zoo. Parking is free.

Part of the Asian exhibit at the Denver Zoo
History Colorado

History Colorado was a pleasant surprise. Girl loved the puppet show. Boy enjoyed making puppets in the lobby. The time machine in the center lobby is tons of fun. As an East Coaster, it was amusing to see kitchen exhibits from the 1920s (and yes, Europeans, I realize you scoff at my East Coast kitchen exhibits from the 1700s), but as a newly minted Colorado resident, I found the museum to be both fun and very informative. Downtown, so parking is going to cost you about four to seven dollars.

It's also a couple blocks from...

Denver Art Museum

I'm ashamed to say we haven't visited the art museum yet, as until recently I didn't realize it was such a hot destination for children. I usually hear "art museum" and think "my kids will touch things" and then avoid the whole exercise. But as you can see, it's actually a terrific place for the kiddos. I'll update with our personal recommendations once we visit next weekend. I'm excited to check it out. (It's downtown, so I can only assume parking is not free).

Butterfly Pavilion

The Butterfly Pavilion is outside of town, but an easy enough trek with a car. The butterflies are of course beautiful, but a family favorite is Rosie the Tarantula, who can creep over the arms of kids three and up. Girl is disappointed she didn't get a turn, so we are going to make another pilgrimage after her birthday.

Colorado Railroad Museum

If you have a train-crazy kid (or grandpa, as my kids have), head to Golden to see a number of locomotives and cars from several eras. The only downside is my crew wanted to climb on more trains, and only some of them are open for exploration.

Denver Botanic Gardens

Another one I'm ashamed not to have visited yet. I hear good things, though.


Denver prides itself on its parks, hence the names of many neighborhoods (Washington Park, City Park, Congress Park, etc.). The city is spotted with parks, most of which have playgrounds, but here are a few of our favorites:

City Park

City Park is the largest park in the city, and is located just slightly east of the center. City Park is home to the zoo and nature museum, loads of trails, a boathouse, playgrounds, and--on any given weekend--a fair or festival or run of some sort.

The Kids wander through City Park
Washington Park

Wash Park is a neighborhood full of beautiful bungalows (the traditional Denver house) with a killer park. The playground is our favorite in the city, and it's surrounded by lovely gardens and trails, perfect for a picnic with the kids. The rental office can hook you up with paddle boats and kayaks or has those goofy group bikes.

Red Rocks

If you have a day to get out of town, I recommend exploring Red Rocks and then heading to nearby Golden for a meal. Red Rocks is beautiful and the amphitheater is open to the public unless a show is going to start within a couple hours. Boy loved to climb up and down the amphitheater rows, and the nature of the venue allowed me to see him almost everywhere, which meant I could sit down and enjoy the picnic lunch we brought. There are also trails throughout the area for the hiking sort. You can combine it with a trip to Dinosaur Ridge in the same town.

Cherry Creek Mall

The last week aside, it's unusual to be rained out of activities in Denver. Snowed out is entirely likely. When we need an indoor distraction, we take the kids to Cherry Creek Mall in the tony Cherry Creek neighborhood. The play area is filled with screaming children and their parents/nannies, and the kids manage to entertain themselves for as long as we want them too. There is a yummy smoothie/panini/wrap place around the corner for a healthy lunch or snack.



It goes without saying this is a sporty town. Everyone's really in shape too, because they all ski and run marathons and bike 40 miles on the weekend. But when you want to drink a beer and take your kids to see someone else do all the exercising, you have the following teams to enjoy: Broncos (NFL), Rockies (MLB), Avalanche (NHL), Nuggets (NBA), Rapids (MLS), Outlaws (Major League Lacrosse...who knew there was such a thing?), Dynamite (arena soccer), Crush (arena football), Mammoth (National Lacrosse League), Bulldogs (Australian football), and the Barbarians (rugby).

Amusement Parks

We haven't been to them yet, but Elitch Gardens (downtown, right next to the aquarium and kids' museum), Lakeside Amusement Park, and Heritage Square are great sources of fun. Lakeside has the advantage of being both in expensive and super-friendly to little kids.

Neighboring Cities

Denver is a great jumping off point to Colorado Springs (worth it for Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak and an excellent zoo--you can feed giraffes!) and Boulder (home to a good festival or two and great mountain views).


Want to plan by day?

Day 1:

Start at Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison, then head up the hill to Red Rocks with a picnic lunch. Let the kids burn some energy and then check out the Railroad Museum in Golden followed by an early bird dinner downtown. Alternative to Railroad Museum: spend the afternoon in Heritage Square.

Day 2:

Manage to get breakfast at Snooze AM downtown. Your kids undoubtedly wake up too early, so beat the inevitable lines by getting there first thing. Trek over the Art Museum then eat lunch (pricey but good) at History Colorado followed by the museum itself. Take the kids down Broadway to 1st Avenue in very hip Baker for some delicious ice cream at Sweet Action. You can post-game dessert (kids are happier when dessert comes first) at the Punch Bowl Social across the street. The crowd can become mostly drunken hipsters after eight, but is pretty family friendly before that. Good food, bowling, games. Even have tiny bowling shoes for rent.

Day 3:

Start at the Children's Museum, eat there or at the Aquarium, then ride out the day at the Aquarium. If you have teens and younger ones, be a gem and let the teens hit Elitch while you do the Children's Museum and the Aquarium. Order room service for dinner, because it's day 3 and you're tired.

Day 4:

Got a morning to burn before your flight? After breakfast, head to Wash Park for a paddleboat ride or an hour on the playground.

Grown-ups: if you are fortunate enough to have a babysitter, chuck the kids in the evening and check out breweries, distilleries, quiz nights, Punch Bowl Social once it gets a bit rowdy, or any of the many great Denver bands. The Lumineers are one of the best known, but The Outfit is another quality local offering well worth your time.

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