Indianapolis: A Great Family Getaway



Indianapolis is a good three hour drive southeast of our home in the south Chicago suburbs.  A fun destination for a long family weekend or part of a week, my family and I last went in April, 2013.

For us, the car ride down is a decent balance between a day trip to one of Chicago’s Museums, and the are we there yet? trials of a longer vacation.  While not as scenic as other auto trips I’ve taken, my kids (ages 5 and 10 on our last trip) are always fascinated by the numerous windmill farms along I-65 south of Brookston, Indiana.  There are literally hundreds of them, and I recall reading on a billboard that Indianapolis Zoo’s electricity is largely supplied by these turbines.  Occasionally, you can see a flat bed truck carrying one of the massive white turbine blades as you transit this corridor.

Navigating through Indianapolis was much easier (and less aggravating) than driving through Chicago’s Loop, and soon enough the expressway was behind us as we checked into our hotel in the downtown area.  Hotels and restaurants are plentiful in Indy, but I don’t recommend visiting the area during the Men’s NCAA Basketball Finals (a.k.a. the Final Four).  Most hotels and tourist venues are packed with fans during this weekend, making getting around and seeing the sites difficult.

Typical of most visits, on arrival we bought tickets to our favorite destinations through the concierge at our hotel.  These can be had at somewhat of a discount, and during this trip we planned to see the Children’s Museum, Indianapolis Zoo, and the Motor Speedway (home of the famous Indianapolis 500).  While not speaking from personal experience, I assume the weekend they run the 500 race is also pretty crowded.

Our first stop, after checking into the hotel and getting our tickets, was the Children’s Museum.  This makes for a fun afternoon, and the Museum is a only a short 10-minute drive from downtown.  The Museum itself has several exhibits for kids and grownups alike.


The entrance level is dominated by a life-sized dinosaur peeking into the glass enclosure of the lobby.  Once through the main entrance, we followed the path to the Dinosphere displays.  A good balance of fun and education, the mix of dinosaur models and skeletons are reminiscent of the Field Museum in Chicago.  From there, it’s a short walk to the All Aboard! exhibit of trains, including the 55 ton steam engine Reuben Wells.



The Museum has five floors of exhibits, with a circular ramp in the center to move guests between floors.  In the middle of this ramp is the fabulous Fireworks of Glass, a 43 foot sculpture of blown glass that really is fantastic.  A maintenance crew was cleaning this sculpture when we visited, and it was neat to watch them perform their work while hanging suspended by ropes from the ceiling over 40 feet above.  It reminded me of mountain climbers descending from a cliff face, or divers working in a large aquarium.  Sort of eerie and unreal at the same time.

Another memorable exhibit was the tour of Egypt.  A walk through the cabin of an Egypt Air jetliner (complete with airline seats, in-flight movie, and cockpit windows showing animated clouds and scenery), and we arrived in the half-scale version of a small town in that Country.  While the jetliner was probably the kids’ favorite part, they also enjoyed driving (via video screen) a 3-wheeled cab, and walking through the stores and houses.  I’ve discovered online that this exhibit will soon be replaced by Take Me There: China.  I imagine this latest offering will be every bit as fun to explore.

Not surprisingly, my Daughter’s favorite part of the Museum was Barbie: The Fashion Experience, which unfortunately closed prior to our last visit.  Housing everything from the history of the Dolls to an executive office Barbie might occupy, my Daughter enjoyed each moment.  As a nod to the boys, a glass case of GI Joe figures and vehicles was displayed nearby.  The Musuem’s exhibits change from time to time, making each visit a new experience.*

While my Wife and Daughter visited the Health House interactive exhibit, my Son and I explored the Hot Wheels For Real exposition.  This was a testament to all things Hot Wheels, and as a long time fan of these toys, I was impressed.  Several full-sized race cars were on display, based on the Hot Wheels models I played with as a kid.  Also on display were the first 16 model cars Mattel made, the so-called “Sweet 16” from 1968.  Even now, I can’t quite help myself from occasionally surfing eBay, to see how expensive these cars are to buy.  As can often happen, I had most of them during my childhood, but have lost them long since.


On the top floor of the Museum is ScienceWorks and Carousel Wishes and DreamsScienceWorks included a long water table to sail boats on, demonstrating currents and wind power, as I understood it.  Not surprisingly, the kids there (mine included) considered it more of a splash zone, and mostly just had fun playing in the water.

The Carousel was enchanting, a remnant from a simpler time, before automobiles were common, and modern air travel was unheard of.  This restored classic, like many I’ve seen brought back from decay, whirls under a dazzling of electric stars to the joy of the younger set.  Watching my Daughter tame her wild horse, I was reminded of my many rides on carousels long years ago.

We bid farewell to the Museum around dinner time, heading back to our hotel for a few hamburgers and some swimming before bed.

The next day, we were up early to be first in line at the Indianapolis Zoo.  For me, it’s hard to avoid comparing it to our own Brookfield and Lincoln Park Zoos.  Somewhat smaller than either of the Chicago Zoos, Indianapolis Zoo is unique in many ways and worth the visit.

The Dolphin Adventure Show at Indianapolis Zoo is probably the best dolphin show I’ve seen, and reminds me of those shows Brookfield Zoo used to present in the late 1960’s.  Only the Shedd Aquarium’s show comes close these days.  Flipping, jumping, and darting around, the dolphins are entertaining for all ages.  Those lucky few who sit close to the tank usually get soaked, a practice I discourage with my kids.

The penguins are also fun to watch, particularly as they pass beneath the glass floor from one side of their habitat to the other.  It’s also a treat to see the polar bears swim in their tank, which is clear to provide visitors with a view from underwater.  The Zoo also has a terrific cheetah habitat where you can almost touch the big cats, and an opportunity to run faster than cheetah speed on a timed track.  Not to worry when you lose – no one can beat a cheetah’s running speed!

Overall, the Indianapolis Zoo’s smaller size provides more up-close encounters with the animals.  Inside the Zoo is also one of the very few remaining Dog‘n Suds restaurants in the Midwest, where we enjoyed lunch next to the resident flock of pink flamingoes.  We stayed through the early afternoon, then headed back to the hotel to let the kids play in the pool and relax.


After dinner, my Son and I walked over to Rhythm! Discover Center, in the lower level of the indoor complex in downtown Indy.  This complex has a series of walkways connecting several restaurants, hotels, and the Artsgarden, located in the center of the commercial district.

Rhythm! is easy to overlook during a busy vacation, but anyone interested in percussion instruments should make time to spend an hour or so touring the Center.  From primitive instruments to the most modern drums, visitors have a unique opportunity to see and play this fine collection.  Near the end of the self-guided tour, there are several sound-proof rooms available for the budding (or retired) percussionist to discover the fun of setting a beat.


On our last day in Indy, we headed out to the Motor Speedway.  At close to half an hour from downtown, depending on traffic and construction, the Speedway is typically the farthest we drive during our stays.  You enter the complex by driving under the actual race track, and quickly notice how big the track and infield truly are.


We drove to the main facility of the Speedway, which houses the Hall of Fame Museum, on our last day in Indianapolis.  Inside is virtually every car that won the Indianapolis 500 since it began in 1909.  The Museum houses images of all the legendary drivers who’ve won, and many of the trophies they earned during their careers.

Walking through over 100 years of race cars, I couldn’t help but consider the improvements that each new race brought to the art of those machines, and to wonder what the future winning cars will look like.  We also had time that morning to take the bus tour through the infield and gasoline alley.


I’ve watched many Indianapolis 500 Races on television, but like most such events that are televised, the true dimensions of the Race can’t be seen on TV.  The bus tour allows you to appreciate the enormity of this iconic track.  Indy cars cover 500 miles in 200 laps, meaning each lap is 2.5 miles, regardless of how quickly they speed by.  The closest comparisons I can think of are the infields of large airports, like O’Hare and Midway in Chicago.

Our tour guide was great at explaining the history of the Speedway, from the Brickyard  track of the early days, to the hi-tech racetrack designed for driver safety we see today.  A little piece of nostalgia remains here:  the start/finish line is made up of a 36” strip of the old bricks from the original track.

After our exploration of the Speedway, we headed back to our own piece of automobile history (my sedan), and made our way out of Indianapolis, to I-65 and home.

It’s hard to beat Indianapolis for a quick getaway with the family, and the expense is pretty reasonable.  I recommend this trip as a remedy for those long summer weekends when there’s little left to do at home, or those early fall days when school never seems to end for the kids.

My own kids never tire of our trips to Indianapolis, and keeping them interested in new and different experiences pays dividends.  Not only does it broaden their minds, but the threat of canceling an Indy vacation can work miracles in keeping the family peace!


*  The Children’s Museum exhibits described here may no longer be open.  For updates on current exhibits, visit their web site


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–           Pete Murphy                June 2014