Slumber Parties at Museums and Zoos

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It's not just mafiosa types who "sleep with the fishes"--now, ordinary families are signing up for overnight visits to their favorite museums, aquariums, and zoos

The Beluga whales darting through the deep inches from the sleeping bags proved to be the highlight of the overnight at SeaWorld Orlando, FL for Beth Aranda and Alexis, her 9-year-old daughter.  "It was fantastic to lay there in front of the huge glass windows and watch the whales," says Aranda who along with Alexis found the melon-headed behemoths with the permanent smiles mesmerizing. "The kids' eyes were as big as saucers and so were the adults'," says Aranda who lives in Orlando.

Running through the snow at night to the privy brought home pioneer practicalities for the Prakels of Versailles, Ohio. "It was dark, there was a foot of snow on the ground and the wind kept blowing the kerosene lamp out," says  Christy Prakel. "Then, when we got to the outhouse we had to chip the ice off the seat." 

Christy Prakel, her husband Mike, and their children ages 6, 8, 10 and 12 time traveled to the 19th century at Conner Prairie, a living history museum, Fishers, IN. But instead of merely touring for an afternoon, they slept at the facility's 1886 farmhouse. As characters, they chopped wood, mucked stalls, and milked cows as well as baked graham biscuits and kiss pie, a custard concoction with a meringue topping.  Come evening, the children played string games, the adults puzzled out riddles and everyone clapped when neighbors strummed Civil War songs on their dulcimers.

These are the ultimate insider slumber parties and they are available at museums, science centers and zoos across the U.S. Great for busy parents and children, both of whom have limited free time, these experiences deliver an imaginative adventure that's close to home.  Although many facilities offer overnights geared to scout and school groups, the organizations listed also feature sleep-overs just for families. The catch: some of these places schedule family sleepovers often and others run them only a few times each year. So plan ahead for these popular programs, most of which range from $40-$75 per participant.  Camp-ins with more activities and fewer participants cost more. And remember, grandparents and grandkids   are welcome at any of the family sleepovers.

No matter what overnight you choose, interpreters, as part of the immersion learning, take you and your kids behind-the-scenes to do activities day visitors only dream about. You might make popsicles for the Polar bears at the SeaWorld parks; feed apples to rhinos at the Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia; or find out just how spooky the Egyptian mummies look on a flashlight tour of the Field Museum, Chicago.

On a night-time walk at the Miami  Metrozoo, Miami, FL,  or at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, CA,  you view lions, tigers and other nocturnal critters. When the sun goes down the critters morph from daytime dozers into keen-eyed prowlers. 

The Boston Children's Museum sweetens bedtime with storytellers and musicians. The sky's the limit (literally) at a planetarium sleep-over at the St. Louis Science Center where you bunk down under a giant dome twinkling with 9,000 stars.  Camp-ins at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry always come with an IMAX movie, a hands-on workshop and a science show.  You and your kids might whip up liquid nitrogen ice cream or form a high-bouncing superball from polymers.

"Fabulous" is how Beth Aranda rates her Halloween Eve SeaWorld sleepover. "It beat my expectations. It was fun, educational and a great time for me and my daughter."

For the Prakels their pioneer farmhouse weekend went beyond learning about pioneer life to transformation. Christy Prakel credits the experience with helping her family decide to move from Indianapolis to the small town of Versailles, Ohio, population 2000. "It helped us realize what's valuable," says Prakel. "A lot of things we spend our time on are frivolous. People in 1886 didn't need to be always going and doing something. At the farmhouse we were forced to be together as a family. We had snowball fights, we played parlor games and we enjoyed the sense of community. That's what we like about a small town."

Like the Prakels, you may learn more than you think at these fun overnights.

Candyce H. Stapen has written 24 family travel books, including National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations.br>

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