Who says kids are hard to please? These 14 destinations are worth the trip—and might just entertain you, too.
Mardi Gras World, New Orleans, La.
If you've ever harbored dreams of starring in the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, or just want to know how participants construct such elaborate floats, check out Mardi Gras World. The museum showcases the best floats from past years (a giant sea dragon! a 15-foot Cleopatra bust!) and houses a workshop where workers glue and hammer together next year's creations. Even locals can't resist romping among the Mardi Gras masterpieces. "I took my brother there during his recent visit, and we had more fun than two adults should—playing dress up in the costumes, then taking photos beside our favorite floats," said Melissa Combs of New Orleans. "We laughed like we were kids!" (233 Newton Street, 800/362-8213, mardigrasworld.com, $17, kids $10) PHOTO
Hoover Dam, Nevada/Arizona Border
The Hoover Dam is colossal...and cool. The dam, completed in 1936 and 726 feet tall, is composed of enough concrete to pave a 16-foot-wide highway from San Francisco to New York City. "It's really a fascinating tour, and the enormity of the structure is awesome," said Sally Ridenour of Salem, Ore. But she especially liked the dam's tongue-in-cheek mementos: "The souvenir t-shirts are great—I WENT ON THE DAM TOUR AT HOOVER DAM." (30 miles southeast of Las Vegas on U.S. Hwy. 93, 702/494-2517, www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam, tour $30, children under 8 not allowed on the tour.) PHOTO
Zorb Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Where some people see a hillside, others see a thrill ride. The popular New Zealand activity of Zorbing—in which you tumble down a slope while inside a plastic bubble—has arrived in the U.S., at Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Before you start, there's a two-page waiver to sign, five different courses to pick from, and two Zorb options: You can sit strapped into a seat or flip head over heels in a ball filled with water. ("It's like white-water rafting without the rocks," says CEO Craig Horrocks.) The 12-foot spheres reach speeds of up to 35 mph; the view is a blur of trees, sky, and your limbs, punctuated by the occasional scream of "Awesome!" (865/428-2422, zorb.com, from $37 per ride.) PHOTO
Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island, Mich.
Following the American forces' unexpected success in capturing British outposts during the American Revolution, the British moved Fort Mackinac, brick by brick, from the Michigan mainland to Mackinac Island. It remained in British hands until 1796. The fort closed in 1895; today it stands as a public monument to its long history as a military outpost. Carol Feider of Midland, Mich., says: "Mackinac Island is a total tourist trap, and I love it. Renting a bike and riding around the island. Touring the fort and watching the guides shoot the cannon. Taking the horse-and-buggy ride. And, of course, buying fudge." (231/436-4100, mackinacparks.com, adults $10, kids 5-7 $6.25) PHOTO
Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, Key West, Fla.
Sword swallowing plus chainsaw juggling plus a dog on a tightrope equals the perfect sunset stroll? Clearly Key West's nightly ritual offers more than just another pretty photo op. Streets fill up with performers like Jace and Jean the Juggling Machine, Bible Bill, and local legend Will Soto, who's been juggling and tightrope walking in Mallory Square for 20 years. "It is such a wonderful tourist trap, but the sights are well worth it," wrote Patti Porco of Chantilly, Va. "The sunsets are always something special to watch, but the fun is in watching the street performers as well as their audiences, who both entertain while you wait." (305/292-7700, sunsetcelebration.org) PHOTO
Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, Prospect, ME
The first Penobscot bridge, completed in 1931, was crumbling into the Penobscot River, so everyone agreed it was time for a new-and-improved bridge—if not on much else. "At first, the city wanted something that looked like the old structure," says Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner for Maine's Department of Transportation. But area residents rejected every proposal, eventually coming up with a one-word idea of their own as inspiration: granite. "To lifelong Mainers, granite is rugged and timeless, and it matches the state's rocky coast," says Van Note. Made primarily of local Freshwater Pearl granite, the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory is one of only three cable-stayed bridges in the world to also have an observation tower (the others are in Slovakia and Thailand). No matter which direction you look from the glass-enclosed deck, the views are postcard-worthy. (207/469-7719, penobscotnarrowsbridge.com, $5, tower open May 1-Oct. 31.) PHOTO
Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona
More than a few visitors to the Grand Canyon Skywalk at Grand Canyon West white-knuckle their way around the 70-foot-long, U-shaped glass structure, never letting go of the railing. Others jump up and down for the Skywalk's photographers, unbowed by the view of the jagged canyon about a mile below. The $30 million attraction opened last spring after years of collaboration between a Las Vegas businessman and the local Hualapai tribe, which owns much of the canyon's western rim. The surrounding area remains a work in progress, as a theater and a restaurant are under construction--so is the 14 miles of as yet unpaved road that leads to the entrance, making for a rather bone-rattling approach. (grandcanyonskywalk.com, $60 includes admission to the reservation and the Grand Canyon Skywalk, cameras not allowed. Bus tours depart daily from Las Vegas, about two hours west (702/878-9378, destinationgrandcanyon.com, from $189)). PHOTO
Expedition Everest, Walt Disney World, Fla.
When Walt Disney World's Expedition Everest opened in the Animal Kingdom in 2006, it was the culmination of six years of work by Disney Imagineers, combined with 1,800 tons of steel and an estimated $100 million. Based on the myth of the yeti, the Abominable Snowman and protector of Everest (which Disney scaled down from a height of 29,000 feet to 199 feet—still enough to make it the second-highest summit in Florida), the ride speeds passengers down an 80-foot drop and spirals them forward and backward through foggy ice caves. The real heart-stopper, though, is a very close encounter with the yeti itself. The audio-animatronics that power the beast are the most sophisticated Disney has ever produced. (407/939-1289, disneyeverest.com, $71.) PHOTO
U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Not only is the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C., the biggest man-made white-water park in the world, but the course—which was designed by engineer and four-time world-champion kayaker Scott Shipley—shares its DNA with great rapids across the globe. "I wanted to improve upon existing elements in nature and those found in Olympic white-water parks in Europe and Australia," says Shipley. "A part of the big rapid was inspired by the one in South Carolina that Deliverance was shot on." Fueled by pumps that circulate 536,000 gallons of water per minute (enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 70 seconds), the river provides consistent Class II, III, and IV rapids throughout four channels of varying difficulty. When kayakers and rafters reach the end, they're whisked back to the top by a 180-foot-long conveyor belt. "It's like a ski lift for boats," says Shipley. An official Olympic training site, the U.S. National Whitewater Center will also host the 2008 Olympic kayak team trials. But it has been open to the public since last September 2006, so you too can learn how it feels to train like a champion. (704/391-3900, usnwc.org, from $39.)
Top of the Rock, New York City
The Empire State Building? The ape can have it. Top of the Rock—the observation decks atop the GE Building in Rockefeller Center—is superior in every conceivable way. First, there are the views: Instead of the Empire State Building's jailhouse bars, you get glass panels that look like they were washed that morning; the first floor (of three total) also has large indoor areas for those who'd rather not venture outside. Second, the top floor, because it's set back from the edge of the building, has totally unimpeded views. Third, the art deco details will take your breath away; wandering around, you feel a bit like Lex Luthor in his evil (but sumptuous) aerie. Fourth, the visitor experience is infinitely better: The workers treat you like a human being, rather than use the fact that you're waiting in line as an opportunity to give you the hard sell. Fifth, even the marketing partnership is neat: In the Target Breezeway, all the surfaces are covered with lights that follow you around. Finally, there's the elevator ride. Stand in the back of the car, to the right as you enter. Then look up. (877/692-7625, topoftherocknyc.com, $20.) PHOTO
Natural History Museum, New York City
A sleepover program at the American Museum of Natural History allows families with kids ages 8 to 12 to have their own Night at the Museum adventure. The dinosaurs don't rampage like they do in the movie, so kids wander around with a flashlight to find the beasts themselves. (They're on the fourth floor.) "Everything is dark and creepy in a good way," says 10-year-old Alex Mattei of Irvington, N.Y. Even for adults, the planetarium show will feel extra trippy because it's so far past bedtime. But there's a fine line between thrilling and scary when you're a kid, so parents would do well to arrive early enough to claim cots with a view of, say, cute harp seals, as opposed to a sperm whale and giant squid locked in combat. The $129 price tag (regardless of age) includes a cot, snacks, breakfast, admission to the museum the next day, and a goodie bag with a key chain and stickers. (212/769-5100, amnh.org.) PHOTO
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Mass.
Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art cuts a dashing figure, thanks in no small part to the galleries that are cantilevered four stories above the edge of Boston Harbor. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the museum was built to showcase the institute's first-ever permanent collection, but the most popular spot has quickly become the Mediatheque, where 18 computers display digital media related to the artists and exhibitions. It's not the computers that are drawing crowds, however; it's the fact that the media center points down at a 24-degree angle from the underside of the cantilever. At the end of the room, there's a 21-foot-wide picture window framing a mesmerizing view of the water's surface. (No surrounding land or sky is visible.) "We describe the experience as vertiginous," says Jesse Saylor, a member of the architects' design team. "When you enter the room, you all of a sudden realize you're floating above the water." (The Institute of Contemporary Art, icaboston.org, $12.) PHOTO
The Official Marx Toy Museum, Moundsville, W.Va.
During the 1950s, Marx Toys was one of the largest U.S. toy manufacturers. Time magazine named company founder Louis Marx "America's toy king" and put him on a 1955 cover. Now, just a mile and a half away from the site of the former Marx Toy Factory in Glen Dale, W.Va., The Official Marx Toy Museum in Moundsville, W.Va., presents a complete history of the popular toy company. The collection focuses on the 1920s through the 1980s and consists of dozens of different Marx play sets, including a life-size version of a Western town, metal wind-up toys, trains, dollhouses, and the all-time kid favorite—the Big Wheel. (915 Second St., Moundsville, W.Va., 304/845-6022, marxtoymuseum.com, $6.50.)
The Star Toys Museum, Linthicum, Md.
A few weeks before Thomas Atkinson's 13th birthday, Star Wars changed his life. Seventeen years later, Atkinson opened his home to visitors, so all can witness his impressive collection of all things Star Wars. The Star Toys Museum occupies the first floor of Atkinson's home and comprises more than 12,000 items, like the original 1977 set of Kenner figurines that includes Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and R2-D2, as well as magazines, apparel, cards, memorabilia, and the ever-popular six-foot-long Millennium Falcon Extraordinaire, which was used in an advertising display in 1997. Tours are available by appointment only. (811 Camp Meade Rd., Linthicum, Md., startoysmuseum.org, free, (donations accepted).)