First, we picked 15 US landmarks every child should see before they turn 15 and you didn't always agree with our picks. Then, we asked you to help us put together the definitive family vacation checklist. What made a monument worthy of inclusion? It needed to be fun, educational, and especially magical through the eyes of a child. It needed to inspire adults to tap back into that childlike sense of wonder. And it needed to have universal appeal. Of course, the surest way to rile folks up is to publish a list and this case was no different. Our nominations process was fierce and brought out the full range of emotions in our audience—passion, joy, sadness, anger. You spoke up to nominate 562 attractions and voted over 138,000 times. So how did we arrive at the final list? As we explained in the rules, we used your votes—combined with factors such as geographic and thematic diversity—to guide our selection-making process. And we automatically eliminated places that had made our story last year. The final list for 2012 represents the best that our nation has to offer our children. (Psssst... want to see the top five winners by votes alone? Visit our nominations page.)
U.S. Space & Rocket Center
Blasting away the competition in our reader poll, this Huntsville shrine to NASA displays an amazing collection of rockets and space memorabilia. At the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, the star attraction is a restored version of the famous Saturn V rocket, but be sure to also check out the F-1 rocket engine, a motor that periodically vibrates and roars as if it were being tested for space-worthiness. Next-door is the country's original Space Camp, where aspiring astronauts can feel the gravitational yank of lift-off via the simulator. One Tranquility Base, 800/637-7223, ussrc.com. Museum: Adults, $20; kids, $15. Space Camp: Family of four from $1,248 for a three-day program, including accommodations and meals.
Across its nine acres of floor space, the Field showcases giant robot wolf spiders, 23 Egyptian mummies, and the biggest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever dug up, in one of the broadest arrays of natural wonders under one roof. The collection of dioramas hold a dizzying array of species, from African lions and giraffes to Arctic penguins and polar bears, and it's a favorite childhood fantasy to slip inside one of the magical timeless worlds. Kids 12 and under can dress up like animals, dig up dinosaur bones, and explore a pueblo home at the Crown Family PlayLab. Friday nights from mid-January to mid-June, the museum hosts sleepovers, where children 6 to 12 and their parents can sleep right next to the dinosaurs (the 2012 nights are sold out, so book early for 2013). Talk about a dream vacation. 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312/922-9410, fieldmuseum.org. Adults from $15; kids 3-11, from $10.
San Antonio, Texas
SeaWorld's Texas outpost garnered the most votes of all the theme parks in our poll. We assume that the combination of roller coasters and flume rides with beluga whales, sharks, stingrays, sea lions, and a host of other aquatic animals gave it an edge. There are many hands-on programs, putting visitors up close and personal with some of the park's inhabitants (including a behind-the-scenes tour with the penguins). In May 2012, the new water park Aquatica will open with a set of educational thrill rides; expect rafts sailing through grottos with stingrays and a "zero gravity" area that simulates weightlessness. Other new attractions include Sesame Street Bay of Play (opened in 2011), a three-acre space with educational activities for young children, and the animal encounter show "One Ocean" in which orcas and trainers illustrate educational lessons about the fragility of the environment. 10500 SeaWorld Dr., 800/700-7786, seaworldparks.com. Adults, from $59.99; Kids 3-9, from $49.99.
Watching an actual volcano in action is a far cry from the baking soda science experiments kids do at school. At this Hawaiian park, visitors watch—at a safe distance—as hot lava spills into the Pacific, where it bursts into particles later pulverized by the waves into black sand. The park is home to two of the world's most active volcanoes, and rangers will bring you down into the lava tubes (subterranean caverns formed by hardened molten rock) and maybe even play you a tune on a ohe hano ihu, aka the Hawaiian nose flute. Says reader Angela: The surreal black landscape is "one of the few places in the world where your kids can stand on earth that is younger than they are." One Crater Rim Dr., 808/985-6000, nps.gov/havo. Park entrance fee is $10 per vehicle; bike or foot entrance starts at $5.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Our nation's civil rights history is chronicled at this Birmingham museum, which places the '50s and '60s in a context that today's children can understand. There are compelling artifacts on display to illustrate segregation such as a set of "colored" and "white" drinking fountains. The exhibits don't gloss over the tragedies of the civil rights' era, and include the story of four young girls killed in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, right across the street from the museum. The galleries do include hopeful notes, including a video recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. 520 Sixteenth St. North, 205-328-9696, bcri.org. Adults, $12; kids, grades 4-12, $3.
Not all presidential museums are created equal. When the 40,000-square foot museum wing of this downtown Springfield complex opened in 2005, it instantly became America's most high-tech presidential landmark. Case in point: Go to the Holavision Theater to see Ghosts of the Library, a play where a hologram of our 16th president appears and disappears along with actors on the stage to recreate the founding of the library. Lower-tech exhibits include the Treasures Gallery, a room full of Lincoln artifacts including family photos as well as Abe's shaving mirror and one of his iconic stovepipe hats. Hands-on activities bring history to life; take a trip to Mrs. Lincoln's Attic to dress-up in period costume. 212 N. Sixth St., 800/610-2094, alplm.org.Adults, $12; kids 5-15, $6.
Even the most jaded teen will be wowed by the colossal busts of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln at this national park in the Black Hills of Keystone. The visitors' center has exhibits on the 14-year journey to complete the monument, which was finished in 1941 after 400 workers dynamite-blasted the granite peaks to carve the faces. There is also info on how the four great leaders depicted guided our nation through tricky times. Stay for sunset to sing the National Anthem at the lighting ceremony, and challenge your kids to count the number of different state license plates in the parking lot. While you are in the area, make time to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, another enormous cliff carving in the making about a half an hour southwest of Mount Rushmore. 13000 Highway 244, 605/574-2523, nps.gov/moru. Free; parking permit, $11.
New York, New York
Where else in the U.S. can you see an ancient Egyptian temple, a Ming Dynasty garden, and one of the world's largest collections of Vermeers all under one roof? The Met covers a 14-acre space in Central Park, yet this cavernous space is only large enough to show a sliver of its full collection of art and artifacts. The museum itself is constantly evolving, and the third and final phase of a decade-long refurbishment of the American Wing re-opened in January 2012. Children can easily learn about our nation's history from early colonial times through the Civil War and into the modern era via iconic paintings, including Emanuel Leutze's famed depiction of General George Washington crossing a near-frozen Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. 1000 Fifth Ave., 212/535-7710, metmuseum.org. Adults, suggested donation of $25.
An engineering wonder about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, this dam supplies 20 million residents of California, Nevada, and Arizona with water and provides hydroelectricity to 1.3 million customers. No written description truly captures the visceral effect of peering out over the parapet at the top of the dam and looking down at the Colorado River, racing along 700 feet below. More than 1,200 feet wide at the top, this all-concrete wonder was the largest dam in the world when it was completed in 1936 (it was one of many public works projects intended to help lift the country out of the Great Depression). A bypass bridge opened in 2010 and provides fabulous photo opportunities for pedestrians. Experts lead walking tours that will thrill future engineers. One tip: Avoid visiting in the summer when temperatures can hit 110 degrees. 866/730-9097, usbr.gov.Tour Adults, $11, Kids 4-16, $9.
At just 49,300 acres, this wilderness where the tall Cadillac Mountains meet the Bay of Fundy is one of the country's smallest national parks. To put it into perspective, you could fit Acadia into Yellowstone National Park 45 times! But it is not lacking in appeal. Mountain trails lead to pristine views of rock-rimmed islands plus beaver, red fox, and long-tailed weasel sightings that will be perfect fodder for "What I Did Over My Summer Vacation" essays. Breathe in the salt air and glance up at Acadia's skies, typically graced with rare birds, such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles. The coast here tends to attract seals and finback whales, as well as many varieties of seabirds, such as the double-crested cormorant. Ranger-naturalists also lead free hikes through the park, starting from the Hulls Cove Visitors Center. 207/288-3338, nps.gov/acad. Park entrance fee starts at $10 per vehicle; bike or foot entrance is $5.
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, California
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of those quintessential American icons, equal parts eye candy and engineering lesson (it's also one of our record-breaking bridges). The suspension bridge connects San Francisco and Marin County in a mechanical feat that was unprecedented in the 1930s; at its opening ceremony, the bridge's chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, said "What Nature rent asunder long ago man has joined today." Take a walk along the pedestrian path for astonishing views of Angel Island, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, and San Francisco. If the 220-foot height of the bridge is unsettling for the little ones, opt instead to view the landmark from a distance (there are relatively tourist-free viewpoints at Lincoln Park). It might be hard to find an empty spot, though. The famed bridge is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2012-there will be fireworks and a festival on Memorial Day weekend-and is expected to draw more than ten million visitors throughout the year. 415/921-5858, goldengatebridge.org. Free.
Museum of Science
More than one and a half million visitors annually come to this museum on the Charles River to try their hand at scientific research, from learning the physics behind seesaws and swings to recreating Galileo's famous experiments (do a feather and a weight really fall at the same rate?). While other museums can take years to develop exhibits, Boston's museum has a flexible space, called the Current Science and Technological Center, where staff create live presentations to relay discoveries, some of which have just been announced. The museum's planetarium is a stellar attraction, too, with a full-dome video and audio system that bring the cosmos closer to earth. 1 Science Park, 617/723-2500, mos.org. Adults, $22; kids (3-11) $19.
At sunset, spectators gather at an amphitheater in this national park in southeastern New Mexico to wait for bats to fly. Predictably, a swirling dark cloud of the flying mammals funnels out the cavern and swoops above, where it splinters apart into groups heading to the nearby Pecos and Black River valleys. This rare natural show makes Carlsbad Caverns stand out from other national parks, especially to impress kids. Cave expeditions are also a draw, with rangers leading tours lasting from between an hour and a half and five and half hours. Some of the caves are huge, such as the well-named Big Room, which could fit 6.3 football fields. Adventurous kids will enjoy crawling through passageways or making rope-assisted descents through curtains of stalagmites, mentally soaking up all the educational lessons about geology explained by the rangers along the way. 575/785-2232, nps.gov/cave. Book ahead for guided tours. Entry fee: Adults, $6; kids under 15, free.
Social studies class comes to life at this Smithsonian museum, which mixes serious history with lighter fare: The original Star-Spangled Banner! The world's first industrial robot! The gowns worn by First Ladies at presidential inaugural balls! Reopened in 2008 after a major renovation, the museum displays highlights from the collection of more than three million objects in more than 250,000 square feet of gallery and exhibition space. Kids can look as well as touch, with daily activities like adding giant stars to an 1813-style garrison flag. The free museum highlights tour is also recommended. National Mall at 14th St. and Constitution Ave NW., 202/633-1000, americanhistory.si.edu. Free.
Arches National Park
This national park is especially convenient for families whose kids may be too young for a strenuous hike. It only takes a couple hours to drive past many of the park's 2,000 brawny, pink sandstone arches. And you'll still have time to reach Moab, less than 20 miles away, for lunch. The park's real time to shine, literally, is at sunset, when Delicate Arch reflects the sunlight in blazing reds that contrast sharply with the snow-topped La Sal Mountains in the backdrop. Expect to see tons of photographers there, as if Beyoncé were about to appear. 435/719-2299, nps.gov/arch. Park entrance fee is $10 per vehicle; bike or foot entrance is $5.