Summer break is coming in hot and that can sometimes equal family travel, and killing time at the airport with kids isn’t always a smooth-sailing joyride. But it can be tolerable—and even fun (ish)—if you know where to go. Here are the best places to eat, play and “go potty” while you’re hanging out at O’Hare and Midway.
O’Hare International Airport
Love it or hate it, traveling through O’Hare is necessary for most Chicagoans. Make the most of your time there by visiting the hidden-gem family attractions.
The Chicago Children’s Museum “Kids on the Fly” play area is located on the upper level of Terminal 2, just past the security checkpoint. Children can climb on an airplane, control tower and helicopter models. The area is updated every year with new activities and is also accessible to kids with disabilities. Nearby, you’ll also find a restored F3F-4 fighter plane flown by World War II hero, Lt. Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare. It’s a great photo opp and older kids will get a kick out of learning about the pilot’s life.
If your flight schedule doesn’t allow time to head over to Terminal 2, check out the smaller play area in Terminal 5 near Gate M12. There you will find “Play It Safe,” an educational exhibit sponsored by the Chicago Fire Department. It teaches kids about the importance of safety and the proper way to respond in emergencies.
A little-known fact about O’Hare is that one of the largest mounted dinosaurs in the world, a Brachiosaurus, can be found on the upper level of Terminal 1 in Concourse B. The four-story-high, 72-foot-long skeleton model is on loan from The Field Museum.
Lastly, put some razzle-dazzle into your wait with a walk through a light sculpture. “The Sky’s The Limit” is a 744-foot-long kinetic neon whirl of light and sound, and it can be found in the underground walkway between Concourses B and C in Terminal 1.
There’s no shortage of restaurants at O’Hare, but some are more kid-friendly then others. They’ve certainly upped their game the last several years, with familiar names like Publican Tavern, Frontera and Summer House Santa Monica. If your sweet tooth is kicking in, Garrett’s Popcorn and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory both have shops in Terminals 1 and 3 and TCBY calls the Rotunda in Terminal 3 home. For kid-favorite juice spots, Jamba Juice is located in Terminal 1 by Gate B7 and Smoothie King is in Terminal 1 by Gate B6. For healthy choices, head to Argo Tea Café in Terminals 2 and 3. In addition to selling coffee and tea, Argo offers vegan food options, parfaits, panini and salads. If you’re flying internationally, Goddess and the Grocer has fresh pre-packaged meals, including vegan options, that are quite good.
For more of a true Chicago restaurant experience, go to Tortas Frontera, a Rick Bayless joint in Terminals 1, 3 and 5. Share a griddle-baked torta with your little one, and don’t miss the fresh guacamole. If you have a morning flight, do yourself a favor and order a breakfast bowl (a.k.a cazuelas). You won’t believe it’s airport food. Another good bet is Wicker Park Sushi Bar in Terminal 2. Order the kids the California rolls and banana rolls (a great dessert) while you indulge in fresh nigiri as a last blast before you have airplane-food coma.
Those of us who have tried to cram into an airport bathroom stall with a toddler know how uncomfy it can get. Problem solved at O’Hare’s family-friendly bathrooms, which offer more space and amenities than the average johns. There are 22 family bathrooms at O’Hare. Eight are in Terminal 1, four in Terminal 2, eight in Terminal 3 and two in Terminal 5. The bathrooms are all equipped with plastic seat covers and they are roomy enough to accommodate strollers and have space to set down luggage and diaper bags. If you’re in a bind, the Travelers’ Aid office located in Terminal 2 sometimes has extra diapers and wipes on hand.
To find quiet and privacy when nursing, look for Mother’s Rooms in Terminal 1 at Gate B10, Terminal 2 at the crossover between Gates E5 and F9, in Terminal 3 in the Rotunda near the Yoga Room and Urban Garden, in Terminal 5 near Gate M14, and in the newly opened multi-modal facility on Lower Level (2).
BEST VIEWS IN THE HOUSE
Now pay close attention here because this is really all the kids care about . . . watching the planes do their thing. For restaurants with great views of planes landing and taking off, check out Berghoff Cafe at Gate C26 in Terminal 1, the Food Court at Gate C26 in Terminal 1 and Chili’s Too in Terminal 3 near Gate G10. To see planes grounded, hit up Tuscany Restaurant at Gate B18 in Terminal 1, Goose Island in Terminal 1 at Gate C10 and Terminal 3 at Gate K4, Argo Tea at Gate E5 in Terminal 2, Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi in Terminal 2 Main Hall, Chicago Cubs Bar & Grill in Terminal 3’s Rotunda and Macaroni Grill at Gate K2 in Terminal 3.
In Terminal 1, between concourses B ad C, you’ll find an extraordinary light show called The Sky’s the Limit that will keep even the most hard-to-entertain kids and parents mesmerized for at least several minutes.
If you have an early-morning flight you’re afraid of missing or a long haul to get there, consider staying at Hilton Chicago O’Hare. On top of being directly connected to the domestic terminals thru underground walkways, so you don’t have to deal with iffy Chicago weather, you also get spacious studio suites with a large sitting area, king bed and sofa bed, 42-inch HDTV, mini-bar, WiFi and on-demand movies and video games. Worried about trying to catch some ZZZs so close to the runway? Sound-resistant windows and blackout drapes will help with all that, so you can arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at your final destination.
Midway International Airport
O’Hare’s quieter sister is less crowded. As a result, there isn’t as much to see and do there. Still, families will find enough good food and fun to bide the time before takeoff.
In Concourse A, check out the exhibit about the WWII Battle of Midway. You’ll see 15 different videos about the war and how planes and pilots were battle-tested off the shores of Lake Michigan. A number of aircraft were lost to the Great Lake including the small SBD Dauntless dive-bomber hanging overhead; it plummeted in 1944 and was recovered and restored 50 years later.
Additionally, Kids Works near Gate B1 is a fun store for the whole family, and provides some entertainment with a wide selection of toys and games. You may not escape without having to buy your kids a little something, but at least this store will at least keep you busy for a bit.
The best options for food can be found along Concourse B. Nuts on Clark is a good choice for healthy snacks like dried fruit (perfect for when plane munchies strike). If you’re passing through Concourse A, head to Manny’s. This outpost of the South Loop deli has a kids’ menu including favorites such as grilled cheese and spaghetti, and a delicious corned beef sandwich for grownups.
Midway partnered with Premiere restaurant group and launched the Healthy Fare for Kids program. You’ll find antibiotic-free meats, whole grain breads, smaller portion sizes, lower salt, no deep-fried anything, local ingredients and non-sugared beverages in all Healthy Fare for Kids meals. The Healthy Fare for Kids logo can be spotted on the tops of grab-and-go containers in most restaurant coolers, primarily in Concourses A and B and near baggage claim.
The bathrooms are equipped with changing stations and are roomy enough to accommodate large families and their luggage and family restrooms are available in all the Concourses
For a tranquil, private space to breastfeed baby, head to Concourse C, next to the Yoga Room. You’ll find comfortable seating with a sink, wash area and a wall-mounted TV.
TIPS, NO MATTER THE AIRPORT
- Be sure to double-check the bags your kids pack. Items even remotely resembling a banned item can hold you up in security. So, no toy guns, for instance.
- According to TSA, formula, breast milk, juice, baby food and liquid medications greater than 3.4 ounces are exempt to the 3-1-1 liquids rule. Baby bottles and sippy cups are allowed, just be sure to remove them from your carry-on bag to be screened.
- When looking for snacks to pack, consider dried fruits, nuts, granola bars, crackers, pretzels and cookies as opposed to creamy items, such as jams, peanut butter and yogurt, as those items are subject to the 3.4 ounce or less rule.
- All strollers and car seats will be subject to the screening process, so be prepared to unbuckle the kids to send those items through the x-ray.
- Kids under the age of 12 do not need to remove their shoes.
- For the ultimate family travel hack, invest your time and money in TSA Pre✓. The amount of time saved in security lines is well worth the minimal hassle of setting yourself up.
Happy travels! And don’t forget, for updates on Chicago’s airports, go to flychicago.com.
— Maria Chambers & Angie Berthelsen
Featured photo: Porapak Apichodilok via Pexels