No spring travel plans? No worries. Even if sun, sand, surf or Mickey Mouse’s maniacal grin aren’t in your near future, it’s not too late to schedule a change of scenery. Buckle your seat belt and take a road trip to one of these three great family-ready cities located just one state away.

photo: courtesy of Serge Melki via flickr

French Lick, Indiana
Distance from Chicago: 290 miles

Peace. Quiet. Relaxation. You might have forgotten the meaning of the words, but you’ll quickly recall them in this quiet town snuggled aside a sulphur spring in the southern Indiana woodlands.

Make French Lick Resort your home base. The sprawling getaway spot is known for KidsFest, an entire indoor-outdoor area dedicated to little travelers. Activities include bike rentals, arts and crafts projects, cooking classes, horseback riding and video games. There’s also an indoor pool, footgolf, horse-drawn carriage rides and several family-friendly restaurants onsite. However you pass the day, end it with bowling and arcade games at Pluto’s Alley.

If you find yourself with kid-free time and can resist the urge to nap, bathe in the rejuvenating mineral springs, leave your stress at the spa, shop the Promenade or play the odds at the casino.

You can easily spend days without leaving the hotel, but it’s worth exploring the area. Nearby Hoosier National Forest has miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails; Patoka Lake is a pretty place for anglers-in-training to cast a rod; and Morengo Cave is full of gems that you can mine for and take home. For western-style fun, check out a working cattle ranch and go ziplining, ATV-riding and have a giraffe or elephant encounter at Wilstem Ranch, or take your cabooses to Indiana Railway Museum to see vintage locomotives and embark on a 20-mile railway excursion. Even if the weather isn’t cooperating, you can put on your swimsuit and dive into 40,000 square feet of slides, drops, lazy rivers and wave pools at Big Splash Adventure Indoor Water Park.

photo: Milwaukee skyline courtesy of Steve via flickr

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Distance from Chicago: 75 Miles

Wisconsin’s largest city may be known for brats and beer, but you’ll fill up on fun at its many museums that cater to a child’s innate need to see, touch and explore.

Discovery World is a hands-on center that explores science and technology in creative ways. From its picturesque perch aside Lake Michigan, curious kids can inspect the inside of a nuclear reactor, tickle the underbelly of bamboo shark and see crackling displays of electricity.

Then drag those keesters to Milwaukee Public Museum‘s 150,000-square-foot space to visit Africa, stroll through the bustling Streets of Old Milwaukee of a century past, witness a modern-day pow-wow, walk amongst free-flying butterflies or jump back 65 million years to see the world’s largest-known dinosaur skull and a life-sized replica of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Are those little motors running? Good. You’re in the city of Harley-Davidson, so make the most of it. For hands-on biker fun, the Harley-Davidson Museum lets kids dress in Harley gear and rev the engine of a mini motorcycle.

At Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, kids can put their STEAM skill to work in The Be a Maker Space, learn the basics of physics with the help of golf balls on tracks, loops and hills in Velocity, play in a make believe kid-sized town in Home Town and . . . you’ll have to go to know the rest!photo: Milwaukee Public Market courtesy of Michael Pereckas via flickr

No trip over the Wisconsin border is complete without cheese. Load up at West Allis Cheese and Sausage, which stocks more than 200 varieties. You can also find your fix among the many artisan and ethnic food vendors at Milwaukee Public Market in the historic Third Ward. Grab lunch at the Market, or head to SafeHouse, a spy-themed restaurant where you have to know the password to get in (if you don’t, employees will make you do a silly stunt, which is recorded and broadcast inside the restaurant). SafeHouse is hidden in a nondescript building disguised as an international export company and is full of memorabilia, hidden doors and secret chambers.

photo: Leon’s Frozen Custard courtesy of Jerry Huddleston via flickr

If you want to dessert like a local, blend in at Leon’s Frozen Custard, which has kept the same mission they had when they opened in 1942, to serve the freshest and finest frozen custard possible.

Stay the night at The Pfister, a downtown landmark. It’s one of the swankier hotels in town, but caters to small guests with an indoor pool, three-course dinners for kids delivered to your room, and the option to bring your pets. Don’t let the rumored hauntings by original owner Charles Pfister give you cold feet.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri on June 28, courtesy of St. Louis Convention & Visitors Bureau

St. Louis, Missouri

Distance from Chicago: 295 miles

Think of St. Louis and the first thing that pops to mind is the arch. Oh, that arch. But the Gateway to the West offers endless cultural, educational and just plain cool sightseeing options that make you go beyond the obvious attraction.

Start your trip among monarchs and tropical plants at Butterfly House, a beautiful glass dome where more than a thousand species flutter. For a wilder adventure, help care for furry creatures at Endangered Wolf Center, where tame Mexican gray wolves, red wolves, swift foxes and African painted dogs defy the stereotype these creature have of being vicious hunters. For animal encounters of all kinds, spend the day at the free St. Louis Zoo, recognized as one of the top zoos in the country for its realistic animal habitats.

photo: City Museum courtesy of Maria Chambers

If there are sillies to be shaken out, go to City Museum, a funhouse/playground designed from reclaimed industrial and architectural objects from around the city. Crystalline caves, slinky tunnels and countless slides assembled from recycled materials make this the perfect place to let out pent-up energy. At another imaginative spot, Magic House Children’s Museum, kids can climb up a giant beanstalk, tap out a song on the piano, play sink-or-float with water, and tinker with a pretend car. At night, do some stargazing at St. Louis Science Center‘s Planetarium.

For a sweet treat, take a quick jaunt down the famous Route 66 highway for legendary frozen custard at Ted Drewes. Then rest up for another day of fun at Drury Plaza Hotel at the Arch. Besides having great views of the iconic St. Louis landmark, the hotel lures with an indoor swimming pool, free hot breakfast, and complimentary popcorn and soda each evening.

We promise you won’t miss that beach vacay one bit.

These are our favorite places to travel near Chicago. What is your family’s favorite place to take a quick road trip?

— Maria Chambers

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