Best things to do for families rediscovering the Motor City
Detroit is a city in the midst of a rebirth. New experiences and activities are popping up around the metro area, and families are rediscovering the wonderful places that have always been part of the Motor City. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon of animal exploration or a day of hands-on learning, Detroit has something for every family. You just need to know where to look!
1/Michigan Science Center
5020 John R St.
The Michigan Science Center gives kids a chance to work at a steel factory in the engineering gallery, which also includes an 80-foot long replica of the Mackinac Bridge. They can learn about health and nutrition with fun carnival-style games and can send rockets flying in the space gallery. Also make sure to take in the special rotating exhibits, planetarium, and IMAX theater. Cost: Youth (2-11) $11; Adult $14; high school and college students get a 20% discount with student ID.
KidTripster Tip: Bank of America cardholders receive free general admission on the first full weekend of every month.
KidTripster Tip: Check out the live shows on Science Stage and in Sparks Theater. The descriptions are often corny, and you may have to coerce older kids to attend, but the shows themselves are interactive, fun, and educational. My boys were dragged into the show but really enjoyed it and spent the afternoon talking about the funny pirates and simple machines.
2/The Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village & Rouge Factory
20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn
Take a step back in time with a visit to The Henry Ford Museum. Packed with history, kids can see the John F. Kennedy presidential limousine, Lincoln’s chair from the Ford Theater, and the bus that Rosa Parks sat in when she became a civil rights legend. The IMAX theater has regular showings that explore the history of Detroit’s automotive industry. Cost: Youth (3-11) $15.75; Adult $21; buy tickets in advance online for 10% discount; additional parking fee.
Greenfield Village is only open from mid-April through early November and includes a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory and the Wright Brothers bicycle shop. At Liberty Craftworks, you can check out old-school trades including glass blowing and weaving. In the spring and summer months, there’s lots of activities that appeal to families including old-fashioned baseball games and auto shows. Cost: Youth (3-11) $19.50; Adult $26; buy tickets in advance online for 10% discount; additional parking fee.
Families can even visit a working Ford plant! The Ford Rouge Factory Tour leaves from the museum several times a day. You take a 15-minute bus ride to the plant, where you’ll watch Ford F-150 trucks being rolled off the assembly line. Tours runs Monday-Saturday; check online schedule for non-production days. Cost: Youth (3-11) $12.75; Adult $17; buy tickets in advance online for 10% discount; additional parking fee.
KidTripster Tip: Combination packages are available; buy tickets in advance online for up to 30% savings.
2100 Woodward Ave.
When in Detroit, a great way to spend a day is rooting for one of the city’s many sports teams. Detroit natives take their sports seriously though, so some sporting events aren’t as family-friendly as others. My family has always found Detroit Tigers games to be fun for everyone. The park itself includes a ferris wheel and carousel for those who can’t sit still for nine innings. Don’t forget the ice cream and cotton candy, integral parts of any sporting event! Cost: $19 and up.
KidTripster Tip: Sundays are Kids Days at Comerica Park. Your regular-priced ticket includes free rides on the carousel and ferris wheel, face painting, and a chance for kids to run the bases on the field after the game.
Photo courtesy: Detroit Tigers/MLB
8450 W. 10 Mile Rd., Royal Oak
The Detroit Zoo is big! My 11-year-old son claims that he walked more here than any other place that he’s ever visited. While that might be a slight exaggeration, you should be prepared for lots of walking. The Detroit Zoo was one of the first zoos to place animals in natural habitats as opposed to cages, so you’ll find yourself traveling from habitat to habitat. The grounds themselves are beautiful and offer many areas for playing and picnicking. The new Polk Penguin Conservation Center offers an incredible experience with 360-degree views of penguins and an interactive journey through the Antarctic. Cost: Youth (2-15) $10; Adult $14; additional fees for 4D theater, penguin simulator ride, carousel, giraffe feedings, and railroad.
KidTripster Tip: When you arrive, consider taking the railroad to the back of the zoo, where the African animals live and work your way forward. The train can accommodate strollers or wagons. The railroad costs an additional $3 per person, but if it cuts down on whining from tired kids, it’s worth it!
KidTripster Tip: The zoo has several concession stands with lots of food options, but to save both time in lines and money, pack your own food and have a picnic at one of the plentiful green spaces. Check out the playground area, if your kids are younger (up to age 5) and rest your feet, while they burn off some energy after being cooped up in the stroller.
Photo courtesy: Jennie Miller
5/Detroit Institute of Art
5200 Woodward Ave.
My kids were less than enthused when I told them that we were headed to the Detroit Institute of Art. They thought it would be “boring” and “too much learning,” but by the end of the afternoon, they were converts! The museum has one of the largest and most important art collections in the country, according to many art critics, but there are also fun, family-friendly activities. My kids particularly enjoyed the Eye Spy activities and the self-guided nature hikes (yes, nature hike!) through the galleries. The Institute also offers family days on Sundays with storytellers, art demonstrations, and in-studio workshops. Cost: Youth (6-17) $6; Adult $12.50; free to residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties.
6/Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum
31005 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills
Have you dreamed of having a Big moment with Zoltar the Fortune Teller? Then Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum is your place! Hidden in the back of a strip mall off the beaten path, this 5,500-square-foot building is host to hundreds of antique video games. The best part? They all still work! History buffs will enjoy the small cards on each machine that give some background, while kids will just be amazed at the lights, sounds, and sights. However some of the themes of the much older games are not kid appropriate. Those machines are grouped together in one area, so take a walk around the perimeter before the kids start playing. Museum cost: Free; Game cost: 25¢.
7/Belle Isle Park
Intersection of Jefferson Ave. and East Grand Blvd.
Looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of city life? Look no further than Belle Isle Park. Located in the heart of Detroit, this 982-acre state park offers fishing, swimming, nature encounters, and a huge playground just blocks away from downtown. Belle Isle is a quick trip across the MacArthur Bridge off of Jefferson Avenue, but you’ll feel like you’ve traveled much farther. Bring your bathing suits for swimming on the only public beach along the Detroit River, complete with a water slide, which is just $3 for all-day riding. And you won’t want to miss Kids Kingdom, an enormous playground with swings, tunnels, huge slide, and double decker merry-go-round. Other highlights for my kids include freighter watching on the river, the Conservancy full of planets with a self-guided tour, and the Nature Zoo with a deer experience, as well as crafts and family activities. If you have the time, you can also visit Belle Isle Aquarium or Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Everything is included in the park admission! Cost: $9/car for non-Michigan resident day pass; free for Michigan residents with Michigan Recreation Passport; state residents can purchase the Passport for $11.
KidTripster Tip: If your kids can last until sunset, the views from the westernmost point on the island are spectacular. You can watch the sun go down over the Detroit skyline while reflecting on your busy day on Belle Isle.
Photo courtesy: Brian Callahan
8/Sea Life Michigan Aquarium
4316 Baldwin Rd., Auburn Hills
Michigan is a state full of water, but the lakes and rivers aren’t full of the type of animals that excite kids. That’s not a problem at the Sea Life Michigan Aquarium. Located in the Great Lakes Crossing Mall, this family-friendly attraction includes stingrays, sharks, octopuses, and lion fish — all in easy-to-view tanks and a walk-through tunnel. Kids can spend a great deal of time just watching the sharks swim over their heads in the tunnel, but the fun doesn’t stop there. The Sea Life Aquarium includes a hands-on pool where kids can pick up, touch, and play with different sea animals. The fresh water exhibit teaches kids about creatures native to Michigan. Cost: Youth (3-12) $18.50; Adult $23.50.
KidTripster Tip: If you purchase your tickets online, you can save $5.50 per person. Have the tickets sent to your cell phone to bypass the Will Call line and head straight to the aquarium entrance.
9/LEGOLAND Discovery Center
4240 Baldwin Rd., Auburn Hills
If you want to explore Detroit, the miniland Detroit exhibit at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center is a great starting point. This replica of the city, made entirely of LEGOs, features more than 50 Detroit landmarks. Kids (and adults) can also try their hands at creating their own LEGO cities and then see how they hold up to an earthquake or make a car and race it down a track. In addition to the hands-on activities, there are two rides and a 4D movie theater with two different shows. LEGO fans will be occupied for hours, but kids who aren’t into brick building may be ready to leave after an hour or two. Cost: Youth (3-12) $23.50; Adult $23.50. Book online as walk-up tickets may not be available.
KidTripster Tip: The LEGOLAND Discovery Center and Sea Life Michigan Aquarium offer a joint ticket package which can be purchased online. The package includes admission to both attractions, plus several add-on options. The LEGOLAND Discovery Center and aquarium are located in the state’s largest indoor outlet mall, Great Lakes Crossings, so make a day of it and hit the stores (fun options include a Disney Store outlet and Bass Pro Shop) and grab a meal at a kid-friendly option like Rainforest Cafe or Johnny Rockets.
1340 Atwater St.
Located along the Detroit River, Detroit RiverWalk has great views of Canada just across the water. My kids were fascinated by the fact that another country was so close and enjoyed trying to pick out differences (they couldn’t find any though!). The walk is lined with a carousel, lighthouse, gardens, and restaurants. There are often free events including concerts, outdoor movies, and yoga. The RiverWalk also connects to various bike trails and the Milliken Skate Park. Cost: Free.
Former journalist Jamie Farber lives in West Michigan with her husband and three sons, ages 2, 8, and 11. Her English degree has somehow led her to a career planning Disney vacations with Mickey Travels. In her spare time, she enjoys planning her family's many trips around the U.S. and the Caribbean.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.