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Wisconsin Parent

Midwest Travel: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Jun 27, 2014 05:10AM ● By Julie Henning
Kent County, Michigan is where I spent my formative years. Hunkered down in the sandy soils perfect for blueberry orchards and deciduous forests flowing with maple syrup in the springtime thaw, residents of Michigan's second-largest city—Grand Rapids—can fall into full-on beach bum mode with a 30 mile drive to the famous Gold Coast sand dunes. The type of place perfect for "raising children," family-friendly attractions in the area are plentiful, ranging from museums, to parks, playgrounds, pools, entertainment, and theater.

Making waves in the craft beer scene and the artist communities, downtown Grand Rapids has undergone a major transformation in the past 30 years. A medical hub and urban campus for a handful of universities and vocational schools, visitors (and residents) can frequent area bars, restaurants, and venues like the Van Andel Arena and DeVos Performance Hall. The newly opened Downtown Market features a farmer's market and more permanent cupcakes, cappuccino, and chacuterie.

GRR MarketBack home for the first week of summer vacation, we frequented two of the more touristy destinations located in downtown Grand Rapids: the John Ball Zoo and the Grand Rapids Children's Museum.

John Ball Zoo

Some of my earliest memories happened at the John Ball Zoo. From school field trips to family outings, a wave of nostalgia hit me as we walked by the group of picnic tables on the way to the front gate (albeit, a bit shadier in the thirty years they have branched out).

Built into a hill, the John Ball Zoo is basically a litmus test to measure how out of shape you really are. Not available the last time I was here (when I was pushing THREE toddlers in a stroller) is the Funicular, a tram that takes you to the top of the hill. This is perfect for people who want to use gravity to their advantage. There is an additional charge to ride the Funicular; $3/person, I think (it was down for repairs during our visit, so we just went with the calorie burning route).FunicularOpened in 1950, one of the best "features" of the John Ball Zoo is the mature trees providing shade and a respite from the summertime heat. While we were not bothered by biting flies or mosquitoes on our visit, you might want to toss a bottle of bug spray in with your sunscreen.

WaterfallLike the city of Grand Rapids, the John Ball Zoo has worked hard to compete with other "big city" zoos around the country (now a member of the AZA). New in 2014 is the Crawford Tigers of the Realm exhibit: a 24,000 square foot exhibit for Yuri, Kuza, and Nika, three Amur tigers native to the Amur River Basin in the Russian Far East (a climate similar to West Michigan, which explains the Polar Vortex).  Complete with picnic grounds, tree top outpost, and nature play zone, and a path that winds along the habitat, the only thing we did not see were the tigers. But, we totally loved the tree top outpost!

Tree Top OutpostWinding down past the zip line (extra fee), we took the waterfall path down to the budgie exhibit.

Waterfall Zoo For $1 (cheaper for zoo members), patrons can purchase birdseed on a stick and send their children in to the budgie cage where they can feed the birds (this exhibit must be relatively new, as I don't remember the kids barely able to contain themselves in 2010).

BudgiesOther zoo highlights are a sizable aquarium, complete with penguins and a stingray lagoon (extra fee), camel rides (extra fee), adventure ropes course (extra fee), and animals and primates from Africa, the tropics, and South America. This cafe is located near the American Bald Eagle, spotted in its massive nest.


24,000 square foot exhibit will feature two viewable habitats, a picnic and children’s play area, tiger trails and a path which will allow zoo visitors to walk the trail with the tigers as they move from one habitat to another. - See more at:

Grand Rapids Children's Museum

Located in the heart of downtown, the Grand Rapids Children's Museum holds its own with both a variety of activities for kids' of all ages as well as enough "stuff" do to that you feel you've paid a fair price for admission (although, the most you would pay is $8/person, which is cheaper than going to the movie's these days).

Grand Rapids Children's Museum Highlights from our trip include making bubbles:

Giant BubblesSweeping up in the Kidstruction Zone (the next time my ten-year-old tells me he doesn't know how to use a broom, I am going to show him this photo):

Kidstruction Zone

Spinning our wheels:

Spin TableAnd putting our Minecraft sills to use in the Imagination Playground:

Imagination Playground

Other, "not to be missed" destinations in Grand Rapids include the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park (just trust me on this one) and the Grand Rapids Public Museum (younger kids will adore the carousel). And if you decide to drive over and dip your toes into Lake Michigan, read this story for some suggestions on family-friendly beach destinations.