500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 29 hiking, biking and riding trips throughout the world. These picks below trace the history of flight, from the dunes of North Carolina to the craters of the moon.
What: Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers Learn to Fly
Who: Ages 4 & up
Where: Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, United States
The name Kitty Hawk is forever associated with Orville and Wilbur Wright -- it says so right on North Carolina's license plates. That's the place where, on December 17, 1903, this brother-brother team from Dayton, Ohio, achieved the world's first sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air powered flight. (You need all those adjectives to distinguish the Wrights' flight from a mere glider or hot-air balloon flight.) But you could score big trivia points for knowing that the Wrights didn't take off from the town of Kitty Hawk, but from a nearby 90-foot-high dune called Kill Devil Hill on the Outer Banks, a bony finger of land that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the inner sounds and estuaries of North Carolina's coast. Ask the kids: If you were flying an experimental aircraft into the teeth of gusting Atlantic winds, would you really want to launch from a place called Kill Devil Hill?
Desperate to get home to Dayton in time for Christmas, Orville and Wilbur did get the Wright Flyer off the ground that windy December day in 1903, keeping it aloft for 59 seconds and flying a distance of 852 feet. Their feat is commemorated at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, an imposing 60-foot-high pylon of white North Carolina granite, erected in 1932 on Kill Devil Hill. In fact, the Wrights made four successful flights that day, of increasing lengths; numbered markers on the long slopes show how far they made it each time, until on the fourth go the Wright Flyer crash-landed. The visitor center features a replica of that Wright Flyer, plus a glider they flew here in 1902, along with a few exhibits telling the Wright Brothers' story; park rangers lead twice-daily tours, present talks at the visitor center, and run afternoon family activities such as kite flying or paper-airplane building. You can explore reconstructions of the hangar Orville and Wilbur built for their plane and their workshop/living quarters. The main thing, though, is to stand on the big grassy dune and feel the breezes rise off the water; it suddenly becomes clear why the Wright brothers traveled all the way to North Carolina to get their spidery winged craft aloft.
Not far away, at the highest sand dune on the East Coast, 138-foot-high Jockey's Ridge, you can try out those Outer Banks winds yourself by taking a hang-gliding lesson from the world's largest hang-gliding school, Kitty Hawk Kites, near the visitor center of Jockey's Ridge State Park (milepost 12 off U.S. 158 Bypass; tel. 252/441-7132). Beginning, intermediate, and advanced instruction are provided; for reservations, call tel. 877/359-8447 or 252/441-4127; or go to www.kittyhawk.com.
Contact: Milepost 8, U.S. 158 Bypass (tel. 252/ 441-7430; www.nps.gov/wrbr).
What: National Air and Space Museum: Plane Fantastic
Who: All ages
The one do-not-miss stop for families visiting our nation's capital, Air and Space is pretty much the star player on the Smithsonian museum team, at least as far as kids are concerned. I still catch my breath when I walk into its sleek entrance hall off the Mall and see all those historic aircrafts dangling from the ceiling -- the Wright brothers' historic 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Enola Gay bomber that devastated Hiroshima, the Friendship 7 capsule that took John Glenn into space. Jaded as I am by IMAX movies, I made a point of having my kids sit through the classic To Fly, still my favorite of the genre; we spent another afternoon out in Virginia at the satellite location so we could see the space shuttle Enterprise. Whether you come here for the history, the science, or just the technothrill of seeing so much heavy metal, Air and Space delivers the goods.
Air and Space holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world; only about 10% of what it owns is actually on display, even with the annex out in Virginia. Besides gawking at the famous planes hanging out in the lobby, kids love to walk through the Skylab orbital workshop; other galleries highlight the solar system, U.S. manned spaceflights, and aviation during both world wars. You can sneak in some hard science education with How Things Fly, an interactive exhibit that demonstrates principles of flight and aerodynamics (the wind and smoke tunnels are especially fun), and get into some heady astrophysics with Explore the Universe, which probes theories about how the universe took shape. But this big, noisy, kid-packed museum isn't the sort of place where you want to be serious and thoughtful; besides the IMAX movie we wanted to do all the pumped-up extras like the flight simulators and the space show at the planetarium -- admission to the museum is free, but very few families get away without buying a ticket for one of these add-ons.
The second part of the museum is out near Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, at 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., where two gigantic hangars -- one for aviation artifacts, the other for space artifacts -- accompany a 164-foot-tall observation tower for watching planes land and take off at Dulles. The space hangar is the length of three football fields -- it has to be in order to house such huge artifacts as the space shuttle, rocket boosters, spacewalk capsules, and a full-scale prototype of the Mars Pathfinder lander. The scale of this technology is awesome, and you just can't appreciate it unless you stand right next to these babies and crane your neck upward.
Contact: Independence Ave., between 4th and 7th sts., SW (tel. 202/633-1000; www.nasm.si.edu).
What: Kennedy Space Center: 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . .
Who: Ages 4 & up
Where: Titusville, Florida
Spaceflight has lost so much of its glamour that it can be hard for kids to comprehend how exciting it once was to watch a mighty booster rocket blast off from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. So pop in a DVD of The Right Stuff or Apollo 13 before your trip to the Space Coast. Make them see how being an astronaut was once the coolest job a kid could aspire to.
You don't have to be a space buff to be awed by the sheer grandeur of the facilities at NASA's primary space-launch facility. Begin your visit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -- though it's a bit theme-park-slick, it does outline the history of space exploration well, and there are real NASA rockets on display, as well as (the coolest thing to me) the actual Mercury Mission Control Room from the 1960s. Hands-on activities, a daily "Encounter" with an astronaut, and an IMAX theater make this a place where kids will want to hang out. The Astronaut Hall of Fame, a separate attraction at the center, pays tribute to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space jockeys, along with even more vintage spacecraft -- a Mercury 7 capsule, a Gemini training capsule, and an Apollo 14 command module -- and several space-y simulator rides. Plan ahead (call tel. 321/449-4400 for a reservation) to snag a lunch with an astronaut -- even such greats as John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Walt Cunningham, and Jon McBride have taken their turns in this daily event.
Narrated bus tours depart every 10 minutes to explore the sprawling space-center grounds. Stops include the LC-39 Observation Gantry, with a dramatic 360-degree view over launchpads; the International Space Station Center, where scientists and engineers prepare additions to the space station now in orbit; and the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which includes artifacts (a moon rock to touch!), films, interactive exhibits, and the 363-foot-tall Saturn V, the most powerful U.S. rocket ever launched. It's not all Disney-fied, which in my opinion is a plus, but if the kids get restless (especially given the typical Florida heat), you can hop on the next bus and move on.
The real thrill, of course, is to see a shuttle launch; call tel. 321/867-5000 or checkwww.ksc.nasa.gov for a schedule of upcoming takeoffs (always an iffy thing, depending on weather or equipment problems), then buy tickets at the visitor complex or online atwww.ksctickets.com. Or view shuttle launches the way the locals do: from the causeways leading to the islands and on U.S. 1 as it skirts the waterfront in Titusville.
Contact: NASA Pkwy. (Fla. 405; tel. 321/449-4444 for info, 321/449-4400 for reservations; www.kennedyspacecenter.com).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.
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