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Rut-busters

No such thing as ‘same old’ to a youngster or a parent imagining new destinations full of fun

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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Except for occasional pilgrimages to the Museum of Science in Boston and Old Sturbridge Village, my sister and I were transported to less well-known attractions in New England. Call them hidden gems or describe them as off the beaten path, they were places that don’t first come to mind when planning an excursion with children.

Beyond the big names, the quality and variety of child-friendly New England attractions might surprise you. Discovering new places and trying the unfamiliar is all part of the fun.

Kids can dig deep or fly high. They can travel back to the Middle Ages or way back to prehistoric times. They can ride animals or create animation. They can learn how the body works in a science exhibit or on ski slopes under the instruction of an Olympic gold medalist.

Mother Earth Mining Gallery & Mining Co. (Brookfield, Conn.) Inside the re-created mine, the rough gemstones are real and ready for taking. Wearing miner’s helmets and carrying glow-in-the-dark buckets, kids enter the cavernous mine and dig through 15 sand-filled holes for treasure. Whatever they find in five minutes, they take home. Amethyst, obsidian arrowheads, geodes, moonstone, jasper, and dozens of other gems are among the collectibles. “It’s kind of like a little bit of Disney here in Brookfield, Connecticut,’’ said owner Leslie Gera. Before they leave, Gera identifies what the kids have collected and gives them a list to take home. “It’s something that they have a great time doing and they learn something,’’ said Gera. “I’ve had kids come back three, four, five, 10 times.’’ She hopes some repeat customers become mineralogists or gemologists, following in her late husband’s footsteps. 806 Federal Road, 203-775-5720 (-6272), www.motherearthcrystals.com, $16

SkyVenture New Hampshire (Nashua) For kids with an adventurous spirit who dream of flying, this is an indoor, vertical wind tunnel where visitors experience flight the way skydivers do. Any child age 3 or older can float on a cushion of air above a trampoline floor. SkyVenture provides all the necessary gear and a 20-minute training class with a certified instructor. Once training finishes, fliers are swept up, up, and away. “There’s nothing better than selling fun,’’ said Laurie Greer, who owns SkyVenture New Hampshire with her husband. “And who couldn’t have fun flying around in a tube like Wonder Woman or Superman.’’ 3 Poisson Ave., 603-897-0002, 888-SkyVenture, skyventurenh .com, adults $48, ages 3-11 $43 for two minutes. Sessions range up to 60 minutes for $800. Call to reserve a place in the weekly kids’ camp for a deep discount.

Higgins Armory Museum (Worcester) Fairy tales come to life when children see knights in shining armor, meet princesses, and listen to stories about slaying dragons inside the Gothic-style, steel-and-glass castle that houses exhibits. “We are a museum of arms and armor, but there’s definitely a fantasy side,’’ said Devon Kurtz, director of education. “So many people have an idea of what it means to be a knight. For the few hours they’re within our walls, they almost can be.’’ Surrounded by stone archways, arms and armor demonstrations take place throughout the day. There are regularly scheduled make-your-own shield and art of swordplay workshops. Children can play dress-up in knight’s tunics, reproduction helmets, and princess dresses. Next month, the museum will celebrate women warriors with character actors portraying Joan of Arc, Celtic Queen Boudicca, and Viking women. 100 Barber Ave., 508-853-6015, www.higgins.org, adults $10, ages 4-16 $7

Dinosaur State Park (Rocky Hill, Conn.) Long before suburbanites developed the land surrounding Hartford, dinosaurs roamed the area. Lots and lots of dinosaurs. The result is one of the largest dinosaur track sites in North America at Dinosaur State Park. The tracks, as long as 16 inches, were accidentally discovered in 1966 and quickly preserved as a registered national natural landmark. From May 1-Oct. 31, kids can make plaster casts of the tracks for the ultimate take-home souvenir. The park provides the tracks and metal rings for casting, while visitors must bring the plaster of Paris and other essentials. “We’re kind of an unusual museum because we’re not a collection of artifacts,’’ said manager Meg Enkler. “We brought the museum to the fossils.’’ In addition to the tracks, there is an arboretum with examples of the plant life that existed then. Hiking trails educate about Connecticut geology and animal group evolution. 400 West St., 860-529-8423 (-5816 to speak to staff members), www.ct.gov/dep/dinosaurstatepark, Exhibit Center Tue-Sat, grounds daily 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., track casting seasonal, adults and teens $10, ages 6-12 $4, 5 and under free

Newport Equestrian Academy (Middletown, R.I.) Gentle horses and postcard-perfect vistas can be a good combination for family fun, according to co-owner Suzanne Hourihan. The stunning scenery comes courtesy of St. George’s Castle and the Newport beaches. The gentle horses familiar with local beach trails come from Newport Equestrian. “It looks just like you’re in Ireland with the castle and miles of beach,’’ said Hourihan. “The horses are very sweet and good around children. We’ve had them for years and years, so they’re used to the trail and they love their jobs.’’ The trail rides are for children 5 and older, though parents must accompany any child under 8. Trail rides are offered year-round. If you go for a winter wonderland experience, dress in layers. 287 Third Beach Road., 401-848-5440, www.newportequestrian.com, call for group or private tours ranging from 1 1/2-3 hours, $85-$125, depending on length and group size

AniMagic: Museum of Animation and Special Effects (Lee) Special effects designer Eugene Mamut prefers to show, not tell. He invites everyone, especially kids, to his small museum for animation workshops. “Please come and see what we’re doing here,’’ said Mamut, who won an Academy Award as part of the team that created the “camouflage effect’’ in the movie “Predator.’’ What exactly is Mamut doing at AniMagic? Calling on his expertise and enthusiasm, Mamut guides visitors through workshops where they make animated movies. In two hours, kids can create an animated short complete with sound, music, and titles. The workshops are by reservation only and suitable, Mamut said, “for kids age 5 to 95.’’ Repeat visitors can create more advanced animations. The museum focuses on the contributions of local animators and special effects designers involved with films like “The Matrix’’ and “Chicken Run.’’ 77 Main St., 413-841-6679, www.mambor.com/animagic, $20 per workshop, reservations required for museum and workshops

Stepping Stones Museum for Children (Norwalk, Conn.) What kid doesn’t want to splash in water? In the Waterscape exhibit, Kevin Carter, director of visitor experience, said kids can play with “all things wet and wonderful.’’ Parents have a tough time pulling youngsters away from the water vortex and fog machine. The same is true in the Healthyville exhibit where kids can remove teeth from a super-sized mouth and ride a stationary bicycle beside a skeleton going through the same motions. “Whenever possible, we want things to be interactive and kid-powered,’’ said Carter. “Imaginations really get to roam.’’ Big things are planned for Stepping Stones this year: a 10th birthday party on March 13 with free admission, an expansion that will double museum size with its November opening. But Stepping Stones has no plans to lose its intimate feel. 303 West Ave., 203-899-060, www.steppingstonesmuseum.org, adults $9, children $9, over age 62 $7, under 1 free.

Cochran’s Ski Area (Richmond, Vt.) If the Vancouver Olympics inspired you or your toddler, Cochran’s is a small, affordable alternative to big-name New England ski resorts. With six trails and three surface lifts (rope tow, T-bar, cable with handles), the focus at Cochran’s is on family fun, with the youngest skiers top priority. They can learn from Barbara Ann Cochran, 1972 Olympic slalom gold medalist. The ski area offers “Ski Tots’’ and private lessons where parents can learn how to teach their 3- to 5-year-olds how to ski. “It’s our most popular program,’’ said Cochran, who runs the ski school. 910 Cochran Road, 802-434-2479, www.cochranskiarea.org, adults $20 a day, students and children $14, lessons $25-$83, depending whether group or private.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.