Track wolves, discover the secrets of geysers, and find out first-hand what it means to be a 19th-century farmer or a runaway slave. Return home with more than just snapshots after a learning vacation at a living history museum ), national park, or other destination where new knowledge goes along with guaranteed good times. To help you get on the road toward shared (and instructive) family bonding, here are two great ideas for getting up close and personal with America's historic and natural heritage.
Conner Prairie Museum, Fishers, Indiana
Finding your way downhill in the dark, guided only by the dim light of a single lantern, you attempt to follow directions provided by a reluctant farmer. Suddenly, slave traders jump out of the woods and grab you, shouting, "Get down on your knees and stay quiet if you know what's good for you." Is this the way you'd like to spend your next vacation? It may sound a bit odd, but learning history by acting it out provides a much more exciting and memorable experience.
You and your children, 12 and older, can join in this intense two-hour re-creation of the plight of runaway slaves at Conner Prairie, a living history museum depicting 19th-century Midwestern life. A realistic educational program, Follow the North Star (named for the advice given to slaves fleeing the South) drops visitors into situations experienced by runaways as they traveled the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. Some escape, some don't.
Less intense (better for younger kids) but still educational, Weekend on the Farm qualifies as work, but there's always time for fun after the chores are done. Up to 12 guests ages six and older board overnight at the Zimmerman's Victorian-era farmhouse. Bedrooms have wash basins, there's an outhouse in the backyard, and kerosene lamps brighten the rooms. Depending on your character, you may end up chopping wood, mucking stalls, milking the cows, plowing (with horses), or baking graham biscuits and kiss piea custard concoction with a meringue topping. Come evening, the children play string games and the adults figure out riddles.
Strike a deal with fur traders at the 1816 Lenape Indian Camp, and then, depending on the day, help craft a dugout canoe, work a hide into soft buckskin, or hear tales of the natives who lived in the region centuries ago. In Prairietown, an 1836 village, learn to use a bellows at the "smithy's," watch jugs being made at the potter's, or chat with the doctor. Stroll Liberty Corner, circa 1886, and chat with Mrs. Zimmerman to find out about the farm. Kids can milk a cow, card wool, churn butter, and walk on stilts at Pastport, the hands-on section.
The historic areas of Conner Prairie, located about six miles from Indianapolis, remain open April through October. Make sure to book ahead for special immersive experiences. Follow the North Star is held on selected dates from November 3 to 18, and again in April 2007. Weekend on the Farm is held September 30 to October 1, and on selected weekends April through July, 2007. Admission prices are $11 and up, weekend packages are $90 to $120 per person (make sure to reserve in advance). (1-800-966-1836; www.connerprairie.org)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication