Tacoma with kids? Really?
My first experience with Tacoma was a smell. Followed by a tour of the lumber mill. A lot has changed since then. Today, Tacoma is not just a port but a portal to thoughtful, family-fun. The downtown core is linked by a 1.6 mile free light rail line that runs every 10 minutes. Using Tacoma Link light rail, you can get from the Tacoma Dome to the Theater District in 10 minutes. And what might kids enjoy along this route? A lot!
We spent our time at the Washington State History Museum (washingtonhistory.org/wshm/default.aspx), a fantastic set of exhibits housed in a gorgeous, brick building full of arches, nooks, and high ceilings. In fact, it took 350,000 bricks to cover the whole building! For Halloween, the mezzanine hosted a boo-tique run by the local Goodwill. Hundreds of creative and affordable costumes were on sale. Even though we didn’t buy one, we were inspired by soldiers, sailors, Lady Gaga, Little Bo Peep, and a real wedding dress that was tattered and covered in bloodstains. Upstairs we enjoyed an exhibit on the Great Depression that looked a bit uninspired at first glance but turned out to be surprisingly kid-centric with comparative photos (then and now), displays of children’s belongings and toys, and a giant dancehall video. The History Lab held a great collection of interactive exhibits and no one, not even jaded teenagers, could resist the model train exhibit. The train takes up an entire room and is specific to Washington State. It includes river crossings, Mt. Rainier, and even an accident scene. There was a man working on the train when we were there but he slid around on his back, under and behind the display, so as not to ruin the illusion. Dedication! We couldn’t visit the main floor because it had been taken over for 3 nights by “Creepshow” a haunted house advertised as “not for the faint of heart” (ages 13 and up). But, we could look down and see the Great Hall of Washington History decked out in bloody sheets and grey mannequins and it looked fun enough to inspire a return visit soon.
Walk from the Washington State History Museum to either the Tacoma Art Museum (tacomaartmuseum.org/) with a permanent Chihuly exhibit or the Museum of Glass (museumofglass.org/), which is all about, obviously, glass! The Museum of Glass has live glass blowing in the foyer and for Halloween they are creating glass skulls. Watch the Hot Shop live (museumofglass.org/glassmaking/live-from-the-hot-shop)! Any questions, you can ask online without going out into the rain. The bridge to the Museum of Glass is worth a trip to Tacoma all by itself. There are gorgeous glass sculptures and a Chihuly ceiling exhibit to delight everyone – from infants to the elderly (see lead photo). We took our youngest to visit a Chihuly ceiling in North Carolina at 3 months old and she was entranced. Want even more glass? The Tacoma Glass Blowing Studio (tacomaglassblowing.com) offers one-time classes for $65 (ages 8 and up) as well as 2-day workshops and 6-week classes.
Each of these three fun museums has a nice café. And there is even a specialty cupcake kiosk right outside the Washington State History Museum. During the week you can peek inside the beautiful Tacoma Union Station with more Chihuly glass. Just down the street from the big museums is the Children’s Museum of Tacoma (playtacoma.org/) with a “pay as you will” admission policy and playscapes centered on Woods, Water, Voyager, and Invention. Still have more energy? Hop on the Tacoma Link and ride to the Tacoma Dome, where you can visit America’s Car Museum. It looks much like an armadillo from the outside. Inside there are over 300 automobiles in addition to trucks, motorcycles, racing simulators, slot car races, and a café.
There is still more fun for families in Tacoma! Pt. Defiance Zoo & Aquarium as well as Pt. Defiance Park. These attractions are a short drive from downtown. At the zoo, you can watch a polar bear eat dinner and ride a camel. The zoo also specializes in animal-themed outdoor play structures. Save time for the playgrounds! A rose garden, a logging museum, a rhododendron museum, a Japanese garden, and Fort Nisqually, a living history museum, are all tucked into the park. There is even a Garden of Miniature Roses. The park is home to a 5-mile drive that offers views of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge and old growth forests. The port has activities too. They host free tours and kids can climb an observation deck to watch the loading and unloading of cargo ships. Tacoma’s waterfront has a two-mile promenade that just re-opened this past summer and is ideal for rollerblading, bicycling, and, well, promenading.
Feeling like you need to stay for a while? Time your visit to enjoy the art walk, including 7 galleries and 3 museums, on the third Thursday of every month. You could try to find the small forest of Pacific Northwest palm trees (see photo). And, you could try out the Hotel Murano (hotelmuranotacoma.com/) with an art gallery in the lobby and featuring more than 45 glass artists from around the world. Hotel Murano was #17 in Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice list in 2011 and was on their Gold List in 2012. Conde Nast travelers go to Tacoma? They do now! Tacoma has certainly changed since our first visit 20+ years ago and our kids already want to go back.
Ashley Steel is the Traveling with Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. Read more at her website and book: www.familyontheloose.com
All photos courtesy and copyright Ashley Steel