Out and About on the Cheap: 10 Adventures for Frugal Families
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in July 2009 and has been updated by Seattle's Child staff.
In today’s dismal economy, many parents’ money-saving instincts might tell them to go out less, but Seattle has a wealth of inexpensive and engaging activities for kids. From story time to tours of the fire station, our city offers frugal families plenty of cheap, fun reasons to leave the house.
Connecting with our community can help us to use this economic crisis as a foundation for the kind of days we mean to have with our families. It’s hard to obsess about your dwindling 401(k) when you’re gazing out over Puget Sound from the pedestrian bridge at Carkeek Park, trains running beneath your feet. And it’s hard to believe all is not right with the world when your child jumps up and down watching a steelhead shimmy through an opening in the Ballard fish ladder. So in the spirit of enjoying the days we’re in, here are 10 low-budget adventures in Seattle:
1. Check out the Live Fish Tanks at Uwajimaya
Located in the heart of the International District, Uwajimaya boasts an expansive seafood department that features large tanks of live tilapia, crabs, lobsters, geoducks, oysters and clams. This corner of the store functions as a mini-aquarium for kids and adults alike. After gazing into the tanks, head to the adjoining nine-stall food court for a snack. My family loves the cucumber maki rolls ($2.75 for six, wasabi-free) from the deli and Papa Beard’s all-natural cream puffs ($2.10 apiece), which are filled from a steel tank while you watch. If your child prefers more typical happy-meal fare, you’ll find it at Herfy’s burger stand, located at the far end of the food court.
Where: 600 S. Fifth St.
When: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Parking: Metered street parking is available, or you can park in their lot for $7.50 per hour. Parking is free for one hour with a validated $7 purchase, or for two hours with a $15 purchase.
Contact: 206-624-6248; www.uwajimaya.com.
2. Tour a Fire Station – or a Fireboat
The Seattle Fire Department prefers that you schedule official tours for groups of children over the age of 5, but you can usually stop by with your child for a brief, impromptu visit to view firefighting equipment and trucks and talk with firefighters about their jobs. Be prepared for your visit to end abruptly if a call comes into the station. Because the sirens can scare young children, the Fire Department asks that preschoolers prepare for a visit through the “Smart Kids! Safe Kids!” program, or with materials provided by their public education office (206-386-1338). To tour Leschi, the city’s fireboat, at Station 5 on the Seattle Waterfront, you must be at least 9 years old. Too young to visit the station? Every October, five or six library branches host Firefighter Story Hour.
Where: There are 34 fire stations in Seattle. For a list, go to www.seattle.gov/fire/firestations/stations.htm
When: Daily 9 to 11:30 a.m. or 1 to 4 p.m. Schedule tours at least 21 days in advance.
Contact: 206-386-1400; www.seattle.gov/fire/deptInfo/stationTours.htm.
3. Story Time at Mockingbird Books
Many bookstores and libraries offer story times, but I gravitate to the one at Mockingbird Books in the Green Lake neighborhood, because it happens every day (except Sunday), so I never need to check a calendar. At 11 a.m., the staff gathers kids of all ages into the bright, cushion-filled reading room, with a stack of books tailored to the group. On the days when we arrive and my son is suddenly not remotely interested in sitting still for a story, I’m thankful for their train table, which is located far enough from the reading room that he can “choo-choo!” as much as he likes without disturbing the group, and for their nearby espresso counter. A bonus for dads seeking community in a sea of moms: On Saturdays, fathers usually make up most of the adult audience.
Where: 7720 Woodlawn Ave. N.E.
When: Story times begin at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday; store hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Contact: 206-518-5886; www.mockingbirdbooksgl.com.
4. Pay-What-You-Wish Hour at The Children’s Museum
Entry to The Children's Museum at Seattle Center is pay-what-you-wish during their last hour of operation every day. With a spacious separate play area for children under 2 – including an interactive streambed, fun house mirrors, and more – as well as rooms aimed at satisfying your child’s current obsession, from flushing things to driving the bus to playing store, The Children’s Museum truly encourages, and rewards, kids’ curiosity. (Note: Program for Early Parent Support groups receive complimentary group birthday parties in the museum’s party rooms.)
Where: 305 Harrison St., Seattle Center
By-Donation Hours: Weekdays 4 to 5 p.m.
Contact: 206-441-1768; www.thechildrensmuseum.org.
5. Ride a Bus. Anywhere. If Needed, Sing "The Wheels on the Bus"
Bus trips are wonderful adventures in themselves, and Seattle’s transit system is clean and reliable. If you’re downtown, consider letting your child choose the stops, transferring as often as you wish within the 25-block Ride Free Zone. Bus rides are also a great time to resurrect the car games you played as a child. Whatever you do, let your child pull the bell signaling your stop. For Metro Trip Planner’s routes, times, and fares, go to http://tripplanner.kingcounty.gov/.
6. Community Center Indoor Play Areas for Toddlers
When it’s rainy and cold out, sometimes you just need a tumble mat. Commercial play spaces, like the Zoomazium at the Woodland Park Zoo and 3-2-1 Play in Bellevue, are many parents’ go-to sites for drop-in play, but many neighborhood community centers offer similar play spaces for a fraction of the price. Intended for children under the age of 5, these play centers offer clean, well-maintained climbing and gymnastic equipment, and a wide range of toys and games. They have more generous drop-in hours than many commercial play centers, which frequently close to the public during reserved class times.
When: Hours vary by center
Cost: Usually $1-2 per child; accompanying parents, and infants too young to play, are free.
Contact: 206-684-4075; www.seattle.gov/Parks/Children/play.htm.
7. Free Museum Visits – First Thursdays and More
Most Seattle museums are free on the first Thursday of every month, often with extended hours that day. These include:
Museum of History and Industry (2700 24th Ave. E, Seattle; www.seattlehistory.org)
Seattle Art Museum (1300 First Ave., Seattle; www.seattleartmuseum.org)
Burke Museum (on the University of Washington campus at 17th Avenue N.E. and N.E. 45th Street; www.washington.edu/burkemuseum)
Frye Art Museum (704 Terry Ave.; www.fryemuseum.org) is always free.
The Northwest African American Museum (2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle; www.naamnw.org) is free from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. first and second Thursdays.
The Wing Luke Asian Museum (719 S. King St., Seattle; www.wingluke.org) is free from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. first Thursdays and third Saturdays.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum (1400 East Prospect Street Volunteer Park, Seattle; www.seattleartmuseum.org) is free first Thursdays, and on first Saturdays for families.
First Fridays are free at the Bellevue Arts Museum (510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; www.bellevuearts.org)
Third Thursdays are free at KidsQuest Children’s Museum (4091 Factoria Mall S.E., Bellevue; 5 to 8 p.m.; www.kidsquestmuseum.org)
First Fridays are free at Children’s Museum of Tacoma (936 Broadway, Tacoma; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; www.childrensmuseumoftacoma.org)
First Fridays are free at Hands On Children’s Museum (106 11th Ave. S.W., Olympia; 5 to 9 p.m.; www.hocm.org)
Imagine Children’s Museum (1502 Wall S., Everett; www.imaginecm.org) is half price starting at 3 p.m. Thursdays.
One often-overlooked gem, the Museum of Flight (9404 East Marginal Way S., Seattle; www.museumofflight.org), is free on first Thursday evenings, 5 to 9 p.m. It offers plenty of interactive exhibits for kids, including two actual cockpits, a kid-scale model airplane, and flight simulators.
8. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard
Admire sailboats, barges, and yachts passing through the locks. If you have time, stop and watch the boats tie in, and the water level change quickly, which is how boats pass through the Lake Washington Ship Canal from Puget Sound to Lake Union or vice versa. Cross the ship canal to the fish ladder’s observation room. Six floor-to-ceiling illuminated windows provide an underwater view of migrating salmon as they move along the 18th step of the 21-step fish ladder. Steelhead spawn January to April; sockeye, chinook, and coho salmon spawn June to November; and young salmon head out to sea in May and June. On your way out, pause to enjoy the adjoining botanical garden, which is also a great place for kids to burn off steam.
Where: 3015 N.W. 54th St.
When: Daily 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Visitor center’s summer hours (May 1 through Sept. 30) are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Free guided tours are offered March 1 through Nov. 30.
Parking: Metered parking available onsite; three hour maximum.
Contact: 206-783-7059; www.nws.usace.army.mil/PublicMenu/Menu.cfm?sitename=lwsc&pagename=mainpage.
9. A Trip to the Dump: Earth Day Meets Truck Show
Load some recyclables and dead toy batteries into your car, and head to the transfer station in Fremont, where you can drop them off for free. Unless your kids are old enough to help unload, they need to stay in the car, but from there they can watch you crush cardboard in the compactor, toss glass into the huge bin, and then take a peek at the dump pile (which often has a truck circling on top), a great starter for conversations about where garbage goes. Afterwards, cross the street to Essential Bakery, where window seats offer prime views of trucks entering the transfer station (busiest weekday mornings). On the way home, stop by nearby Gas Works Park, where kids can play amid the abandoned hulks of the former coal gasification plant or race up the hill for a spectacular view of the city.
Where: 1350 N. 34th St. in Fremont/Wallingford
When: Daily 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Cost: Household recyclables are free; charges for yard waste, garbage, and appliances vary by weight.
Contact: 206-684-3000; www.ci.seattle.wa.us/util/Services/Garbage/Recycling_%26_Disposal_Stations/
10. Train Spotting at Carkeek Park
You’ll relish the incredible “that’s-why-I-live-here” views while your child watches trains chug past beneath his feet. The playground, pedestrian bridge, and beach area at Carkeek are crowded in the summer with windsurfers and kite enthusiasts. The park is just as much fun in the winter, when you have the view to yourself. Train tracks cross under a pedestrian bridge that’s frequented by both freight and passenger trains. After you’ve had your fill of train spotting, you can either take the stairs down to the beach to explore the tide pools at low tide, or head to the playground, which features an enclosed salmon-shaped slide.
Where: 950 N.W. Carkeek Park Rd.; once inside the park, follow the main park drive past the Education Center. Just beyond the “Carkeek Trail” sign, take the right fork and head uphill to the large parking lot by the water.
When: Daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Contact: 206-687-0877; www.cityofseattle.net/parks/environment/carkeek.htm.