Like a neglected stepsister, Tacoma is often overshadowed – and overlooked – by its Emerald neighbor to the north. But anyone who's given the City of Destiny a chance knows it's full of delightful surprises. From its logging train to its living history fort, from its glass museum to its waterslide, Tacoma offers fun for children of all ages.
With Mount Rainier at its doorstep and Puget Sound surrounding much of the city, Tacoma has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past decade. Four new museums have been built, the zoo has been remodeled and expanded, and a new trolley connects the Tacoma Dome bus station with the museum district.
Magnificent Dale Chihuly glass is found throughout the city – at the new Murano Hotel, in Union Station and at the art and glass museums. Activities for children thrive throughout this small city of 200,000.
POINT DEFIANCE PARK
Camp Six Logging Train and Museum
Take the little train ride and hear stories of Washington's logging history. This authentic logging camp replicates the life of men who lived in the woods for months, sawing trees, and carrying them out by trains.
IF YOU GO
Where: 5505 Five Mile Dr.
When: Open Saturday and Sunday between May 23 and Sept. 27, noon to 6:30 p.m.; third Thursday of each month, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Departures every 30 minutes. Closed July 4.
Cost: Adults $4.25, seniors (55 to 99) $3.25, children 3 to 12 $2.75, children under 3 and seniors over 99 free. Discounts for Mother's, Father's Day, and Armed Forces Day, members of a historical society, and military service members and families.
Contact: 253-752-0047; www.camp-6-museum.org.
Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium
There are 77 acres of small habitats here, like the Arctic Tundra and Asian Forests, home to polar bears, Sumatran tigers, elephants, red wolves and more. Children see sharks, eels, and tropical fish in the two-story glass aquarium. Watch daily feedings, presentations and animal shows.
Budgie Buddies, a special open-air exhibit, lets children walk among hundreds of brightly colored Australian birds. Get a feeding stick for a dollar to attract and feed the birds. You can picnic or eat at the zoo's restaurant.
IF YOU GO
Where: 5400 N. Pearl St.
When: Open daily May 23 to Sept. 8, 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Sept. 9 to 27 closes at 5:00 p.m. Closes at 4 p.m. after Sept. 27.
Cost: Adults $13, seniors (65 and older) and youth (5 to 12) $11, children (3 to 4) $7, children under 3 free.
Contact: 253-591-5337; www.pdza.org.
Fort Nisqually Living History Museum
Volunteers dress in costumes from the mid-1800s to dramatize how people lived and worked in this fur trading outpost of the Hudson Bay Company. Watch a blacksmith fire, hammer and create tools. Tour homes and visit the country store.
IF YOU GO
Where: 5400 N. Pearl St.
When: Open daily between May 26 and Sept. 1, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: Adults $4, seniors (62 and older) and youth (13 to 17) $3, children (5 to 12) $4, children 4 and under free.
Contact: 253-591-5339; www.fortnisqually.org.
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Enjoy ice cream and hotdogs, kayak rentals and an exquisite view. There's a boardwalk, inscribed with children's art and poetry, which leads to the rustic marina. Bring your fishing pole, rent a 14-foot boat, and try your luck!
Where: 5605 N. Owen Beach Road
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TACOMA ART MUSEUM
A free cell-phone walking tour will have your kids shouting "Coool!" Pick up a map from the Tacoma Art Museum. The narrators, who include Dale Chihuly, discuss 12 glass installations at five downtown locations. Call 1-888-411-4220 for an introduction. In the museum, the internationally renowned Helen Williams Drutt exhibits ornamental art while Northwest artist Nancy Worden's jewelry amuses visitors with "found" objects like eye glasses, hair curlers, and Satsuma oranges. In the Open Art Studio, children create their own art and make jewelry with objects like a dismantled bike chain, wooden clothes pins, and a selection of bread-bag ties.
IF YOU GO
Where: 1701 Pacific Ave., downtown Tacoma
When: Open six days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday.
Cost: Adult $7.50, seniors (65 and older), military, students, $6.50, families (two adults and up to four children under 18) $25, children age 5 and under free. All visitors free the third Thursday of each month, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Pierce County Library members can get an Art Access Pass for free admission for up to four people, (not including children ages 5 and under, who are always admitted free).
Contact: 253-272-4258; www.tacomaartmuseum.org.
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CHILDREN'S MUSEUM OF TACOMA
Children join Scout the Squirrel in mazes as they learn to save, spend and give their money. Check out the new exhibits. A favorite is "New Digs," which lets children pretend to grow vegetables, bring them to the market, cook, and order lunch. Gerald McDermott's books, like The Raven in the Pacific Northwest, come to life as children don costumes, play with interactive displays and use the theater. Becca's art studio has special projects such as making Father's Day frames, summer sun catchers, or friendship necklaces. The museum offers summer camps on cooking, Chinese culture, music and dance.
IF YOU GO
Where: 936 Broadway, downtown Tacoma
When: Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Members only hours, 9:00 a.m. to 10 p.m.; free first Friday of each month and free on Thursday in the summer for children whose families are at the Tacoma Farmer's Market across the street from the museum. Free Children's Museum passes are available through local libraries; see the museum's Web site for details. Closed July 4.
Cost: Adults $6, children $6, under 1 free, members always free.
Contact: 253-627-6031; www.childrensmuseumoftacoma.org.
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MUSEUM OF GLASS
The Hot Shop amphitheater fascinates children who watch artists take molten glass on the end of a blow stick, put it in a furnace, remove it and shape it until the glass is formed into bowls, vases or sculptures. Children make art such as collages or puppets in the art studio. In a monthly contest, children can design a glass sculpture. Two copies of the winning design are created, one for the museum and one for the child. Exhibits include Preston Singletary's glass, beginning July 4. Outside, glass that looks like sparkling water spreads 200 feet in pools. The multi-colored glass bridge leads to the History Museum.
IF YOU GO
Where: 1801 Dock St., downtown Tacoma
When: Open daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; third Thursday of each month, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Hot Shop amphitheater is open the same hours as the museum except for artists' lunch breaks around 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Cost: Adults $10, seniors (62 and older), military and students (13 and older) $8, children 6 to 12 $4, families (two adults and up to four children under age 18) $30, children under 6 free. All visitors are free the third Thursday of each month, 5 to 8 p.m.
Contact: 1-866-468-7386; www.museumofglass.org.
Family Days: Special activities are offered the second Saturday of each month 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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RUSTON WAY WATERFRONT
Tacoma's renaissance can best be seen on Ruston Way's two-mile waterfront northwest of downtown. In the 1920s, Ruston Way – then named Front Street – was Tacoma's industrial center. When the sawmills, boatyards and warehouses fell into disrepair, the City of Tacoma purchased the land, parcel by parcel. Now lined with five parks, seven restaurants, two fishing docks, and the Silver Cloud Inn, Ruston Way offers a spectacular view of Commencement Bay, Vashon Island, the Olympics, and Mount Rainier. Bring roller blades, strollers and bikes for a relaxing, scenic afternoon.
Les Davis Pier is a working fishing dock in the center of Ruston Way. Bring your pole or watch anglers fish for their dinner. At the end of the pier is a concession stand where you can buy fish and chips and enjoy a picnic dinner at one of the many tables. Farther down the Way is Old Town Dock, where you can tie up your boat or your kayak.
Parents can take turns trying para-sailing. There's a boat at Ram restaurant that will take you out on the bay. The restaurant has a delicious children's menu and is more casual than Ruston Way's other restaurants.
OTHER ACTIVITIES IN TACOMA
Vashon Island (Tahlequah) Ferry– Park your car near the entrance to Point Defiance and walk on the ferry. You can ride it to Vashon Island in 15 minutes, turn around, and ride back for less than $5. See Mount Rainier and the Cascades to the east, the Olympics to your west and on some days, whales, seals, or sea lions playing in the water. The ferry runs about every hour from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 5810 North Pearl St. 360-705-7000; www.wsdot.wa.gov/Ferries/Schedule/Schedule.
Washington History Museum– Your children can get a “treasure map” to find items on display as they tour first geological, then historical, interactive exhibits of Washington. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Adults $8, seniors (60 and older) $7, military and students (6 to 17) $6, families (two adults and up to four children under age 18) $25, children (5 and under) free. All visitors are free the third Thursday of each month, 5 to 8 p.m. 1911 Pacific Ave. 253-272-3500; www.wshs.org.
Pool at Stewart Heights– You can picnic, play tennis, or use the skateboard ramp at the park. Your kids will love the pool on hot summer days. It has a 160-foot water slide, zero-depth entry, bubble pool, water play structure, water basketball, tumble buckets and lazy river. Open daily June 20 to Sept. 7, noon to 7:30 p.m. Check Web site for full- and half-day prices. 402 E. 56th S., southeast of downtown. 253-573-2532; www.metroparkstacoma.org.
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum– For children who are history nerds, like my daughter, Karpeles is an astounding find. America’s largest private collection of manuscripts and documents rotates between ten U. S. Karpeles Libraries and includes the original draft of the Bill of Rights of the United States and Einstein's description of his theory of relativity. This summer, see genuine portions of the original Guggenheim Bible and more. Free. Open Tuesday thru Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Monday. Closed on Saturday and Sunday temporarily. 407 S. G St., near downtown, across from Wright Park. 253-383-2575; www.rain.org/~karpeles.
Tacoma Nature Center– The visitor’s center is fun for the youngest child with its exhibits and puppets. Along the two-mile path surrounding Snake Lake, signs identify flora and fauna. Watch the ducks, birds, and perhaps you’ll spot a red fox and blue heron. Free. Trails: open daily 8 a.m. to sunset. Visitor’s Center: open Tuesday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. 1919 S. Tyler St., five miles west of downtown. 253-591-6439; www.metroparkstacoma.org.
Wright Park and Arboretum– With 700 mature trees, this park is home to the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory. Children will love to run in the park, explore around the pond and play on the bridge. They’ll be enchanted by the unusual flowers in the Victorian-style greenhouse with its 3,500 panes of glass and its 12-sided dome. The park is always open. The conservatory is open Tuesday thru Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 501 S. I St. 253- 591-5330; www.metroparkstacoma.org.
Elizabeth Corcoran Murray is a Fox Island writer whose family loves Tacoma’s zoo, parks, and museums. She’s in the final stages of writing her memoir, An American Goatherd in Languedoc.