What's in My Wallet? Memberships to museums, aquariums and other places to run the kids

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What's in My Wallet is a series of posts from WalletPop writers and editors that will help you maximize your financial self according to what you carry.

I was never one of those organized sorts who bought memberships to museums and other public places. Even when I found myself returning repeatedly -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC comes to mind -- the price tags on those membership cards always seemed too steep at first glance.

But then I had kids. And those kids started walking and running. And they needed to be entertained, often in wide-open spaces. The cost of memberships to large, public institutions began to make sense.

Now that my kids are in grade school, I have a number of memberships to places that serve two purposes: They are educational; and they're great places to run (read: exhaust) a couple of over-active kids.Kids like routine. They want to return to a place they think is cool or interesting again and again and again, but that starts to add up. As the parent, you want a list of places you can take your kids over those long, boring summer months, or those long, boring three-day weekends. You also want that 10-20% discount on items bought at the destination -- because God knows you're not getting out of there without another tchotchke.

I don't live in New York City anymore (or I'd certainly have a membership to the Met). But let's look at a few places that offer family memberships in the Los Angeles area, shall we? Allow me to open my wallet -- they're all in there.

The Huntington Library - A 120-acre botanical garden, (and world-class art museum and library) with sweeping vistas and gardens open for exploring, this is the perfect place to come run the kids on a weekday or a Sunday afternoon. For $100 a year for a "sustaining membership" entitles you to two adult admissions anytime during public hours, plus free admission for your kids (or grandkids under 18). Since weekend admission is $20 per adult and $6 for kids 11 and under ($10 for kids 12-18), membership pays for itself within three visits. A highlight is the excellent Children's Garden (tip: Bring a change of clothes. Your kids will get wet!). A membership lets you make an affordable day trip here with the kids any time.

The Los Angeles Natural History Museum - A $70 family membership (or a $125 two-year membership) entitles you and your kids to free admission all year. Although museum entry is only $9 per adult and $2 for kids 5-12, the NMH has so much going on specifically geared for families that you'll want to return over and over without having to think about the cost (plus you'll feel virtuous for supporting a much-loved local institution). You can spend hours at the La Brea Tar Pits alone. Membership fees are of course tax-deductible.

The Los Angeles Museum of Art - A $90 family membership gets you into the museum all year long, plus two tickets for special exhibitions. While there, make sure you check out LACMA's Boone Children's Gallery.

The Aquarium of the Pacific - My kids could not get enough of this place -- to see the jellyfish exhibit and watch the seal show and touch the sharks...the $125 family membership was worth every cent. I liked the fact that my membership allowed me express-entrance (avoiding the very long summer lines), and also gave me a pass for the parking structure across the street. Regular admission is $21 for adults and nearly $12 for children, so this is another good example of a membership that pays for itself within three visits. Best of all, we could go for two hours or 20 minutes, depending on the kids' whims and mommy's general mood.

The Bowers Museum
- Located in Santa Ana, this beautiful museum features the excellent Bowers Kidseum. A $75 family membership gives you free access to the entire museum during open hours, as well as to the Kidseum, and attendant art camps and workshops. When you're hungry afterwards, downtown Santa Ana boasts the best Mexican food this side of the border. Make it a burrito day.

Legoland - Just down the 405 from overpriced and overcrowded Disneyland, LegoLand is a family favorite worthy of membership. Geared toward younger kids (under, say, 16) LegoLand offers a variety of gentle rides and hands-on Lego-based attractions. One day admission for one adult is $59 and $47 for adults, but a year pass costs $115 for adults and $89 for children, which entitles you to free admission anytime the park is open. Another option is the Model Mom Club, which allows you free entrance into the park on Thursdays with your small child for only $59.

I do go a little overboard, but I like a lot of options for outings with the kids. And yes, I do have more membership cards than credit cards in my wallet. A good thing, indeed.
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