Denver with Tweens: A Perfect Family Day

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Denver with Tweens: A Family Vacation

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Wake up and smell the pine trees: Denver, Colo., is the perfect place to enjoy a family outing at a reasonable price. With visits to the zoo and the Museum of Nature and Science -- not to mention the good food at a variety of restaurants, parents looking for a day out in Denver with tweens can have it all without breaking the bank.


Morning


The Mile High city is packed full of family-friendly destinations all within a 20-mile radius. Begin the day in Denver's downtown district by consuming a delicious, if calorie-heavy, breakfast at The Egg & I (560 South Holly St., Denver, CO 80246; 303-577-9050).The menu offers selections that tweens should find humorous (even early in the morning), such as a Breakfast Sundae, which resembles a parfait complete with layers of apples, seasonal berries, vanilla yogurt and sweet granola. Another youth favorite is the Chocolate Chip Pancake plate, which is as sinful as it sounds, drizzled in chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream -- truly a breakfast of champions. Doors open at 6AM. Monday through Saturday and 7AM on Sunday and almost everything on the menu costs less than $9.

After enjoying a warm breakfast, make sure to venture out early to the Denver Zoo (2300 Steele St., Denver, CO, 80205; 303-376-4800). The earlier you get there the better as crowds tend to accumulate after mid-morning and the animals are much livelier in the pre-lunch hours. Climate-specific attractions include a sea-lion enclosure with water feature, a polar bear pen and Bear Mountain, which lays claim to being the first naturalistic habitat built in a zoo in the United States when it was built in 1918. It was renovated in 1987.

A fun feature of the Denver Zoo is that it offers attractions for all ages. Those on the younger end of the tween years will enjoy riding the Pioneer Train and the Endangered Species Carousel, which are both nestled near the Pachyderm Habitat and right next to a pond full of pink flamingos. Here's a fun tip: stick around at the pond for a couple of minutes midday as the flamingos like to engage in a little post-lunch skirmishing, which always gets a laugh.

The most unique feature of the Denver Zoo is the wildlife that runs free throughout the grounds. Not the lions or tigers or bears, of course, but that of the less dangerous, yet wildly entertaining variety. Vivid blue and green peacocks patrol the park, squawking and fanning their tail feathers for all to see. Pesky chipmunks run rampant, begging for scraps from boxed lunches and generally inciting the smaller children to screech, "Chip and Dale!" Geese waddle on pathways right alongside visitors and can sometimes be spotted perched atop nests in the park's ample foliage.

The Denver Zoo is open seven days a week, save for inclement weather. Hours of operation differ slightly with each season. During the summer, doors open at 9AM and close at 5PM; winter hours are shorter at 10AM to 4PM. Tickets are a reasonably priced, starting at $13 a pop for guests 12 and over and $8 for age's three to 11 (depending on the season). Children under two years of age get in free. There are also a smattering of free days at the zoo throughout the year and found on the website.

One little word of warning: for parents with kids who make frequent trips to the restroom: steer clear of the lavatories in the Tropical Discovery center, they are truly no larger than a reptile exhibit and share a similar atmosphere.


Afternoon


After learning about indigenous species and having a beast of a time at the zoo, head on over to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which is literally right around the corner (2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO 80205; 303-370-6000). Truly a treasure trove of sensory delights, the museum offers such diverse exhibits as Space Odyssey, Egyptian Mummies, Prehistoric Journey and Expedition Health. Upon entering the four-story building, tweens will be welcomed by a towering, menacing Tyrannosaurus Rex in the lobby. The T-Rex Cafe, also found on the first floor, offers a hungry brood the chance to refresh, but is only open from 11AM to 2PM. If you are planning to eat a large supper, stop by the Grab & Go snack bar instead for a muffin, fresh fruit cup or Jell-O pack.

Now that tummies are no longer rumbling, stroll over to Expedition Health, which is located on the second floor. As one of the most highly interactive exhibits in the museum, Expedition Health allows tweens to explore the human body, from the inside out. Kids can go from station to station participating in live demonstrations about body systems. Tweens can even look at cells taken from their own cheeks in the Biology Base Camp area of the exhibit.

Evening


For a truly unforgettable dinner and the end to a perfect day in Denver with tweens, head over to Casa Bonita (6715 W. Colfax Ave., Lakewood, CO 80214; 303-232-5115), a Denver-area institution just west of downtown. Located in a somewhat nondescript shopping center, Casa Bonita stands out. How could it not, as its facade is reminiscent of a vibrantly painted Mexican church, complete with an elaborate fountain and bell tower. Try to arrive sometime after the dinner rush, which is roughly 5PM to 6PM, as the line sometimes trails out the door.

The appeal of Casa Bonita is the decor, which was featured in an episode of "South Park." The restaurant is modeled after a Mexican village and it can feel like a village, with seating up to 1,100 guests. Themed dining nooks include a mine-shaft on the first level, complete with stalactites and runaway mine carts; a tropical oasis with a 30-foot waterfall; an aristocratic dining hall painted bright magenta; and a lantern-lit cave. If that's not enough sensory overload for one night, tweens will love visiting the supposedly haunted Black Bart's Cave, the small arcade and the cheesy gift shop. Word to the wise: the food is not spectacular -- pretty much your standard Tex-Mex fare -- but the free sopapillas are warm and plentiful. Just raise the flag on the table to keep 'em coming. Dinner entrees range from $10 - $15 for adults and about $5 for children.

With a full stomach and enough memories to fill a scrapbook, a day in Denver, Colo., with tweens doesn't have to break the bank if you know where to go.

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