Top 10 family sleepovers: For a roaring good time on a budget

Top 10 family sleepovers: For a roaring good time on a budgetFamilies searching for a taste of the African savanna on the cheap might consider booking a canvas tent this summer that overlooks sun-drenched plains brimming with rhinos, elephants and zebras -- all right here in America.

Sleepovers at zoos, museums, aquariums and amusement parks are gaining in popularity, and becoming a go-to activity for families interested in giving their kids a behind-the-scene look at animals and antiquities without the crowds that accompany most daytime trips.

"They're trying to give you a feel for going to another country," said Allen Nyhuis, author of America's Best Zoos, of his favorite family overnight offered by the San Diego Wild Animal Park. "It's a real safari experience, you aren't just going to hear the crickets and frogs, but you might hear African wildlife like monkeys and zebras."

Ranging in price from $29 to well over $200 per person, these overnights give participants the opportunity to experience everything from a scavenger hunt among Egyptian artifacts, to creating concealment devices in a spy museum, to bedding down under a tank filled with the world's largest fish, and are often sold out weeks in advance.

Organizers say that many events have loyal participants who even travel from out of state to bring their children back year after year -- considering an overnight at a museum or zoo a cheap, educational alternative to a local hotel.

"We do a program that you couldn't do unless you were here for an overnight," said Jacqueline Eyl, youth education director at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. "We have a huge number of people who come in from out of state and cut down on their hotel costs by staying with us."

We compiled a list of the top sleepovers at museums, zoos and aquariums around the country with upcoming dates this summer and fall -- but if you want to make reservations hurry because most of them are already filling up fast:

1. San Diego Wild Animal Park Roar & Snore Sleepovers (Escondido, Calif.) -- Families sleep in canvas tents overlooking a landscape covered with tall grass that could pass for the East African savanna, where antelope, giraffe, zebras, rhinos and more can be spotted grazing. Like travelers interested in upper-class African safaris, zoo goers can reserve spots in premium tents complete with wood floors and queen-sized beds. Prices range from $29 to $219 per person, depending on age and type of tent and include art programs and evening walks around the park. Non-members must also pay park admission of $37 per day for adults and $27 for kids 3 to 11 years of age. Programs are offered most Friday and Saturday nights starting July 3 through Nov. 27.

2. Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta, Ga.) -- A cruise director will guide guests through the aquarium's many galleries for an after- hours tour, which includes an undersea show. Slumber party guests can bed down next to a 30-foot-tall-by-60-feet-wide tank filled with four of the world's largest fish -- 40-foot-long whale sharks. Three dates remain this year for families interested in sleepovers on July 24, Aug. 21 and Sept. 25. The aquarium is also offering a singles sleepover on Aug. 6. Costs are $75 for members and $100 for non-members including admission, dinner, an evening snack and a "quick" breakfast.

3. The Field Museum (Chicago, IL.) -- Museum goers in the Windy City have been "Dozin' with the Dinos" for more than 15 years, often spreading their sleeping bags out right under Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex, who is celebrating her 10th anniversary at the museum this year. Guests will go on after-hours tours of the museum and participate in self-guided scavenger hunts of many exhibitions, including an Egyptian Musaba, where they are taught the different steps of mummification, said Beth Crownover, a director in the museum's education department. Two dates remain this year, Aug. 6 and Oct. 8. Prices range from $51 for members and groups up to $87 for premium packages and include breakfast.

4. Bronx Zoo (New York, N.Y.) -- The zoo's vocal peacocks provide the early-morning wake up call for families who visit the zoo on its overnight safaris, where they join in an after-hours tour and meet many animals when they're most active. The remaining dates for this year--the weekends of Sept. 11 and Sept. 25 -- already have wait lists. Admission is $145 and includes beverages, late night snack and breakfast. Dinner is not provided and children under five are not allowed.

5. International Spy Museum (Washington D.C.) -- The venue's seven-year-old "Operation Secret Slumber" offers participants something that regular museum goers don't receive: An opportunity to go on a real mission complete with handlers, aliases, concealment devices, moles and top secret contacts. "Our goal in this is not to teach people how to be spys," said Eyl, the museum's youth education director. "Using the context of spying and trade craft, it's to teach young people skills we all want them to have, like conflict resolution." Tickets are $115 per person for non-members and $105 for members -- kids ages 9 to 13 are accepted, with one parent required for every two children -- and include evening snack, light breakfast, admission to the museum on Sunday and a goody bag. Remaining dates for this year are Nov. 20 and Nov. 21.

6. Oregon Zoo (Portland, Ore.) -- The "ZooSnooze" offers many dates for families to choose from -- Tuesday through Saturday nights throughout the school year. The events are geared for groups from 15 to 75 people and run $46 per person for an overnight safari, a behind-the-scenes tour of the animal kitchen, where guests can make treats for the animals, a trip through the zoo's vet hospital, dinner, evening snack and breakfast and zoo admission for the following day.

7. Busch Gardens (Tampa Bay, Fla.) -- Families can sleep in Tiger Lodge, overlooking a tiger habitat in Jungala and ride many of the parks attractions. In the morning, guests will experience a sunrise safari across the Serengeti Plain, where they can feed the giraffes. Prices range from $68 per person for members to $78 for non members including dinner and breakfast, a T-shirt and water bottle, but not park admission. Remaining dates include July 2, July 9, July 16, July 23, July 30, Aug. 6 and Aug. 13.

8. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo (Cleveland, Ohio) -- Visitors can choose from several themed overnight adventures including the Outback After Dark, where they spend the night at an Australian sheep ranch, to the Rising Waters Safari Camp to the science-based Night Tracks, where participants use compasses and night vision goggles to track the gray wolf and other North American species. Prices start at $34 for members to $38 for non-members, depending on the theme chosen, and include a light snack and light breakfast, among other amenities. Many dates are available throughout the summer and fall.

9. Explora (Albuquerque, N.M.) -- This Southwestern museum considers itself a hybrid children's museum, science center, grandpa's garage and laboratory. The venue's overnight program, which welcomes first through eighth graders and their chaperones, features participating in 250 exhibition activities including understanding electricity, learning how sound is produced, exploring balance, and discovering how birds fly. Cost is $35 per student and includes a pizza dinner, snack and breakfast. Overnights are offered on Friday and Saturday nights from September through May.

10. Wisconsin Maritime Museum (Manitowoc, Wis.) -- Families can spend the night aboard the USS Cobia -- the nation's best-restored World War II submarine -- which is anchored alongside the museum in the Manitowoc River. Guests will race against the clock to unscramble code words and have the opportunity to reenact a battle. Cost is $39 per person, including guided tour of the sub, overnight accommodations and a tour of the museum. Sleepovers are scheduled for July 17, July 24 and Aug. 7.
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