This year marks our four-year-old’s first year in any kind of formal classroom setting, which means it’s also our first time as parents doing all the things parents do when they have kids in school. Enter Fall Break. We didn’t have such a thing back in my day – when we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow – and it’s hard to really justify a “break” when your son only goes to school twice a week for about five hours at a time.
But hey, who am I to judge an excuse for a family vacay?
Instead of loading up and trekking to the beach or mountains, we wanted to take a mini trip within easy driving distance of home. Our overwhelming trip to Disney last year made us rethink how we do family vacations (for now), so we wanted to go somewhere interesting but not overly stimulating. Several friends suggested Huntsville, Alabama.
After some hemming and hawing about the appeal for a preschooler, we decided to take a gamble. It had been nearly a decade since my husband and I last visited (for a sci-fi convention called CONstellation – get it?), and we thought it might be neat enough.
Never been to Huntsville? You absolutely should.
Located a breezy two hours south of Chattanooga, Huntsville offers the perfect getaway for probably every age group. And if you have a kid who likes space, all the better. It’s not called Rocket City for nothing. Here’s a highlight reel of our trip. I took 310 pictures during our two-day excursion. You’re welcome for only including a handful.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center
I’ve always loved space and the idea that there’s this vast frontier of unexplored cosmos beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Lucky for us, our kiddo seems to be into space, too. Huntsville’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center hosts plenty of things to see and do for the space-loving crowd. We started our trip here.
With the basic admission – kids 4 and under are free! – you get access to all the main exhibits of the museum, and it’s a lot to see even without adding any extras. You can upgrade your ticket with things like planetarium shows and special tours, but the basic ticket worked fine for us on this first visit with Arthur. We hadn’t been to the space center in a long time, and I forgot or didn’t notice how many things there are for kids to touch and do.
We thought that Arthur would be blown away by the size of the Saturn V rocket on display (because it takes my breath away), but he merely glanced at it on his way into the exhibit. The space center is no fool when it comes to small children, though. There are several places for little legs to climb and explore, and Arthur took full advantage of the preschool play areas.
There’s also a section outside on the grounds where younger kids can ride carnival-style rides. Arthur eagerly jumped into his first solo ride and just as eagerly asked to get off once it started. He then insisted I stay off the adult version of the ride.
We remembered Dreamland BBQ from our last trip to Huntsville nearly a decade ago as being among our favorite barbecue places – and that’s a high honor in a land brimming with barbecue joints. Despite some perplexing mediocre online reviews for Dreamland, we found that it still exceeds expectations. Their slogan is appropriate: “Ain’t nothin’ like it nowhere.”
Our server asked if we wanted “bread and sauce” after taking our drink order, and of course we did. White bread dipped in the restaurant’s tangy, slightly-spicy sauce was the weirdest and most perfect start to our feast of BBQ favorites. And as luck would have it, they were serving fried green tomatoes that night. Even better? Their sweet tea is perfect.
EarlyWorks Children’s Museum
We’re spoiled in Chattanooga with the Creative Discovery Museum, but I had read good things about EarlyWorks in Huntsville and decided to check it out. In a word? Awesome – with some caveats. Overall, the museum feels smaller and more geared toward younger children, though there are exhibits clearly meant for older kids. But there’s tons of history, plenty of hands-on exhibits, and a couple of features that made it more interesting to me and my four-year-old.
EarlyWorks is packed with play opportunities, from pretend play with costumes in the Colonial America house to giant Tinker Toys and the “toys of yesteryear” exhibit. There’s also a life-size model of a cow with rubber udders you can “milk.”
And, perhaps my favorite part, there’s a tree lurking in the corner of one exhibit. We walked into an open room with a huge floor map of Alabama, and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a pair of eyes that will haunt my soul forever. This tree allegedly tells stories, but we didn’t see it active while we were there. Its clock buddy, located in the same room, isn’t quite as ominous but still obviously comes from the pages of a 1970s set design book.
The museum hosts class fieldtrips as well, and we were told by two different staff members that if the class was doing anything specific, like a presentation or activity, and we wanted to join in, we were welcome to. We didn’t take them up on the offer, but that’s a neat feature.
Some people fly around the globe with their little ones. We do not. But we do like to travel a bit, and we want Arthur to see new things. Mini vacations are a good compromise between the need to explore and the need to not overwhelm. We loved our short jaunt to Huntsville and look forward to going back as the kiddo gets older.