Once upon a time, I planned to grow up and marry Maui, decades later I fell hard for the East Coast, and now I have a thing for Atlanta. Ready for your newest city crush? Do your pre-trip exploration with gusto, because whether you’re joining your spouse for a convention, just passing through, or looking for a big city vacation for the family, Atlanta has it all.
One caveat: While the Jewel of the South is awash in art and history museums, and botanical gardens, and renowned eateries, kids tend to fall into a stupor at the mention of plants and escargot (recently referred to by Madonna as “expensive snot.”) But mention colossal Ferris wheel, Coke tour with endless samples, waterparks and dancing fountains set to music – and it’s welcome to Kidlanta!
But first, weather, traffic and getting there. Atlantans spend summers in air conditioning, a pool, or another state. May through October is even toastier than RVA. Spring and fall? Ryan Gosling-gorgeous, but allergy meds are still a must. Winter is gray and rainy with sporadic blue skies and an occasional snow dusting. Traffic? It’s DC-level insane and best avoided by choosing hotels near activities and/or using a fabulous traffic app like Waze. Atlanta’s downtown is walkable, but the moment you leave the area surrounding Centennial Olympic Park, you’ll need to drive or hop the MARTA (the train and bus system for the Atlanta region).
A drive from RVA to Atlanta is a straight eight hours down I-85. We gas up half-way, throw a bag of chips and water at the kids, and roar on (a full lunch wastes valuable time). If eight hours of driving sounds like a drag, stop in Charlotte. For a nice, but inexpensive stay I recommend: Spring Hill Suites or Embassy Suites, I-85, exit 49. A flight from RVA to the busiest airport in the world – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – is about $250 per person, roundtrip, if you schedule in advance. atlanta-airport.com
I borrowed “bore-proof” from my 12-year-old who gushed (unusual for a tween) about these three Atlanta tours nestled in the heart of downtown Atlanta. All are worthy of your precious travel time and dollars.
ATL-Cruzers. We loved this twofer that tours guests through the city by electric car or Segway (mom and dad enjoy the tour; kids love the transportation adventure), offering a first-rate peek at Atlanta. You’ll coast by the birthplace and grave of Martin Luther King Jr., Fox Theater, the Margaret Mitchell House, and more. Kids must be fourteen to hop a Segway, but my two were thrilled with the electric car option (good for kids two and up). Take this tour first to plan the rest of your visit. atlcruzers.com
CNN Studio Tour. “I loved seeing the newsroom – that was cool!” said my other 12-year-old son. The outside of CNN looks like any building, but step inside and you’re Dorothy entering the Emerald City. The place is ginormous, with an equally huge food court. Get a 50-minute glimpse behind the scenes of the world’s first 24-hour/365-day newsroom. For eight and up. cnn.com/tour
The World of Coke. Before you chalk this one up as cheesy, trust me – it’s amazing! You won’t regret touring this slice of Americana. I shared with my boys Coke commercials that I loved as a kid, like the one where a boy offers Mean Joe Greene a Coke and gets the all-pro Steeler’s jersey in return, and another where teens sing, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing…” (You’re stuck now, too, aren’t you?). My husband immersed himself in the factory portion of the tour and the kids went bananas in the enormous Coke tasting room. Over one hundred Coke products, including the Fanta flavors, are on tap. Italy? Guatemala? Portugal? All here. Fanta Melon Frosty anyone? Vanilla Diet Coke? Sample away! For all ages. worldofcoca-cola.com
Learning, Enrichment, and Play – Indoors
One of my boys was shocked. “Wait. What do you mean they had to stand or sit in the back of the bus? Why?” Trust me, I had explained Jim Crow laws to my sons, but our work of educating the younger generation about race and diversity never ends. Period.
Keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive by taking this incredibly memorable guided tour through the great man’s grandparents’ home, where King was born and lived with his family for twelve years. Read the website carefully to assure attaining a free ticket to this popular tour that allows only fifteen visitors at a time in the home. Just a block or so away is the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King was baptized, became a co-pastor with his father, and where his funeral was held. Church services are now held in Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary – directly across the street from the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary. The Horizon Sanctuary is a newer, larger facility (Sunday services are at eight and eleven). The Heritage Sanctuary is open for tours and a few events are held there occasionally. On the same block, visit the beautiful King Center for Nonviolent Change where King and his wife, Coretta Scott King (who passed in ’06) are buried. You’ll see black and white photography and hear heart-wrenching audio from the Civil Rights leader. Tissues and straightforward parenting recommended. Admission and parking are free. thekingcenter.org
Now, hear this traveling truth: Learning is a nice perk, but exhausting your kids is self-preservation for parents. Here are my top three healthy sleep-aid spots for families in Atlanta.
Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Ready to sneak in some educational fun? Head for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History – which USAToday placed on its “Top 10 in the World for Dinosaurs” list. This place bursts with life-sized models of dinosaurs and fantastic traveling exhibits like “Brain: The Inside Story.” The third floor features a wowza climbing structure for the eight-and-under crowd. Later, catch two stunning shows: Mysteries of the Unseen World (through mid-July) and if you haven’t seen it at the Science Museum of Virginia, Humpback Whales (through mid-June). Check the Fernbank calendar for offerings and events, like reptile and superhero days. All ages. fernbankmuseum.org
Imagine It! The Children’s Museum of Atlanta. This kids’ museum isn’t just more of RVA’s darling kid-museum style installations. Atlanta’s big city version comes with an entirely different set of manipulative resources and play areas. Your sweethearts will delight in playing with giant ball machines, operating enormous tools like a crane, creating sand sculptures, and lots more. Seriously worth it for two to eight. childrensmuseumatlanta.org
LEGOLAND Discovery Center (Buckhead). Just the ticket for LEGO enthusiasts who live to build and race LEGO cars, watch 4D LEGO movies, build on “earthquake tables” (is your creation is quake-proof?), jump into the biggest box of LEGO bricks ever, play on a Ninja training course, and more. Littles will love Duplo Village. Two and under are free and it’s just twenty minutes from downtown. legolanddiscoverycenter.com/atlanta
Loads of Outdoor Fun, Too
Centennial Olympic Park. Almost twenty years ago, Atlanta played host to the Summer Olympics, leaving a stunning park in its wake boasting gorgeous fountains, blooming trees, and two kid-approved play structures all wreathed by the World of Coke, CNN, the SkyView Ferris wheel, and the Atlanta Children’s Museum. Bathing suit alert! The centerpiece of the park is the world’s largest interactive fountain, featuring the iconic Olympic rings spurting water for kids to splash in and a musical show that plays four times a day, all year long.
The park also delivers a gorgeous Fourth of July fireworks show and Wednesday Wind Down with live music programming, now through September. For all ages. centennialpark.com
Lake Lanier. Driving in or out of Atlanta means passing Lake Lanier, a lakeside resort that sprawls about thirty minutes from Atlanta and boasts a wildly-impressive zip line and canopy tour, horseback riding, golf, biking, and water sports galore (sailboats, pontoon boats, rental yachts, kayaks, and personal boats). The centerpiece of the resort, LanierWorld, has a beach, a water park with eleven water slides, a large wave pool, a little kid lagoon, and another wave pool for the cutest set. lakelanier.com
Six Flags Over Georgia. Given the average RVA family’s proximity to and love affair with theme parks, I’ll briefly say that this park is for coaster lovers. The newest is Batman, the Ride. Little guys, however, will love the aviation ride, antique cars, and more. Arrive early to avoid crowds and at noon, head for my favorite part of the park, the Kings Dominion-like attached waterpark. Consider the Flash Pass for crowded weekends. Best for 6 and up. sixflags.com/overgeorgia
SkyView Atlanta. Unlike the rest of my family, I hate heights, but one ride on SkyView and I was sold. We all loved this Ferris wheel that soars almost twenty stories above Centennial Olympic Park and features forty-two climate-controlled gondolas (no dangling feet!). We revolved four times around and received one stunner of a view of Atlanta and miles beyond. All ages. skyviewatlanta.com
Piedmont Park. This gorgeous park sitting inside the city has been a part of Atlanta’s fabric since the 1800s (think Maymont) and boasts 185 acres. Just a quick ten-minute drive from downtown, this don’t-miss experience sports a phenomenal play structure for kids, a farmers’ market, and a sparkling new pool with old-school prices. ($1 to $4 for a day of swimming.) All ages. piedmontpark.org
Stone Mountain Theme Park. It’s a monstrous understatement to label Stone Mountain kid-bliss. Go one time and you’ll see why this is the most visited attraction in Georgia. Plan a full day by packing bathing suits and lunch (or dine in the village). The Adventure pass (discounts online) puts you and the kids onto every Stone Mountain activity: Summit Skyride (a huge gondola glides you to the top of Stone Mountain for an awesome view of Atlanta), exciting train ride, 4D theater, SkyHike (this high-ropes course three stories up is super safe), mini-golf, a small-ish water play area, and tons more. Note: The duck tour is extra, and extra fun at that. Ducks are WWII-era vehicles that traverse both land and lake – so expect your friendly guide to drive along and – boom! – float straight into Stone Mountain Lake. Picnic, camp, or even spend the night in Stone Mountain’s fancy digs. Closed-toe shoes a must. All ages. stonemountainpark.com
And I’ve barely scratched Atlanta’s surface. I didn’t mention river rafting down the Chattahoochee (ShootTheHooch.com), taking in a Braves game (Atlanta.braves.mlb.com), or visiting Fox Theater to catch Cinderella or Elf: The Musical this year, or The Wizard of Oz or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 2016. FoxTheatre.org
From a rockin’ food scene, Broadway theater, and outrageous concerts (Taylor Swift Shakes it Off in October) to outdoor adventures, big league sports, and tours guaranteed to engage – prepare to be spellbound.
Atlanta. (Sigh.) It’s love at first visit for the whole family.
Snoozing in Atlanta
Ready to hit one out of the park for your family? Regular folks tend to think that the Ritz-Carlton is out of our reach, right? Turns out that the elite hotel line is a go-to for families in full-on celebration mode. Your daughter just accepted into her first-choice university? Your beloved has five years of remission under his belt? Even if you have the little guys along for the fun, keep in mind that the Ritz-Carlton rolls out the red carpet for kids and families. Juice stains? crayon marks? No worries! You’re among friends.
The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta (not to be confused with the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead) is in the heart of downtown. A stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta means you’re mere steps from Centennial Olympic Park (and those endlessly fun water fountains for the kids), and the ton of excitement within and surrounding the park. Stone Mountain and LEGOland Discovery Center are less than thirty minutes from the property. The Ritz-Carlton is also a delight for foodies. When you reserve your room, inquire about the concierge level that comes with a cool dining experience. RitzCarlton.com
Embassy Suites Atlanta at Centennial Olympic Park. Prefer a simple bed to lay your head? Then consider this property that delivers location, an outdoor pool that overlooks the park, a suite that sleeps up to six, a microwave, mini-fridge, and a hot breakfast in the morning. EmbassySuites3.hilton.com