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United States: Chicago: The Windy City For Families

Sitting on the steps of the Art Insititute in Chicago, we witnessed what appeared to be an action scene for a cops show. Police cars, sirens blaring, lurched to a stop in front of us. Uniformed cops leapt out, guns drawn, while plain clothes officers leap-frogged over cars to get to the scene. The chase was real. They were after the "pot-bellied bandit" who had just robbed another Chicago bank, this time right across from the famous art gallery. Chuffing down the street, he was apprehended only blocks away.

You may not be able to guarantee such live-action excitement on a trip to the Windy City, but there's enough going on to keep any kid enthused for days. This is a family-friendly place where families sleep-over in the Natural History Museum beside the dinosaurs, make clay pots on Lill Street, home to 40 potters, or view the sights from a new 15-story ferris wheel on Navy Pier. The city even hosts an annual summer children's party in Oz Park, named for Wizard of Oz writer Frank Baum who lived there. What's also terrific is that you can see much of it for free. By alternating visiting days, we toured the zoo and several museums, listened to a free symphony concert in Grant park, took an architecture walking tour-at no cost whatsoever. Also free are the bands that set up on the sidewalks and the street sculptures by such famous artists as Picasso whose towering face of a woman in a downtown square makes a great impromptu kiddie slide.

Like Toronto, Chicago is a city of neighbourhoods, some of which shouldn't be visited. We were stopped several times by policeman who warned us of certain areas known for drug deals and drive-by shootings. But unlike Toronto, the city makes full use of its 29 miles of lakefront. Chicagoans swim, rollerblade, bike, and even fish along the large parkland stretched between the newly renovated Navy Pier at one end, with its musical carousel and IMAX screen, and the glass-enclosed Oceanarium hovering over the lake at the other. It may be a bonus that Nike Town, a store that's part adventure with a video floor pond, Michael Keaton's bat boots, and its own basketball half-court for testing shoes, is located on the Magnificent Mile nearby. Chicago is a walkable city and you're going to need a good pair of walking shoes just to skim the top of what kids, and parents, might want to experience:

GETTING AN OVERVIEW: Chicago is a city of extremes. Home to the world's largest chewing gum manufacturer (Wrigley's) and the world's largest aquarium, Chicago also boasts the world's tallest building-the Sears Tower. Whiz up to the top in the world's fastest elevator. It makes the 103-story journey in 55 seconds. Kids can also get a good view of the city from the top of a double-decker bus that's decorated with graffiti or from one of the many tour boats that sails out into Lake Michigan. We overheard a single dad on deck point out to his two young sons the place where he proposed to their mother. For them, Chicago obviously took on a new perspective.

MUST-SEES: There are over 40 museums in Chicago, including the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art and the famous Art Institute with its pair of golden lions guarding the door. Kids will love the Museum of Science and Industry with its dinosaurs, captured German sub and a dollhouse containing over 1000 miniature pieces. At the Field Museum of Natural History, they can experience a recreated Egyptian tomb and a Tahitian market; family sleep-overs held once a month include stories and ghostly flashlight tours before bedding down beside a giant mounted elephant or spear carrier. Young children may enjoy the Chigaco Children's Museum at Navy Pier where they can build a dam, fix bones in a city hospital, or paint a mural. On Friday evenings, kids over six can attend special sky shows at the Adler Planetarium. A large screen hooked up to a telescope shows close-ups of the moon, planets, and galaxies.

SPORTS GALORE: You can take young ball players to catch the Cubs at ivy-covered Wrigley Field or the White Sox at slick Comiskey Park. Watch local hero Michael Jordan and the Bulls at the new United Center. Get a "Bull's Eye View" of the city in a bus that's shaped like a bull and smothered with pictures of basketball players in action. Or, head downtown to the sidewalk "Wall of Fame" where kids can match their own hands to cement imprints of sports superstars like Tony Esposito. Then there's professional hockey with the Blackhawks and football with the Bears.

MORE ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS: The Lincoln Park Zoo is made for young children. Surrounded by a large park, the zoo is small enough to see everything in a couple of hours. Known for their expertise in raising gorillas, zoo staff also care for a penguin colony, a petting zoo, and a farmyard. The John G. Shedd Aquarium is home to 7000 sea creatures. A must-see is the dolphin show at the attached Oceanarium, a glass-walled ampitheatre jutting out into the lake where the friendly creatures cavort five times a day.

MEALS: In this city, kids don't have to worry about food. Some people claim the Indian word checagou means "wild onion." Deep-dish pizza was invented here and there's even a restaurant devoted to hot dogs called Gold Coast Dogs. There's a unique Rock 'N' Roll McDonald's with live-size statues of the Beatles, a 59 Corvette and music parents will enjoy, a Planet Hollywood, a Hard Rock Café, and Ed Debevic's Short Orders Deluxe 50's diner. Teenage fans of Oprah's will enjoy her home-cooked food and her crazy painting collection at The Eccentric. If the kids are getting up at an ungodly hour, take them to Lou Mitchell's for pancakes served on formica tables by wacky waitstaff. It opens at 5:30 a.m.

WHERE TO STAY: Because there's always some festival or convention happening, hotels fill up fast. Good bets for families include the Holiday Inn Chicago City Centre (1-800-HOLIDAY) where kids 19 and under stay free, the Days Inn Lake Shore Drive (1-800-325-2525) where a suite costs $135, and the Double-Tree Guest Suites-Chicago (1-800-222-TREE). A new toll-free trip-planning service is in operation. Any questions about hotels, booking sports tickets, etc., call 1-800-2CONNECT.





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