Crossing Off My Bucket List: Madison-area family friendly attractions

10 Madison area attractions best enjoyed with grandkids.

These are in no particular order. We really appreciate what each of the 10 activities brings to our quality of life. And it isn’t just the City of Madison that makes this a great place to live — we like to check out the offerings in the entire area.

1. Eplegaarden

Pick apples at Eplegaarden, Da apple orchard vit da Norvegian exposure, located south of Madison at 2227 Fitchburg Road in the City of Fitchburg. Eplegaarden is an old fashioned orchard featuring selv plukk (U-pick) apples, raspberries and pumpkins for rural farm fun.

You’re given a bag and the chance to fill it, if that’s your choice. Be prepared to walk to the orchard. We took a wagon for the kids, and used it to haul back the apples (that was smart). There’s a country store and, because this is a fall offering, we enjoyed the October haystacks and a hotdog and apple cider, served in the barn.

We spent a few hours and had a great time. Not only that, but the kids loved watching Nana changing the apples that they picked off the tree into apple pie. It’s a great way to begin connecting children to the sources of the foods they eat.

2. Olbrich Botanical Gardens

This place is really a community treasure; our little ones love walking Olbrich’s gardens and playing in the sprinklers. Whether we’re bird watching or just trying to help them burn off energy (they can explore, climb and learn), it is one of our favorite stops all year long. The dome is an incredibly re-energizing experience, because it is so calm and beautiful, with birds, waterfall, and so many varieties of plants and flowers! Outside, walking the amazing grounds, you can’t help but love it. Bring a camera — we’ve always taken beautiful photos. Entering the dome will cost you under $2 per person; outside gardens are free (but make a donation if you can).

And make sure you walk through Olbrich Botanical Gardens during Olbrich’s Blooming Butterflies. See hundreds of exotic butterflies in local collector Dan Capps’ fascinating collection. Everywhere you turn inside the dome, there are butterflies flying. The exhibit will be there July 16 through August 10. 3330 Atwood Avenue, Madison. The cost is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 3 to 12, free for children 2 and under, and free for Olbrich Botanical Society members. Parking is free.

3. The House on the Rock

The House on the Rock, 5754 Hwy 23, Spring Green, WI, hands down, remains our very favorite attraction. It’s easy to make it a day trip and worth the time. It will take a few hours just to see the incredible, unbelievable, amazing collection of Alex Jordan, Jr. I mean it — if you’ve been thinking, “Someday we will,” just do it. Go to its Web site here for just a hint of how unusual it is, and the crazy history of the buildings. Want to see the largest carousel in the world? Knights on horses? An underground city? And much, much, much more.

It is starting to look a little dated (i.e., worn), but the upkeep it would have to take to keep it on display at the prices they charge makes that a very fair trade. It is a 50+ year old marvel.

Prices range from $15.50 for children 4-17 to $28.50 per adult for the pass to all three sections — I suggest you see it all. It’s a self-guided tour, so you see what you want to see and leave when you want. Children aged three and under are free, as is the parking. Regardless whether or not you have kids along, bring additional money for the token machines to see the two-story music machines in operation.

There is food available onsite (at attraction prices), and also picnic areas.

Warning: People with Attention Deficit Disorder have an advantage, because you’ll see more in two hours than your brain can register. And you’ll get so caught up in the attraction that you’ll forget to take pictures of the kids. You exit through a gift shop selling better pictures than you could take of the collection… as we learned… so focus on the kids and watching their faces.

4. Schuster’s Playtime Farm

Take a hayride and pick pumpkins at Schuster’s Playtime Farm, 1326 Hwy. 12 & 18, Deerfield, WI 53531. It’s a well-established annual trek for locals to ride a hay wagon up to the pumpkin patch, visit the petting zoo, and walk the corn maze. We skip the haunted house since the grandkids are too small for that yet, but the cider and food is inexpensive and tasty.

Our grandchildren run to the playground area, which seemed to be larger this past year, and the hayride is a family delight. Also, imagine a barn full of corn (the kids jump in and play). If you pick your pumpkin, it’s weighed upon your return from the field; that’s how you are charged. Our kids are still too small to walk a corn maze (a big crowd pleaser, created by the best corn maze designer in the world), but they sure love the rest of the farm.

Hats off to the Schuster family for keeping this delightful farm open to the public.

5. Sun Prairie’s Sweet Corn Festival

Eat corn at Sun Prairie’s Sweet Corn Festival from Thursday, August 20 through Sunday, August 23, 2009 at Angell Park, near the intersection of Highway 19 and Highway N. We never miss it! From the ears and ears of corn to the petting zoo to the carnival rides, it’s a great time with kids. $1 admission on Saturday and Sunday per person for gate walk-in, then free entertainment, children’s activities and more. Children age 6 and under are free admission. Buttons are $1.50 for unlimited entrance to the Festival. Parking is $5.00 per vehicle and includes admission.

As with any of these festivals with carnivals, that’s where you’re going to spend money — the carnival. Our advice is always buy the wrist band (about $20). You think you won’t spend that, but the average ride takes three tickets (at $1.50 each)…. However, there is plenty to do without the carnival.

There typically is a craft vendor area and entertainment. Plan to be there for a few hours, but get there early…. sometimes the supply of corn really does run out before evening.

6. The Dane County Fair

Don’t miss the Dane County Fair with carnival, animal barns and lots of opportunities for children to see and touch a variety of farm creatures. This year it is running July 15th through the 19th at the Alliant Energy Center. The fair is free for children ages 5 and under, $3 for children 6-11, and $7 for people ages 12 and over. Also available — a season pass.

This is absolutely one of our “never miss” experiences. Children get to directly interact here with more animals (because they are farm animals rather than wild) than anywhere else we go — from llamas to goats to rabbits, cows and horses. It’s a GREAT experience for children and for anyone who enjoys fairs.

Hint: it gets HOT; the carnival is on cement and the heat can be overwhelming at noon, so take sun screen and an umbrella for shade. At the very least, wear a wide-brimmed hat. (You think you’ll look silly but you’ll really thank me for this advice). A wagon for smaller children is a good idea, too. And take water; you can buy food and beverage, but it will be at carnival prices.

7. Neighborhood Parks

What about neighborhood parks? They are free, they are fun, and they are an investment in our youth.

This first photo is Winnequah Park in Monona — the “Monona Youth Dream Park,” a children’s playground built through a community effort spearheaded by Tim and Karen Turino and the Monona Optimists Club. The central area of the Dream Park resembles a large castle with turrets, walls and bridges, a painted moat at the entrance and a dragon sculpture rising from it. When you see a wizard statue and dragon, you’re there. You can meander to the back and sometimes see ducks (and once we heard a bag piper who happened to be playing in the park — a surprise!)

Our other favorites are Fireman’s Park in Middleton (pictured right), which our Chicago grandson particularly enjoys when he comes to Madison because it has a lot of trees and park amenities. We also spend a lot of time in McKee Farms Park in Fitchburg. These parks have open shelter houses and hosts lots of summer activities. Perfect places for picnics, too.

All of these parks are small-child friendly — something we need for our wee ones.

8. Brat Fest

In addition to a carnival (wrist bands were $18 each) and music by live bands, there is the main event — the Brat Fest tent. If you missed it in 2009, you missed celebrity servers and a new world’s record — 208,752 brats were served!

Mark your calendars — the next Bratfest will be Memorial Day weekend on Willow Island at Alliant Energy Center May 28 through May 31, 2010. Our little ones love the food, and there are a lot of carnival rides appropriate for the smaller child, too. We’d like a little more shade, as those few shaded seats go way too fast, but overall it is a thumbs way up experience. Maybe next year, we’ll remember to bring an umbrella for the sun!

(Way to go, Metcalfe’s, and the hundreds of community volunteers.)

9. Bowling

Enjoy a game of bowling! It’s a great way to reinforce “take turns” and to give little ones a chance to compete (and sometimes win) when playing adults. The bumper pads sort of level the playing field (said the poor bowler), when they automatically raise for the children’s turn and not for yours….

We like Bowl-A-Vard at 2121 E. Springs Dr. in Madison, for the lanes and also because the food is surprisingly good and relatively inexpensive. It doesn’t break the bank to lunch there, and it isn’t all fried grease. Normally we don’t focus this much on food, but it was a surprise when they kitchen staff expanded their menu and kept the quality high.

Rates change after 5 p.m., and for weekends. Weekdays is $2.75/$3.25/$4.00 for adults, less for children per game. Seniors are $2. Shoes are $1.50. (Since it’s now smoke free, it’s much a more family-friendly place than it used to be). Check times first; we didn’t anticipate summer hours and had disappointed kids one Saturday afternoon…. Now we know to check first.

Squeamish about those shoes? There’s a bowling store on site. My husband Kevin and I bought our own bowling shoes; I think I spent about $30 for mine, though that was years ago…. Every time we go, I appreciate that investment.

10: Henry Vilas Zoo

Go back often. We do! Madison’s Henry Vilas Zoo, 702 South Randall Avenue, Madison, is still free (but always a great place to make a donation if you can). Cyber, the new and surprisingly large (450-pound tiger is a wonderful addition, seen as he is in a more natural habitat than a cage. Magnificent animal! Magnificent zoo!

And we spend a lot of time in the dedicated children’s area. Plan to pay $1 to ride the carousel in the playground area, and there’s a little train, too. In the petting zoo area, for 75 cents you can buy a cone of goat food and let the kids try their hand at being junior zookeepers by teaching them to approach and feed animals. We also buy an animal mask at the gift shop (you’ll see a lot of little critters running around in masks) — about $3 each.

There is food on site for humans, of course (at zoo prices), but you also can bring a picnic. [Hint — If you plan to eat in the picnic area and are allergic to bees, bring an epinephrine auto injector; the soda thrown in the garbage cans really attracts bees.]

Parking in the lot is always at a premium, so don’t expect it if you don’t get there at the right time. However, the parking is free, and on-street parking within a block or two is usually an option.

Where will we go next? We’ll check in again this summer. Adventure awaits….