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Thursday, June 3, 2004 05:39 am

Kids in the Lou

The Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Gardens
Photo by Roland Klose

f you're traveling with kids this summer, you've probably braced yourself for the relentless refrain of Are we there yet? Portable DVD players and video games can stave it off for a few miles, but the only guaranteed muzzle for the AWTY? whine is a resounding answer, "Yes!"

That happens sooner, of course, if your destination is St. Louis, just a hundred miles away, yet far enough and big enough to let you know you're definitely not in Springfield anymore. There's so much for kids to do in the Lou, your only problem will be choosing which fun thing to do first.

Here's our suggested list -- keeping an eye on the pocketbook to get the utmost bang for your buck, and working your way up from merely fun to pure delirium:

The Gateway Arch

If you've done it once, good. But if your kids haven't yet taken a school field trip up through the innards of this architectural novelty, odds are they will pester you until you take them. After all, it's impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing the inverted catenary curve logo or driving past the Arch itself, so you might as well get it over with.

We're listing it first because it's entirely possible that the Arch may prove a bit anti-climactic. Yes, it is taller than the Washington Monument and yes, it is an amazing architectural creation. But some people could find the process of touring it to be tedious and uncomfortable for a payoff that's not unlike being in a skyscraper, albeit one lacking the modern amenities of air conditioning and bathrooms.

The journey begins with acquiring tickets, which can be done in advance (online) or in person. The decision of whether you want the Arch à la carte or as the centerpiece of a combo platter may prove crucial, so take the temperament of your kids and the constraints of your schedule into consideration. Options include everything from a documentary film and a giant screen movie (each about $20 for a family of four) to a sightseeing riverboat cruise (about $28 for a family of four). The trip up into the Arch will run you about $25 for a family of four. Parking at the nearby underground garage is $6. Package deals are available.

No matter which option you choose, you'll need to plan ahead in order to get the most enjoyment out of the Arch. Make sure the kids have full tummies, empty bladders, and comfortable shoes, as there are no concession stands, bathrooms or chairs available once you get in line.

The first long line takes you into a sort of holding area. From there, numbers are called allowing you to board the tram, a truly unique transporter composed of dimly-lit, windowless, five-passenger pods. At the top, you will disembark into a compact corridor crammed with people waiting to get into your pod. You have to hustle your kids along, up the stairs, to the viewing area that is the top of the Arch.

The view is spectacular. Carpeted ledges allow smaller kids to perch right in the narrow row of windows so they can enjoy the scenery, too. And they should, because there is literally nothing else to do, except wait your turn for a tram-ride down.

For more information, call 877-982-1410 or visit www.stlouisarch.com.

Missouri Botanical Gardens

When you think of entertaining kids, fancy flower gardens don't necessarily spring to mind. But Missouri Botanical Gardens has something to amuse all ages.

Some treats are blatantly aimed at the younger set, like the fancy computerized exhibits in the interpretive center adjacent to the Climatron. But our kids were equally enchanted by the exotic plants in the indoor rain forest and the bell chimes near the scented herb garden. They tolerated the walk through the peaceful Japanese garden even before they discovered that the four-acre lake was stocked with neon-colored koi fish, big as a man's leg, begging for food under the footbridge. Pitching food pellets into the fishes' gaping craws turned out to be such an entertaining sport that it took the promise of another adventure to lure them away. We would still be stuck on that bridge, feeding koi, were it not for the Victorian maze.

Not too easy, but not quite impossible either, the hedge maze proved the perfect challenge for our 10-year-old son. We old folk got to watch from a shaded perch in the observatory as he wound his way through the carefully carved shrubs -- over and over and over again -- until hunger finally overcame him. Then we were off to lunch at the Garden Café.

Missouri Botanical Gardens is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily during the summer, and as late as 9 p.m. on Wednesdays in the summer, for 7:30 p.m. jazz concerts at the Garden's Cohen Amphitheater. Admission to the Gardens is free for kids through age 12, and $7 for ages 13 to 64. For more information, call 800-642-8842 or visit www.mobot.org online.

The Saint Louis Zoo

You don't have to take our word for it; the latest edition of Zagat Surveys' U.S. Family Travel Guide ranks the St. Louis Zoo as the fourth best overall attraction in the nation, outscoring even the famed San Diego Zoo.

Our favorite thing to do at the zoo is to watch the huge hippos swimming languidly underwater. But that doesn't mean that's the best thing to do, because we can't pretend we've seen the whole zoo. With more than 800 species displayed across 90 acres, you could easily spend an entire day here and still not see everything.

And they're adding new features all the time. If you haven't visited this zoo lately, you haven't ridden the warthog on the Conservation Carousel or seen penguins swimming underwater in the Penguin and Puffin Coast exhibit, both of which opened in May 2003.

Best of all, it's free! There are small fees for certain exhibits and attractions (ranging from $2 per person for the carousel or the insectarium to $4 per person for the railroad or the children's zoo), but even most of these are free between 8 and 9 each morning. And if you get really lucky, you can find a free parking spot on the street (otherwise, it's $8 in the zoo parking lot).

The Saint Louis Zoo, located in Forest Park, is open every day during the summer from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information,

call 800-966-8877 or visit www.stlzoo.org.

The Magic House

The subtitle of this facility is St. Louis Children's Museum, a kind of basic, bland name that offers no promise of adventure. The main name, on the other hand, really raises expectations. The words Magic House suggest that this place is extra special. That it's way cool. That it's even . . . well, magical!

So does it live up to its hype? Our kids thought so. And apparently lots of other parents did too. Zagat Surveys' U.S. Family Travel Guide ranks this play space tops in the nation when it comes to child appeal. For comparison, Disneyland and Disney's Magic Kingdom ranked second and third respectively.

Magic House has been a success from its inception. First opened in 1979, it has undergone four major expansions and hosts some 400,000 visitors annually. This summer, beginning June 5, Magic House hosts Good Grief!, a new traveling exhibit based on the lessons of Charles M. Schultz's Peanuts comic strip.

Like the zoo, we can't say we've seen every corner of Magic House. But in a way, that's the highest compliment we could give the facility. Every child can find something engrossing here. One may spend hours fishing with the magnetic rod and reel or stacking foam bricks with the construction crane; one may rather play receptionist at the travel agency or electrician at the power company. One of our kids happily spent half an hour just standing trance-like on the front porch, hypnotized by the Rube Goldberg contraption.

And if that's not magic, then what is?

The Magic House is at 516 S. Kirkwood Rd. in Kirkwood. Summer hours are 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu. & Sat.; 9:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Fri.; 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sun. Admission is $6.50 per person (children under age 2 get in free). Parking is free. For more information, call 314-822-8900 or check out www.magichouse.com.

City Museum

It's not associated with the city, just located in its heart. Nor is it a museum, even though it's full of art. Who knows why such an exciting place has such a dull name? It sure makes it hard to explain.

Ah, City Museum. From the front, it's just an old brick building on the north edge of downtown. But by the time you pull into the parking lot at the back, the kids are clawing at their seat belts, clamoring to get out of the minivan and climb up into the castle or the airplane fuselage or the fire engine or the school bus, all connected via wire mesh catwalks and clinging to the side of this old shoe factory.

As you wait at the ticket window in the front lobby, other patrons are squealing as they return to the ground floor via either the "Big Slide" or the "Monster Slide," which are, respectively, two- and three-story tall tube chutes. And that's just your first taste of what you'll find inside.

City Museum isn't just a place for kids; it's a place for anybody who still might be a child at heart. Every nook and cranny of this place is covered with creativity and designed for fun.

The ground floor is devoted to aquatic life -- a pond, a waterfall, caves, a whale you can crawl through, a creek you can float toy boats down. On the upper floors, you'll find an exhibit of gargoyles, a miniature train for the shorties to ride, and Skateless Park -- a collection of ramps and half-pipes ready to be slid down. You'll also find the entrance to MonstroCity, the outdoor salvage yard-turned-playground seen from the parking lot, and, on the other side of the building, the entrance to Enchanted Caves -- a dark network of staircases leading to a three-story spiral slide that deposits you into a labyrinth of spooky caves.

There's also Beatnik Bob's Museum of Mirth, Mystery, and Mayhem (a kitsch collection combined with a snack bar); a couple of legit art exhibits; a hands-on craft event; and an actual circus.

City Museum's newest installation, World Aquarium, opens this summer, occupying 13,500 square feet of the second floor. It will feature sharks, stingrays, and opportunities to pet them.

For sustenance, there's a snack bar serving excellent sandwiches, and after 5 p.m., the Cabin Inn opens to serve beer and wine under the catwalks of MonstroCity. Truly something for all ages.

One word of caution: Even though City Museum is a place for kids, it is not like Magic House, with all the edges softened and padded to prevent injuries. At City Museum, it's still possible to get a bump or a bruise or a button snapped off or even a spectularly scraped knee. But odds are, you'd be having so much fun, you'd just get a Band-Aid or an ice pack and keep on sliding.

City Museum is located on the north side of downtown St. Louis at 701 N. 15th St. Summer hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 9 a.m.-1 a.m. on Fridays and on Thursdays after July 15; 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call 314-231-2489 or visit the City Museum Web site at www.citymuseum.org.

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