When most folks think of making the trip on I-74 to Indiana’s capitol city, they typically think of the zoo, the children’s museum, or the sporting events — all wonderful, family-friendly attractions.
But today I’m here to tell you of one Indianapolis-area destination that is equally if not more amazing, and you might not have considered before in your travels. Conner Prairie, located in Fishers, was the main event for our recent trip to Hamilton County, Indiana (just north of 465). But we found plenty to keep our family occupied when we weren’t there (see below).
Conner Prairie is an immersive indoor/outdoor museum, where kids and parents alike can travel back in time to another era and choose their own adventures. The property has several “villages” that take visitors to the 1800s, including a prairie village, an Indian camp, and a Civil War encampment.
One of Conner Prairie’s best attributes is how it combines learning history with interactive applications, the definition of “experiential learning.” The new exhibit that surrounds the tethered balloon ride explains the history of Indiana ballooning — with a trip into the post office and other “stores” of that era. The same can be said of the innovation exhibit, where kids learn about the impact of electricity on Indiana farmers, and then get to make circuits themselves. There’s a real working farm, where the animals walk about freely, and the staff educates visitors about them.
The highlights are many, but above all what makes Conner Prairie a fantastic place are the historic interpreters. While two of our kids joined Union soldiers “in battle,” the other took “lessons” from the Union laundress — the only women paid by the army for work, and manned the laundry service herself. That scene played out at the Prairie Village, where they learned from the schoolteacher about what it was like to be in school (even going over multiplication tables, pre-Common Core style) to learning how women were not allowed to be blacksmiths. They learned about how things were made, such as candles and dyes and fabrics, and where they came from.
From indoor play areas to a water feature to nature trails, there is a TON to do at Conner Prairie. Although we were there for five hours, we could have easily spent another day exploring. If you have little ones, a stroller is a must; there is a lot of walking. Other special touches we appreciated: a mother’s room, and quiet spots for children with sensory challenges. Unfortunately we weren’t able to do the balloon ride due to weather, so be prepared for that variable when preparing your young visitors.
Conner Prairie is open year-round, but the prime time to go is May through November, open Tuesday – Sunday: 10 a.m-5 p.m., but closed on Mondays except for Memorial Day and Labor Day. As of this posting, admission is $16 adults, $15 seniors 65+, $11 youth ages 2-12, and free for members and youth under age 2 (here’s an online coupon for $3 off). A few attractions (most notably the balloon ride and some crafts like candle making) have an extra fee. Concessions are available, but you are allowed to bring in your food and there are plenty of picnic areas.
Conner Prairie has special events around holidays and other times, including how-to workshops geared towards teens and adults, summer camps for kids, and more. For complete information on hours and activities, visit the Conner Prairie website.
Among the other highlights of our Hamilton County, Indiana excursion:
The Arts and Design District in Carmel, Indiana: If you appreciate walking in a downtown district with outdoor sculpture, art galleries and specialty shops, and interesting local restaurants, this is the place for you. We started our trip with lunch on the deck of Woodys Library, a bar/restaurant built in an old Carnegie library with great fish tanks to entertain the kids. Speaking of fish, my fish tacos were delicious. The day we were there, artists at easels painted as patrons walked past observing.
The Museum of Miniatures, Carmel: At the end of the Arts and Design District is a small museum devoted to miniatures and dollhouses. This was particularly delightful for me, as my mother and I built a dollhouse together which still hangs on the wall in my parents’ home. These dollhouses aren’t the type to be played with; rather they are works of art, filled with tiny items that replicate interiors of places from homes to stores to even a museum. (Yes, a miniature museum, inside the museum of miniatures).
The older children enjoyed a treasure hunt that took them through the exhibits looking for specific items inside of certain boxes or houses — items such as an umbrella, or clocks, or an animal. The littlest in our crew adored playing with the one “real” dollhouse available for visitors just her age, and we had to drag her out.
The Museum of Miniatures is a good indoor activity, and entertained the older children (6 and 9) for a good hour to 90 minutes. It is open Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., and Sunday 1 until 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 10 and under.
Koteewi Range: Located in Noblesville is the brand new Strawton Koteewi Park archery range, a county facility that has aspirations of training future archery Olympians. But even if you just want to get a flavor of the sport, you are welcome there. Although a little hard to find, this place is an archer’s dream, and caters to beginners just learning to the most experienced. You can shoot by the hour, including equipment rental for $15 per hour, or bring your equipment and it’s cheaper; private lessons are also available.
There are no concessions there yet, so it’s fine to bring in your own food. Our kids absolutely LOVED this. I cannot stress this enough. And Tony, the manager, was even willing to work with the 3-year-old. (I think sainthood is in the cards for him.) For more information, Tony said to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 765-635-1432. After Koteewi archery, we went to eat at the Lazy Frogg in Cicero, which overlooks Morse Lake. Great views, but also a big attraction especially on Saturday night; be sure to call ahead for a table.
Shapiro’s Twisted Traditions: As we have bemoaned time and time again on chambanamoms.com, there is no true Jewish deli in Central Illinois. So, we get our fix at Shapiro’s in Indianapolis. Typically, we visit the original location downtown. Recently Shapiro’s opened a satellite restaurant located within the Fashion Mall at Keystone, next to the food court. It even has a kids eat free deal on certain days (mall location only, call for info). Even if you’re not hungry, go drool at the baked goods.
Where to Stay:
We stayed in the Staybridge Suites in Fishers, which is conveniently located near Conner Prairie. With a family of five, a suites hotel is a must, and free breakfast and a kitchenette make it easier. Visit Hamilton County lists no less than 40 properties in the area, from hotels to charming inns to vacation rentals.
*Our accommodations and tickets to several attractions were provided for our family for the purpose of facilitating this article, however the majority of expenses for this trip were paid for by our family. All information is true to the best of my knowledge and all opinions are my own.