February school break always poses a challenge for parents. The weather is unpredictable and cold over President's Week, so you can either spend big bucks to fly to warmer climes or learn to love snowboards, skis and ice skates.
But there are other family-friendly destinations -- where you can engage in American history, be immersed in all things chocolate, climb aboard a whaling ship (and commune with real whales on the same day) and pretend to be an Olympic speed skater or bobsledder -- all within a few hours' drive.
Here are four contenders for winter vacation:
In warmer months, a typical visit to Hershey, Pennsylvania, would include the roller-coaster-robust Hershey Amusement Park. But in winter, outside rides are out of the question, so the folks at Hershey focus on what they do best: chocolate. In fact, Hershey doubles down on that creamy confection with Chocolate-Covered February -- a monthlong, townwide celebration. Hershey's Chocolate World Attraction -- a free, fun-filled Disneyesque ride through the chocolate-making process -- offers homemade dessert samples, interactive story time, hot cocoa and Hershey product characters every weekend in February. The Hershey Story Museum, on Chocolate Avenue, features hands-on chocolate lab classes. Take the kids on a Hershey Kiss treasure hunt at the AACA (Antique Automobile Club of America) Museum while you ogle pre-1900 "auto-buggies," rare antique cars and other formidable old vehicles.
Though not chocolate-related, participate in a two-hour, behind-the-scenes, after-hours tour ($49 per person, Wednesdays and Saturdays) at ZooAmerica, with naturalists who take you on an insider's look at the Animal Health Center and a flashlight foray through the animal buildings in Hershey. Feed the otters, touch a reptile or hold a bird of prey. Hotels, too, get in on the chocolate act. The Hershey Lodge offers a Hershey's hot chocolate slumber party -- kids sip hot chocolate, choose edibles from a chocolate-infused children's buffet and create their own treats dipped in warm chocolate. The event wraps up with a chocolate-themed story time pajama party (5:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 and Feb. 28). The Hotel Hershey offers Chocolate Tea -- finger sandwiches, chocolate desserts and hot and cold teas (3 p.m.) and a dessert buffet (7-9 p.m.) each Saturday in February.
In Mystic, Connecticut, even the most easily distracted kids have a fascination with living history museums, especially those that engage them in sea shanties, celestial navigation and imagining life below-decks on an authentic whaling ship. Bring the kids to Mystic Seaport, a 19th century seafaring village, for the debut of Winter's Aweigh (Feb. 14-16, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.), where kids younger than 17 get in for free (when accompanied by a paying adult). Watch working dogs complete their tasks, stop by the print shop to create a 19th century winter scene, build a toy boat keepsake, discover the winter sky in the planetarium and get a kids'-eye view of the world's last remaining whaling ship, the 1841 Charles W. Morgan.
Nearby, at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, get as close as you'll ever be to ghostly, graceful beluga whales. Plan ahead and your kids can get even closer to African penguins through the hands-on Penguin Encounter ($65 per person for one hour). Spend a day communing with seals, penguins, jellyfish and other sea creatures in this beautifully well-rounded aquarium. With a new owner, the Inn at Mystic is being renovated, rendering this iconic property atop a hill quite the bargain. Even during February vacation week, bare-bones (but clean and comfy) doubles are just $106 per night. The Mystic Hilton offers breakfast and aquarium packages starting at $190 per room per night.
American history is anything but boring in Boston, Massachusetts. Costumed interpreters urge you to take part in the Boston Tea Party (at the multimedia Tea Party Museum) and debate the pros and cons of the Revolutionary War (Revolutionary Boston Experience at the Old State House). But Boston is more than past disputes and rebellion. The city is suffused with cutting-edge technology and low-tech delights. You can stand in an indoor lightning storm, test RoboBees and explore energy sources among thousands of other interactive exhibits at the venerable Museum of Science Boston. Kids with unlimited energy will be ecstatic at the Boston Children's Museum, no doubt spending countless hours negotiating the three-story maze.
In addition to The Boston Children's Museum (pictured above), your future starchitect will adore the brand-new massive, indoor Legoland Discovery Center, which features two Lego rides, a 4-D cinema, a model builder academy and a cityscape of Boston's iconic buildings made entirely from Lego bricks. Of course, adults can have the bar crawls, but kids will eat up Boston Pizza Tours. On weekends, families can enjoy slices from three pizzerias -- including Boston's oldest shop with a brick oven from 1883 -- and learn the history of this beloved food in a city where it thrives.
Lake Placid, New York
Lake Placid, New York, host to two Winter Olympics (in 1932 and 1980), is freezing in February, yes. So here it behooves you to love winter sports. Sure, you can just do the ski thing at Whiteface Mountain, the "greatest vertical drop east of the Rockies," but why stop there? See those Olympic ski jumps looming incongruously over the landscape? An elevator takes visitors to the top of the larger one -- 120 meters, 26 stories -- from which you get a vertiginous peek at what these flying skiers survey right before they launch. The Olympic Bobsled Complex is just down the road, and if you're lucky, you'll see bobsled teams training -- squished into covered sleds and hurtling down a mile-plus course like life-size bobbleheads.
If you have the guts, at The Olympic Bobsled Complex in Lake Placid, New York, you can sit behind a driver and race down the last half-mile of the track, avoiding the G-force perils of the starting mile ($75 per ride). In 1980, speed skater Eric Heiden won an unprecedented five gold medals on the Olympic Speedskating Oval right in the middle of town. It is open to the public every evening Thursday-Monday, and is to speed-skating fans what the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps are to "Rocky" aficionados. On frozen Mirror Lake, the toboggan chute, a 60-foot-tall reclaimed/recycled ski jump from the former Lake Placid Club property, spits happy kids out onto the ice. Later, answer the call of a pack of huskies, champing at the bit to take tourists on a snowy dogsled ride across the lake.
INFO lakeplacid.com; $34 Olympic Sites Passport gets you into most venues for free or 20 percent discount; whiteface.com