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St. Louis trip is a hit with older kids

By Paul Vercammen, CNN
  • One family's "developing minds tour" of St. Louis was a pleasant surprise for the kids
  • Forest Park, Cardinals baseball and urban thrift shopping kept the family entertained
  • The family expects to visit St. Louis again to try famous toasted ravioli
  • St. Louis

St. Louis (CNN) -- I got some raised eyebrows when I told my teenage boy and preteen girl they were headed to St. Louis with my wife and me for a six-day summer vacation.

But all of our fears of mutually assured boredom were erased by a series of St. Louis landmarks that helped push the kids' electronic devices out of sight.

St. Louis is family-friendly and surprisingly young and vibrant. Here's a brief overview of what I called our "developing minds tour."

Forest Park

We made three fun stops in Forest Park, an urban oasis spread out over almost 1,300 acres. It's one of the biggest urban parks in the nation and about 500 acres larger than Central Park in New York.

Saint Louis Art Museum

Yes, I said it, art museum. Come on down, because the price is right. Admission is free to this architectural wonder, a Cass Gilbert structure built for the 1904 World's Fair in sprawling Forest Park.

Children love the permanent Arms and Armor exhibit. Take an air-conditioned trek back in history to a time when border disputes were solved with crossbows by guys wearing chain mail. You may hear a "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" joke or two from your kids.

Forest Park Boathouse

You can row or work your legs on a paddle boat, floating through Forest Park under foot bridges, past the cattails and back home to a great little snack stand at the entrance to Post-Dispatch Lake and the Grand Basin.

The Muny

Take in a bombastic show at this playhouse that seats more than 10,000 people and calls itself the oldest and largest outdoor musical theater in America. When we saw "Footloose," an estimated 100 cast members cavorted on a revolving stage. "Footloose," the tale of some misunderstood high school dude with the ability to dance, took on rock concert fervor.

This year, "Legally Blonde" and "The Little Mermaid" share the summer schedule with classics such as "Singin' in the Rain" and "Bye Bye Birdie."

Six Flags St. Louis

This place has lots of adrenaline-rush rides and throws out a life saver on a steamy day: Hurricane Harbor.

The water park, with its massive array of slides and pools, provides welcome relief when the summer temperatures hit sweat-inducing levels.

Make sure you check for weather conditions; a thunderstorm sent us out of the water and into one of the park's Johnny Rockets hamburger joints in our swimsuits.

Crown Candy Kitchen

At this soda fountain/candy store on steroids, three scoops of homemade ice cream go into a malt. That's 24 chilled ounces in that diner version of a silver chalice, the metal milkshake cup. I could taste the chocolate two hours later.

Another highlight is the BLT, stacked up with bacon. You need to do a CPR hand press on the sandwich just to be able to take a bite. Crown Candy Kitchen is also famous for a stomach-stretching challenge: Drink five malts in 30 minutes, and you get them free, plus a T-shirt and your name inscribed on a plaque. (We didn't attempt it.)

Gateway Arch

The arch is an ingenious structure that combines perspective on the nation's westward expansion with a thrill ride. You ascend 630 feet to the top and take in seemingly unending views of St. Louis west into Missouri and across the Mississippi River east to Illinois.

If you are afraid of heights, note that the top is fully enclosed, with large glass windows that allow you to take photographs and video. You travel up in trams, made up of little five-person pods inside the arch legs, so there's no scary view outside. The museum below the arch is terrific, featuring wall-sized photos that help you trace Lewis and Clark's journey.

The City Museum

This old shoe factory morphed into a fun house of quirky exhibits and spruced-up playground equipment. Kids look at, climb on and crawl through attractions, many plucked from urban scrap piles, including two abandoned planes, a suspension bridge and a bus.

There are lots of dinosaurs, caves and so much happy screaming, the place echoes with the sounds of people of all ages acting like kids.

St. Louis Cardinals game

Busch Stadium is a shrine to baseball, a glistening-clean house of worship. The reverent and savvy fans drive from all over the Mississippi River Valley and beyond. Carloads come down from Hannibal, Missouri, and over from Paducah, Kentucky, up from West Memphis, Arkansas, and across from Mount Vernon, Illinois.

So many of the fans wear red or white Cardinal T-shirts, the stands seem adorned with peppermint confetti. The Arch shines on the horizon outside a ballpark where everyone seems eager to give players directions and talk baseball.

The Delmar Loop

You can cruise this hip stretch of shops and restaurants on foot, glancing down at the plaques on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. There's sidewalk hardware honoring everyone from Ulysses S. Grant to Miles Davis, T.S. Eliot, Yogi Berra, Ike and Tina Turner, Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Berry and a hundred more.

The kids found their souvenir nirvana here in Avalon, a trendy clothing store. Avalon sells new clothes, but the hit was racks of vintage clothing that suggest filthy rich people from St. Louis' tony neighborhoods dump great stuff.

The kids' haul included a classy party dress, an old-time Cardinals baseball jersey and sporty polo shirts. None of it cost more than $15, and it was a lot better than coming home with a snow globe or a million-in-a-million souvenir T-shirt.

We didn't get to every spot in St. Louis that would have registered high on the teen and preteen acceptance meters, but our itinerary was a success.

And in an era where many parents fear that their teched-out kids will complain "there's nothing to do," St. Louis delivered dozens of moments of doing something "pretty cool."

With a close relative in St. Louis, we'll be back. We still haven't tried toasted ravioli.