Navy Pier is celebrating its 100th birthday in style. One of the biggest surprises visitors will encounter is the new 196-foot-tall Ferris wheel. Nearly 50 feet taller than Navy Pier’s previous Ferris wheel, the new version features bigger, temperature-controlled gondolas with interactive video screens. The new wheel also offers a longer ride, circling three times for more chances to take in the awesome city views. Expect to see nightly light shows via the multicolored bulbs that adorn the wheel’s spokes.
Polk Bros Park, at the entrance to Navy Pier, features a dramatic new 12,500-square-foot fountain that can be programmed to mimic waves, schools of fish or flocks of birds. In the winter, the fountain will convert to an ice rink. Two grand performance spaces overlooking Lake Michigan feature live arts and cultural events.
Of course, all of Navy Pier’s family favorites are still here, including the Chicago Children’s Museum and its popular three-story climbing schooner, sightseeing cruises on the blue lake waters, and thrilling 3D movies at the IMAX Theater. Don’t miss the free summertime fireworks that light up the skyline.
In Gurnee, Six Flags Great America’s Hurricane Harbor boasts the massive Hurricane Bay wave pool and Riptide Bay, home of some of Hurricane Harbor’s most extreme thrill rides.
At Magic Waters Waterpark, just outside Rockford, brave the five-story, dark tunnel Abyss tube ride or the Double Dare Drop, which shoots riders 75 feet down a pair of slides within seconds.
Spend the day at Knight’s Action Park & Caribbean Water Adventure in Springfield. The Action Park offers miniature golf, go-karts and carnival rides. The Caribbean Water Adventure features a wave pool, bumper boats and crazy water slides, including the Royal Flush and Devil Ray.
At Raging Rivers WaterPark in Grafton, wade around in a wave pool, whoosh down the body flumes and the Swirlpool water slide, and let the little ones loose on pint-sized splash pools.
Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort in Utica, located near Starved Rock State Park, features an indoor water park with a wave pool and giant family water slide, plus a miniature golf course and laser tag.
CoCo Key Water Resort, a tropical-themed indoor water park at the Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center in Rockford, offers body and raft slides, plus an interactive play island for little swimmers.
Ranked as one of the 10 best zoos in the country by Parents magazine, Brookfield Zoo spans 200 acres just west of Chicago in Brookfield. See a dolphin show at Seven Seas, gorilla families at play at Tropic World and big bears on the prowl at Great Bear Wilderness. Especially popular is the Hamill Family Play Zoo, where kids can play vet in a hospital with stuffed animal patients.
See native Illinois animals, including black bears, bison, wolves and cougars, at Wildlife Prairie Park in Hanna City, near Peoria. Try to spy the animals in their leafy habitats, or hop aboard the Adventure Trek bus that rides around the park and through the bison and elk pasture, with a stop to feed hungry Mike the Bison. You can even stay overnight at the park in a renovated train caboose or the log cabin on the hill.
Chicago is lucky enough to be home to two major league baseball teams. The Chicago Cubs play on the city’s North Side in historic Wrigley Field, where the park’s vintage charm (including its ivy-covered brick walls and old-fashioned manual scoreboard) has been retained, while modern additions like the left-field jumbo video screen have recently been added. The Chicago White Sox crack the bat at U.S. Cellular Field across town on the South Side, and shoot off fireworks every time they hit a home run. Both teams kick off the season with home games in April.
At Rockford’s Riverfront Museum Park, meet Jane the juvenile T. rex and Homer the teen Triceratops at the Burpee Museum of Natural History. The Homer’s Odyssey: From Badlands to Burpee exhibit tells the story of how this dinosaur was discovered in Montana and reconstructed in the lab of the museum.
Connected via tunnel is the Discovery Center Museum, offering more than 250 hands-on children’s exhibits that let kids do everything from playing weather forecaster in a TV studio to flying through the Milky Way in a spaceship. Play outdoors in the museum’s Rock River Discovery Park.
Little ones love to scramble up the huge tractors and commandeer combines at Moline’s John Deere Pavilion. Dedicated to agricultural innovator John Deere, this glass-walled complex offers plenty of fun hands-on farm exhibits, including equipment simulators that put kids in the virtual driver’s seat of mammoth farm machines. Don’t miss the expansive John Deere store, where everything from toys to t-shirts is emblazoned with the famed leaping deer logo.
The spectacular Shawnee National Forest spans the southern tip of the state, encompassing 286,000 acres of lush emerald woods and seemingly untouched trails. A popular destination for hikers is Garden of the Gods, known for its spectacular bluffs made up of sandstone formations such as Camel Rock, which happens to be featured on the newly minted 2016 Illinois quarter. Ribbons of equestrian trails let horseback riders fan through the forest. Go for a guided ride with Lake Glendale Stables in Golconda. The Tunnel Hill State Trail whisks bikers along a converted rail bed that winds 45 miles through the Shawnee Forest, with a dark train tunnel and trestles as unique markers along the way. See the forest from a whole new perspective on a Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour, which whips through the woods on eight zip lines launched from platforms built in the trees.
The Peoria RiverFront is home to two unique museums. At the Caterpillar Visitors Center, your visit begins with a video shown in a movie theater housed in the bed of a huge 2.5-story mining truck. Kids are encouraged to unleash their inner engineers here by designing their own Cat machines and hopping onto a simulator to see what it’s like to operate enormous earth-moving equipment.
At the next-door Peoria Riverfront Museum go stargazing in the state-of-the-art Dome Planetarium or have a seat in the thrilling 3D theater, where the action seems to leap out at you from the giant screen. In the Discovery Worlds exhibit kids can leave impressions of their faces and hands in the cool pin wall or get wet at the colorful water table. Young athletes can test their skills in the IHSA Peak Performance section by shooting hoops, swinging a baseball bat and tackling many other interactive sports activities.