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Let Your Preschooler Plan Your Trip | T+L Family

The next time you're contemplating a family vacation, ask yourself: What if the kids planned it instead?Or, more specifically: What would happen if a three-year-old called the shots?My wife, Joanna, and I—expecting our second child and in an indulgent state of mind—decided to find out. We packed up our car for an August journey from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh with our son, Alexander, and traced a route designed to satisfy every budding whim.

Philadelphia to Hershey: 110 miles

Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum, one of our family's favorite haunts since Alex learned to walk, played into the theme of our trip perfectly, since this excellent children's museum lets kids take control. Alex went straight for the pint-size supermarket—shoppers-in-training get to pick out their own fake fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs, and, yes, cookies and ice cream. They can even take turns working behind the cash register or in the "stockroom." Our other stops: the Where the Wild Things Are– and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland–themed areas, and the scale model of a city bus, where kids jostle for the spot behind the wheel.

Our hand stamp got us into the Franklin Institute's Science Park across the street, with its gigantic climb-through-it Goodyear tire. You can also access Ben's Bistro, at the institute, where we ate pizza before staring up at the 20-foot-tall Ben Franklin National Memorial, in the rotunda. (Note that the Please Touch Museum, which has no restaurant—or on-site parking—is planning an expansion next year, into a facility three times the current size.)

We drove out of Philly on the Schuylkill Expressway, and the closer we got to Pennsylvania Dutch country, the more opportunities we had to moo out the window at cows—it was nice to hear Alex put some of those "Old MacDonald" sounds to good use. Most of Amish country is not aimed at toddlers—antiques and folk art were certainly not on Alex's agenda—so we made a beeline for the Strasburg Rail Road, where you can ride a steam train for 45 minutes through the barn-and-cornfield countryside. (Try to sit toward the back of the train: that's real coal in the engine, and the black smoke billowing out can get a bit thick up front.) We couldn't leave without picking out a souvenir railcar at Thomas' Trackside Station, just down the road, which carries all things related to the beloved blue train from the island of Sodor. We didn't have time to see either the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania (big trains; across the street) or the National Toy Train Museum (little ones; also nearby), but both are high on Alex's next-time list.

Our final destination of the day: the Hershey Lodge, a ridiculously family-friendly hotel and erstwhile conference center where we'd settle in for two nights while exploring the chocolate-covered town of Hershey—this is a place where you have to specify "white milk" with your meal order. We had dinner at Lebbie Lebkicher's buffet restaurant in the lodge, named after a childhood friend of Milton Hershey, the candy company's founder. Alex had a ball just trying to say the name, so you can imagine his delight at discovering the kids-only buffet—macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets with chocolate ketchup (!)—and the sundae bar. We had to hide the Hershey's Miniatures that had been left on our pillows.

Hershey: 0 Miles

An important rule to follow when taking a car trip with a three-year-old: Don't overdo the car part. So we scheduled a day off from the drive—and then proceeded right to the twin Turnpike rides at Hersheypark. You can choose an antique car or a hot rod, but in either case even Alex could do the driving (or at least the steering; I was next to him controlling the pedals). Hersheypark has all of the attractions for which big theme parks are famous, and instead of one kiddie area, there are rides for squirts scattered throughout the park. Hello, Dinosaur-Go-Round!

To beat the heat—and to give Joanna, who was six months pregnant, a rest—we went back to the hotel for an afternoon dip in the pool (would that we had packed the water shoes; Alex cut his foot poolside on some poorly maintained concrete). Dinner was at another of the lodge's five restaurants, the Hershey Grill, where we decided against the Reese's Peanut Butter–soy-marinated pork chop, but we can heartily recommend the Hershey's Chocolate Crème Brûlée—or, in toddlerspeak, "really good chocolate pudding."

Hershey to Pittsburgh: 216 miles

Alex was not quite ready to leave Hershey, and it's a testament to his, um, trip-planning skills that Joanna and I weren't either. So before heading farther west we checked out the 23-acre Hershey Gardens, high on a hill over the town of Hershey and the theme park. Alex showed a hidden talent for finding the butterflies amid the dense foliage in the Butterfly House; in the Children's Garden, he loved the giant Kisses that surprise onlookers by shooting random blasts of mist.

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