The kids are cranky. They shout, “Are we there yet?” every two miles. Your family road trip to Orlando—and that endless ribbon of I-95—feels like it will never end. That is, until you detour over to U.S. 1, where there’s a roadside attraction to lighten moods, lift spirits, and inspire dreams: “Lunch with an Astronaut” at the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Cape Canaveral National Seashore.
“Every parent’s hope is that a family trip will inspire kids for the rest of their lives. You want to give them as many opportunities and as much exposure as you can,” says astronaut Chris Hadfield, who will command the International Space Station in 2012 and is the father of three grown children.
The road trip is an annual ritual that recalls the early days of our national highway system: parents load the trunk with luggage, pack a cooler with snacks, strap kids into the backseat, and, with a full tank of gas, hit the road. From the Joad family, to the Merry Pranksters, to the Griswalds, the collective road trip is ingrained in our national travel consciousness.
While not every road trip can raise the ambitions of a young astronaut, the stops and detours will be as memorable—and as fun—as the destination itself. Travel + Leisure sought out the coolest places to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and arouse the passions of little ones dozing in the backseat.
Children can dig in the dirt for dinosaurs that have been dead for the last 150 million years, when you take the family through Wyoming’s Big Sky country. Teenagers can hop on an Olympic bobsled to experience the force of gravity and the thrill of competition, right off I-80 in Park City, UT. And your entire crew can climb aboard a captured German U-boat beside Lake Michigan when you head south on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive.
“Kids today stand a very good chance of fulfilling the dreams of President Kennedy—who challenged us to explore—and I hope they will,” says Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo astronaut who was the second man to set foot on the moon.
A childhood journey can be a world-changer if it creates a future explorer, explains Aldrin. Or, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “This country was conquered by those who moved forward.”