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1: A.C. Gilbert's Discovery Village, Salem, Oregon
World's largest Erector set: check. Dig for prehistoric mammoth bones: check. Step inside a giant animal cell: check. All in a day's work in A.C. Gilbert's stranger-than-strange backyard. Half children's museum, half playground, Discovery Village is home to the country's only child-sized grocery store, a room dedicated exclusively to bubble-making, and a room that lets kids freeze and manipulate their own shadows. Admission is $6 for ages 3-59; $3 for toddlers 1-2.
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2: Rockome Gardens, Arcola, Illinois
Why hit the beach this summer when you can visit live beehives or learn how to make cheese? Located approximately three hours south of Chicago in the heart of Amish country, this children's park and historical re-enactment town features Ben Franklin impersonators, WWII re-enactments (complete with tanks!), and a horse-powered saw mill children can ride. General admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $6 for kids.
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3: Wizard Quest, Wisconsin Dells
Located in a 13,000-square-foot climbable labyrinth known as the "Quadrasphere," Wizard Quest is essentially a 4-D computer game that presents children with riddles (spoken from the lips of dragons), the correct answers of which release imprisoned wizards ... naturally. Packed with secret passages, animatronic sorcerers, and a mysterious "Gnome Depot" (no idea what happens there), Wizard Quest will be equally enjoyable for kids and snarky adults. Tickets are $13 for adults, $11 for kids.
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4: RoboWorld, Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Prepare your human offspring for the robot revolution by showing them the largest permanent robot-themed exhibit in the world. Led by Andy, a socially interactive "Robo-Thespian," RoboWorld features hockeybots, artificial intelligence bots, lunar rovers, computerized foosball tables, and mechanical men that create art. Kids can even shoot some hoops against a robot. Meanwhile, parents will learn how close we are to a machine takeover. Tickets are $17.95 for adults, $9.95 for kids.
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5: City Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
A fantasy-come-true for adventurous kids, City Museum is half novelty museum (come see the world's oldest corn dog!), half dream playground, with hands-on attractions like an outdoor playground comprised of mesh wire tubes suspended twenty-five feet in the air — and a bar for stressed-out parents. On weekend nights after ten, City Museum shuts off the lights and hands out flashlights; kids and adults can climb around suspended cave-like structures in the dark until 1 a.m. Admission is $12, $10 after 5 p.m. on weekends.
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6: Insectropolis, Toms River,
At Insectropolis' Rock State Prison (one of 12 permanent exhibits), children learn first-hand just how many bugs out there can kill them. Divided into categories like "Six-Armed Bandits" and "Mass Murderers," the exhibit presents kids with dossiers of villain bugs, as well as the good-guy bugs that "police our world and keep the villains in check." The upside to surviving Rock State Prison is that it makes Insectropolis' bug petting zoo (featuring Rosie the Touchable Tarantula) a little less scary. Tickets are $7.
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7: Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, St. Paul, Minnesota
Located within the Science Museum of Minnesota, this collection pays homage to medical forms of fraud, quackery, deception, and deceit. Featuring devices ranging from the Foot-Powered Breast Enlarger to the McGregor Rejuvenator, a contraption that used magnetism, UV, and infrared rays to supposedly reverse the aging process, this hands-on collection allows kids to try on fake medical equipment and take pot shots at past generations. Tickets are $11 for adults, $8.50 for kids.
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8: Metropolis, Illinois
Head to Metropolis — the only town in the world dedicated to the Man of Steel — to visit a fifteen-foot Superman statue and a Super Museum. Metropolis' Superman Celebration 2011 (June 9th through 12th), the largest Superman-themed event in the country, will feature an array of comic book authors, celebrity guests, a Superman Fan baseball game (Metropolis Marvels vs. Smallville Meteors), video and musical tributes, and not one, but several Superman-themed game shows. Admission for the Super Museum is $5 (children 5 and under go for free).
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9: Aircraft Boneyard, Tucson, Arizona
Located around the Pima Air and Space Museum on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Aircraft Bone Yard features seventy-five acres of aircrafts and aerospace vehicles currently being re-serviced, regenerated, or stripped for parts by the U.S. Air Force. The three- to four-hour "Boneyard Tour" takes families through 4,400 piloted machines from the Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard, and NASA. Tickets for the Pima Museum are $13.75 for adults and $8 for kids 7-12 (free for kids 6 and under). Boneyard Tour tickets are $7 for adults and $4 for children 12 and under.
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10: International UFO Museum and Research Center, Roswell, New Mexico
Dedicated to all things alien, this tiny museum explores what happened in the 1947 Roswell UFO incident, as well as the history of "human contact with aliens," including crop circles and testimony from UFO abductees. The on-site research library lets future Mulders and Scullys dig deeper into the paranormal. Tickets are $5 for adults, $2 for kids.
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11: Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum, Farmington Hills, Michigan
With 5,500 square-feet of coin-operated heaven, Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum is the alpha and omega of arcades. Machines date back to the early 1900s. The highlight is a fifty-five-piece mechanical orchestra that still plays over 300 songs, but other winners are the old-timey gypsy fortune tellers and an electric chair supposedly from Sing-Sing prison. Admission is free — but bring some change.
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12: International Spy Museum, Washington D.C.
The first and only public museum in the United States solely dedicated to espionage, the International Spy Museum is paradise for James Bond wannabes. While the museum exhibits are undeniably cool — think everything from ninjas to Cold War-era satellites — the real highlights are the scavenger hunts, kid-friendly spy missions, speakers, and workshops designed to give first-hand accounts of what its like to live the spy life. Adult tickets are $18, kids are $15.
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13: Dinosaur Ridge, Morrison, Colorado
If sifting soil in search of the decayed remains of dead creatures doesn't turn your stomach, have we got a spot for you. Home to some of the best-known dinos, including Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus, Dinosaur Ridge lets kids "examine Cretaceous crime scenes" in the on-site Dig Pit or hike on the Triceratops Trail in search of prehistoric footprints. Exhibits are $1 per person for ages 6 and up, $0.50 for 4- and 5-year-olds; tours are $4 for 6 and up, $2 for 4- and 5-year-olds; admission is free for kids 3 and under.
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14: Salem Witch Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Were not going to lie: The Salem Witch Museum (located in a creepy, gothic castle-like structure) is pretty scary. Children eager to learn about that time in history when our country burned women for no discernable reason will be delighted/terrified by the museum's theatrical presentations and life-size mannequins. The "Witches: Evolving Perceptions" exhibit focuses less on people-burning and more on modern-day witchcraft. Adult tickets are $8.50, children's are $5.50.
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15: Trash-o-saurus, Stratford, Connecticut
Located in the Garbage Museum (one of two museums in Connecticut dedicated to refuse), this one-ton, twenty-foot dinosaur is made of the same amount of garbage the average consumer creates each year. In addition to statues of extinct creatures made from waste, the museum also offers hands-on exhibits and family workshops that promote green living. Admission is $2 per person, but free for kids under 3.
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16: Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky
On top of permanent exhibits that focus on natural selection, the construction of Noah's Ark, and the Garden of Eden, this Bible-centric museum/petting zoo also hosts daily family-friendly presentations on topics like "Snakes Alive! (a look at reptiles from God's perspective) and "Four Power Questions to Ask an Evolutionist." Whether or not you agree with the politics behind Creation Museum, it's still one of the only sites in the country that features a live zebra-donkey hybrid. Long live the zonkey. $24.95 for adults, $14.95 for kids 5-12.
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17: Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California
All the charm of a Victorian mansion combined with all the whimsy of Pee Wee's Playhouse. According to legend (and the website), the former owner of this 160-room mansion kept carpenters working round the clock for 38 years in an effort to stave off evil spirits. The Winchester Mystery House is an architectural marvel packed with windows buried in floorboards, stairs that lead nowhere, and doors that open to blank walls. Tour tickets range from $27-$35 for adults, $24-$30 for kids 6-12.
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18: Craters of the Moon, Arco, Idaho
A national park roughly the size of Rhode Island, Craters of the Moon was a bed of molten lava just 2,000 years ago. Today the site, made predominantly of crusted lava, looks almost post-apocalyptic. It's peppered with underground caves (called lava tubes) and is a guaranteed geek freak-out for young scientists. Admission is $8 per vehicle; $4 for those on bikes, motorcycles, or on foot; free for ages 15 and under.
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19: Santa Claus, Indiana
Talk about Christmas in July. Home to the Santa Claus Museum, Santa's Lodge motel, and Santa's Candy Castle — a sweet shop that also offers personalized phone calls from Santa year-round — the town of Santa Claus also receives over half a million letters each year addressed to St. Nick himself. Make sure you hit up the biggest attraction in town: Holiday World and Splash Safari, a Christmas-Halloween-Thanksgiving-all-rolled-into-one amusement park. Tickets for the park are $42.95 for adults, $32.95 for kids under 54 inches, and free for kids 2 and under.
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20: Professor Cline's Dinosaur Kingdom, Natural Bridge, Virginia
What would have happened if Union troops had used dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction against the South? It's a question historians have pondered for ages ... Thankfully, one outdoor sculpture park in Virginia is dedicated to solving the mystery. Featuring sculptures of life-sized dinos attacking old-timey soldiers, Professor Cline's Dinosaur Kingdom and adjacent Haunted Monster Museum (featuring "no scare" tours for kids) is well worth the $8.50 ticket ($5.50 for kids).