dinosaur3If you want to guarantee your family vacation will be great, try making your first stop one that truly wows. That’s what we did when we headed up from New Jersey to Connecticut during spring break this week. Even before we checked into our hotel, we stopped at our first attraction of the trip – the Dinosaur Place at Nature’s Art in Oakdale, CT.

As we drove down the Hartford-New London turnpike, our children started to nod off. But as soon as we turned into the parking lot at Nature’s Place, they were wide-eyed. And no wonder – in the parking lot stood a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex, snarling a greeting to all visitors. We later learned this 31-foot creature was Monty, the unofficial mascot of the Dinosaur Place, and his silent snarl put us all in the right frame of mind for our trip back in time.

dinosaur1We entered through the Shops at Nature’s Art, one of the most amazing – and environmentally-minded – gift shops I’ve ever encountered. The Jewelry Shop was full of beautiful, natural crystal and mineral stones, while the Bead Shop showcased semi-precious stones and Swarovski crystals.  The lure of the Mineral and Fossil Shop, of course, were the prehistoric fossils, geodes and petrified wood, all of which captivated this former rock hound. My daughter, however, only had eyes for the Toy Store, which mingled her favorite plush animals among the more educational craft kits and puzzles.

On to a Dinosaur Adventure

But this was no time for shopping – there was an adventure to be had! The indoor activities were officially closed for the week, since the kids in Connecticut had their spring break the week before. But our kind host at the Dinosaur Place gave us a tour of the activities area, where Libby and I unearthed our own gemstones.

Other hands-on activities include an archeology adventure, in which kids (and the young at heart) can dig up real dinosaur bones and construct a skeleton, an indoor stream where you can pan for “fool’s gold,” (which this former rock collecting geek can tell you is really pyrite), and an opportunity to be the first to open and examine a real geode.

Indoor activities are open every weekend through the year, and open every day once the schools in Connecticut close in mid-June. (Hint: consult the calendar for hours.) The indoor activities are “a la carte,” so you can choose to do one or several of them at each visit. You can also hold your birthday party or other special occasion there – an idea that appealed so much to my daughter that she’s determined she’ll have her 9th birthday there, despite the fact that it’s 200-some miles from our home!

Bring on the Big Dinosaurs

We could have spent all day enjoying the hands-on experiences, but bigger surprises waited outside. The main event at the Dinosaur Place is, of course, the encounter with the big guys themselves. We entered the outside adventure through an adorable ice cream shop on the other side of the parking lot (stopping to pose for a picture with Monty as we cut through the lot.

The first stop was Monty’s playground (that’s where the “Where in the World?” photo was taken), where my kids (and, okay, my husband) were thrilled to stretch their legs by climbing the Spacenet, a three-dimensional climbing net. Since the locals were all in school, we almost had the place to ourselves, which allowed my kids ample opportunity to race each other to the top of the net several times.

dinosaur2Dinosaurs on the DinoTrail

I think Libby would  have been okay with spending the rest of our day at the playground, but Max wanted to head into the dinotrails. This 1.5 mile walking trail featured numerous dinosaurs to “discover” as we made our way through the beautiful wooded property. The kids took turns being “tour guides,” reading the signs and pointing out the various creatures lurking in our own (very tame) Jurassic Park.

Unfortunately, it was too cold for us to try out the Splashpad, a combination playground-water park which included dinosaur-themed cannons, waterfalls and other play items. We plan to come back this summer – and I’ll bet the Splashpad is a great way to cool off quickly after the discovery walk in the summer sun.

A Maze of Dinosaurs

Our final adventure was a-mazing – literally! We made our way through the “a-MAZE-asaurus,” a maze of high white panels. I found the maze a bit challenging (but then, I’ve been known to wander lost in a corn maze for hours), but my son easily led me to the “escape” through a T-Rex mouth. This placed us back in the playground, so we headed for the ice cream shop to grab a water.  My daughter somehow managed to convince her dad to buy her a small bottle filled with turquoise, her birthstone. (How come pouting never works for me?)

The Dinosaur Place proved to be perfect for our family, offering something for my second grader as well as my 14 year old. It was a perfect mix of indoor activity and outdoor exercise, education and entertainment. The true testimony? The rest of the trip and all the way home, my kids talked about the next time they visited their grandparents in Massachusetts – and they were determined to talk them in to a stop at the Dinosaur Place.

DISCLAIMER: My family received passes to enjoy the activities at the Dinosaur Place. We paid for our own snacks and drinks, as well as the aforementioned souvenirs. The experiences detailed in this review are my own opinion and were not influenced in any way.