Supposedly Ohio got the nickname, “The Heart of It All” because its geographic shape vaguely resembles a heart. Most likely the slogan came about because the state played a critical role in U.S. history as a center of industry, the home to eight former presidents and the birthplace of aviation, professional football and the phrase “rock and roll.” All of these things have contributed to the diverse number of experiences making Ohio a must-do for families.
Here you’ll find all kinds of attractions, stunning natural beauty and awesome adventures from the sandy shores of Lake Erie to the foothills of Appalachia.
Ohio’s many amusement parks range from retro to rip-roaring. Most are a scream, but Kings Island in Cincinnati and Cedar Point in Sandusky have the greatest concentration of thrills and spills, not to mention their share of some of the tallest, fastest and longest rides in the world. Each park has 16 roller coasters a piece now that Kings Island added Mystic Timbers for 2017. The ride winds through wooded terrain with speeds of up to 53 mph.
A visit to the Soak City water park is included in the price of park admission. Cedar Point swims into the 2017 season with the debut of Cedar Point Shores, a revamped water park with new rides like Point Plummet, a six-story nearly vertical aqua-drop body slide that gives riders a major water rush. Younger children will enjoy Lakeside Landing, a splash ground with 12 kid-sized water slides and a zero-depth entry pool, while the parents keep watch from the sun deck and lounge.
Photo courtesy of Castaway Bay.
Cedar Point isn’t the only place in Sandusky that knows how to make a splash. The town has also earned the right to call itself Ohio’s waterpark capital. They may vary in size and style, but these resorts are designed to keep the kids occupied and entertained even if the weather outside doesn’t cooperate.
The African-themed Kalahari Resort has the largest waterpark and the most options for kids and adults of all ages and ability levels. Older kids can challenge themselves on the FlowRider, which shoots out 50,000 gallons of water per minute to create a five-foot-high ocean-like wave for body boarding and surfing. Day passes are available.
Great Wolf Lodge is truly designed for the little ones. From the moment you walk into the Northwoodsy Grand Lobby and get wolf-ear headbands, your cubs are part of the pack. Since only registered guests are admitted to the waterpark, there are fewer lines for rides and more parental supervision. There’s also a Great Wolf Lodge in Cincinnati near Kings Island.
One of Cedar Point’s hotel properties, Castaway Bay has its advantages if you’re staying the night during the amusement park’s regular season. In addition to the indoor waterpark’s onsite attractions, the family gets discounted Cedar Park tickets that include early entry.
Outside of Sandusky, you’ll find a sprinkling of waterpark resorts, but keep in mind that some of them are only open on the weekend, including Splash Cincinnati, Coco Key Water Resort at Cherry Valley Lodge in Newark and Splash Bay in Maumee. Splash Harbor in Bellville is open daily for Comfort Inn guests, but the availability of day passes are subject to hotel capacity.
Great Lake Getaways
An island getaway is just a short ferry ride away from the Lake Erie port towns of Sandusky, Port Clinton, Catawba Island and Marblehead. More than 30 islands are sprinkled throughout Lake Erie on both sides of the border with Canada, but Ohio’s South Bass and Kelleys islands are the most popular vacation havens and day-trip destinations. Ditch the car on the mainland and put the brakes on your fast-paced lifestyle because island time is in full effect.
South Bass Island is more commonly called Put-in-Bay, the name of the village at the north end of the island. Home to the world’s longest bar, largest swim-up bar and a reputation for its nightlife scene, it may not strike you as a kid-friendly destination. But on any given day families are playing in the lakefront DeRivera Park, loading up on sugar at the Candy Bar or piling into rented golf carts and tooling around the island. Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center has a variety of activities for the kids — from gemstone mining to mini-golf. The enormous complex grew up around Perry’s Cave, which descends 52 feet to an underground lake that rises and falls with Lake Erie’s water levels.
Just to the west, Kelleys Island keeps a lower profile despite being the largest American island in Lake Erie. At the southern end, you’ll find the majority of the bars, restaurants and shops, while the natural beauty of Kelleys Island State Park takes up the northern third. Here, you’ll find trails winding through the Carolinian forest, crumbling historic limestone structures hidden among the trees and a nice beach, where you can spend the day swimming, kayaking and building sandcastles.
Kids are conduits for connecting with other cultures, which makes a trip to Amish country with the family even more meaningful. Ohio has the largest Amish community in the world, centered primarily in the eastern-central part of the state. Go beyond the bonnets and brimmed hats with a stop at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Millersburg, then delve into the delights of Amish-run bakeries, shops and farms dotting the countryside. If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, area hotels can help arrange private backroad Amish tours that include experiences you might not find on your own. Highlights include having a snack in an Amish home and visiting a schoolhouse.
Ohio’s largest cities — Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati — are teeming with culture, history and incredible scenery. As the hubs of their respective regions, they have tons of attractions from sporting events to zoos and interactive museums to cool public spaces. Better yet, fun in the big city doesn’t have to come with a big price tag.
Downtown Cleveland got a whole new look for the Republican National Convention in 2017 with the revitalized Public Square as its centerpiece. Kids can run around in the splash pad and climb on the colorful pop-art critters. The free downtown trolley and a bike-share station acquaint you quickly with the delights of the city. Must-visit spots for the kids include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and neighboring Great Lakes Science Center. Just minutes east by car, University Circle is home to the majority of the city’s cultural institutions, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Botanical Garden.
Despite being the 15th largest city in the United States and Ohio’s capital, Columbus is often called the “The Biggest Small Town and America” for its friendly Midwest attitude. Within the city, you’ll find the historic German Village, chock full of quaint shops, cobblestone streets and Schmidt’s Sausage Haus that serves cream puffs the size of your child’s head. The Center of Science and Industry (COSI) will fill your kid’s head with new discoveries about the world and beyond, while the Columbus Zoo hopes to inspire children to protect the natural environment and the creatures that lurk within it.
Cincinnati has rolling hills, scenic Ohio River views and endless things to do. A good place to start is Union Terminal, home to Cincinnati Museum Center, a collection of three great museums under one roof: The Duke Energy Children’s Museum, Cincinnati History Museum and Museum of History and Science. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens is the second oldest zoo in the United States and spans 75 acres. Make a stop at one of Graeter’s Ice Cream’s 19 locations for a scoop of locally handcrafted ice cream.
Cincinnati Hotel Picks
Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza
Hampton Inn and Suites Cincinnati – Downtown
With one national park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and 74 state parks, there are multiple ways to escape to the great outdoors in every corner of Ohio. If you love adventure but the idea of camping doesn’t appeal to your family, nine of Ohio’s 74 state parks have well-equipped lodges that give you the creature comforts of home instead of creatures in your tent.
Regardless of which lodge you choose, you’ll generally find a large lake or beach, boating and the usual much-appreciated amenities from indoor and/or outdoor pools, fire pits for making s’mores, and on-site golf, to a game room for the members of your group who aren’t ready to go to bed. Other activities include bike rentals, geocaching, naturalist programs and specialty group hikes. Choose between Maumee Bay, Punderson, Deer Creek, Salt Fork, Mohican, Geneva-on-the-Lake, Burr Oak, Hueston Woods and Shawnee state parks.
It doesn’t have a lodge, but don’t let that deter you from a visit to Hocking Hills State Park. It’s home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the state, including Ash Cave, a horse-shaped recess cave.
Go Back in Time
It’s one thing to read about history in a book or a museum; it’s totally different to relive it in person. Get a taste of life on the Miami and Erie Canal while riding on a mule-drawn canal boat in the Toledo Metroparks. Test your piloting skills on a free Model B flight simulator at the Wright “B” Flyer Inc. museum at the Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, one of several attractions on Dayton’s Aviation Trail. Willing to pay $100? Get off the ground in an open-air reproduction of the Wright “B” Flyer No. 001.
The Village of Zoar recreates early life in the communal settlement founded by German Separatists. Well-preserved buildings are open for tours where you can take part in blacksmithing, milking cows, weaving and baking demonstrations. Dress up in Victorian-era garb at the Imagination Station at the Dickens Victorian Village Welcome Center in Cambridge. Then relive the golden age of the steamboat era with a slow-paced river cruise on the Valley Gem Sternwheeler in Marietta.
Which corner of Ohio are you most excited to explore with your family?