Balboa Park, San Diego

Balboa Park, San Diego

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Kid-size pandas, brightly colored jumping fish and bright-red peonies that are eight feet tall.

Welcome to China Lights, the new exhibit of more than 30 bright, silk-covered structures that will light up the Botanical Garden in New Orleans’ City Park through May 1. The exhibit has been painstakingly created by a team of Chinese artisans and technical staff from Sichuan Tianyu in Zigong, China.

No one visiting New Orleans in the coming months should miss this experience. (Well worth the price of admission ($18 for adults, $12 for kids ages 3 to 12). There are also plenty of fun facts to go with the lighting feats. The lumping fish in the fish gallery, for example, are used to wish success in Chinese culture; The LED lights dramatize their movement.

Locals like to brag that City Park at 1,300 acres is nearly double the size of New York’s Central Park (770 acres), as well as one of the oldest in the country, dating back to 1854. But whereas Central Park is a top tourist attraction with everything from the Central Park Zoo to Strawberry Fields, summer concerts and even discovery kits to help you explore the park with your kids, City Park is more a hidden gem, though it is easily reached by street car or bus from the French Quarter.

As New Orleans recovered from Katrina, the park’s recovery helped lift the collective spirit of the city and today you see locals of all ages here. Besides the Botanical Garden, there’s the fabulous New Orleans Museum of Art with all varieties of family programs and the fantastic free Sculpture Garden. There’s Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, “The Flying Horses Carousel,” which dates from 1906 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and Storyland — an iconic outdoor play area with extraordinary whimsical characters like the Three Little Pigs and Mother Goose. Some couples have such fond memories of time spent here that they choose the location for their wedding ceremony.

Play miniature golf at City Putt, rent bikes or boats at the Big Lake or hit the Louisiana Nature Trail. There’s even a Singing Oak — a tree filled with wind chimes — and other live oaks, one dating back 700 years and one of the largest collections of mature live oaks in the world. Come for a concert or a festival.

And if the kids get hungry, stop for New Orleans’ famous Beignets at Morning Call in the Park, a New Orleans tradition for over 140 years.

Visiting recently made me think of other

Children Watching PCR Dive Show at Cal Academy of Sciences

Children Watching PCR Dive Show at Cal Academy of Sciences

The New Orleans Museum of Art, for example, exhibits many Southern artists; The San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park is where you can see what life was like for native Californians thousands of years ago. Learn a little American history in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. (Check out the interactive Draper Spark! Lab and Wegmans Wonderplace before heading out to play on the National Mall amid all of the monuments.)

Wherever you find yourself this spring break (or on a free day) let the kids lead the way, as you explore a big-city park. Here are five of my favorites where I’ve spent lots of happy hours with my kids and others:

GOLDEN GATE PARK in San Francisco is home to the excellent California Academy of Sciences, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the De Young Museum with its free Saturday kids’ art classes and the Koret Children’s Quarter with a playground first established in 1888 and complete with its historic playground. Don’t miss the Japanese Tea Garden where fortune cookies were first served, the free Sunday afternoon Golden Gate Park Band concerts (from April to October) and the buffalo that lives next to Spreckels Lake. Ready to take out a paddleboat?

LINCOLN PARK in Chicago is along the city’s famous lakefront and is home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the last free zoos in the country. The city also offers the Chicago History Museum, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, the North Pond Nature Sanctuary, Lincoln Park Archery Range, North Avenue Beach and Oak Street Beach.

Colorful characters at China Lights exhibit in New Orleans

Colorful characters at China Lights exhibit in New Orleans

SEATTLE CENTER is not only home to the iconic Space Needle, but also the Seattle Children’s Museum, the amazing Chihuly Garden and Glass where brightly colored glass sculptures mirror the outdoor landscape, the Pacific Science Center and the chance to ride the Seattle Center Monorail and more. What can be better than visiting a museum and then heading out to the park to play?

BALBOA PARK in San Diego is famous for its flowers, as well as the San Diego Zoo and the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater. There are 15 museums here so you can take your pick without leaving the park, including the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center with its terrific planetarium shows and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum where you can check out a new interactive garden exhibit. Come for a free Sunday concert — The Spreckels Organ is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world!

The Boston Common was the nation’s first public park, established in 1634, and from the beginning has been a stage for history. The Freedom Trail goes right through the Common. The Public Garden adjacent to the Common was the country’s first public botanical garden and the place where generations of children have come in spring and summer to ride on the Swan Boats. During the summer, there’s the Frog Pond spray pool at Boston Common and ice-skating in the winter. Don’t miss the famous bronze statues in the garden based on Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s story “Make Way for Ducklings” — the book famously tells the story of a pair of mallards that opt to raise their family on an island in the Public Garden’s lagoon.

Don’t forget your Frisbee!

(For more TakingtheKids, visit and follow @TakingtheKids on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Check out Eileen’s Kid’s Guide Series to major American Cities. The Third edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been published.)