Lusitania made from toothpicks at Baltimore AVAM museum

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Media Services  


What makes your kids smile? 


Maybe it’s a Whoopee cushion bench or a welcome mat made out of toothbrushes, which spells out smile. Maybe it’s a 3-ton, four-story whirligig, a throne made out of bottle caps, (fake) spaghetti coming out of a miniature bathtub faucet or a giant mosaic egg. 


You’ll have plenty to giggle about at the American Visionary Art Museum ( in Baltimore and its current exhibit entitled “What Makes Us Smile,” which is guaranteed to make even your most reluctant museum visitor laugh out loud at some of the creations from 90 different artists. 


In fact, this is one of the coolest museums I’ve visited in a while. Kids will love that the artists whose work is displayed here are untaught. They’re farmers, housewives, mechanics, retirees, the disabled, the homeless, as well as the occasional neurosurgeon who use everything from carved roots to embroidered rags and even toothpicks — there’s a huge model of the Lusitania made from 193,000 toothpicks. The “What Makes Us Smile” exhibit was co-curated by Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” artist Gary Panter and AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger and includes all kinds of fun and weird facts. (Did you know fake smiles actually utilize different muscles than real ones do?) 


Kids will love the collection of whimsical interactive automata, including the dog eating spaghetti out of the bathtub faucets, the larger-than-life robot family fashioned from recycled materials. And movies that will, of course, make you smile will be shown all summer on a giant screen outside. 


Sometimes in our rush to take the kids to see major museums and historic sites, we skip smaller cities like Baltimore — ideally located 40 minutes north of Washington, D.C., and 90 minutes south of Philadelphia — that are not only easily navigable (even free buses) but can be easier on our wallets. Baltimore ( may have just a little more than half a million residents but it boasts some 130 different attractions and could be a great family getaway for a few days. 


I bet there is a smaller city not far from your home you haven’t explored with the kids lately. I’ve always loved Kansas City (, Colorado Springs ( and Austin, Texas (, for example. Here you can let the kids lead the way with their passion-of-the-moment without wrecking the budget. 


In Baltimore, take your junior foodies to restaurants in historic Fells Point ( near the waterfront, which, by the way, was the second largest immigration district in the country, after Ellis Island. (Smell the bread? A lot of McDonald’s buns are baked here at the H&S Bakery.) Eat Cap’n Crunch French Toast at the Blue Moon Cafe, a burger at Koopers Tavern, a hotdog at Stuggy’s, or crab cakes, a local specialty, anywhere in town. If the kids are old enough and are game, sign on for a Charm City Food Tour ( 


Come cheer on your home team — or the Orioles. You’ll spend a lot less than in New York or Boston and have as much fun at Camden Yards, a short walk from the famous Inner Harbor where you can visit the National Aquarium (, celebrating its 30th anniversary on the pier, tour the USS Constellation, the only Civil War-era vessel still afloat (, head out on a pirate ship ( or go up to Federal Hill Park to the big playground. 


If you opt to explore a smaller city this summer, check out local festivals. Bring your hairspray if you come to Baltimore the weekend of June 11 for the Hon Fest ( that pays tribute to all things “Bawlmer.” This is after all the city where the hit Broadway musical and movie “Hairspray” is set. Come the weekend of July 15 for Artscape (, the nation’s largest free arts festival with continuous musical performances, arts exhibitions and children’s activities. 


I love all the quirky museum options too. Pretend you are a giant astronaut who has stumbled on a miniature world of futuristic vehicles from the past at the “Out of This World Toys” exhibit at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum ( Use Tinkertoy pieces to create your own inventions and explore subjects with the kids like renewable energy and clean water at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum ( 


Tour the Sports Legends Museum — it includes Babe Ruth’s birthplace — at Camden Yards ( or The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture ( The current exhibit “Material Girls” is bound to be a crowd pleaser, as the kids view the different mediums contemporary African-American women artists use from pocket combs to plastic bags to model cars and black rubber. 


The kids might even learn a little history along the way. Visit Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the national anthem during the War of 1812. Stop at the home of Mary Young Pickersgill where she made the huge 30-by-42 Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. Explore the beginnings of the railroad at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum ( 


In honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, leading historic attractions have new exhibits ( and the Baltimore Civil War Experience Pass offers a 25 percent discount on admission to four Civil War venues. 


The best part about visiting places off the beaten path is the thrill you’ll get from experiencing things you won’t find everywhere — like at the Visionary Art Museum. You’ll have to drag the kids away from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre of London exhibit ( where they push a button to make the doctor fly, nurses jump or the dog ski. Let them count how many different everyday things (tubes, fans, lights, screws, antennas, etc.) were used to create the giant robot family created by DeVon Smith. 


Hopefully, they’ll leave feeling inspired that they, too, can be artists. 


At the very least, they’ll leave smiling. And when you’re traveling with kids, that is a very good thing.