I know how hard it is to get young kids out of the house to go somewhere - even quick outings require you to pack enough snacks, diapers, and toys to make you think you’ll be gone for a week. And who wants to wrestle kids in and out of carseats just to find out that your destination isn’t kid-friendly? That’s why I’ve decided to visit Triangle area sites to see if they’re worth your trip. I won’t use a rating system but I’ll try to describe what you’ll see well enough for you to decide if your kids would find it interesting. I’ll also give you the heads up on bathrooms, stroller accessibility and any other SNAFUs I encounter.


Imagination Station - Wilson


        On a blustery October day, after my wife returned to work from maternity leave, the three of us men hit the road for some adventure. My toddler seems to like riding in the car - he's been asking to go some place all week. Maybe he'll be a truck driver when he grows up. As soon as I got him and his brother in the car I taught him a new phrase - "We're off!"

       We approached our destination through Wilson's historical district along tree-lined streets amidst antebellum and federal style homes. It was clear as soon as we entered the downtown area that there is a need for urban renewal.

       The Imagination Station is housed in a building that has been used as a courthouse and a post office. Limited parking is available in the rear of the building. Five dollars will pay for your adult ticket. Because the two boys were under three they got in for free.

       We had the whole Museum to ourselves and we puttered around the first floor with its exhibits on simple machines and the human body. The exhibits are meant to be kid-friendly and interactive but unfortunately many of the ones relating to the human body are not working. The collection of exhibits seem somewhat mismatched as if they were found at a carnival's going out of business sale and thrown in a room together. There is a building block station that kept my toddler's interest for a little while but it wasn't long before we were ready to see what was on the next level.

A mouth display on the first floor

       Upstairs is where you can find the old courtroom which is now used during birthday parties for science demonstrations. As I followed my toddler into the jury box I couldn't help but wonder what kind of grisly testimony may have been heard in that space. The second floor is also where you can find the live turtles, lizards and snakes. There are two noteworthy exhibits in this room. One was the largest snake I have ever seen alive and close up - an albino ball python that was thicker than my arm in diameter. I couldn't get over the shock of seeing a snake that large coiled in his habitat in the corner of the room. The other exciting display was an open top enclosure at floor level where a live tortoise was being kept. Even though my toddler could reach the tortoise, it was unclear if the Museum expected him/her to be touched. And then there's the whole thing about salmonella with turtles that I didn't know if it applied to tortoises as well so we just kept our hands to ourselves.

This cell phone picture does not do this ball python justice!

        On the second floor, near the restrooms, you can also find the Curiosity Room for children under five. The room is furnished like a daycare with loads of preschool toys and books that are quasi-scientific in nature. Needless to say we spent a long time in that room. I have to say one of my favorite parts of this whole adventure was playing with the dinosaur figures with my toddler in that room.

The Curiosity Room

      The third floor of the building houses the NC Museum of the Coastal Plain which is a one room gallery featuring changing exhibits. The current exhibit is a photographic essay of African American gardens.

     The staff at the Station was very nice and I would recommend checking this place out only if you live in Wilson or very close. Of greater interest to my toddler than the Museum was the constant train whistles he heard nearby. I asked one of the staff if there was someplace in town we could go to watch trains coming and going. She suggested the Amtrak station a block down from the Museum on Nash St. We spent a few minutes parked at the station hoping to give my toddler the train fix he so desperately craved. But alas, even though we had heard trains pulling in all morning, the time we spent at the station didn't bear fruit.



West Point on the Eno - Durham


          I had heard so much about this park from various Triangle websites and brochures that I was excited to find a temperate day to make a visit. I guess my expectations were high given all the hype, but I was a little disappointed with West Point. I expected it to be bigger and a bit more pastoral. Granted we went on a weekday so we weren't able to see inside any of the historic structures (the Mangum House, the Mill, and the Hugh Mangum Museum of Photography) on the property.

         We turned into the park driveway, surprised to see how close the park sits to a major thoroughfare - in early Fall you can see through the trees to the shopping center across the street. Driving along the park's one way gravel road, we took in the layout of the park which is a good thing since we were never able to find a printed map. The only map we found was on a placard near the parking lot. There are also some decent park maps on this part of the website.

        Once we parked the car we went looking for a bathroom. Tip: the restrooms behind the Mangum House are locked when the House is not open. My wife asked some children who were there on a school trip and they pointed us toward a picnic shelter near the Laurel Cliffs Trailhead (my wife is still home on maternity leave). While my wife was using the facilities and I was trying to feed our infant, my toddler decided to venture out on his own. Stuck in my position next to the stroller, above a set of steps, I called after him as he moved farther away from me. Luckily, a helpful gentleman offered to go after him. As my son realized his time on the lamb was fleeting, he broke into a run heading down the trail into the woods.

Mangum House


        When we were all reunited we headed towards the mill. At the mill, my toddler was captivated when his mom pointed out that he could look through the planks in the bridge to watch the water run over the dam. We found a shaded picnic bench that provided a nice view of the mill and had a picnic lunch. The sound of water rushing over the dam was relaxing, but the sound of passing cars on the nearby road reminded us that we were still in the city.

        After lunch we made our way back to the Laurel Cliffs Trailhead and began the third of a mile hike. We left the stroller at the trailhead which ended up being a very smart move since the very last portion of the trail is not stroller accessible due to steep grade and rocky terrain. Although I probably carried my toddler the majority of the time, those rare moments when he was hiking with us were a special treat - him using a stick he had found as a walking staff and stopping every so often to gleefully examine an ordinary rock. As you hike along the bluffs of this trail, there are some beautiful views of the Eno River below. The trail ends close to the Mill so we only had to hike back a short distance along the gravel drive to get back to the stroller.

      We definitely had fun and Fall is a great time to enjoy the park's many splendored leaves. But as far as parks with mills go, I was far more impressed by Yates Mill Park with its' quiet rural setting and hands-on exhibits in the Visitor's Center. Next time I come to West Point I'll try to make it for the Festival on the Eno which I hear is a big deal.

The Hugh Mangum Museum of Photography


Noah's Ark Ministries - Clayton

The play structure

         So, this place is a little different than the other places I've taken my kids. Noah's Ark is a ministry run out of a woman's home in Clayton. She provides petting zoo experiences for birthday parties, vacation Bible schools, Sunday School classes, and if you make an appointment like we did, you can come to her farm to interact with the animals. I found Noah's Ark through a web search I was doing for another agency named after the Biblical patriarch - Noah's Landing - a petting zoo specializing in exotic animals that, despite their name, does not subscribe to a Judeo-Christian philosophy. 

        Having only corresponded with the proprietor via email, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this experience. When my GPS told me I had reached the address and I saw that it was a private residence with three large crosses erected near the road, I was a little nervous. The owner waved us in to the driveway as she attempted to get stray pigs and llamas in their pen before she opened the gate for us. My kids were excited to see so many farm animals, but as I drove down the gravel drive I was still pretty unsure of what I'd gotten myself into. We parked our car and the owner introduced us to her daughter and granddaughter and then informed us that she was waiting for a couple more families who had made appointments. She suggested we take the kids to the ark-themed play structure at the front of the lot to let them play until the other families arrived.

       My kids had fun playing on the swings, slide, and two level boat (I had my preschooler with me on this trip because she was off from school for a teacher workday). There were a few picnic tables surrounding the ark and a lot of animal poop on the ground - so much, in fact, that it was impossible not to step on a turd. The good news is that all of the animals are herbivores so the poo isn't really smelly as it cakes the bottom of your shoe. As far as I know there are no public restroom facilities at Noah's Ark. I suppose if you had an emergency you could ask to use the owner's bathroom, but we didn't have a reason to test this theory. 

       After all of the families had arrived, the proprietor gathered the children around for some basic instructions on how to pet the animals and an admonition to keep hands out of noses and mouths until they could be sanitized with the provided hand sanitizer. Then she brought a donkey into the yard for the kids to take turns sitting on. While the kids got on and off the donkey, the owner talked about the significance of donkeys in the Bible. This Bible lesson was the extent of the proselytizing - there was no witnessing or altar calls or specific theology discussed - so as a parent raising my kids in a Judeo-Christian tradition I was comfortable with the message they were getting. The only other indication that you are visiting a Christian themed petting zoo is the fact that all of the animals have Biblical names, including an irascible, crested mallard appropriately named Paul.

        After the kids took their turn on the donkey, they were ushered into a small pen and given a few minutes to interact with some goats and sheep.

        The next enclosure the kids entered provided them a chance to touch a bunny, chickens, a pig, and Paul the duck who's not really the touchy-feely sort. My toddler was enthralled with the bunny and kept trying to pick it up. The owner sat next to each child and helped them hold the bunny so parents could take pictures.

         The last enclosure gave kids a chance to feed llamas from their hand. The owner explained that llamas have no top teeth so they can't bite. My preschooler enjoyed walking to the door of the enclosure so the llamas could tickle the small pellets from her outstretched hand.

        The capstone experience for all of the kids was the chance to take a pony ride around the front lot. The owner saddled up a pony and led it in a loop around the yard while a gleeful rider posed for photos. My preschooler has been craving another pony ride for some time now, but this was my toddler's first experience on a horse. He dutifully mounted the patient animal but he would not let go of his mother during the entire circuit. The owner does not provide helmets for the pony ride so you should bring a bicycle helmet from home if you want.

       If you don't mind making an appointment, Noah's Ark is a very relaxed way to give your kids a petting zoo fix. The owner is very good with the kids and easy to be around so you quickly get over the feeling that you're at someone's private residence. She does expect a donation if you come, so bring some cash or a checkbook for the suggested $5 a person donation.


ROAD TRIP: Town Creek Indian Mound - Mt. Gilead


        The occupation of the Town Creek site by Native Americans goes back 10,000 years. Around 1200 CE the development of the earth mound began, huts were constructed, and a stockade was erected around the site for protection. During this time, burials and special ceremonies were performed at Town Creek. The earth mound itself was used as a burial site and a meeting place for ceremonies. Bodies were buried in different positions inside the mound - some were laid out on their backs, while others were curled on their side into a fetal position, the bodies of infants and children were often placed inside large earthen vessels and buried.

        The approximately 10 foot tall mound is preserved at Town Creek although the bodies are no longer visible - a friend tells me that there were once windows in the mound that allowed visitors to see the buried skeletons. Four buildings have been re-created on the site to appear as they would have when the Pee Dee Indians lived there. The Guard Tower is the first of these buildings that you encounter. It's a cone-shaped enclosure along the wall of the stockade. My preschooler thought it resembled a cave and excitedly declared that she could sleep there. The next hut is the Mortuary where you can step inside and view mannequins behind glass reenacting the burial of a child. A button on the panel in front of you starts the recorded narration. The East Lodge provides a demonstration of the building technique used to create all of the structures at Town Creek.  And finally, the Town House sits atop the earth mound and is furnished with log benches and a small altar-like table which sits at the front of the hut and faces the benches.

the Guard Tower and stockade

the Mortuary hut

interior of the East Lodge

         Visitors can find bathrooms, with a baby changing station in the men's room, at the Visitor's Center. Two small exhibits are also housed in the Center - one detailing the archaeologically significant Hardaway site and another which illustrates aspects of the Pee Dee culture at Town Creek. The Hardaway exhibit has  some interactive elements to help kids understand how Native Americans made tools. The Pee Dee exhibit features a ceramic urn used in burials at Town Creek as well as two heads of Pee Dee Indians reconstructed from skeletal evidence found at the site. The Visitor's Center also contains a small gift shop with the expected Native American swag as well as a comprehensive offering of books on Indian culture in North Carolina.

       I have to admit that when I planned to visit Town Creek I doubted that my kids would have much fun; I was going mostly because I was really interested in seeing an Indian mound. But surprisingly, my kids had a great time. There was plenty of open grassland for the kids to run through and roughhouse in inside the stockade area. My kids loved the Mortuary hut because it's dark and a little spooky with the mannequins frozen in mid-ceremony, plus they got to push a button that started a pre-recorded message. My toddler really enjoyed running in and out of all of the huts. And we had a race to see who could get up the mound first - there's a ramp ascending the mound that requires a bit of caution when walking up because it is steep and relatively smooth.

       If you make the trip you will need to plan accordingly because most of the drive is on rural roads and there aren't a whole lot of nearby places to stop for food or potty breaks. There are several picnic tables at Town Creek, if you're inclined to bring a lunch. You'll definitely want to GPS or Mapquest Town Creek because there is very little directive signage along the way.

      More people should definitely make the drive to see Town Creek, one of only two surviving Indian mounds in NC and the only one with an interpretive center.


ROAD TRIP: "Day Out With Thomas" at the NC Transportation Museum - Spencer

          We had already intended to visit the Transportation Museum, knowing that my toddler would love the chance to see trains and automobiles, but it just so happened that the weekend we chose to visit was the same weekend Thomas was coming. When Thomas comes he brings a carnival replete with food vendors, a small mini-golf setup, model train displays, wooden train playsets, a hay maze, a gift shop, pictures with Sir Topham Hatt, and children's performers. There was quite a crowd but because we arrived late in the afternoon I imagine we avoided even longer lines. Food vendors even gave us freebies because they wanted to get rid of their inventory on the last day of the weekend event.

Sir Topham Hatt

          Tickets to ride on Thomas were $19 a person and also included admission to the Museum. The ride itself was about 20 minutes and meandered along the edge of the Museum campus. For the first half you travel forward and then the train reverses to bring you back to the starting point. The trip is not exactly scenic but it does offer a glimpse of the Museum's rolling stock awaiting restoration.

                   ____________ SPOILER ALERT ______________
      If you'd rather be surprised about what happens on a Thomas ride don't read the next paragraph.

       The inside of the passenger cars are decorated with banners and pictures of Thomas' friends. The ride begins with Thomas themed sing-along songs piped through the loudspeakers. Each passenger is given a Jr. Engineer Certificate signed by Sir Topham Hatt - my toddler gazed upon his with reverence as if he'd just received his diploma from Thomas U. Midway through the ride a 'conductor' in costume strolls through the car chatting up the passengers.

___________END OF SPOILER_________

         The Transportation Museum itself is worth seeing even when Thomas isn't in town. The campus is a former train repair depot so trains and train equipment dominate the Museum's collection. The star of the Museum's campus is the 37 stall roundhouse with working turntable - you can take a ride on the turntable for a dollar. Several noteworthy engines and passenger cars reside in the roundhouse with placards that describe their history. The Back Shop - the largest building on site where all the train repair work was done -  is currently under renovation but you can step just inside the doorway to see antique firetrucks, some unique automobiles, an amphibious plane, and you might even be able to spot the fuselage of a passenger jet. 

The Bob Julian Roundhouse

The Champion - a diesel/electric with 6 million miles of experience

inside the Back Shop

       A gift shop dominates the old Mechanics Shop but it also houses a display of small fishing boats and a conestoga wagon. Another building is devoted to antique cars spanning the decades up to a 1978 Plymouth State Police cruiser.

antique cars in the "Bumper to Bumper" exhibit

        The Museum's buildings are spread out and a bit far from the parking lot so you'll definitely want to use a stroller to transport the little ones. There is a large covered picnic shelter on site as well as restrooms. A pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks provides visitors with a great perch to see the Museum's trains coming and going.We were able to see all of the exhibits in two hours. 

        The Transportation Museum belongs to an older era of museums in the respect that there aren't a lot of things kids can touch - except for when Thomas brings his carnival - and most of the Museum's information is delivered through text laden placards. But what the Museum lacks in interactivity it makes up for in the breadth of its' train collection, the crown of which is the preserved roundhouse. My kids had never seen a roundhouse except on Thomas and Friends. It was exciting to be able to show them the real thing, especially one with a functioning turntable.

         This excursion was all about my toddler. I can't remember the last time I saw him that excited. When he first sighted Thomas he called out his sister's name - a name we very rarely hear him pronounce - to share his excitement with her. There is such a wonderful feeling that comes from showing our kids something they have only dreamed about. Although I haven't done it, I can only imagine this is what it feels like to take children to Disney World for the first time.