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But if any of these airports are on your itinerary, you’ll mind being stuck (a little) less. They all offer plenty to keep kids occupied:
O’Hare International (ORD)
Lonely Planet Images/Getty ImagesThis airport is nearly as well-known for its bounty of kid entertainment and treat outposts—think Garrett Popcorn in terminal 1 and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in terminals 1 and 3—as it is for weather delays.
In terminal 1, pass a four-story model of a brachiosaurus as you head into the Field Museum Store, where your family can pass an hour perusing goodies from the famed Natural History landmark. Look for toys, collectibles, and clothing paying homage to Sue, the world’s most complete T-rex.
The Chicago Children’s Museum has interactive exhibits in 2,000 square feet in terminal 2 that are airport-themed: kiddos tag and weigh baggage, load cargo, fly planes and direct air traffic. Another highlight of this terminal: A restored WWII F3F-4 fighter plane like the one flown by the airport's namesake, Butch O’Hare.
Terminal 5 houses fire and safety-themed exhibits geared to the preschool and early elementary sets, along with play areas filled with slides and stocked with Legos.
If you’re moving between United concourses B and C, take the tunnel so you can see the 744-foot-long light sculpture dancing on the ceiling. For those of you lucky (and brave) enough to be traveling internationally with kids, pack extra distractions: that terminal’s not as family-friendly as the domestic ones.
San Francisco (SFO)
Photographer's Choice/Getty ImagesHeaded to Hawaii or (a mom can really dream) Asia? You may want to opt for SFO over LAX as the switching point. Dedicated family lanes will speed you through security. Full-on nurseries as well as tot play areas are found in terminals 1, 2, and 3; three aquariums home to different sea denizens can be found in terminal 1.
Good options for older kids include the Commission Aviation Library and the 11,500 square foot Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum. You can even take a self-guided tour of the exhibits, play areas, and architecture. Or if there are enough of you, split into teams and embark on a treasure hunt as you tackle the questions and challenges posted throughout.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL)
The busiest airport in the world (who knew?) just happens to be kid heaven. Just don’t get so caught up in exploring that you miss your flight. ATL is enormous; allow plenty of time to get to your gate.
There are play areas aplenty, but the most memorable attraction is a 33-foot long skeleton of Yangchuanosaurus—a dinosaur that lived in China during the Jurassic period—drawing oohs and aahs in the main terminal atrium. It’s on loan from Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History; teaching the kids how to spell its name could pass 10 minutes in itself.
Kid-friendly exhibits rotate as part of their unique Airport Art Program. The Youth Art Galleries on concourses D, E, and T display projects by Georgia students and are sure to inspire at least one masterpiece on your flight.
Look up to spot a flying ear of corn—with a 10-foot “shuckspan,” no less—at gate E 16.
The whimsy continues as you get your luggage. Sculptures of giant ants march over the ductwork in the north and south terminal baggage claim areas.
Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP)
Find yourself with a long layover in this busy hub? Field trip! Light Rail Transit connects MSP to Mall of America. The ride takes only 12 minutes. There you’ll find—well, what won’t you find? An aquarium, kid stores from American Girl to Lego, and Nickelodeon Universe, an indoor amusement park, for starters.
Prefer to stay put? No worries. Serious play areas (we’re talking 1,000 square feet) in the main Lindbergh Terminal (Concourse C) and Humphrey Terminal (Concourse C, second floor) are built for tykes primed to climb, jump, and roll. The seats look like luggage, but are more than just cute: you can charge your devices from them.
In the Family Center, get comfy in a rocking chair, use a family bathroom or settle your sweetie into a crib. And don’t panic if you forgot wipes (or a sippy cup. Or diaper cream); a vending machine’s got your covered.
Peanuts fans can take photos with larger-than-life replicas of the gang throughout the airport (Charles Schultz was from Minneapolis). In the unlikely scenario nobody likes Snoopy, a trio of video arcades and the free Wi-Fi are your back-up.
If you’re traveling with an autistic child, check into MSP’s Navigating Autism Program when you book your tickets. This unique initiative eases the stress of flying for families dealing with autism.
McCarran International Airport (LAS)
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Las Vegas itself may not be geared to minors, but the airport is. On the second floor of terminal D, future air traffic controllers and pilots can practice in a pint-size interactive control tower and jet engine.
Still have some time on your hands? Head to the interactive videos, dioramas, and vintage planes, like a Cessna 172, in the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum on Level 2. Most visitors miss this hide-out on the walkway above baggage claim; it’s open 24 hours.
Or see if you can catch a glimpse of a top-secret takeoff or landing. Take a seat near a big terminal window, and look for a white unmarked plane with a red stripe. Several times every day, those planes shuttle workers back and forth to the government complex at Groom Lake…better known as Area 51.
Sure, there are plenty of celebrities to spot at LAS, but older tweens and teens may get just as big a thrill out of spying one of the mysterious “Janet” planes, as they’re called.
Orlando International (MCO)
OK, it’s obvious, but the entry-point to this family mecca still deserves kudos. Much of its appeal is in the details: well-lit, open spaces with indoor trees, life-size sculptures of Disney characters, and preschool-size seating in the main terminal. The new game arcade doesn’t hurt, either.
The Kennedy Space Center shop with its video wall showing films of NASA launches and a portion of an asteroid from Mars makes a perfect pit stop before lining up for the photo op with Mickey or Snow White.
And don’t stress if there’s a line at the food court. There’s a 3,000-gallon saltwater aquarium right there to keep their minds off the wait, with, of course, Nemo.
Dallas/Ft. Worth International (DFW)
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The largest hub for American Airlines, DFW is a bustling transfer airport. And children will be kept just as busy. Three Junior Flyer Clubs—685-square-foot aviation playgrounds with a runway, highway, car, airplane, and control tower— are waiting to be conquered at terminal B, gate 12, and terminal C, gate 14, as well as international terminal D, gate 30 (this one blessedly has flat-screens broadcasting the Boomerang channel).
Desperate for a change of scenery? The Skylink’s purpose is take passengers from terminal to terminal, but the trains that arrive every two minutes double as a free sightseeing (read kid-distracting) ride.
Motor City rocks top marks for child-pleasing amenities. If your flight brings you to the McNamara Terminal, you’re set with multiple play areas, Ford and Motown stores, and a gourmet peanut butter and jelly shop (yep, they have creamy-grape-white bread for picky eaters).
Otherwise, the North Terminal’s recently-installed Play Port soft-sculpted playground will send wee travelers sliding through padded clouds.
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Parents who have kids with a wide-age range love Sea-Tac, as SEA is called by Seattle and Tacoma locals. Tweens and teens will like the cool club vibe, with live performers in a variety of locations throughout the airport, part of their “Experience the City of Music” program. The blues, pop, and folk coming at you via speakers, video screens, and even a free smartphone app is all courtesy of local artists. Tots not quite ready for music appreciation will tire themselves out at the big-as-a-city-park Children’s Play Area in between the A and B concourses.
Another venue to get kids primed for a nap on the plane is the play room across from the Seattle Tap Room. If you’ve got a baby in tow, relax in rocking chairs with foot stools in the quiet mothers’ room found inside the playroom. Military families can also use the mothers’ room in the USO located on the mezzanine level of the main terminal.
If you still need to stem a meltdown, download a movie from Digiboo; kiosks are between the tickets counters and security.
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Kids are born artists, so it’s no wonder the 30 eye-catching sculptures and installations at DIA are favorites of fams on the go. And they do double duty: kill time and get kids thinking creativity.
One of the top draws is “Deep Time/Deep Space, A Subterranean Journey,” a mile-long light and sculpture creation in the West Terminal’s inbound train tunnel. Yep, train tunnel. The train is free, and since it goes underground, kids tend to find it as exciting as most amusement parks rides.
If your crew prefers the sights up top, walk onto the passenger bridge, where you watch jets pass underneath. And don’t forget the four scavenger hunts; each is good for at least 30 minutes of active fun. Find them here.