The Nutcracker

Don your finest apparel for 40th annual performance at Ohio Theatre

Since 1974, The Nutcracker has dazzled audiences looking for even more reason to celebrate the season in central Ohio. The 40th annual show doesn't disappoint, running Dec. 8-24.Lightbulbs gleamed in the theater’s marquee. A chandelier hung from the sparkly ceiling like a Chinese lantern. Spotlights crisscrossed a wall of ripply curtains.

The stage was set as my family entered the opulent Ohio Theatre in downtown Columbus. My daughter and I were decked out in our finest attire, ready to experience BalletMet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker.

The event gave us just the excuse we wanted to play dress up for the evening. I wore a decades-old bridesmaid’s dress, and my daughter wore her Communion dress that now graced her knees instead of the floor.

Since 1974, The Nutcracker has dazzled audiences looking for even more reason to celebrate the season in central Ohio. The 40th annual show doesn’t disappoint, running Dec. 8-24.

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The Columbus Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky’s original score from the orchestra pit as professional dancers and students from BalletMet dance their toes off as memorable characters such as Clara, Herr Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince.

Highlights of the 2-hour show include watching the robotic moves of the dancer who plays the doll, admiring the outfits of the Flowers, and trying to figure out how the children spring from Mother Ginger’s skirt.

Learn more about this holiday classic.

Buca di Beppo: Let kids eat spaghetti and get whacky

Buca di Beppo

Let kids eat spaghetti, get whacky

Buca di Beppo: Let kids eat spaghetti and get whackyIn the spirit of family gatherings over the holidays, our family-friendly restaurant pick for December is Buca di Beppo. Sure it’s a chain restaurant – with more than 100 locations worldwide – but our kids love it, and we can’t resist the smile-inducing decor.

What’s the story?

Buca di Beppo is an American restaurant chain that was founded in 1993 in the basement of a Minneapolis apartment building. Its name means “Joe’s basement.”

How’s it Italian?

Buca di Beppo: Let kids eat spaghetti and get whackyTo encourage sharing, plates of pasta, pizza, salads and breads are served family style, making the dining experience more of a social engagement.

It’s not a place to eat alone, unless you like lots of leftovers.

You’re also likely to hear the music of Frank Sinatra, whose parents were Italian immigrants.

What’s with the decor?

The chain is known for its amusing, vintage photographs plastered closely together on the walls.

During our last visit, I spied portraits of Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti, Joe DiMaggio and a nun wiping a baby’s bottom.

The maze-like layout also adds to the chaotic feel, making it hard to find the bathroom, which is plastered in even more amusing pics.

For large parties, reserve the Pope table – it’s big, round and has a bust of the Pope as its centerpiece.

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Biggest complaints

I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t cook, but when I do, it’s usually spaghetti. So the idea of going out for dinner to eat spaghetti isn’t usually my first choice. That said, our kids like spaghetti. (And nobody wants to share a big plate of eggplant parmigiana with me.) But the idea of spending $27 for a large plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce is a bit much. Capeesh?

But if you want to save money, join Buca’s eClub to receive emails and occasional $10 coupons, which will at least buy you another glass of chianti.

Why do we keep going back?

We go for our kids. They like the food and they get to be as loud and goofy as they want, because other kids and adults are acting the same way.

Also, the food is pretty good. They’ve got pasta, pizza, salad, fresh garlic bread and yummy cannoli and tiramisu for dessert. And, there are always leftovers.

There are two Columbus-area locations – in downtown Columbus and Worthington. Our favorite is in the Arena District at 343 N. Front St., Columbus. For more information, visit www.bucadibeppo.com.

Kelton House Museum and Garden: Tour restored Victorian home that was once a stop along Underground Railroad

Kelton House Museum and Garden

Tour Victorian-era home that was stop along Underground Railroad

On a frigid January afternoon, my daughter, Rosie, and I followed a costumed man through the Kelton House, a Victorian-era home and museum in downtown Columbus.

The historic home is open for docent-led tours on Sundays from 1-4 p.m. Our tour was the last of the day, as snow began to pile up outside, keeping other would-be tourists away.

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Mark Welch, a thin, gray-haired man in a long, black coat, led us through parlors filled with 19th-century furnishings and antiques that were once owned by the Kelton family. He showed us jewelry made from human hair and a bed where a member of the Kelton family had died. He also told us that some think the old house is haunted. He said that other docents have heard the voice of a little girl from behind a door. He then left us to explore the upstairs rooms on our own, as he swiftly departed down a spiral staircase.

Rosie and I followed Welch afterward and joked that he, too, was a ghost. Our exploration proved adventuresome and educational, as is the intent of the museum, which opened in 1976 and is operated by the Junior League of Columbus.

Built in 1852, the house was once home to Fernando Cortez Kelton and Sophia Langdon Stone Kelton. It stayed with the family for three generations until 1975 when the Kelton’s granddaughter, Grace, passed away.

Fernando was a prosperous wholesaler of dry goods and pharmaceuticals, but risked losing everything to help fugitive slaves as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The Keltons took in a runaway named Martha Hartway, who remained with the family for a decade.

Our tour concluded with a visit to the Underground Railroad Learning Station, located on the lower level of the house, where visitors can see a replica of a secret hiding place that helped slaves attain freedom.

Fernando also was a pallbearer in Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession that went through Ohio and ended up in Illinois. Fernando’s son, Oscar, fought in the Civil War against slavery and died in battle.

On the second Sunday of each month, the museum presents “Trails of Hope,” re-enactments of Underground Railroad stories about fugitive slaves and their protectors.

The Kelton Museum and Garden, 586 E. Town St., is first an educational facility, but also a popular wedding destination with a beautiful Victorian garden. For more information, visit keltonhouse.com or call 614-464-2022.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Watching hockey game is only half the fun

Columbus Blue Jackets

Watching hockey game is only half the fun

The first time I attended a Blue Jackets hockey game was in the early 2000s while on a date with my now-husband, Mike. I remember the initial excitement of seeing the bright, white ice rink at Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus and the thrill of watching players slam against the Plexiglass panels.

Our enthusiasm for our city’s first professional hockey team kept us coming back. We’d regularly join in choruses of “Let’s go Jackets!” while waving paper cutouts of team member’s faces, such as the handsome Rostislav Klesla and the rebellious Jody Shelley, who was known for starting fights. We got autographs, too, including one from former team captain Rick Nash on my cell-phone case.

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Fast forward to a decade later in February 2015 when we took our two children to see their first hockey game – a matchup between the Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens at Nationwide, where the Jackets have been playing since the expansion team was founded in 2000.

Our 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, seemed especially enthusiastic about the outing. Our son, Max, 5, on the other hand, just wanted Dippin’ Dots – beads of ice cream frozen by liquid nitrogen – but none were to be found.

The surroundings, more than the game, enchanted our children.

First there was Stinger. The mascot, a bright green bug with bulging red eyes sporting a Blue Jackets’ jersey, buzzes around the stadium, interacting with crowd members, launching T-shirts and skating on the ice between the three-period game.

Second there were the prizes. The team’s promotional members hurled empty pizza boxes into the crowd for a chance to win a free pizza. And a remote-controlled blimp that Rosie called “Blimpy” dropped parachute-strapped paraphernalia – more T-shirts.

Next there was the cannon. A replica of an 1857 Napoleon cannon, it’s fired at home games whenever the team takes the ice, scores a goal or wins a game. The cannon complements the teams’ namesake and Ohio history, but be warned: It is loud.

Fourth and foremost there was the Jumbotron. The giant screen, seen by fans from four sides, displays the game and entertainment during commercial breaks and lulls in the action. Rosie kept mugging with her dad in the hopes that they would make it onto the big screen. Alas, they did not. I tried mugging it up with Max, but he was too far gone playing Minecraft on my cell phone to show much interest.

There are a few more things for kids to do around the arena. There’s the IGS Energy Zone, an area where kids can play a makeshift hockey game with soft sticks in a small rink that has a comfy floor. This area is staffed by adults. Our kids also enjoyed stopping at the Fox Sports Ohio Blue Line, the official team store of the Blue Jackets. It was packed with clothes, toys and Blue Jackets memorabilia.

Nationwide Arena’s website lists several no-nos, items that you’re not supposed to bring to a game. They include strollers, backpacks, laptops, air horns and (surprise!) fireworks.

While the Blue Jackets did not win the game, we enjoyed the action of the players battling it out on the ice. Hockey players seem to really earn their money, and it was a lot of fun watching the game from a bird’s-eye view.

The Blue Jackets made sure everyone in the family had fun. Now if only they can serve Dippin’ Dots.

For more information, visit bluejackets.nhl.com.

Columbus Children's Theatre Thrifty Thursday

Columbus Children’s Theatre: Thrifty Thursday

All seats just $12 on Thursday nights

If you’ve got kids, and those kids like to watch plays (a likely eventuality), then check out what Columbus Children’s Theatre has to offer.

Located at 512 N. Park St. near the North Market, Columbus Children’s Theatre offers discounted tickets to its performances every Thursday. “Thrifty Thursday” tickets are just $12 apiece for all ages, compared to $15-$25 for tickets on other days. This once-a-week bargain presents a great opportunity for those not familiar with the theater company a chance to become acquainted with its fine productions.

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The theater was founded in 1963 with a mission to offer theatrical instruction to children throughout central Ohio. In addition to about eight productions a year, the theater offers a professional touring company that performs at schools around Ohio, as well as acting classes and workshops for children as young as three.

I took my family to see “Pinocchio” on a recent Thursday. The 50-minute show was the perfect length for a school night. The show started at 7:30 p.m. I arrived 30 minutes beforehand to secure a parking space. I pumped $2 into a meter in front of the theater.

The venue has three sections of stadium-style seating, with the actors positioned on the ground in the center. All seats provide good views.

Four versatile actors from the theater’s touring company performed the popular play about a wooden puppet that dreams of becoming a boy. They made it appear as though there were many more cast members as they moved about the theater, changing costumes and character voices.

My children were enraptured by the performance, especially when they asked for audience participation. My daughter, Rosie, delighted in joining two other girls on stage. At one point she was led behind a curtain, only to reappear with donkey ears on her head. She, along with Pinocchio, had been turned into a mule because she was playing too much and not doing her school work.

The cast members stayed afterward to sign autographs on playbills and pose for pictures.

Performances normally take place at the Park Street location, except the springtime productions, which move to bigger, more-accommodating venues.

Upcoming shows in the 2015 season include:

Feb. 12-22
“Healers in the Forest,” an hourlong show about a farm boy who discovers fairylike children with the power to heal that’s suggested for ages 4 and older.

March 12-29
“Fancy Nancy: The Musical,” a 75-minute show adapted from the children’s books by Jane O’Connor Minutes that’s suggested for ages 4 and older.

April 9-29
“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a 50-minute William Goldsmith adaptation suggested for ages 3 and older.

April 30-May 10
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” a two-act musical based on the animated film suggested for ages 5 and older and performed at the Lincoln Theatre, 769 E. Long St.

The box office is open one hour before shows. No concessions are sold at the theater and no food or drink is permitted inside. For more information, call 614-224-6672 or visit columbuschildrenstheatre.org.

COSI Planetarium
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COSI Planetarium

Indoor stargazing dome amazes youngsters

The Center of Science and Industry in downtown Columbus closed its planetarium in 2004 during a financial crunch. But after raising $1.1 million to revamp the stargazing auditorium, it’s back this year and as our young kids can attest, it’s pretty cool.

“It’s like 3D without glasses,” says 7-year-old Rosie.

With a 60-foot-diameter dome and seating for 200, it’s the largest planetarium in Ohio. High-definition projectors give visitors a glimpse of the universe, as points of light become the moon, planets, stars and galaxies.

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The planetarium is located on the second floor of the 320,000 square-foot science center. It complements the adjacent Space exhibit, where we buckled ourselves onto a zero-gravity toilet seat.

COSI charges an extra $5 for admission to the planetarium. We stood in a long line before taking our seats for a 40-minute show that included a whirlwind tour of the solar system, a cosmic light show and an animated short about an alien capturing Santa Claus in his spaceship.

We sat comfortably in our recliners without straining our necks to see the encompassing ceiling. The sun rose in the east as the full moon set in the west. Animated lines linked stars to form constellations such as Orion, composed of a giant red star called Betelgeuse (pronounced like the movie “Beetlejuice.”)

I was surprised at how mesmerized my children and their friend, Nick, were by the program. I liked getting a refresher-course on astronomy, one of my favorite subjects in school, but I thought the simple animation of “The Alien Who Stole Christmas” didn’t match the technology of the new planetarium and what people have come to expect from animated films. But the children in this auditorium seemed quite content, particularly when the show switched gears into a psychedelic sing-a-long with spiraling lights.

“We’re entering a black hole,” said 5-year-old Max.

I couldn’t help but think this venue would be cool for a birthday party. The space is rentable for private parties and even weddings. Can you imagine?

Other shows include:

Our Universe Above: COSI staff members take guests on a 40-minute tour of the universe, pointing out stars, planets and constellations.

One World, One Sky – Big Bird’s Adventure: Big Bird and friends from Sesame Street take guests on a journey to discover the moon, sun, North Star and Big Dipper.

COSI, 333 W. Broad St., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Cost is $19; $14 for ages 2-12. Admission to the planetarium costs $5 in addition to general admission.

For more information, visit cosi.org/planetarium.

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Topiary Park

Walk through a work of art in downtown Columbus

There’s a magical place in downtown Columbus that gets better with age.

The Topiary Park, a 7-acre landscape with 54 figures made of bronze frames overgrown by yew trees, has nicely taken shape since the attraction opened in 1992.

Figures of women with parasols and men with top hats have become pleasantly plump with greenery, and sculptures of dogs, a monkey and a cat have fattened since I’ve last seen them. The attraction, located at the Old Deaf School Park at 480 E. Town St., is a great place for quiet reflection or a fine backdrop for family photos.

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My family and I visited the park on a cloudy day, the perfect kind of weather for taking pictures of flowers and landscaping. We began our adventures by stopping at the nearby visitor’s center, where we picked up an information sheet before taking our self-guided tour.

The park is a sculptural interpretation of Georges Seurat’s Post-Impressionist painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte.” It’s the only known topiary representation of a painting.

I remember the large artwork composed of tiny brush stroke dots from the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” As a teenager I relished seeing the oil painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Visitors can see the work from the artist’s view by standing on a hill near a bronze plaque. The tallest figures, measuring 12 feet, were placed in the foreground, giving the scene depth of field.

A local sculptor named James T. Mason envisioned the attraction. The project took shape in 1988 as James built bronze frames and planted the shrubs. His wife, Elaine, sculpted the topiaries and trained other gardeners to help with trimming. Hills were added later, along with a pond representing the Seine river in Paris, with boats and water lilies.

The park is maintained by Columbus Recreation and Parks and the Friends of the Topiary Park.

The visitor’s center, gift shop and restrooms are located in a nearby chateau-style gatehouse.

The park is the site of a family concert series called PBJ & Jazz, which occurs from noon-1 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month from June through September. Outdoor movies also are shown on select dates from July through September.

(Be advised, though, that the park also is a resting spot for a variety of downtown’s denizens.)

Admission is free. Hours are from sunrise to sunset. On-street parking is available. For more information, visit www.topiarygarden.org or call 614-645-0197.

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Central Ohio Farm Markets

Prime picking time for farmers markets

One of the best things about summer in Ohio is the bounty of fruits and vegetables. There’s nothing like a sun-ripened tomato, picked fresh from the vine. Even better is dicing it up and combining it with peeled cucumbers, strips of basil and a freshly made vinaigrette for a tasty summertime salad.

You can find these ingredients and more at the many farm markets sprouting up this time of year in central Ohio. I recently visited the farmers market in the Columbus neighborhood of Clintonville, held each Saturday from April through November.

Vendors from around Ohio set up temporary shops along N. High Street, offering fruits, vegetables, pastries, jams, honey and flowers. The farmers grow their produce within 75 miles of Columbus, so it’s made for flavor — not made to survive long trips on trucks or trains.

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Here is a brief look at some of the many farm markets around central Ohio:

Bexley Farmers Market: 4-7 p.m., Thursdays, May through October, Bexley City Hall, 2111 E. Main St., Bexley. Learn more: www.bexleyfarmersmarket.com.

Canal Winchester Farmers Market: 9 a.m.-noon., Saturdays, May through October, Main Street in downtown Canal Winchester. Learn more: www.thecwfm.com.

Clintonville Farmers Market: 9 a.m.-noon, Saturdays, April through November; and 4-7 p.m., Wednesdays, June through August, west side of N. High Street between Orchard Lane and W. Dunedin Road, Columbus. Learn more: www.clintonvillefarmersmarket.org.

Delaware Farmers Market: 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Saturdays; 3-6 p.m., Wednesdays, May through October, Sandusky Street, downtown Delaware. Learn more: www.mainstreetdelaware.com/farmers-market.

Dublin Farmers Market: 3:30-6:30 p.m.., Wednesdays, May through September, Oakland Nursery, 4261 W. Dublin-Granville Rd., Dublin. Learn more: www.dublinfarmersmarket.com.

Franklinton’s Market at 400: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturdays (biweekly), year round, 400 W. Rich St., Columbus. Learn more: 400westrich.com.

Grandview Avenue Farmers Market: 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturdays, July through October, 1371 Grandview Ave., Grandview Heights.

Grove City Farmers Market: 8 a.m.-noon, Saturdays, April through October, Grove City Town Center, at the corners of Park Street and Broadway.

Hilliard Farm Market: 4-7 p.m., Tuesdays, June through September, parking lots at the corner of Wayne and Center streets, Hilliard. Learn more: hilliardfarmmarket.com.

Jefferson Township Farmers Market: 9 a.m.-noon, Saturdays, June through September, Jefferson Community Park, 7494 Clark State Rd., Blacklick.

Lancaster Farmers Market: 8 a.m.-noon, Saturdays, May through October, Government Services parking lot, 239 W. Main St., Lancaster. Learn more: www.lancasterohfarmersmarket.org.

Pearl Market: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesdays and Fridays, May through October, Pearl Alley, one block north of the Ohio Statehouse, downtown Columbus. Learn more: downtowncolumbus.com/pearlmarket.

Powell Farmers Market: 9 a.m.-noon, Saturdays, May through October, City of Powell Municipal Building, 47 Hall St., Powell.

Reynoldsburg Farmers Market: 3-6 p.m., Thursdays, June through August, Huber Park, 7300 E. Livingston Ave., Reynoldsburg.

Worthington Farmers Market: 8 a.m.-noon, Saturdays, May through October; 9 a.m.-noon, Saturdays, November through April (indoors), downtown Olde Worthington. Learn more: worthingtonfarmersmarket.blogspot.com.

Upper Arlington Farmers Market: 3-6 p.m., Wednesdays, May through September, Upper Arlington Senior Center, 1945 Ridgeview Rd.

Uptown Westerville Farmers Market: 3-6 p.m., Wednesdays, May through October, N. State and E. Home roads, Westerville. Learn more: www.marketwednesday.com.

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COSI: The Science of Fun

Center of Science and Industry makes learning a blast

I joined a line of teenagers to test my fear of heights at the Center of Science and Industry in downtown Columbus. I approached my turn on the high-wire unicycle as my family looked on with encouragement.

After being strapped in, I pedaled backward and surveyed the atrium 17 feet below. Curious onlookers stopped in their tracks.

“OK, now pat your head with one hand and rub your belly with the other,” joked the ride attendant, after I’d traveled to the end of the 84-foot line.

COSI has been encouraging people to put themselves in unique situations in the name of science and fun for 50 years. Innovative attractions geared to spark children’s interest in the physical and natural world have garnered the science center attention and accolades. Parents Magazine named COSI the No. 1 science center in the United States.

My family can attest to having too much fun, all in the name of science. There are hundreds of interactive exhibits to explore in the 320,000 square-foot former Central High School, COSI’s home since 1999.

We buckled ourselves to zero-gravity seats at an exhibit called Space. We played an organ that duplicates the odd sounds our bodies make at an exhibit called Life, which explores human beings from birth to death. I lifted my own body weight in a pulley chair at an exhibit called Gadgets.

We also learned a thing or two.

My husband, Mike, learned that Sherlock Holmes was a masterful observer as he put his skills to the test while solving crimes at a new exhibit called The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes. Mike and daughter Rosie collected evidence and recorded their findings in a notebook. My son, Max, and I assembled a broken three-dimensional puzzle of a human head and squirted fake blood on a windshield.

I learned that bananas aren’t the most eco-friendly fruits in the bunch at an exhibit called Energy Explorers, which focuses on how energy powers the world around us—from the products we buy to the transportation we take. Bananas, it turns out, require a boatload of fuel to travel from tropical lands to the United States, giving them a gigantic carbon footprint.

Max learned what it’s like to enter a real-life yellow submarine at an exhibit called Ocean. Rosie held onto a pair of handles and listened to the rhythm of her heartbeat on a drum.

There are still many things I haven’t done at COSI. I have yet to feel the hair-raising experience of an electrostatic charge, take a turn at being a weather reporter in front of a green screen, or stand in a wind tunnel and endure a 78-mile gust.

These are reasons why we must return soon.

For more information about COSI, visit www.cosi.org.

Experience Columbus is offering a “Roar and Explore Adventure Getaway” package for $411. It includes a two-night stay at a Drury Hotel, four tickets to COSI, four tickets to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and four tickets to Zoombezi Bay. Learn more at www.columbusfamilyfun.com.

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Columbus Commons

Former downtown mall is now an eventful lawn for all

As I walk through the grassy lawn of Columbus Commons, I can’t help but think of the Talking Heads song “Nothing But Flowers.”

“There was a shopping mall, now it’s all covered with flowers,” sings David Byrne in the ’80s hit. “Once there were parking lots, now it’s a peaceful oasis.”

In 1989, about the same year the song came out, the Columbus City Center opened in downtown Columbus. The shopping center offered more than a million square feet of merchandise in the heart of downtown.

The mall closed in 2009, and to the surprise of many it reverted to a huge public lawn in the center of the city, where food trucks now converge and friends gather to play kickball.

Columbus Commons is a 7-acre green space featuring gardens designed by Franklin Park Conservatory, an outdoor reading room sponsored by Friends of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, and a whimsical carousel carved by the artists at Mansfield’s Carousel Works.

Children can ride the carousel for free during Commons for Kids, a family-friendly event held Fridays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. through Aug. 29. They also can romp on the lawn, play with a life-size chess set, make structures out of interlocking foam shapes and participate in organized crafts.

The park even has a state-of-the-art performance space called Columbus Bicentennial Pavilion. More than 200 programs are held there annually, including Picnic with the Pops and Shakespeare in the Park.

If all this play makes you hungry, get some pizza  at Mikey’s Late Night Slice or a creative cone at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams – two Columbus originals that now have permanent shops at the park.

Columbus Commons is open daily from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Parking is available at nearby garages at 55 E. Rich St. and 191 S. Third St.

For a list of family-friendly events, visit columbuscommons.org/happenings/families.

Stay tuned to the park’s events calendar at columbuscommons.org/happenings/event-calendar.