Chuck E. Cheese’s
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Chuck E. Cheese’s

Confessions of a closet fan


Don’t judge, but we’re regulars at Chuck E. Cheese’s. In one moment, as parents, we were saying we’d never step foot into the chain restaurant that’s got a ratty-looking animatronic mouse for a mascot. But the next moment we realize we’ve been there five times, saving up game points so we can redeem top-shelf prizes for our kids. (We only need 500 more tickets to get the Star Wars Fighter Pods, which go for 2,500 tickets.)

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How did this happen? I blame it on an invitation for a preschooler’s birthday party, which we didn’t even attend because we were on vacation. But once the thought entered our son’s brain of a mystical place “Where a kid can be a kid,” it was over. The requests poured in.

“When are we going to Chuck E. Cheese? Can I have my birthday there, too?”

Going there on our own would be easier than hosting a party, we thought. We spent two hours at the Dublin location playing video arcade games, a bargain considering we’d spent $20 on 80 brass tokens, which filled two plastic cups. It took just one coin to play each game instead of two or more like at other entertainment centers. And the games worked, dispensing tickets as they were supposed to.

The restaurant also was clean and the environment felt safe, thanks to a woman who served as gatekeeper at the entrance. She made sure family members displayed matching glow-in-the-dark stamps before they exited.

The menu offered plentiful options beyond pizza, and the salad bar looked appetizing. We soon found out we weren’t the only closet fans, as the place has been packed each time we’ve visited.

There are three Chuck E. Cheese’s locations in central Ohio:

  • 2711 Martin Rd., Dublin, 614-791-9480
  • 4284 Macsway Ave., Columbus, 614-863-6482
  • 3631 Soldano Blvd., Columbus, 614-351-8884

For more information, visit www.chuckecheese.com.

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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.

Caves at Indian Village
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Indian Village

Discover caves in Columbus


How did I not know there were caves in Columbus?

I’ve lived here for more than 20 years and thought I knew just about every hidden geographical gem in central Ohio including waterfalls, quarries and ravines.

But caves?

Albeit little, there are several genuine caves in Columbus along the west bank of the Scioto River near Griggs Reservoir.

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I learned about them while attending a “Family Nature Club” day with my children at the Indian Village Outdoor Education Center, 3200 Indian Village Rd.

The center, operated by the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, promotes environmental education and outdoor exploration including a handful of caves located on the property. The free, monthly event is a good time to discover the caves, if you haven’t already.

“It’s a diamond in the rough,” said Stephanie Ransom, an Indian Village employee who was onsite leading a craft. “I’m pretty sure I heard ‘How did I not know about this place’ at least five times today.'”

Ransom, an Ohio State University student majoring in environmental sciences, told us she’s known about the caves since she was 6 years old. That’s when she started attending a popular summer camp held at Indian Village.

She encouraged us to set out on a short trail to see the caves for ourselves.

My two children and I walked in the rain along a leaf-filled creek, soon feeling like we were deep in the woods – save for the occasional glimpses of apartment buildings through the trees.

Seeing the caves was exhilarating, because I had no idea they were there. It was thrilling for my kids because there were enticing little coves in which to play. A couple were just nooks in the rocks where a 4- and 6-year-old could take shelter from the rain.

Two others were true caves. You could walk inside and see a deeper pit of darkness that was a bit scary to enter. We hung outside until another family accompanied us into the black chamber. It turned out that the dark tunnel didn’t go far – just a few adult steps deep.

We had fun escaping the rain in the dusty, rock-covered shelter. My kids immediately pretended they were Native Americans at home among the rocks. This, I thought, was surely inspired by the teepee located near the lodge.

The Ottawa Education Lodge is a red, wooden building facing the river. It’s available to rent for birthday parties, and its spacious interior lends itself well as a meeting space for kids during summer camp. There is a fireplace with a comfortable couch and chairs near a collection of books and games. There also are aquariums with fish, snakes and turtles.

Before we left, we made headbands by taping leaves to a strip of construction paper. It was a crafty end to a surprisingly fun day.

For more information about Indian Village Outdoor Education Center and upcoming Family Nature Club days, click here or call 614-645-3380.

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American Girl

Beloved doll makes Ohio debut in Columbus


Gone are the days when my 6-year-old daughter would be satisfied to simply browse the American Girl catalog and dream of having frivolous accessories for her doll, Rebecca. Back then the nearest American Girl store was in Chicago, along the city’s famed Magnificent Mile – many miles from home and many miles from our reality.

But that was then.

In June, the first American Girl store in Ohio opened at Columbus’ Easton Town Center. Opening day drew hundreds of doll-toting youngsters and their parents to the shopping mecca for a first glimpse at what many, like my daughter, had only seen in print.

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At more than 11,000 square feet, the Ohio store is small by American Girl standards. (The one in Chicago is a whopping 52,000 square feet!) But our store’s astounding selection of outfits, pets and furniture for these 18-inch divas is imaginably just as overwhelming.

Customers will find original and current American Girl dolls from the company that was founded in 1986, along with Bitty Baby and Bitty Twins. They’ll also find lots of books and matching clothes for dolls and their owners.

The dolls can be custom built by selecting their skin, hair and eye color. Their hair can come short, long, curly or straight. Heck, she can even have freckles, if you’d like. Anything you want for $110 apiece.

I enjoyed seeing so many little girls interacting with their dolls, some taking theirs to the Doll Hair Salon, where stylists propped them in miniature chairs and worked ever so seriously on their hairdos.

After primping, humans and dolls can enjoy a bite to eat at the in-store American Girl Bistro. The menu includes fruit kabobs, tea sandwiches and quesadillas, along with the kid-menu favorites such as pizza, macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders and grilled cheese. There’s also a banana split big enough for six people.

The American Girl store offers plenty of reasons to make a return visit, including crafts, scavenger hunts and story times. Youngsters can even have a birthday party in the Bistro and eat cake and ice cream with their dolls.

For more information, visit www.americangirl.com/stores/location_col.php.

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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.

Columbus Fire Museum
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Central Ohio Fire Museum

Slide down brass pole at downtown historic landmark


With the ability to ride in noisy trucks and spray water hoses at fires, it’s no wonder that so many children are fascinated by firefighters.

Youngsters in central Ohio have the perfect opportunity and place to meet the real men and women behind the profession at the Central Ohio Fire Museum & Learning Center at 260 N. 4th St. in downtown Columbus.

Located inside an old fire station, the museum shares the history of firefighting in Columbus through artifacts and a collection of shiny, red trucks. It’s a place where visitors can learn about fire safety while their kids slide down a fire pole and play inside a fire engine.

“You can learn the history of our local fire service going from the bucket brigade to hand-drawn equipment to horse-drawn steamers and motorized equipment,” said Richard Byrd, one of four part-time staffers at the museum.

Built in 1908, Engine House No. 16 is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was retired as a fire station in the 1980s and restored in 1990 with money raised by local firefighters and community sponsors. It opened as a museum in 2002.

“The building is the last house in Columbus originally built for horses,” Byrd said. “It had 10 horse stalls. Three horses pulled the steamer, three pulled the hook and ladder, three pulled the hose, and one pulled the coal wagon that had extra coal for the steamer.”

Visitors can see several of the original stalls, still marked with hoof prints on the doors. About 4,000 people annually visit the museum, mostly children on field trips who come to learn about fire safety.

I recently made the trip with my 4-year-old son, Max, during a birthday party. Max and his friends learned about fire safety from Bill Hall, a retired fireman, and his soon-to-be son in law, “Fireman Mike.”

They watched Fireman Mike suit up in his work gear, slipping on fireproof pants and a jacket, steel-toed boots and gloves. Hall explained that a fireman’s helmet works like an umbrella, allowing water to roll off its rim and away from a firefighter’s body.

Fireman Mike put on a protective mask connected to a tank with 30 minutes worth of oxygen. “He sounds like Darth Vader,” said Max upon hearing Fireman Mike breathe.

Max and I toured the museum, which is predominantly colored red, white, black and gold. We saw a wooden fire truck with a shiny brass bell that’s hooked up to a life-size plastic horse. We also saw cast-iron toys and historic fire hose nozzles.

Max, though, liked the play area the best. He put on a red jacket, helmet and boots, then slid down a mini brass fire pole. He joined the other children inside the front end of a real fire engine, where they turned the steering wheel, flipped on lights and unraveled a fire hose.

I browsed the gift shop and found a firefighter suit perfect for Max.

Future plans are to restore the second floor, formerly used as a hayloft, to increase displays.

Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

Cost is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children.

For more information, visit www.centralohiofiremuseum.com or call 614-464-4099.

Firefly Play Cafe
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Firefly Play Cafe

Community vibe keeps customers coming back to Clintonville cafe


Since opening in 2010, the original of the play cafes in central Ohio has made itself at home in the Columbus neighborhood of Beechwold.

Firefly Play Cafe, at 4822 N. High St., has become a welcoming gathering spot for children to play and adults to socialize in the environmentally conscious community.

The 2,500-square-foot cafe is sparsely decorated, resembling a warehouse or a big basement, with exposed ductwork and a concrete floor topped with mismatched remnant rugs. There are colorful splashes of lime green and tangerine on the walls, where paintings by local artists also hang. Toys lie scattered about – rubber balls, magnetic tiles, wooden scooters and hula hoops.

The cafe is geared for kids ages 2 to 6. They can jump in the bounce house, climb and slide on a wooden play set and romp around in the open space as adults catch up with friends or sip on locally roasted coffee or freshly brewed tea.

The cafe also serves light snacks, juices and sandwiches by the Columbus-based business Fresh Box Catering, which supports local, homeless families.

I visited the cafe with my two young children on a Tuesday night, when hours are extended until 8 p.m., and a local musician entertains the crowd. I sipped on “Scarlet and Grey” tea, a delicate blend of Earl Grey and dried red roses, while taking in the atmosphere from a corner seat.

It’s an unpretentious place. This welcoming vibe was accentuated by the laid-back guitarist, who encouraged children to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” at lowered microphone stands or join the jam on tambourines and small guitars.

The cafe also offers regular art activities and story time. Visit Firefly Play Cafe on Facebook for information about upcoming programming.

When closing time rolled around, I was surprised to see that all the toys had been neatly put away by all those using them, as if the cafe was their own house.

Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Tuesday; and 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday.

Admission is $4 for children ages 1 to 23 months; and $6 for those ages 1 to 11. Children younger than 1 year and those older than 12 are admitted free. Guests with children are asked to sign a waiver, which is available for review online.

For more information, visit www.fireflyplaycafe.com or call 614-230-2375.

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Book Loft

Lose yourself in labyrinth of literature


In an age of electronic books and easy ordering of the written word over the Internet, it’s nice to break away from literary progress by wandering through a good, old-fashioned bookstore.

The Book Loft in the Columbus neighborhood of German Village spans a city block and contains 32 of rooms of literature, organized by topic, including a room full of hand-selected children’s books. It’s billed as one of the largest independent bookstores in the nation, stocking more than 100,000 titles.

My family and I visited the store at 631 S. Third Street while showing my sister-in-law, Mary Jean, around historic German Village. Mary Jean lives in San Francisco, home of the iconic City Lights Bookstore, once a hangout of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Mary Jean, a travel writer and budding novelist, was impressed by the unique selection and interesting, connecting buildings, which were once general stores, a saloon and a nickelodeon cinema.

Sometimes it takes an out-of-towner to remind us of the gems we have in central Ohio. Mary Jean enjoyed exploring the labyrinth of book-filled rooms, while my 5-year-old daughter delighted in following yellow arrows on the ground toward the children’s section. We browsed kiosks of Little Golden Books and shelves of newer titles. But, alas, Rosie settled on an activity book with nifty erasers shaped like desserts.

German Village has long been one of Columbus’ main visitor attractions, and for many tourists and locals, the Book Loft is the village’s main chapter.

For more information, visit www.bookloft.com.

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Ballantrae Spray Park

Beat heat, dance with 15-foot-tall bunnies


Housing developments tend to look alike with “rows of houses that are all the same,” as the Monkees sang in their 1960s hit song “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

But the whimsical community of Ballantrae, in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, is a pleasant exception. It resembles an Irish countryside with stone houses, fabricated rolling hills, decorative grasses and hand-stacked, rubble walls.

And then, of course, there are the 15-foot-tall dancing rabbits.

The three statues, titled the “Dancing Hares,” are part of a 32-acre community park at the entrance of the development at 6350 Woerner Temple Rd. The park also contains the Ballantrae Spray Park, an outdoor water fountain that’s a popular hangout for families in the summer.

The fountain is open daily from 10 a.m.-8 p.m., May 26 through Sept. 3.

I enjoy taking my two young children to inspect the rabbits, which have everyday objects embedded in their bronze bodies. We climb the hilltop where the rabbits are perched and play a quick game of “I Spy” before heading back down to the adjacent fountain. “Look, Mommy, a camera,” my daughter, Rosie, says.

We can hear children squealing with delight as they splash in the fountain.

The spray park, which opened in 2002, is a great place for a picnic. It’s surrounded by a lawn containing big boulders, a fishing pond and a jogging path. The center is the earth mound, or hillock, with the dancing hares. In front of the hill is a 125-foot stone-like (it’s really concrete) wall that frames the spray park. Leprechaun faces are carved into the wall and a wave of water cascades from its center.

Rosie and Max like to play in the fountains that shoot from the ground. Water jets change pattern and heights from one foot to three feet. Less-adventuresome children can take their time getting used to the water in little fountains that spew low, frothy water, while thrill seekers can run under the gushing waterfall.

There’s a nearby parking area with public restrooms.

Take a blanket, chairs, towels and toys and a picnic basket. There’s not much shade on sunny days, so bring along sunscreen and an umbrella.

The Ballantrae play area is located across the street from the Dublin Community Pool, which is open only to Dublin residents.

For more information, visit dublinohiousa.gov/parks-open-space/ballantrae-community-park-spray-fountains.

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North Orange Park

Clever layout allows parents to keep watchful eye on kids


With so many innovative community parks popping up around central Ohio, it’s a great time to be a kid in the capital city. Sprawling recreation areas, such as North Orange Park in Lewis Center, also make it a great time to be a parent here.

The 36-acre community complex – 25 minutes north of downtown Columbus – contains soccer fields, basketball courts, paved walking trails, a sledding hill and a picnic shelter. The park also has a multi-level playground and a large sand pit, where my young children and I recently spent several hours on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

We dug our bare feet in the clump-free sand and played on a peculiar seesaw where riders stand on either end and propel themselves off old tires.

What makes the space unique is a small hill near the parking lot. I joined other parents for a seat on the well-manicured grass. From the elevated vantage point, I could watch my children play in the sand below or in the two nearby playgrounds. One playground is designed for toddlers with low slides and a rocking car and alligator.

The park is located at 7560 Gooding Blvd. in the North Orange subdivision. Nearby are restrooms and an 8,500-square-foot outdoor community pool with giant, colorful slides. Even though we couldn’t visit the pool (you need to be a member), it still looked cool from the playground.