10 Unexpected and Educational Nighttime Adventures

Spend the night camping out near animals at a beloved zoo or admiring displays at an art institution.

By Kyle McCarthy, ContributorAug. 17, 2016
By Kyle McCarthy, ContributorAug. 17, 2016, at 11:29 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

10 Unexpected and Educational Nighttime Adventures

Designed for a variety of ages and interests, these overnight programs offer kids and grown-ups the chance to immerse themselves in fascinating interactive exhibits and enjoy great wildlife spotting.(Getty Images).

Picture yourself in a sleeping bag, waiting for a Triceratops skeleton to be spotted nearby. Cheaper and more educational than staying at a high-end hotel room, overnight stays at learning institutions make for a great weekend getaway. At many museums, aquariums, zoos and science centers across the country, action-packed sleepovers for ages 8 and older take place monthly. Typical rates cost around $50 to $100 per person, and include a light dinner or snack, a behind-the-scenes tour, exclusive activities and breakfast. With limited availability, booking well in advance is crucial.

"Overnight programs at AZA-accredited facilities are a unique opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of nocturnal and crepuscular animals first hand," says Amy Rutherford, the director of professional development and public engagement at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Use the AZA and Association of Science-Technology Centers websites to find facilities at your desired destination that offer discounted or free admission to members of reciprocal institutions, and start planning your trip now.

American Museum of Natural History
New York City

Remember Ben Stiller in the 2006 film "Night at the Museum"? Though the movie wasn't filmed at New York's American Museum of Natural History, you can still plan a film-inspired sleepover. The museum hosts kids ages 6 to 13 for flashlight tours of spooky fossils and a snooze on comfy cots. There are also separate programs for high school science clubs, scout troops and event adults. The museum's "Sleepovers for Grownups" evening event (for ages 21 and up) costs $350 and includes a Champagne reception, a live jazz concert and a buffet dinner, followed by an evening tour and after-party.

Aquarium of the Pacific
Long Beach, California

This award-winning aquarium offers family sleepovers for visitors ages 5 and up, and teens-only summer events for visitors ages 13 to 15. Teens who spend the night at Long Beach's best-known attraction can steer a remote controlled vehicle through an obstacle course and enjoy their own pizza party. All visitors are guided through the marine life kitchen and past the bioluminescent tanks. And other exhibits are explored by flashlight to keep sleeping fish undisturbed. What's more, participants can take home a T-shirt they have painted.

Bronx Zoo
New York City

At New York's Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society's "Family Overnight Safaris" for ages 5 and older sell out quickly. This expensive outing, which requires guests to bring dinner and sleeping gear (including a tent and sleeping bags), includes snacks, breakfast, tours and a T-shirt. The naturalists are excellent, the animals are exciting and it's hard to beat waking up to the bark of sea lions.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Colorado Springs, Colorado

To better appreciate nocturnal animals, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo encourages participants to explore the zoo by moonlight. Designed for ages 5 and older, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's "WildNights" program features hands-on giraffe feedings, as well as tours with a naturalist both at night and the next morning. The emphasis on nutrition extends to visitors' meals, too, which include healthy treats for dinner, snacks and breakfast. Cots are available for rent upon request.

John F. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center
Titusville, Florida

A working launch pad for more than 30 missions annually, the John F. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center is an excellent place to dream about the stars. Visitors ages 7 to 14 choose whether they want to study the Space Shuttle Atlantis or sleep beneath the Apollo/Saturn V rocket and explore each mission's history. Plus, you can expect guided tours and the chance to try flight simulators as well as educational activities around the facility. Admission includes full-day admission, plus discounts in the shop, equipment demonstrations and a "mission briefing" from a veteran NASA astronaut.

Museum of Science and Industry
Chicago

Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry uses dozens of interactive exhibits to keep overnight "Snoozeum" participants awake. Many special interest groups attend these events simultaneously and bed down next to the museum's Boeing 727, near a giant human heart display or in a toy-making factory. Overnights include a screening of a current documentary at the Omnimax theater, along with live science experiments conducted by staff. Guests bring their own sleeping bags, floor mats, eye masks and ear plugs to ensure a good night's sleep. Plus, the museum provides a separate area where science nerds can brainstorm the night away.

National Aquarium
Baltimore

Though the National Aquarium has been welcoming visitors to Baltimore's Inner Harbor for 35 years, few aquarium visitors realize that marine life stays up at night for National Aquarium Immersion Tours. Select the Aquarium, Shark or Dolphin Sleepover; all programs include a guided behind-the-scenes tour and a visit to the food-prep area to learn how (and what) aquarium residents are fed. And for guests, there's dinner, a screening of their latest 4-D film, crafts themed to your tour choice and other fun activities in the Discovery Lab. Even better, guests can take advantage of free admission the next day to visit other exhibits after breakfast.

Newport Aquarium
Newport, Kentucky

Located in Kentucky, directly across the Ohio River, the Newport Aquarium organizes several sleepovers each year. During the sleepovers, guests ages 6 and older gather in a clear plastic tunnel where sharks, stingrays, turtles and exotic fish swim overhead. Naturalists quietly lead well-behaved visitors over the Shark Bridge, a 75-foot-long rope bridge suspended a few inches above two dozen sharks, before continuing their exploration.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park
San Diego

The famous San Diego Zoo Safari Park, about a half-hour's drive from San Diego, is a prime place for an overnight adventure. Activities during the "Roar and Snore Safari Sleepover" are designed for children ages 3 and older. Here, camp activities include an after-hours look at the wildlife from a safari vehicle, guided walks, dinner around a campfire, a snack, breakfast and a park souvenir. Up to four guests can sleep in each African safari-style canvas tent and a few, more romantic, adults-only safaris are held each year.

Smithsonian Institution Museums
Washington, District of Columbia

As seen in the 2009 sequel, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," the nation's free museums come to life after dark with summer sleepovers for groups and families. Fans must choose between the National Museum of Natural History's dinosaurs, the National Museum of American History's cars and the Udvar-Hazy Center at the National Air and Space Museum in Virginia, where classic aircraft and space vehicles are the focus. Activities include a tour of the exhibits, a themed scavenger hunt, arts and crafts and a viewing of a current IMAX film. Guest reviews – found on Smithsonian Sleepover's very own Pinterest board – give the Smithsonian Institutions a thumbs-up, and a five-star rating.

Kyle McCarthy, Contributor

Kyle McCarthy is the author of a dozen Frommer guidebooks, contributor to many publications, ...  Read more

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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