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Family fun times five in Cincinnati
By Tom Adkinson

family fun cincinnati
Fiona, despite weighing a half-ton, still looks small compared to her mother, Bibi. Both are vegetarians; image by Tom Adkinson.

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati may not have the pizazz of Orlando as a family fun destination, but entertaining a family here is no challenge at all. Here are five activities that include a once-tiny hippopotamus, waddling penguins, dinosaurs, a fire pole you can slide down and sumptuous ice cream.

THE HIPPO – Fiona is the rock star of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. She appeared six weeks prematurely in January 2017, weighing just 29 pounds. Had she been at term, she would have been closer to 100 pounds. Veterinarians had to bottle-feed her – after figuring out how to milk her mother, Bibi, no small task itself. Infant formula was needed, too, as was help from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Survival was uncertain, but heaps of tender loving care and worldwide media attention paid off in good health and fame. Now more than two years old, Fiona weighs more than 1,000 pounds and is the featured attraction in the hippo exhibit just hanging out with Bibi. She eventually will triple her current weight.

The zoo, America’s second oldest, of course transcends Fiona. It is famous for its breeding program and has more than 500 animal species in its collection. It is open seven days a week and attracts 1.5 million visitors a year.

The Newport Aquarium lets you feel the feathers of African penguins in a behind-the-scenes tour; image by Tom Adkinson
climbing wall
Samples of Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream, the company’s best seller, await eager tasters; image by Tom Adkinson.

THOSE PENGUINS – While the Cincinnati Zoo does have penguins, the Newport Aquarium across the Ohio River in Kentucky has them in abundance, plus sharks, rays, sea dragons, seahorses and many other aquatic animals in saltwater and freshwater habitats. Don’t worry that the aquarium is in Kentucky, because Cincinnati and the cities of Northern Kentucky think of themselves as a big happy family. In fact, Cincinnati’s airport is in Kentucky.

The aquarium’s Penguin Experience lets you get close to African penguins, a species that lives in a temperate environment. You don’t need even a sweater to visit them. A penguin specialist tells you about the highly evolved flightless birds, and it’s a treat to photograph them while they are right next to you. Beyond the African penguins, the aquarium has one of the most diverse collections of cold-weather penguins in the country.

THE FIRE POLE – Probably all children, and possibly many adults, dream about sliding down a fire pole, jumping onto a fire engine and speeding to a raging fire. You can do the first two of those things at the Cincinnati Fire Museum. The museum’s fire pole is relatively short, but it’s still a thrill.

The museum says Cincinnati is the birthplace of professional firefighting (1853), and it houses an extensive collection of firefighting artifacts. The museum building itself was a fire station from 1906-1962. Active and retired firefighters are among the museum guides and program leaders. Ask all the questions you want, including why fire poles aren’t in common use today.

dinosaur hall cincinnati museum center
Dinosaur Hall quickly makes you feel very small next to skeletons of the largest animals to live on earth; image by Tom Adkinson.

TOWERING DINOSAURS – Practically everyone goes through a dinosaur stage, and some people never outgrow it. That’s one reason Dinosaur Hall in the Cincinnati Museum Center is so popular. Dinosaur Hall tells the story of gigantic sauropods, a group that includes the largest animals to have lived on land. The toothy skeletons make the specimens look fierce, but they were plant eaters, just like Fiona the hippopotamus. A shadow projection of lumbering Jurassic era dinosaurs adds a movie-like element to Dinosaur Hall.

cincinnati fire museum
The fire pole at the Cincinnati Fire Museum really isn’t very tall, but the ride is still fun; image by Elaine Warner.

What’s great about the Cincinnati Museum Center is that it’s actually a multi-museum complex that includes the city’s history museum, a children’s museum and an OMNIMAX theater. All of them are inside the stunningly beautiful and magnificently restored Union Terminal, once the city’s bustling train station. The Art Deco architecture is captivating, especially the boldly colored ceilings in the arching rotunda. If you can make only one stop in Cincinnati, this is the place.

SCREAMING FOR ICE CREAM – People in 46 states can buy Cincinnati-made Graeter’s ice cream, but there’s something special about enjoying this 18 percent butterfat treat right here. There are 22 Graeter’s shops in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, plus the very special Rookwood Ice Cream Parlor at the Cincinnati Museum Center. This shop is named for another Cincinnati specialty, Rookwood Pottery tiles and ceramics and is a visual treat to go along with your ice cream treat.

Graeter’s makes at least 30 flavors and tests six to eight new ones each summer. However, the perpetual best seller is black raspberry chocolate chip. Go for it.

A BRIDGE BONUS – Work off a few ice cream calories by walking across the Ohio River to Kentucky on the John Roebling Suspension Bridge. When it opened in 1867, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It lost that claim to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, also designed by John Roebling.

Trip-planning resources:,,,,, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published August 9, 2019

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