From Dinos to Giant Ball Pits! What Indianapolis has to offer

I love weekend get-aways especially during the Holiday season. There is something about getting away from the 800 tasks that are staring me down that is refreshing and allows me to regroup and refocus and accomplish all those things that makes the Holidays merry.

This year, we decided Indianapolis would be our destination. We had heard many things about the museum and I had previously visited the zoo nearly a decade ago. So we hit the road.

We arrived on Thursday evening and left Sunday morning. For a winter trip, I believe this was the perfect length of time. It allowed us some time to just enjoy the hotel pool while also checking out local sights without a mad rush.

The Hotel

We wanted something that 1) was affordable 2)  offered free breakfast 3) had some sort of kitchen/separation of sleeping areas. We settled in on staying a bit north of the city in Carmel and I felt that this worked out very well for us. We were approximately 20 minutes from the museum, 10 from the giant ball pit and 30 from the zoo, but there were plenty of eateries nearby.

We chose to stay at Staybridge Suites in Carmel.

The breakfast was the BEST complimentary breakfast of any hotel that we have ever stayed. The dining area was large, clean, and the items were constantly being restocked. Large selection including a yogurt parfait station, eggs, sausage, cereals and a daily rotating item (which was biscuits and gravy one of our days – yum!)

Rooms were large. Staff was friendly. Kitchen was well stocked with plates and utensils for a weekend get-away. Plenty of kid-friendly stations on the TV including Disney Jr, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. My only complaint is that the indoor pool was cold and we could only tolerate approximately 20 minutes before we were frozen.

The Children’s Museum

This place is four floors of fun. It’s almost a bit overwhelming when you first enter because there is just SO much. We headed to the dinosaurs first, but I think if we were to do it again, we would start on the top floor and work our way down to the bottom floor. The reason is that my kids really had an itch for some play and had a difficult time focusing on anything else until we got to the play area. The top floors are more dedicated to free play than the lower levels.

The Playscape (Third Floor)

Some highlights at the museum were the Playscape. It is dedicated to children 5 and under. No school groups. There is a baby area, toddler area, and a preschool area each packed full of fun. This area was my favorite.

There were some pretend play elements with some bird houses, stuffed animals, and a log to explore as well as some sensory play which included a water table and sand table. The sand table is just the right height for this age group. There is a moderate sized climbing structure that is composed of “leaves” that kids climb from one to another up to a boat. Both my 4.5 year old and my 2 year old were able to navigate the structure.

Family restrooms and nursing areas are within this Playscape area making it a great place for all.


The Dinosphere

The Dinosaur exhibit is very immersive with sounds and sights of dinosaurs all around. This was one of the highlights for my son. This area, and all sections of the museum, include various play elements throughout the exhibit to keep little one’s entertained. There were some fun dinosaur play tables as well as puzzles and a dinosaur dig area.

What Else to See at the Museum

There really is something to see around each corner of the museum and many of the areas facilitate children with co-operate pretend play. Everything from Space to Pop Culture to an old-time carousel – every where you look there is something to amaze.

One of the highlights for me was a stop in the Take me There Greece exhibit! This exhibit highlights life in modern-day Greece. So many play options here including a pretend play kitchen area, a bakery, a fishing boat, and a turtle rehabilitation center. I could have spent all day here watching my children pretend-serve us all the goodies of Greece!

Some Tips for the Museum

Parking is free! You access the museum from the garage via a skywalk which takes you right by 2 giant long neck dinosaurs that are sure to elicit gasps from the kids (and adults!)

Buy tickets in advance to save. I only bought a couple of days in advance but the further in advance you buy, the cheaper they will be. If your plans fall through – the museum will allow you to change the date of your tickets once.

Coat check available for a dollar.

Museum is very friendly to strollers with wide paths and plenty of elevator and ramp access.

Pack a lunch or dine in the cafeteria. I packed snacks and drinks but we did purchase pizza in the cafeteria which was enjoyed by all of us!

Look for the Stroller Parking. Much like Disney World – the museum has specific signs indicating where to park your stroller!

Big Ball Pit (Smiley Indianapolis)

The Smiley Center doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s located in a strip mall just a few doors down from a now defunct children’s play place but once you step through the doors – it is a wonderland.

Smiley is a 25,000 sq foot facility in Castleton, just a bit north of Indianapolis. It truly has something for all ages.

Visiting this place was not on our original itinerary – but we had some free hours one morning – so we decided to pay a visit and I am SO glad we did. We need a place like this in Southwest Ohio.

We did not use the virtual reality at all – so I will only be discussing the main play area “Ocean Story”.


This place is priced a bit differently from other play places. Be prepared to pay per hour and pay for adults who intend to play (or guide in play) in addition to children. We played for 2 hours which was just about right for a 2 year old and a 4 year old. You are also required to wear their special gripper socks which cost $2.75, but they are yours to keep and can be re-used for future visits. All together – it was about 55 dollars for two hours of play but this amount will vary greatly depending on the age of your children and whether adults intend to enter the play place.

Largest Ball Pit Ever

I have frequently lamented the scarcity of ball pits, but Ocean Story has you covered. The balls are white and blue which is aesthetically pleasing and meant to emulate water. There is a toddler/preschooler sized obstacle course in the ballpit as well as a bouncy trampoline and a fast set of slides into the ball abyss. Have fun feeding balls through a set of tubes to a basket that will tip at just the right weight!

I had just as much fun as my kids crawling my way through the plethora of plastic balls.

They do require that you sanitize your hands prior to entering the ballpit, which may cut down on some of the germs for those of you who cower at the sight of a ballpit.



Play Area

In addition the the gigantic ball pit – there is a play area that is divided between a 2 and under section and a big kid section. The big kid section features a trampoline basketball court, shooters to launch balls, slides, and typical tunnels and crawl throughs.

The 2 and under section is one of the best I have seen. It had a mini ride-on carousel, bouncy toys, climbing structures, and slides.

Everything is located in very close proximity to each other and is well staffed – so I did not feel concerned with my children exploring the area freely.

More about Smiley..

A few things that I really like about Smiley

They have “bathroom” shoes which are shoes to flip on over your socks when you use the bathroom. This way you aren’t tracking bathroom germs all over the place.

They did shut down the ballpit twice while we were there. Once for an child’s potty accident and the second time for vomit. The ballpit was closed approximately 15 minutes each time. They staff removes all the balls from the affect area and does a thorough cleaning. I felt comfortable re-entering the ballpit after the problems had been addressed.

Plenty of seating and a very clean dining area for the cafe. Everything looks brand new!

Overall – I felt this was a great value and a lot of fun.


Our final evening was spent at the Indianapolis Zoo for their light event. It was a nice experience, but did not feel as immersive as our light experience at the Cincinnati Zoo. They also seemed to have less animals available for viewing during the Winter months as there are fewer indoor habitats that are accessible by guests. It was a pleasant experience, but I do not feel like I got the whole experience by visiting in the winter.

Indianapolis is a great place to visit. It is a quick 1.5 to 2 hour drive from the Cincinnati area. Lodging is bountiful and affordable outside of the Downtown area. I did not feel that we “missed out” by not staying downtown, especially in the Winter. We did not need any sort of walkability. Plenty of activities to fill a weekend and if you got creative – you could probably fill a week.