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Road trips conjure up images of classic family fun, but the reality can be much different once you actually hit the road with little ones. Visions of merrily playing the license plate game and singing along to the radio dissolve when the first “Are we there yet?” comes from the back seat just minutes after leaving the driveway.

RELATED: The perfect road trip for every season

Save your sanity without forgoing a vacation on wheels by planning a trip that never has your brood in the car for too long.  This one, from Chicago to Niagara Falls and back, includes pit stops in Detroit and Ann Arbor, with no longer than 4.5 hours between them.

Chicago > Detroit (290 miles)

Why your family will love it: Motor City has loads of options for family fun. The massive Henry Ford Museum is just the place for young inventors. Dedicated to U.S. innovations and ingenuity, the massive building features replicas of the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop and Thomas Edison’s laboratory, plus a fully restored Model T and the first single-rotor helicopter. There are tinker labs to create your own inventions, plus an impressive collection of important artifacts from American history, including the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and the limousine JFK was riding in when he was assassinated.

Your kids will get happy feet watching more than 80 penguins at the impressive Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo. A 4D entryway acclimates guests with blasts of cold air and a mist of water before heading to an underwater gallery and two tunnels that let you get up close and personal with the birds.

Grab a crowd-pleasing meal at Buddy’s Pizza, which has been serving iconic squares of doughy Sicilian-style pizza since 1946. There are 11 locations in and around the Detroit area, making it easy to find no matter where in town you happen to be.

STAY: The tallest hotel in the world when it was built in 1924, the historic Westin Book Cadillac is centrally located, pet-friendly and has a heated indoor pool.

Detroit > Niagara Falls (240 miles)

Why your family will love it: The quintessential Falls experience is a boat ride on the iconic Maid of the Mist, on the New York side, or its newer Canadian competitor Hornblower Niagara Cruises. Both are equally exciting and provide the same, breathtaking up-close views of the falls. Pick whichever suits your schedule best.

If your kids don’t get wet enough on the boats, take them to Fallsview Indoor Waterpark, where they can tackle extreme water slides, stand under thousand-gallon tipping buckets or frolic in water-themed playgrounds.

After working up an appetite, take the gang to The Flying Saucer Restaurant, a quirky, UFO-shaped drive-in and diner that serves generous portions of crowd-pleasing fare.

STAY: You can almost feel the mist at the Sheraton on the Falls, on the Canadian side of the Falls. The views from here are the best you’ll find, especially if you splurge on a Canadian Fallsview Corner Suite. You’ll feel like a VIP when you can watch the nighttime lights and fireworks shows above the crowds from the comfort of your room.

Niagara Falls > Ann Arbor (280 miles)

Why your family will love it: On the way back, stop in this charming college town. If the kids are cranky, head straight to Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair to change the mood. They’ll find engaging toys, robot kits, books and more—maybe even something to keep the back seat quiet for the last few hours home? Even better: All shop proceeds help fund 826michigan, a nonprofit writing and tutoring program for young people ages 6 to 18.

Go Blue with a stop at University of Michigan Football Stadium. The home of the Wolverines is not open for drop-in visits, but you can make arrangements for weekday, guided tours at least two weeks in advance by contacting the athletic department.

Make sure there’s room for a grocery bag or two in the car for your stop at Zingerman’s Deli, a favorite of foodies nationwide for its amazing sandwiches and impressive market that sells cured meats and seafood, fresh baked goods and specialty foods from around the world. You won’t lack for snacks for the way home after a visit here.

STAY: It may be hard to get your kids to leave the Ann Arbor Regent Hotel & Suites, thanks to an indoor pool and a billiards room with foosball, game tables and tabletop shuffleboard.

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Tagged: Canada, New York

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Judy Sutton Taylor

Judy Sutton Taylor

Judy Sutton Taylor is a journalist, travel lover and mom in Chicago, Illinois. Find her on Twitter at @jsuttontaylor.

2 thoughts on “Road trips that won’t drive your kids insane: Chicago to Niagara Falls”

  1. The Maid of the Mist is on the Canadian side, not the New York side. A passport is necessary to cross from the US to Canada, no exceptions allowed. The experience is well worth the cost of a passport, as there is so much to see and experience on the Canadian side of the Falls. An 8 hour trip from Boston to Niagara was made yearly with 3 children in tow.

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