Best Chicago Experience Gifts for Kids (2023)

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The holiday season is upon us which means lots of people are searching for the perfect gift for their loved ones. If you’re looking for a great toy store in the Windy City, here’s a list of the 25 Best Toy Stores in the Chicago Area.

If you’re looking for an unforgettable gift and less clutter in your home, an experience gift is a great option. I’ve always been a big fan of experience gifts because toys can lose their appeal quickly, but the memories from a unique experience gift can last a lifetime.

Added Bonus? Experience gifts can mean quality time for the whole family, so everyone can enjoy it! Here are some great ideas for Chicago experience gifts for your kids.

Best Budget-Friendly Chicago Experience Gifts

Garfield Park Conservatory

The best part of experience gifts is that you’re creating memories for your kids, and how much fun they have is definitely not correlated to price. You are gifting a good time, so there’s no reason you can’t do it on a budget. You can put a “gift certificate” or coupon for the experience in a box and wrap it so they have something to open. Below are some favorite experience gifts that won’t break the bank!

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is a great way to learn about nature, and it’s definitely possible to keep this experience budget-friendly. They offer free admission for Illinois Residents on Thursdays, and even on other days, ticket prices are affordable and children under 3 are free. They have a brand new play area for children 7 and under with 25 interactive activities. They also offer fantastic winter and summer camps which would be a great gift idea, but it’s a bit more expensive.

Maggie Daley Park

Maggie Daley Park has a ton of fun things for kids to do, and while some of the major attractions, like the ice skating ribbon, mini golf, and climbing wall cost money, the playgrounds are completely free. The “Play Garden” is separated by different age groups, so there is something for kids of all ages.

The picnic groves and cancer survivor garden are also free, so you can pack a picnic and have a fun family day at Maggie Daley Park! There are some good budget-friendly restaurants nearby too, like the Nutella Cafe and Shake Shack, if you’d like to pick up food for a picnic. Roller skating is free if you bring your own roller blades/scooters. Maggie Daley Park has a lot to do for the entire family, and it’s a great place to spend the day.

Garfield Park Conservatory

The Garfield Park Conservatory is a great way to experience nature on rainy days or during the winter months. It is one of the largest botanical conservatories in the United States, and they have thousands of plant species! Admission is free, but they suggest making reservations online in advance. They often have family programming and special events, including Roving Naturalists, where experts teach guests a bunch of fun facts about different plants, You pack lunches and eat them in Horticulture Hall.

Lincoln Park Zoo

The Lincoln Park Zoo is a true Chicago treasure, and one of the best things about it is the free admission. They have some super cool special events, like animal-themed movie nights, ZooLights, and FallFest, but many kids would love just a fun day at the zoo with family.

You can give them a “gift certificate” for a day at the zoo, pack a lunch and picnic in Lincoln Park or at the beach, and maybe let them get something small from the gift shop. Parking can be pricey, but you can also park on a nearby side street and walk if that works for your family. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend the day, and it could be essentially free!

Millennium Park

Millennium Park is gorgeous and has tons of free activities all year. There’s ice skating in the winter, live music in the summer, and plenty of different ways to enjoy a family day in this iconic park.

Camping Trip

Camping is a great idea for a budget-friendly experience gift. Most campgrounds cost between $25-$50 per night, and “roughing it” can be a unique way to bond as a family. While llinois actually doesn’t have any national parks, they have plenty of beautiful state parks for camping. You can also head up to Wisconsin or Michigan for some beautiful places to camp.

playground
Jackman Park

A Day at a Playground

You know how you can get a brand new, sometimes expensive, toy for your child, and then they prefer playing with the box more than the toy? Playground visits are often overlooked as a potential present because it’s such a common occurrence, but for many kids, that’s the best gift you could possibly give them.

Give them “Playground Passes” or maybe make a “Playground Passport” to try a bunch of your local playgrounds. Here is our list of the best playgrounds in the Chicago area, and some of them are definitely destination-worthy!

Ryan Learning Center at the Art Institute of Chicago

The Ryan Learning Center is such a hidden gem in Chicago! Visitors of all ages can stop by this space attached to the Art Institute and create an art project, explore the Mutisensory Gallery, and more! It’s free and no advance registration is required.

Best Chicago Experience Gifts for Younger Kids

Peppa Pig’s World of Play

These gifts are fantastic for toddlers through elementary school kids depending on their interests! You could give them one trip to one of these places, purchase a family membership, or some of them offer season passes.

Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier

The Chicago Children’s Museum is a blast for kids, and they offer several annual memberships or, because it’s located on Navy Pier, you could turn a visit to the Chicago Children’s Museum/Navy Pier into a gift. In the warmer months, there are carnival rides, the Ferris wheel, and plenty of dining options that are kid-friendly. They often have special events at different times of the year as well!

Children’s Museum Membership

We have a Kohl Children’s Museum Membership, and it has been one of the best purchases we made. It pays for itself with a couple of visits, and it was really helpful for entertaining our kids when it’s too cold or rainy to go to a playground. It’s located in Glenview and parking is free and easy, so it can be really convenient for people in the northern suburbs/northern areas of Chicago.

I highly recommend the CLIMB membership. It’s a little it more than a single membership, but you have access to six children’s museums–DuPage Children’s Museum, Children’s Museum of Oak Lawn, Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, KidsWork Children’s Museum, Kohl Children’s Museum, and Wonder Works Children’s Museum.

Peppa Pig’s World of Play

Peppa Pig’s World of Play is the best way to impress your child if they are a Peppa Pig enthusiast. It’s located in Woodfield Mall, and it’s a Peppa Pig themed indoor playground. They sell individual passes, season passes, annual, passes, and combination passes with Legoland.

Legoland Discovery Center

Legoland Discovery Center is the ultimate indoor Lego playground-perfect for kids under 8, and they offer daily tickets, annual passes, and combination passes with Peppa Pig’s World of Play!

Best Chicago Experiences for Big Kids

Starbucks Roastery on Michigan Avenue

The following activities would make great experience gifts for a wide range of bigger kids, from upper elementary students to your high schooler!

Amusement Park Passes

What kid doesn’t love an amusement park? There are rides, games, and fun characters, and thrill seekers can have a good time! There are two great options nearby, and you can gift a single visit or an annual pass.

Six Flags Great America and Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park are great choices!

Both amusement parks are currently running Black Friday sales with steeply discounted season tickets! Santa’s Village is definitely more targeted to elementary school kids to tweens whereas Six Flags is fun for teenagers.

Rock Climbing

There are so many benefits to rock climbing: it’s good exercise, it teaches problem solving, teamwork, overcoming challenges, and it can be super fun. Below are some great rock climbing places in the Chicago area that would make good experience gifts. Some have monthly passes, some have punch cards, some have lessons, or you can just do a day pass.

Climb Zone , Brooklyn Boulders, First Ascent

Gift Cards to a Coffee Shop or Favorite Hangout

Older kids often love their independence and hanging out with their friends, yet they may not have the money to do it. If they have a favorite coffee shop or cafe in the area, a gift card can help the establishment and give your kid a little sense of freedom. Below are recommendations for some cute local coffee shops, but this will largely depend on where you live.

The Coffee Studio in Andersonville and The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square,

Concert Tickets

One of the perks of living in Chicago is there is no shortage of great live music. There are plenty of kid-friendly concerts that would make exciting gifts for kids of all ages.

For many high school students, there’s probably no better gift than tickets to one of Chicago’s many music festivals. I am a high school teacher, and I’ve actually had students email me and ask if they can buy Lollapalooza tickets the second they go on sale during my class.

Some festivals are not selling tickets yet, but you could always give them an agreement that you will get them one! Below are some popular music festivals amongst high school students.

Lollapalooza Tickets, Pitchfork Music Festival , Windy City Smokeout

Best Experience Gifts for Kids of All Ages

chef and kids making donuts in comic book like restaurant
2d Donut Making Class

Classes or Private Lessons

The opportunity to learn new skills is a gift that could potentially bring your child joy for many years, and another perk is that you can tailor it to their existing interests or expose them to something new. There are countless options for classes and lessons around Chicago, but some recommended choices are listed below.

2d Donut Making Class

2d is definitely one of the most kid-friendly restaurants in Chicago, and their donut making class is so fun! It’s $20 per kid, includes a kids meal, and they get to take home some donuts. I highly recommend this class!

Bubbles Academy

Bubbles Academy has some excellent class options at their several locations. One of our favorites is the Pop-In Art classes at the 900 N. Michigan location. The projects change weekly, and there’s a space for little ones to crawl around as well. Last time we went my daughter made an adorable flower crown!

Skip & Scoot Fitness Classes

Skip & Scoot is an awesome locally-owned business with great classes for your littles.

The Actors Gymnasium

The Actors Gymnasium has classes from Pre-K through high school, and they’re perfect for kids interested in tumbling and aerial arts.

A Fairytale Ballet

A Fairytale Ballet is an adorable ballet company with studios in Lakeview, Bucktown, and Evanston. They have special events, camps, and classes for your fairytale loving ballerinas!

Gift Certificate to Local Movie Theaters

A gift certificate to see a movie is great for all ages, including adults! Throw in some popcorn and candy, and your kids will have the best time.

If you’re looking for a cool local movie theater, The Davis Theater and The Music Box Theater are some of my favorites.

Sporting Events

Tickets to see your kid’s favorite sports team make for an unforgettable gift for your kid! Catch a baseball game at Wrigley Field or Guaranteed Rate Field, see the Bulls or Blackhawks play at the United Center, or check out one of the minor league teams in the area!

Man and little girl looking at whales at the Shedd Aquarium
Looking at the Beluga Whales at the Shedd Aquarium

Memberships

Chicago is home to some world class museums and attractions, and a membership to a local museum, zoo, or garden makes for a great gift! Memberships also tend to count as donations for tax purposes, but check with your accountant!

  • Shedd Aquarium-$195 for a family membership. It’s an AZA reciprocal membership, so you get discounted or free admission at many zoos across the country, including free admission to the Milwaukee County Zoo. Membership also gives discounts on experiences, like Penguin Encounters, and discounts on summer camp.
  • Adler Planetarium-$180 for a “Star Pass”. This gives unlimited admissions and sky shows for a year. If you’re going to the Planetarium, it’s a MUST to see a sky show and they can get pricey.
  • Museum of Science and Industry-$195 for a family membership. This membership includes parking which is a huge deal! MSI has so much to see for all ages, so you’ll want to go back many times. As an ASTC Member, members of the MSI receive 50% off admission at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Discovery World in Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Public Museum.
  • Field Museum of Natural History-$140 for a family membership. This includes unlimited admission and exclusive access to member only events.
  • Cosley Zoo-This is a little trick. The Cosley Zoo is very cute for little kids, but the benefits of a membership is that it’s only $75 for a family you get 50% off at the Shedd Aquarium, and free access to the Milwaukee County Zoo.
  • Lincoln Park Zoo– a Safari Membership is $189. This zoo is always free but a membership gives you access to free parking which saves money each trip, and if you want to go to North Avenue Beach, the Nature Museum, etc. It also gives you early access to register for summer camps. It also gives you 50% off at the Shedd, and free admission to the Milwaukee County Zoo.
  • Morton Arboretum-$175 for a family membership, but you could also do a $75 solo membership and pay $5 for two guests each visit. Morton Arboretum has reciprocity with the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Children’s Garden at the Morton Arboretum is amazing, and a great way to immerse your child in nature. A membership also comes with camp discounts.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden-$149 for a household membership. It includes reciprocity with the Morton Arboretum, free parking, early access and discounts to special events like Lightscape and the Night of 1,000 Jack-o-Lanterns.
  • Brookfield Zoo-Brookfield Zoo has multiple levels of membership but the Plus Membership for $189 is the best value. Includes free parking in the South lot, guest passes, ticketed experiences, and more.
kids touching a wall of slime
Sloomoo Institute

Pop-Up Museum Tickets

Chicago has several unique museums that make for awesome photo opportunities and exciting experiences for kids, but they’re smaller and a membership probably isn’t necessary. Tickets to these museums will be a nice surprise!

Best Experience Gifts for the Whole Family

a view of the Shedd and Chicago skyline
Chicago Skyline and part of the Shedd Aquarium from Museum Campus

There’s no reason experience gifts have to be just for kids. The following gifts can provide lasting memories for the whole family, and you can tailor them to fit your family’s specific interests.

Staycation in Downtown Chicago

Locals often miss out on a lot of the “touristy” activities Chicago has to offer, so a staycation is a great way to see the city as if you were on vacation. There are some fantastic hotels downtown, including some with indoor or outdoor pools which are always hits with kids!

Some fun “touristy” things to do:

Food Tour

Sample some hot dogs, some deep pizza, and other Chicago delicacies on a food tour! There are many varieties across different neighborhoods, so you can definitely find one that suits your tastes.

Architectural Boat Tour

I used to work at a busy restaurant on Michigan Avenue and whenever tourists asked for recommendations on what to do, I always said the Architectural Boat Tour. There are several companies that you can go through, but they’re easy to find if you just walk head down to the River Walk on Wacker and Michigan Avenue. Most of them take you along the Chicago River and then out on Lake Michigan, so you get some of the best views of the city while learning a bit about its architecture and history!

Use a CityPass

Take advantage of being downtown and check out some of the most popular attractions in Chicago. You can hop around Museum Campus, see the 360 Observation Deck and customize your experience to fit your family!

Helicopter Tour

This is a super nice gift, but a helicopter tour of Chicago would be unforgettable for your family. My husband and I took a helicopter tour on our honeymoon in New Zealand, and it was undoubtedly one of the most memorable experiences.

Family Getaway

Announcing a family trip as a gift will be unforgettable for your kids. You could even give them clues or a scavenger hunt and make them guess where you’re going! Of course, trips to New York, California, or Florida would be super popular, but if you’re looking for something more affordable and easier, there are some awesome options nearby.

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva is only an hour away, and they have ski hills nearby, indoor waterparks, boating, horseback riding, and a bunch of family-friendly activities.

Milwaukee

Milwaukee is only 90 miles north of Chicago, and it’s a hidden gem of the Midwest. It’s bustling, easy to get around, and there are plenty of family-friendly activities. Calie from Milwaukee With Kids is a great resource for everything you need to know about family-friendly fun in Milwaukee.

dinosaur skeletons at the Indianapolis Children's Museum
Indianapolis Children’s Museum

Indianapolis

Indianapolis has one of the best children’s museums in the world, and they have a a fantastic zoo. It’s only a 4-hour drive from Chicago, and many people recommend staying in nearby Carmel because of their amazing playgrounds.

St. Louis

St. Louis is a bit farther of a trek, but the City Museum is one of the coolest, kid-friendly museums I’ve ever been to.

indoor waterpark
Timber Ridge Water Park in Lake Geneva

A Waterpark

What kid doesn’t love a waterpark? From Timber Ridge, to Great Wolf Lodge, to Wisconsin Dells, there are lots of indoor and outdoor waterpark options nearby.

If you don’t want to do an overnight, The Water Works in Schaumburg is an awesome budget-friendly option.

Theater/Event Tickets

Hamilton

Here until January 28th, 2024.

Hamilton will be a hit for younger kids, teenagers, and parents.

Bluey’s Big Play

May 3-May 5, 2024.

This show is only 50 minutes long, so it’s the perfect introductory show for younger kids.

Six

June 4-July 16, 2024. Recommended for 10+.

History enthusiasts will love Six, about Henry the VIII”s wives.

Peter Pan

March 26-April 7, 2024.

A classic in musical form.

Second City

Second City is perfect for Teenagers!

Use Code DEALS2023 until Cyber Monday.

Disney on Ice

January 18-21 & February 1-4 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont. January 25-28 at the United Center.

Disney on Ice is magical for younger kids!

Use Discount Code: 2J3GGL

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