***** Updated Spring 2017 *****
If you would have told my “pre-kids” self that I would be travelling to Rochester, New York for leisure, I would definitely have thought you had no idea what kind of traveller I was – Rochester does not sound that exciting. Yet, here I am, with at least 4 trips to Rochester under my belt and already scheduled to take another one this summer! If you are looking for a family road trip you can take from Toronto with young kids – Rochester is a great option.
What’s so good about Rochester you ask? I’ll give you one HUGE reason – a 156,000 square foot building of a reason – The Strong National Museum of Play. The building is massive, and it’s filled with so many fun, interactive displays and exhibits for all ages. We have always had such a fun time when we come here, so we just keep coming back to build more great memories. If you want more information on how to get there, where to stay, and some of our favourite moments – keep reading!
GETTING THERE: TORONTO TO ROCHESTER
If we did not make a stop, the drive from Toronto would take about 3 hours. But, with a young family (we still have a toddler), a non-stop drive is unlikely for us. Our plan is usually to make one stop to eat and go for a bathroom break, and also try to incorporate most of the driving with a nap time.
We try to leave at around 10 a.m. on Friday morning to
- Avoid rush hour the bulk of rush hour traffic
- Arrive in Rochester early enough to get in some play time at the museum
- Work in nap time
If you have data on your phone, you can always check to see what the wait times are at the border crossing. The Rainbow Bridge border crossing will give your littles ones a chance to see the falls from their seats in the car.
In terms of where to stop for lunch, this was totally dependent on if there were napping children in the car. The rule of thumb for us is “If they are sleeping, keep driving!” We ended up stopping just 30 minutes outside of Rochester at a Tim Hortons (how Canadian) to take a bathroom break, and a timbit break. Those timbits get expensive with the exchange rate, though. They cost the same as they do in Canada, but in US dollars.
Have some U.S. dollar bills ready for the toll booths. Shortly after crossing the border, you will have to pay your first $1 (USD). There will be another toll booth where you take a ticket and when you exit you will pay another toll of $2 (http://www.thruway.ny.gov/travelers/tolls/calc/trip.cgi) from exit 50 to exit 47.
Coming back to Canada you have to pay the same tolls coming in plus the toll at the border/bridge. The toll rate at the Rainbow Bridge was $3.75 USD or $4.75 CAD. With the exchange rate closer to 1:1.5 for USD:CAD, it’s actually cheaper to pay in Canadian dollars instead of US dollars.
WHERE TO STAY
When we go, we like to stay at the Homewood Suites, or the Hampton Inn in Greece, New York. We enjoy the breakfast at the Homewood Suites better, for both the food options and the layout. If the Hampton Inn is busy, the breakfast buffet gets crowded. Overall, both hotels have provided us with good experiences.
The last time we were at Homewood Suites, we required the use of a crib. We requested one when we booked, and were provided one to use at no additional cost. It was wonderful having a crib around even if baby did not sleep in it 100% of the time. During the day, it was nice to have a safe place to put him. It was also nice to have access to the pool for those breaks away from the museum. If you happen to stay at The Homewood during the week, they tend to have evening socials from Monday to Thursday where you can stop in for some complimentary food.
It’s about a 15 minute drive from the hotel to the museum. Once you get to the museum, there is usually plenty of free parking in the museum parking lot.
ADMISSION FEES, AND IS MEMBERSHIP TO THE MUSEUM WORTH IT?
The first time we went to the museum, I tried to find some coupons, discount codes, promo codes, or Groupon deals for admission for the museum but came up empty handed. Then I had to figure out how many times we would realistically go to the museum to figure out if it would be worthwhile to purchase a membership to the museum.
General admission is $14.50 for anyone over the age of 2. In order for the membership to be worthwhile, you would have to get at least 9 admissions out of it.
The BASIC Membership cost for 2 adults and up to 4 children is $124.
- FREE general museum admission for one year
- Complimentary carousel/train punch card
- $1 general admission discount for guests
- $1 discount on butterfly garden admission
- 10% discount in the museum shop
- FREE member newsletter and email updates
On Friday, the museum is open until 8 p.m. so if you get in early enough you could go get a few hours of play in. With 3 paying members in our family, we decided to go for the membership and attend the museum on the Friday night. If we went Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, then the membership would pay for itself. Getting the membership also helps us feel like we don’t have to “max” out one day (likely Saturday) and stay at the museum for hours on end. It also gives us incentive to make another trip to Rochester.
SO MUCH FUN AT THE MUSEUM
I cannot begin to explain how much fun the kids have at this museum. I could try to write it all out as accurately as I could and even with pictures (and I will try to do this soon) – but it’s just not the same! It’s not the same as being there and watching your child explore and discover. The museum is so big, it is highly unlikely you could experience it all in just one day.
In fact, the first time we went it was SO TIRING! It was tiring because our toddler was everywhere, checking out everything. She was really excited, and moved (i.e. ran) from one exhibit to the next. Remember how big this place is – it was a lot of chasing around that had to be done.
Upon entering the building, we are greeted by the carousel, and the gift shop with a prominent toy display. If you purchase the museum membership, it comes with a punch card for 4 free rides on either the carousel or train. Otherwise, it’s $1 a ride.
When you actually enter the museum, there is a large fish tank we spend a few minutes at…and then the fun begins.
SOME OF THE EXHIBITS AND ACTIVITIES
- Sesame Street
- Motorcycles (temporary display)
- Storybook area
- Berenstain Bears area
- Vintage Video Games
- Butterfly Garden
- Parade at the end of the day
There used to be an airplane display, a craft section, and a house on the main floor but that area is currently under renovation.
FUN FOR ALL AGES
At almost a year and a half, my youngest was still able to enjoy the museum despite not being the steadiest on his feet. The museum is probably best for children 6 years and under, but honestly I have fun playing there too. For the adults, the upstairs section has many “old” video games and classic games from our childhood. It’s a walk through memory lane.
FREE WIFI AT THE MUSEUM
For those of you who like to stay connected but do not have a data plan from the US, fear not – there is free wifi at the museum!! It’s helpful to have access to free wifi to get in touch with others in your travel group. We tend to go with other families, but end up splitting up in the museum and doing different activities. The museum is huge, and thus having a way to contact each other is immensely useful (when is dinner, and where should we eat?!) and you won’t have to worry about extra expenses incurred on your phone bill (remember to turn off your roaming).
CAN YOU EAT AT THE MUSEUM?
Yes, there is food available to be purchased at the museum, but there is also a designated area to eat if you bring your own food. If you purchase food in their food court (for example, at their Taco Bell), then you can eat within the food court. If you choose not to purchase any food there, but bring your own food, you can consume it in a designated room which has tables and chairs.
Also within the building is a diner. They have happy hour milkshake specials daily where the milkshakes are half price from 2:30PM – 4:30PM. We’ve stopped in for the milkshakes, but then got reeled in to sitting down and having some french fries too – yum!
TIPS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
We bought the membership right from the beginning. Doing so gave us the peace of mind that we could come back on multiple days and we did not have to “maximize” our one paid day by spending hours on end at the museum. It’s recommended that you spend at least 4 hours there, but with the pass we are happy to stop in for an hour or two and head back to the hotel for nap, or just call it a day if the kids are too tired.
Another thing that we will do in the future is to go to dinner early on a Saturday night. We had a rather large group, so getting seated at The Olive Garden (one of our go-to restaurants) required a 45 minute wait – we had arrived just after 6PM. Next time, we will definitely try to get there before 6.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE!!!
I have much more to say about our adventures in Rochester including where to shop, and where to eat. It will be coming up in another post so stay tuned!
Is there any other information you’re looking for? Comment below and let me know, and I’ll answer.