The kids are out of school. It’s warm and gorgeous outside. Eventually you’ll get bored with the Netflix binges. (We hope so, anyway.) It’s time to get out there and have a family adventure. Luckily, we’re blessed with a multitude of outdoor activities and events to satisfy every member of the family. From amusement and adventure parks to zoos and racetracks — plus the hottest new sports venue in the state — here are plenty of ideas to make this a summer to remember.
UPDATED JUNE 1 - Watch a behind-the-scenes video of our cover shoot with the beluga whales at Mystic Aquarium.
Lake Compounce, Bristol
You could call Lake Compounce the state’s ultimate surf-and-turf location. With its wide variety of land-based rides and water features, the amusement park — the oldest continuously operated one of its kind in North America — has enough activities to keep the whole family entertained.
There are four roller coasters that cater to the differing tastes of thrill-seekers. Boulder Dash is consistently rated one of the best wooden coasters in the world, while the newest coaster, Phobia Phear, soars 15 stories high, reaches speeds of 65 mph and features an inversion roll in the middle. Dozens of other rides range from bumper cars and an antique carousel to the 185-foot drop of Down Time and the rocking, rolling and spinning of Rev-O-Lution. Then there is Crocodile Cove, Connecticut’s largest water park, with its float-friendly Croc-O-Nile river, wavy Bayou Bay and the raft adventures of Mammoth Falls. Highlights of other watery fun are twisting and turning slides, including the four-rider competitive Riptide Racer, water cannons and a massive bucket that dumps more than 300 gallons of water onto visitors below.
Rides are not the only kid-friendly attraction at Lake Compounce. A new musical stage show, Daniel’s Grr-ific Day, starring Daniel Tiger and his friend Katerina Kittycat from the animated show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, will open this summer. Kids can meet the characters after the show for photos and, of course, hugs. 860-583-3300, lakecompounce.com
Quassy Amusement & Waterpark, Middlebury
Normally the words “Category 5” would send us running for the hills. But at Quassy, now in its 110th season, it’s cause for celebration. That’s because a new collection of waterslides, dubbed the Category 5 Rapids, debuts this summer. Completed in December, the three-slide complex has a combined length of more than 1,000 feet. The largest Cat 5 slide, called Torrent, has a “funnel shape that flushes riders up the walls, oscillates each tube multiple times and generates a suspended-weightlessness sensation,” according to the park. The new ride brings the total number of slides to 15 in the Splash Away Bay water park, which also includes the Saturation Station play area with fountains, water cannons and a 300-gallon water bucket.
Of course, there are also the simple pleasures of swimming and paddle-boating in Lake Quassapaug, which features a new cafe on the beach. You could spend all day in the water, but no visit to Quassy would be complete without a few trips on its many rides, including the beloved Wooden Warrior. A redemption arcade with classic games such as Skee-Ball and Whac-A-Mole, and loads of live entertainment round out a great selection of family-fun offerings. 203-758-2913, quassy.com
Ocean Beach Park, New London
Hammonasset Beach and Silver Sands state parks get a lot of praise in the debate over Connecticut’s best beaches. But with its beautiful beach, half-mile boardwalk and rides and other amenities, Ocean Beach Park is the state’s most well-rounded beach attraction. Besides a dip in the Sound, the kids can also enjoy a triple water slide, spray park, carousel, restored classic carnival rides, 18 holes of mini golf, Olympic-size pool, indoor arcade and playground. The whole family is sure to be hungry after all that, and you won’t have to leave the park to find options including a cafe, food court and snack and ice cream stands.
Special events are held from the park’s opening on Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Classic car cruise nights, which routinely attract hundreds of autos, are held on Mondays. Tuesdays are for the “Beach Blanket Movie Series,” featuring family-friendly films. On Wednesdays, magicians practice their crafts. Thursdays see a new trivia night this summer. Tribute bands and fireworks are the main attractions Friday nights. Saturdays have circus acts such as illusionists and stunt bike shows, while Sundays are typically reserved for charity runs, walks and volleyball tournaments. Work will begin this summer on a new picnic pavilion. Look for it to host a variety of activities starting next year. 860-447-3031, ocean-beach-park.com
— Albie Yuravich
Zoos and Wildlife Parks
Beardsley Zoo, Bridgeport
Connecticut’s only zoo features more than 300 animals, including two critically endangered Siberian tiger cubs and three maned wolf pups that were officially introduced to the public in April. Some of the other endangered and threatened species at Beardsley are the Andean condor, ocelot, red wolf, giant anteater and golden lion tamarin. You can see creatures as small as the Madagascar hissing cockroach and as big as bison, with names ranging from the common raven to the pale-faced saki monkey. Beardsley boasts a South American rainforest with free-flight aviary and a prairie dog exhibit with pop-up viewing areas.
Summer is an important time of year for the zoo, and its first event is also its largest annual fundraiser — the Wild Wine, Beer and Food Safari on June 2. For the kids, there are plenty of educational programs and the zoo hosts birthday parties, scavenger hunts and week-long Zoo Patrol sessions in July and August. Also, every fourth Friday of the month through September is free for AARP members. 203-394-6565, beardsleyzoo.org
Mystic Aquarium, Mystic
Learning meets fun in Mystic with interactive experiences, captivating exhibits, conservation programs, educational opportunities and animal adventures. The aquarium is home to New England’s only beluga whales (they’re doing swimmingly, as you can see on our cover) and more than 300 other species, including African penguins, seals, sea lions and more. New at Mystic is the exhibit Jurassic Giants: A Dinosaur Adventure, a family-friendly experience where guests travel on a trail featuring 12 animatronic dinosaurs. Visitors can pet sharks, reptiles and sea stars and hand-feed stingrays, then enjoy a California sea lion presentation in the Foxwoods Marine Theater.
The Summer Nights program, a heat-wave happy hour, if you will, takes place every Monday from 6-9 p.m. from July 9 through Aug. 27 with discounted admission. There are monthly Pancakes with Penguins (June 10, July 21, Aug. 4) and Pizza with Penguins (June 17, July 21, Aug. 11) events and, when parents need a bit of break, Cocktails with Whales (June 14, July 20, Aug. 9) and Prosecco & Penguins (June 7, July 26, Aug. 24). 860-572-5955, mysticaquarium.org
Flamig Farm, West Simsbury
Flamig Farm has been in operation for more than 100 years (as a dairy, egg retailer, top soil-mining operation, snow-plowing service and organic vegetable farm). The farm is known for its big, landmark, backward “EGGS” sign hanging on the chicken barn. Knowing that town zoning wouldn’t allow an advertising sign that big, they said it was art … and it’s been there for 40 years.
The farm’s mission is education, focusing on local food production, energy conservation, and personal wellness and nutrition, but there’s a pretty cool petting zoo, too. Typical domesticated and farm animals abound, but there are also rabbits, ponies, mules, alpacas, llamas, miniature horses, potbellied pigs, peacocks and emus. Flamig Farm offers children’s programs, summer camps for kids, birthday parties, and hayrides (the big one is the Halloweeen Hayride in October, and yes, they spell it with three Es). 860-658-5070, flamigfarm.com
— Mike Wollschlager
Lime Rock Park, Lakeville
Nestled in the picturesque Litchfield Hills in the hamlet of Lakeville, Lime Rock Park is a historic venue known the world over and has been New England’s road-racing home since 1957. A truly incomparable facility, Lime Rock has plenty in store in the way of food, fun and, of course, fast cars. Family events planned for this summer include the Salisbury Rotary Club’s Independence Day Fireworks Show on June 30 and the International Motor Sports Association’s WeatherTech Northeast Grand Prix July 20-21.
But the one summer weekend most closely associated with Lime Rock Park is Labor Day weekend. Historic Festival 36 is slated for Aug. 31-Sept. 3 and will bring a vintage race car and sports car parade, street fair, car show, car auction and plenty of racing action. By design, there are no grandstands. Bring lawn chairs and coolers and enjoy the outdoors on tree-shaded, gently sloped hillsides. Children 16 and under are free with a paying adult. 860-435-5000, limerock.com
Stafford Motor Speedway, Stafford Springs
This facility originally opened as an agricultural park back in 1870, about 15 years before the invention of the automobile. Its racing origins featured horses instead of machines with horsepower, but the half-mile track remains. Now Stafford is the setting for a different kind of Friday night lights; the kind that drops the green flag on every summer weekend from May through September. It features a tightly run program without long waits between races. The track’s capacity is 10,000 so there’s always ample parking, even if you plan an overnight stay. There are designated areas for RVs, and Stafford allows controlled campfires and leashed pets. In addition to being the “Home of the SK Modifieds,” Stafford will host a monster truck rally at Monster Jam on July 21-22, and the annual summer motorcycle swap meet takes place on July 15. There’s also an impressive fireworks display on July 6. On a hot, humid summer night, this is a fantastic place to be. 860-684-2783, staffordmotorspeedway.com
Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, Thompson
The Quiet Corner can get awfully loud when ladies and gentlemen start their engines. But Thompson Speedway, now in its 78th year, boasts a lot more than just a race track. Sitting on land that was primarily used for farming until the 1938 New England Hurricane pounded the region, the family-owned motorsports park features the pioneering 5/8-mile, high-banked asphalt oval, a 1.7-mile road course, 18-hole golf course, and restaurant with a banquet and catering facility.
Thompson is the only place in Connecticut with both an oval and a road course, and there are events almost daily throughout the summer. They include: a 125-lap NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race on June 13, a vintage motorsports festival and motorcycle classic from June 21-24, the Sports Car Club of America Majors Tour on July 7-8, the NASCAR Thompson Throwback 100 on July 14, the mid-summer-staple Bud “King of Beers” 150 on Aug. 8, various exotic car events, and a Sunday road race series. 860-923-2280, thompsonspeedway.com
New London-Waterford Speedbowl, Waterford
The Speedbowl was off to the races in 1951 as a crushed-blue stone oval. After just three weeks of operation it became clear the dust kicked up from the unique surface made it difficult for fans to see. Temporarily shut down, it reopened weeks later as an asphalt track. Nowadays there are acres of free parking and a “Family Section” in the center of the grandstands of the 3/8-mile track that is profanity, smoking and alcohol free. You can bring in your own small cooler but plenty of food and drinks are available for purchase. Wild & Wacky Wednesdays were made for families, and feature Legends, Super X-car, X-car and Bandolero divisions. Admission is $8 for adults, children 16 and under are free, and the event runs from 7 p.m. to about 9. Fast Lane Fridays are totally free and feature the area’s only car cruise and drag-racing combo event. 860-442-7223, speedbowlct.com
— Mike Wollschlager
Adventure Park at the Discovery Museum, Fairfield
This zip line park features 11 “treetop” trails with wood, cable and rope aerial trails zigzagging between roughly 180 platforms attached to trees. The color-coded trails offer varying degrees of difficulty, from 5-year-old-appropriate trails all the way up to adult. There are also special events including the ever-popular Glow in the Park, where guests are given glow attire to wear as they traverse the park after nightfall. 203-690-1717, discoveryadventurepark.org
Adventure Park at Storrs, Storrs
With six new zip lines added for the 2018 season, the Adventure Park at Storrs is serious about taking family fun to new heights this summer. Park attendees can climb, twirl and soar their way through eight separate trails of varying difficulty as they complete more than 80 unique challenges. The course is appropriate for children ages 7 and up. It’s only 5 minutes from the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus. It also has Glow in the Park nighttime climbing events. 860-946-0606, storrsadventurepark.com
Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park, Portland
One of the most diverse adventure parks in Connecticut, or anywhere, Brownstone was converted from a former brownstone quarry to a tourist destination after the Hayes brothers, Ed, Frank and Sean, bought it in 1999. Today it offers a variety of high-octane activities, from rock climbing, wakeboarding, cliff jumping and zip lining to scuba diving and snorkeling. It’s one of the state’s premier outdoor destinations. 866-860-0208, brownstonepark.com
Nomads Outdoor Adventure, South Windsor
This zip line course features six courses and more than 70 aerial challenges. The courses stretch over nine acres and one even crosses over a pond. The height ranges from 12 feet in the air all the way to 60 feet. The courses are color-coded to signify various skill levels. The experience ends with a zip line out of the trees and back to the ground. Participants must be at least 7 years old, and weigh between 50 and 275 pounds. 860-290-1177, nomadsct.com
Fields of Fire Adventure Park, Mystic
Set on 50 acres of woodlands, this Mystic zip line park offers five courses with various difficulty levels ranging from beginner to intermediate to expert. There are also night-climbing events, and the park is located within 5 minutes of downtown Mystic and in close proximity to both casinos. It’s a great spot to test your and your family’s agility. Climbers under 9 must be accompanied by a parent. All climbers must be at least 60 pounds, no more than 275 pounds, and able to reach to 62 inches. 860-449-4628, fieldsoffiremystic.com
Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort, Middlefield
You might expect a resort known for its skiing to slow down in the summer, but at Powder Ridge there’s as much, if not more, to do in the warmer months. Take a 1,400-foot zip line down the mountain, or enjoy kayaking, mountain biking or disc golf. If you’re the type who misses winter sports in the summer, there’s even synthetic snow for enjoying skiing, tubing and boarding all year. 866-860-0208, powderridgepark.com
— Erik Ofgang