Heidi Britt: Ten things to do in Merced

01/08/2011 12:13 AM

01/08/2011 12:54 AM

Who says there's nothing to do in Merced?

One worry I had when I moved my family to Merced was the apparent lack of cultural events available to us. I had just come from a city where culture -- both low- and highbrow -- was abundant.

But now that I've been raising kids in Merced for a while, I have found there's a lot more to this town than the mall and the movie theater.

This year, I challenge parents to take advantage of the many cultural offerings in Merced. To facilitate the challenge, I have compiled a list of 10 things for families to do with kids in Merced in 2011.

See how many you can do this year.

1. Castle Air Museum -- Located on the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, the outdoor museum is a blast of history wrapped up in fun for kids. A pathway meanders through dozens of old jets and prop planes used by the U.S. military from as far back as World War II. The indoor museum houses old airplane parts and memorabilia. Visit www.castleairmuseum.org.

2. Challenger Learning Center -- While you're out at Castle, drop by this hidden gem of Merced. Here, the kids can experience flight simulations, rocket launches, and a science museum. The center is open throughout the year for walk-ins or tours, and also offers a summer space camp.

Visit www.challengersjv.org.

3. Merced National Wildlife Refuge -- Located a short drive west of Merced, the refuge spans more than 10,000 acres and allows visitors to drive a self-guided tour of beautiful swamp land filled with native birds, coyotes, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, weasels, fish and reptiles. Be sure to bring bug repellent. Visit fws.gov/sanluis/merced_info.htm.

4. Merced Flea and Farmers Market -- Hundreds of people flock to this outdoor bazaar each week to find good deals on everything from fresh produce to shoes and accessories. Come with cash and be prepared to haggle. It's a dynamic mix of the varied human cultures that exist in the area and an interesting experience for first-time visitors. Your kids will love tasting all the samples. The market is held every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

5. SummerFest -- Originally billed as a downtown farmers market, SummerFest was transformed in 2010 when Downtown Life Magazine took it over. During SummerFest, Main Street closes to traffic and opens up to street merchants, music and food vendors on Thursday nights during the summer. Visit www.summerfestmerced.com.

6. Merced Agricultural Museum -- Located 10 minutes out of Merced on Highway 140 heading toward Yosemite, this museum is a hidden treasure of local history. Kids can explore old engines and farm equipment, old-fashioned toys like grandpa used to play with, and check out an old chuck wagon.

7. Yosemite National Park -- Speaking of Yosemite, I hear from parents all the time who either have never seen the park or haven't gone in more than year. If your kids have never hiked to the base of Yosemite Falls or gazed at Half Dome from the Tunnel View, then it's time they did. I know it's technically not in Merced, but this world-class national park is truly right in our backyard.

8. Applegate Park Zoo and Kiwanis Kiddieland -- Many parents in Merced know that the place to take the kids when they're getting rambunctious is Kiddieland, where they can play on a variety of playground equipment, ride a kid-size train and visit the animals in the zoo. Applegate Park stretches along the Bear Creek trail between M and N streets.

9. Playhouse Merced -- Most of the shows at the Playhouse are geared toward a mature audience, but on occasion they put on a terrific play for all ages, such as a recent rendition of Disney's "The Beauty and the Beast." Young actors are also welcome to try out for upcoming shows. Visit www.

playhousemerced.com.

10. Downtown Art Hop -- Every three months, downtown Merced is transformed into a live, open-air art gallery. Artists flock to the streets to perform or display art, businesses become impromptu galleries and plenty of entertainment and fun events for kids are offered, such as face painting, contests and giveaways. The next Art Hop is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 22 from 5 to 9 p.m. Visit www.

mercedarthop.com.

These are just drops in the cultural bucket of Merced. What other fun things can your family find this year? Be sure to let me know.

Heidi Britt is a grant writer and co-founder of the Parent Resource Association of Merced. Six kids and counting call her variations on the name 'Mom.'

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