Portland, OR
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Portland, OR

Don't let drizzle put a damper on your weekend in one of America's "most kid-friendly cities."

Wet and Wild

Let's face it. Portland's a wet place. This hip, artsy city on the Willamette River gets a whopping 37.2 inches of rain each year.

But not to worry. Portland's built for rain. On yucky days, the kids can climb aboard a Navy sub at the science museum, see a puppet show at one of several children's theaters, and even ride four-foot waves at an indoor water park.

On sunny days, there's the renowned Oregon zoo, an old-fashioned amusement park, or just a walk around compact downtown, hanging out in art-filled plazas, reading the quotes from famous people etched in the sidewalks.

The city's proximity to mountains and ocean means lots of outdoor activities within an hour of downtown. But who needs to go that far? Right in Portland's backyard, you can take a jet boat tour and scream with delight as pilots do 360's in the water, spraying everyone onboard.

Rain or shine, Portland's small town ambiance will make your family feel right at home. So, pack the galoshes and umbrellas (even in summer months you're likely to get spritzed) and get ready to play, Portland-style.

Dragon Days

First, the weather. Find out what Mother Nature's got in store each day at Pioneer Courthouse Square, one of the city's famous gathering places. A silly, 25-foot weather machine topped with an earth-shaped ball flashes a sun on nice days, a blue heron on questionable days and a dragon on rainy ones. As you may expect, the weather dragon makes more appearances than its counterparts.

But Portland works around that with plenty of indoor culture and adventures. Here are some of our favorites:

Oregon Museum of Science and
Industry, copyright POVA

  • Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI). The kids can conduct their own chemical experiments, get bumped and tossed in a simulated earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale, or climb aboard the USS Blueback -- a real U.S. Navy sub featured in the film, The Hunt for Red October. Budget at least a couple of hours to tour this huge, 219,000-square-foot playground for the brain.
  • Portland Children's Museum. "Please Touch" is the motto at this interactive museum. Youngsters can strap on tool belts, and hardhats and build a house with kid-sized tools, or edit digital stories and create their own productions. Or, they can play with pumps, drawbridges, and bubbles in an exhibit called WaterWorks. If your kids like to climb, a new climbing structure doubles as a musical instrument. Plan to be here two hours.
  • Oregon Children's Theatre. Lions and tigers and puppets, oh my! Children's books come to life at this playhouse where child actors play all the young characters. Among recent performances: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ramona Quimby and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  • Tears of Joy Theatre Company. Experience the magic of high-end puppetry at this 25-year-old theater. It earned the coveted "Citation of Excellence in Art of Puppetry," American puppetry's highest honor, for three of its performances. In the summer, catch its shows in parks and at festivals.

Sunny Days

When the sun shines, Portland's a magical place. But hurry, you don't know how long the good weather will last. Here are some of the best outdoor activities:

  • Willamette Jetboat Excursions. Hold on to your hats! You'll be cruising the Willamette at speeds up to 40 mph on this two-hour, narrated tour. Not only that, but your pilot guide will probably show off, doing spin-arounds and sprays. Boat buffs in your family will enjoy touring the shipyard and its giant cargo and military ships. The tour also comes within yards of Willamette Falls and its gloriously cascading waters. Take along a camera (an underwater one is best).

The Oregon Zoo, copyright
POVA/Michael Durham

  • Oregon Zoo. This 64-acre zoo, five minutes from downtown, simulates nine exotic locales throughout the world. In the African rainforest, tropical thunder, lightning, and torrential downpours occur even on sunny days. At the Alaskan Tundra exhibit, catch sight of grizzly bears, gray wolves, and snowy owls. Or swing by the primate center, where you can watch chimps, mandrills, and golden lion tamarins entertaining the crowd.

    The zoo's long-time claim to fame is its top-rated elephant-breeding program. Since the birth of its first elephant, "Packy," in 1962, 27 more have been born here. Make sure to say hello. And don't miss the insect zoo with its creepy crawly bugs, including Mexican Red Kneed Tarantulas, Emperor Scorpions, Giant African Millipedes, and the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. Eeeww! Plan to spend at least a half-day here.
  • The Oaks Amusement Park. Since 1905, this 46-acre park has been a favorite gathering place of Portland families. The 26 attractions run the gamut from a high-intensity roller coaster called "Looping Thunder" to low-key kiddie rides. When you're ready for a breather, hop onboard the open-air train for a scenic ride along the Willamette River. Or head over to the skate rink -- the largest on the West Coast.
  • Portland Saturday Market. Located in Portland's turn-of-the-century Skidmore District, this open-air market features more than 270 craft booths, all kinds of foods, and live entertainment. If you're looking to buy unique gifts or souvenirs of the Pacific Northwest, this is the place. The best part: You won't pay sales tax.


Type of trip: Education, entertainment

Best ages: 5 and up

Ideal trip length: 3-4 days

Distance: Seattle, WA (173 miles), Boise, ID (431 miles), San Francisco, CA (634 miles)

Best time to go: September through November for the great deals and good weather. "The Portland Big Deal," beginning in October, offers discounts on hotels and restaurants to performing arts and attractions. Some attractions close down after October, so plan accordingly.

Weather: 75/52 degrees in September; 64/45 in October. December is the wettest, with an average of 6.13 inches of rainfall; July is the driest month, with just a half-inch of rain.

Lodging: Look for special deals Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Hotels participating in "The Portland Big Deal" offer affordable rooms from October to May. Call 1-87-PORTLAND.

Squirm factor: None

If You Go...

Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI) 1945 SE Water Ave., Portland Phone: 800-955-6674


Portland Children's
Museum, copyright POVA

Portland Children's Museum 24015 SW Canyon Rd., across from the zoo Phone: 503-223-6500


Oregon Children's Theatre Performances at Keller Auditorium, SW 3rd Ave. and at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hal 1037 SW Broadway, Portland Phone: 503-228-9571


Tears of Joy Theatre Company The Winningstad Theatre at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts Phone: 503-248-0557 Check performance schedule.


Willamette Jetboat Excursions Located at OMSI Submarine Dock, 1945 SE Water Ave., Portland Phone: 888-538-2628

Oregon Zoo 4001 SW Canyon Rd., Portland Phone: 503-226-1561


Oaks Amusement Park & Roller Skating Rink Located on the east end of Sellwood Bridge at Tacoma St., Portland Phone: 503-233-5777


Portland Saturday Market,
copyright POVA/Janis Miglavs

Portland Saturday Market 108 W Burnside, Portland Phone: 503-222-6072


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: North Clackamas Aquatic Park 7300 SE Harmony Rd, Milwaukie, OR, just south of Portland off I-205 Phone: 503-557-SURF Summer never ends at this indoor aquatic park, open even on the chilliest days. Hop on a tube and surf four-foot waves in the 200,000-gallon wave pool. Or check out the two large water slides and one steep drop slide. There's even fun for your wee ones in an interactive kiddie pool with fountains.


Best souvenir: A can of slug chowder at Made in Oregon stores. Kids love it for the high gross-out factor. But it's really just a water-based soup, and the only slug is the one on the label.

Annual events: (check for dates)

  • Packy's Birthday Party
    Oregon Zoo, Portland
    Celebrate Packy the elephant's birthday with the "Packy Shuffle" dance, a scavenger hunt, and face painting.
  • Portland Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade
    Downtown Portland
    The nation's "second largest" all floral parade (second to the Rose Parade in Pasadena, CA)
  • Portland Arts Festival
    South Park Blocks, Portland
    Hands-on art for kids, live music, 120 regional and national artists
  • The Grotto's Festival of Lights
    The Grotto, Portland
    More than 250,000 colorful lights, puppet shows, a petting zoo and a living history program
  • Christmas Ships
    Willamette and Columbia Rivers
    Decorated ships

Traffic alert: All downtown Portland streets are one-way. If you miss a turn, you'll have to go a couple blocks out of your way to get back on track.

Side Trips

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

The nation's only designated National Scenic Area is home to 77 waterfalls that cascade from the glaciers and snowfields of nearby Mount Hood. Nearly all are accessible via easy trails.

The feature attraction: Multnomah Falls, a double-tiered waterfall that roars 620 feet over a mossy cliff at the top of the Columbia River Gorge. It's a great place to soak up the beauty and enjoy a picnic lunch. The trail to the top is a paved 1.2 miles.

Top off your day with a visit to Bonneville Dam, which spans the Columbia River. Park rangers are on-site to provide free tours and talks on fish, hydropower, and history. Or you can tour the dam and look yourself. Plan an hour to check out the underwater fish-viewing windows and the next door fish hatchery, with its pools of sturgeon and salmon.

The Gorge (20 minutes from downtown) on I-84 just west of the Bonneville Dam. The Dam (40 miles from Portland) on I-84 just a few miles east of where Historic Columbia River Highway and I-84 intersect, Cascade Locks, 541-374-8820.


Reviewed April 2004.