The Children's Museum of Indianapolis (TCM) is, hands down, the best children's museum I have ever been to, and I say that as a true connoisseur.

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis (TCM) is, hands down, the best children's museum I have ever been to, and I say that as a true connoisseur. One of my criteria is how well each exhibit engages all ages, including adults. We once visited another highly touted children's museum and I quickly realized, because I had a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old with me, that each exhibit there appealed only to a specific age range, so while one child maxed out on one exhibit, the other one sat there, cranky and bored senseless. It was an exhausting visit.

That doesn't happen at TCM. I remember one trip we made when they had an exhibit about mobiles and the artwork of Alexander Caldwell. All of us in the family, children and adults, spent a couple of hours in there, that's how absorbing it was.

This last visit, I'd say it's the Dinosphere exhibit that best represents the age-spanning appeal of TCM. While my son, now 13, was building his own dinosaur on a computer (and finding out what physical attributes would help or hinder his creation's survival), there were very young children crawling through the underbelly of a prehistoric jungle, while bigger kids and adults used the various interactive learning stations or watched the panoramic sky projected on the domed ceiling change with the prehistoric weather conditions. (Warning: The amplified noises in there - roaring dinosaurs and violent thunderstorms - might scare some small children.)

Other highlights included the National Geographic Treasures of the Earth exhibit, which features three different archeological digs from around the world; the Take Me There exhibit, which showcases a different country every 3 to 4 years (currently and until 2014, it's Egypt and you get a comprehensive experience of what it's like to live there); the miniature rooms (they're like a dissembled doll house and for anyone - like me - who ever had a doll house and built their own furniture, these are fantastic to study). The ScienceWorks area on the fourth floor is great for older kids (my teen-aged daughter once created her own stop-action animation video there, and the staff emailed it to us).

And set aside a couple of hours for the Playscape area (for ages 5 and under) or the Dow Science Center (for ages 6 and up). What is it about water, dirt and sand that draws (and keeps a hold on) kids like magnets? Thank goodness for comfortable seating throughout the place (and free wifi if you need it).

Finally, if you visit, make sure you're in the first-floor atrium at 12:59:59 p.m. I won't spoil the surprise for you, but let's just say it, too, involves water.

Tips:


*The museum is technically on North Meridian Street, but the parking garage is on Illinois Street, one block west of Meridian (and you can trust the highway signage to get you to the garage). You'll enter the museum via a skywalk. For the shortest trip from the garage, park on the 2nd or 3rd level near the skywalk.

* Pick up free timed-admission tickets for the Planetarium, the live shows in the Lilly Theater or the rock-climbing wall (only for ages 6 to 12) when you arrive: They go fast.

*TCM's Food Court is pretty good for food choices and pricing. A full kid's meal will run you about $5 (for adults, it's about $7). The "Toddler Bites" meals ($4.49-$5.49) feature toddler-attractive items like cut-up hot dogs and mandarin orange slices. Only the Whistle Stop Express counter (with sweet treats) seems overpriced. You also can bring in and eat your own food in the dining area.

*Indianapolis often hosts huge conventions and sporting events (hello, Super Bowl), so there may be times when hotel rooms are hard to obtain. Either book lodging way ahead or avoid those times. The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association website (visitindy.com) can help identify these dates.

*Outside TCM, there are some interesting little food finds. The locals swear by Bazbeaux for pizza (three locations around the area, bazbeaux.com) and Café Patachou (five locations, cafepatachou.com) for yummy organic breakfasts and lunches.