A young boy buzzes through the Imaginarium, eager to sample all of its scientific delights. He pets a starfish, then dashes off to sit inside a model of a fly's-eye-view of the world. Then he races over to the giant bubble machine.
On the city's bike paths, families cruise along on two wheels or two legs, enjoying the sunny Alaska day. It's 65 degrees and they're in shorts and T-shirts.
Alaska probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when planning a vacation with grandchildren, but it should certainly be high on the list.
It's cool in the summer, mid 60s to low 70s in the daytime.
And it's a chance to get youngsters outdoors to experience nature in an impressive way. Anchorage is perched on Cook Inlet, not far from the Pacific Ocean, and is surrounded on the land side by snowy peaks.
Don't be surprised to see a moose trotting down the bike path in town. Locals barely glance up when a bald eagle swoops overhead. For kids from the Lower 48, as Alaskans call the rest of the United States, this is a chance to see animals that don't live in their world, and also to experience days where the sun barely sets before it rises again.
Keep kids interested
Alaska guidebook writer and environmentalist Charles Wohlforth traverses the state with his four children, usually camping. He says for visitors, however, children younger than 10 may get bored with long drives (and things are far apart here).
"The key is variety," he says. "Don't worry so much about getting somewhere as doing something along the way. Let the kids set the pace and help determine the agenda."
That's good advice, says Kelly Bonder, general manager of Prince William Sound Cruises & Tours.
"I recommend the shorter, four-hour tour for families with children," she says. "Six hours is too long for younger children, even though they can get up and move around the boat."
She suggests taking the train from Anchorage to Whittier in time for the noon cruise. That boat returns by 4 p.m. and passengers have an hour or so to stretch their legs and eat before the return train.
Aboard the cruise boats, there are programs geared to teach children about what they're seeing. They can pet the pelt of a polar bear or sea otter, examine plankton under a microscope and touch glacial ice, for example.
They also may get to see mountain goats, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles and a variety of sea birds. Occasionally, they may even glimpse a whale.
"And some kids just like being on a boat," Bonder says.
If you drive to Whittier, stop in at the Begich, Boggs Visitors Center at Portage Glacier. There's an excellent video about glaciers, plus a scavenger hunt tailored for children of different ages. At the end, kids get a prize from Smokey the Bear.
Family programs include looking for ice worms on a glacier hike.
Creatures and culture
There are plenty of chances to see wildlife up close and safely. Near the Portage Glacier/Whittier turnoff is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where a musk ox nurses her young calf, where coyotes and foxes hunt small game in their large enclosure, a few moose lounge around in captivity.
Elk, reindeer, bears and other Alaska species which have been rescued from injury or difficult situations have found refuge here.
Another major attraction for youngsters in Anchorage is the Imaginarium, where it's hands-on all the way. Guests can see a tide pool and pet such things as a sea cucumber (oooh, slimy!), explore robotics and attend special classes that relate to the Arctic ecology.
Older kids are likely to enjoy the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where native guides explain the cultures of the indigenous peoples. Life-sized replicas of native dwellings surround a pond on the property.
"When children come, they are full of questions," says Ada Shavings, docent and a member of the Yup'ik tribe.
Whatever you choose to do, you'll likely have to rent a car.
Several of Alaska's travel pros highly recommend renting a motor home.
For a meal with a twist, the Sourdough Mining Co. offers family-style dinners at fairly reasonable prices, and dinner comes with entertainment, Most nights, there's an Adventures of Dusty Sourdough show, and just outside, visitors can view beaver ponds and other wildlife.
The best part?
The Sourdough Mining Co. has a free shuttle that will fetch you and your luggage from your hotel, entertain you for the evening, and then take you to the airport for the evening flights back south.
Parents with kids in tow have got to appreciate the simplicity of that.
Alaska is a pricey destination. "Cost can be an issue," says guidebook writer Wohlforth. "But consider camping, and it can cut your costs considerably, as well as give you a closer look at nature."
Linda DuVal is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs.