Picture a lush lawn, lined with perfectly pruned topiaries, bookended by fountains, and a grand white mansion beaming from behind a chauffeur’s drive. You can just imagine yourself reclining on the parlor’s divan, the wind rippling your billowing white frock as you sip a gin rickey.
Now consider you’re there with your three-year-old. Think you wouldn’t dare take a sticky-fingered preschooler anywhere near a gilded estate? Think again.
From Winterthur in Delaware to Hearst Castle in California, the American countryside is dotted with lavish country houses and gardens, once homes and playgrounds for the wealthiest of the wealthy. And many of these châteaux welcome families with programming specifically for children, even as young as toddlers.
So skip your everyday playground and soak up some history at one of these. Whether you’re looking for a spring getaway or planning a summer trip, you, too, can enjoy the sporting life (or at least pretend to) at the bowling alley or swimming pool of a regal abode and be borne back into a time of leisure.
George Washington Vanderbilt, a grandson of industrialist and philanthropist Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, opened this breathtaking 8,000-acre estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains to friends and family in 1895. With a colossal, 250-room French Renaissance-style château, it welcomes over one million tourists each year.
It now includes Antler Hill Village, complete with the Pisgah Playground and Farm, where kids can pet farmyard animals, explore and climb antique tractors, and take part in daily crafts, like churning butter or weaving baskets. At the Antler Hill Village Winery, kids can even try a grape juice flight.
Stay directly on the property at the family-friendly Village Hotel in Antler Hill Village and let the Outdoor Adventure Center outfit your family with bikes or set up fly fishing lessons and carriage rides. At the Biltmore House, kids can listen to an audio tour (geared towards ages five and up) narrated by the Vanderbilts’ Saint Bernard Cedric.
Says Allison, Indiana resident and mom of an 11-year-old, “Our daughter loved it and was able to learn different things than we did.”
Another grandson of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose family’s fortune came from steamships and the New York Central Railroad, built this ornate 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo as his summer home.
The Preservation Society offers a Family Tour specifically targeted to children ages eight to 12. The house itself acts as the narrator, bragging all about its special features (look for dolphins under the staircase and dragons in the great hall).
Ca d’Zan (Sarasota, Florida)
Like an Italian palazzo on a Venetian canal, the 36,000 square-foot stucco and terra cotta Ca d’Zan, once home to John and Mabel Ringling, the circus king and his wife, overlooks Sarasota Bay.
Completed in 1926, Ca d’Zan fell into disrepair after John Ringling’s death in 1936, so much so that it was used as the location for Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion in the 1996 film Great Expectations. But it underwent a $15 million renovation, completed in 2002.
The estate grounds are also home to the Museum of Art and the Ringling Museum of the American Circus (note that admission to Ca d’Zan is separate). Check out Thursday night Art-Making in the Visitor’s Pavilion, ROAR! (Ringling Order of Art Readers) storytimes for toddlers and preschoolers in the Education Center, and Stroller Tours, one-hour interactive tours for infants and caregivers, at the Museum of Art.
Stop by the David F. Bolger Playspace, a playground complete with hand-powered fountains. At the Circus Museum, kids can practice walking a wire and learn clown makeup artistry or play “I Spy” at the world’s largest circus model.
There’s no denying the grandeur of this hilltop estate, a four-hour drive south from San Francisco. With 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, this “Enchanted Hill” retreat was the vision of William Randolph Hearst, the name behind Hearst Magazines and a media tycoon who, at one time, owned more than two dozen newspapers nationwide.
Older kids may enjoy playing “I Spy” with a junior ranger activity book, available at any ticket window or from the Visitor Services Office. Keep in mind that strollers are not permitted at Hearst Castle due to the number of stairs and terraces, but child-carrier backpacks and front-packs are allowed. The Visitor Services Office even has these available on loan for no additional charge on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Lilly House (Indianapolis, Indiana)
This 22-room Indianapolis mansion, part of Newfields, a Place for Nature and the Arts, was once home to J. K. Lilly Jr., a businessman, collector, and philanthropist whose grandfather, Colonel Eli Lilly, founded the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company in 1876 in the city.
Wander the Ravine and Formal Gardens on this 26-acre estate, then check out the “sensitive” Mimosa plant, whose leaves curl when touched, at the Greenhouse. During the summer, grab a glass of Riesling and a soft pretzel at the Beer Garden before heading over the Waller Bridge to the Virginia Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, which encompasses 100 acres adjacent to the Lilly House.
On 46 acres, this French Renaissance-style château was the home of the late Henry Pittock, owner of The Oregonian newspaper, and his wife, Georgiana. Along with eight family members, they moved into their mansion in 1914. The last family members moved out of the estate in 1958, and the mansion fell into disrepair until Portlanders launched a grassroots campaign to save it.
The City of Portland purchased it in 1964, repaired it, and opened it to the public in 1965. Children under six are admitted free, and they can check out hands-on features of the permanent exhibit, like vintage stereoscopes, a popular home entertainment in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In March, the Pittock Mansion hosts “Day Camp for Kids: Life in 1914,” where children ages eight to 12 can experience what life was like 100 years ago through hands-on activities.
Reynolda House (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
Who wouldn’t want to splash in a mansion’s historic indoor swimming pool? That’s exactly what kids attending Summer Adventure camps at the Reynolda House can do.
This former home of Richard Joshua Reynolds, founder of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, is now a 33,619-square-foot American art museum with a collection including works by Georgia O’Keefe and Grant Wood. Each summer, it welcomes around 200 students to attend art and creative writing day camps.
When Reynolds moved his family into the mansion in 1917, the estate, which totals more than 1,000 acres, also included a nearby village for farm supervisors, workers, and their families. Known today as Reynolda Village, it is full of restaurants and shops – a short walk from the Reynolda House and a perfect place to grab lunch during your visit.
In addition to hosting summer camps, the Reynolda House presents Reynolda Read-Aloud storytimes on select dates and, for preschoolers and their caregivers, Mornings at the Museum, which encourages kids to explore Reynolda through hands-on activities.
What was once the 19th-century country home of Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb is now a three-season inn and restaurant on the 1,400-acre Shelburne Farms – a working farm, forest, and National Historic Landmark.
Swim in nearby Lake Champlain and, from mid-May through mid-October, visit the Farmyard, where kids can milk a cow, watch the Chicken Parade, collect eggs, and check out the Miniature Sicilian Donkeys.
Each fall, Shelburne Farms hosts an annual Harvest Festival with children’s activities, music, and horse-drawn hayrides, and the McClure Education Center also presents craft workshops for kids. Shelburne Farms boasts more than 10 miles of walking trails, which are open year-round, weather permitting.
From April through December, this former estate of F. A. Seiberling, co-founder of The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, welcomes the public to tour its 65-room 1915 Tudor Revival Manor House and 70-acre landscape.
“We’re a very family friendly historic house museum and garden, and on any given day, there’s plenty to do for children,” says Donna Spiegler, Communications Manager at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens. Children ages five and under are free and won’t want to miss the Playgarden (open through mid-October), a 5,000-square-foot, interactive outdoor play area with activities that represent aspects of the estate.
The Tudor Revival Playhouse, for instance, is inspired by the estate’s Carriage House and includes a spiral slide and marble chase. The Bowling Lawn represents the bowling alleys in the basement of the Seiberlings’ Manor House and on the lawn outside the West Terrace.
Kids can pick up Explorer Backpacks, filled with tools like binoculars and bug collectors to use for a day in the Playgarden. Or, they can explore the gardens and grounds by following clues on a Quest! to locate a hidden treasure box.
Vizcaya (Miami, Florida)
When the main house of this Biscayne Bay estate opened in 1916, the owner, James Deering, hosted a party complete with gondolas and cannons. Deering, a bachelor and retired millionaire whose doctors recommended sunshine and a warm climate to assuage his pernicious anemia, built Vizcaya as his subtropical vacation home. His family’s wealth came from a woolen mill, land investments in the western United States, and the Deering Harvester Company, a farm equipment manufacturer.
A nearby village, completed in 1922, supplied the house with everything from fresh flowers and fruit to milk and eggs. The house is now a museum with 34 decorated rooms showcasing more than 2,500 art objects and furnishings and draws more than 200,000 visitors each year.
Children can listen to the 1917 Welte Philharmonic Pipe Organ on weekdays from 4-4:30 p.m., look for iguanas and butterflies in the formal gardens and rockland hammock, navigate the Maze Garden, or look for the “monsters” decorating the swimming pool.
Winterthur (Winterthur, Delaware)
Pronounced “winter-tour,” this 175-room childhood home of collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) is now a museum of American Decorative Arts with a 60-acre naturalistic garden.
Pick up an Activity Backpack and visit the Tulip Tree House and the Faerie Cottage in the Enchanted Woods, a magical children’s garden set on three acres of the Winterthur Garden. In the Touch-It Room, a playspace designed with a colonial-era kitchen, a 1750s parlor, and an 1830s general store, kids of all ages can learn about early American life through playing with tea sets, kitchenware, clothes, and toys.
For preschoolers, Winterthur also offers Wee Ones at Winterthur once a week (March through November), which includes storytime, a visit to the galleries, and a craft. For toddlers, Squeaky Wheels introduces toddlers and their caregivers to the estate with strolls through the galleries and into the garden. Don’t miss Truck and Tractor Day, a fall highlight.