Why Scottsdale Is a Hidden Gem for Families

When you think of Scottsdale, you might think of spring training, golf and spa weekends, art galleries and shopping. While all those things are part of the fun in this charming Arizona city, there’s a world of adventure waiting for families too. From the stunning mountain views (and miles of hiking trails) to the historic Old Town and the aquarium, Scottsdale has plenty to offer you and your crew. We spent a few days finding the best spots to visit and places to stay, so keep reading for our guide to exploring Scottsdale with kids.


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Visit the Arizona Boardwalk  

Home to Butterfly Wonderland and OdySea Aquarium, plus a dinosaur exhibit, a selfie museum, indoor playgrounds and even a mirror maze, it’s easy to spend a whole day here.

Pro tip: buy your OdySea Aquarium and Butterfly Wonderland tickets together to save a few bucks. You can exit and reenter throughout the day if you need to leave to grab a bite to eat.

Gabby Cullen

Butterfly Wonderland

One of the biggest butterfly conservatories in North America, you’ll be welcomed by birds, collections of unique butterflies and walls filled with artwork. Walk into the emergence room, where you’ll observe live chrysalis turning into butterflies. Once you enter the butterfly habitat, watch over 70 species fly amongst the trees, flowers and Koi pond. Wander around as the butterflies move through the warm sun and see if you can spot the two chickens who call the space home. On the way out, wander through the other exhibits—you’ll observe rainforest reptiles, see a honey bee extravaganza and a horn shark tank. 

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Gabby Cullen

OdySea Aquarium

You’ll enter Arizona’s biggest aquarium via The Rivers of the World, which displays the flora and fauna that thrive in freshwater rivers all over the world. You’ll also be able to see American Alligators, the Macaws, Toucans and a two-toed sloth. Kids can stroke a stingray at Stingray Shore, explore a tide pool and watch penguins play at Penguin Point. For your tiniest ocean explorers, there’s a water table near the cafe with doors and panels used to re-direct water over and over again.

When you’re ready to go below the water’s surface, take an escalator down into the depths of the ocean and watch sea turtles, leopard sharks and other deep-sea fish swim in an immense saltwater habitat. When you hit the ocean floor, explore the Bizzare & Beautiful exhibit, where you’ll find a giant octopus, a crab and kelp forest, a lobster tank and other unique species.

The Reef Jewels exhibit (home of the Great Barrier Reef tunnel)  has the most colorful residents, and our favorite gallery is the OdySea Voyager. You’ll board the “OdySea” submarine and be transported through a series of tanks while learning about the sea turtles, stingrays, sharks and the California Sea Lions that live in the aquarium. 

Find out more. 

Gabby Cullen

Visit the Desert Botanical Garden

There are over 50,000 desert plants in this botanical garden. After you’ve admired the famous Saguaro cacti and walked the wildflower trail loop (be on the lookout for three different types of hummingbirds) head for the Habitats of the Sonoran Desert. Follow the trail through five unique desert environments, which include models of Apache and Akimel O’odham households, Mesquite corrals, a Chaparral habitat and more. For families with kids ages 12 and under, the jewel of the garden is the Cactus Clubhouse, where visitors can enjoy the 8,000 square foot outdoor space filled with unstructured play materials like wood blocks, mud kitchens, balance beams and more.

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Take a horse ride at MacDonald’s Ranch

Located just outside of town, visit the petting zoo, enjoy hayrides, take a horseback ride at sunset and enjoy other classic Western activities.

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Gabby Cullen

Hang in McCormick Stillman Railroad Park

This charming park is all about families. Take a kiddie train ride, play on two playgrounds, walk through a Pullman car that carried US Presidents through the country while in office. Spin around on the carousel that plays Disney songs, and find Choo Choo Charlie so he can give you a fortune. A highlight of the park is the model train building, where kids of all ages will be wowed by the incredible miniature train layouts. Spend hours watching the engines pull the train cars, look for the playground, the ballpark, whole miniature versions of cities and even a Wizard of Oz LEGOscape. 

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Explore Old Town Scottsdale

There’s plenty to do in Old Town! Ride the trolley for free, look for the outdoor art installations, admire the Old West historic buildings, shop in Old Town Candy & Toys and grab a bite at Hula’s Modern Tiki. You can walk to the restaurant from anywhere in Old Town, it’s casual, and the menu is impressive. Kids will love the crispy fish bites and mac and cheese, and you’ll enjoy the Hawaiian ceviche and shrimp tacos. If you’re in the mood for a cocktail, order the Hula’s Mai Tai. For dessert, a stop at The Sugar Bowl is a must. Open since 1958, if there’s a more classic diner still serving up American fare like tuna melts, grilled cheese, hamburgers, and turkey sandwiches, we haven’t found it. Get a sundae at the authentic soda fountain and play games in the arcade room. 

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Go Hiking in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

There are over 30,000 acres to explore in this preserve, so it’s hard to know which trail is best for families. We recommend the Gateway Trail Loop for families with older kids; it’s a 4.5-mile loop with moderate elevation and plenty of wildlife. For younger kids, try the Kovach Family Nature Trail, located off the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead. There are signs to help little ones engage with parents in nature, and it’s ADA accessible, making it ideal for wheelchairs and strollers.

Find out more. 

Eat

Gabby Cullen

There are over 800 restaurants in Scottsdale, so whatever you’re craving, you’ll probably be able to find it. Offering an open floor plan, community tables and great food, Campo Italian Bistro & Bar is one of our favorites. The pickled veggies and roasted beet salad are wonderful starters. The Spaghetti Cacio de Pepe is perfection, and the kids will love the wood-fired pizza, house-made pickles and Stracchino cheese. If you’re able to sneak away for an adults-only dinner or if you have older kids, don’t leave Scottsdale without eating at The Mission. Located in Old Town, chef Matt Carter has been pleasing diners with his modern Latin cuisine since 2008. The grilled street corn appetizer is delicious, as is the white bean puree. Vegetarians will be thrilled with the butternut squash tacos, and don’t miss the opportunity to have one of their famous margaritas. Mowry & Cotton is also a wonderful dining experience. Located at the Phoenician, you can eat here even if you aren’t staying at the resort. There is indoor and outdoor dining, and the menu is family friendly, with both upscale menu items like butternut squash soup and miso-glazed halibut and kid-approved fare like cheese flatbread, grilled chicken and chicken and waffles.

Stay

courtesy Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

There’s a reason that families flock to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. This hotel has huge rooms, pools and restaurants around every corner and loads of activities to keep the kids busy and the parents relaxed. You can make s’mores, pan for gold, play dodgeball and take nature walks around the property.

Perhaps the best kid feature at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is their Trailblazers Recreation Center. They offer a drop-off kids club daily from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. for kids from 5-12. It is free until 11:30 a.m. for hotel guests, and kids who stay until 1 p.m. receive lunch for a $15 fee.

Head here in the afternoon to ride on the virtual reality game (ages seven and up), play a game of ping pong or meet the resident bearded dragon named Skittles. Trailblazers is also a great spot to grab pool floaties and goggles. Join in special events like catch-and-release fishing derbies for an additional fee.

Find out more. 

The Phoenician

As you approach this AAA Five Diamond hotel, you’ll feel the power of Camelback Mountain. Nestled at the base of the mountain, and surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, the hotel is luxurious without feeling fussy, and families feel at home here. Several pools span different tiers, and there’s one area just for kids, complete with a splash pad, playground and even a 197 ft. twisting waterslide. The rooms are generous, with beautiful views of the pools, and there’s an impressive game room with arcade games, pool tables and shuffleboard. If that’s not enough entertainment, be sure to check out the dozens of activities that take place throughout the year, like family candy bingo, donut decorating, outdoor games and crafts. 

While it’s not open at this time, when it does re-open, you can check your kids into the Funician club. For kids ages 5-12, there’s a fish tank, board games, a bearded dragon, a full-sized LEGO wall and hours of activities for all-day fun. 

Find out more.

The Details

Gabby Cullen

Just a short drive from the Phoenix airport, Scottsdale offers a great balance of activities and opportunities to relax. For more information on what to do when you visit, check out the Experience Scottsdale website.

Experience Scottsdale
Onlineexperiencescottsdale.com

 

—Gabby Cullen with Kate Loweth

Photos by Gabby Cullen unless otherwise noted.

This trip was paid for by Experience Scottsdale, but all the opinions belong to the writer. 

 

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