The Memphis International Airport is quite a unique, interesting hub for our tri-state area (Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi). It borders the headquarters of the “American multinational courier delivery services company,” FedEx! So you know there is activity at, near, on, and around the airport all the time. But did you know that parking at the airport for the first 30 minutes is FREE!? And, did you know that you can not only enjoy watching airplane activity for free at the airport, but there are at least eleven (11) more free (or very inexpensive) activities at your local airport, too!? Let us guide you through your airport exploration. (See this video here.)
Our son has enjoyed walking around inside the airport since he was big enough to walk on his own. We used to take him riding by the airport when he was a baby, and when he got big enough to point, we began taking him there just to let him walk around and take in all the lights, movement, activity of the steady stream of comers and goers.
As he got older, our airport got “younger” and underwent major upgrades. His interests expanded and we began exploring other adventures at the newly renovated exterior, interior and premises.
Here are 12 exciting ways we STILL regularly engage in and enjoy when visiting our Memphis International Airport.
1. Plane Spotting
This never gets old! I remember looking forward to going to the airport when I was little, just to see the airplanes land and take off. Back then we could walk up and down the entire airport, venture into every corner, sit for hours inside the terminals up-close and personal with arriving and departing passengers and planes. NOW, we’re lucky to find a spot upstairs in the main lobby to look out and see planes land. The entire landing view is no longer visible from the few available window spots with all the legal restraints, but there are still a few fun indoor, upstairs places to stand and explore airplane activity.
2. Car Spotting
When you have a child that’s been fascinated with the Porsche 911 Carerra GT since the Disney movie “Cars” was released back in 2006, then ANY and EVERY chance you get to “spot Porsche’s” is capitalized and optimized, each and every time. Though we often find a cozy, upstairs window for plane spotting, there’s a great window location for “Porsche spotting,” too. How many Porsche’s have we located from those upstair window spots!? Hundreds! If not Porsche’s, we would count the number or red or black vehicles we could find. We also play "I Spy" from time to time. Car spotting never gets old either! :)
3. Cellphone Lot
I’m fairly new to “cellphone lots,” but it’s my understanding that these lots are available for people to park for free (and use their cellphones) while waiting for their passengers’ arrival. Its intent is to minimize congestion in the main pick-up/drop-off entrances/exits. We drove into the cellphone lot the other day and found BEAUTIFUL scenery and wonderful spots to take great, lasting photos of the airport, the control tower (pictured), landscape photos, airplanes, and the surrounding area.
4. Moving Sidewalks
This never gets old either! I don’t know if your airport has these, but the Memphis Int’l Airport’s upgrades included outdoor covered moving sidewalks that connect the main airport to the newly-built 7-story car rental hub. Not only are these moving walkways tons of fun to walk, stroll, glide, even moonwalk on, but they are bordered by beautiful plants, flowers, trees, and three unique water fountains (pictured below)! It's covered by interesting architectural, white, upside-down, umbrella-shaped structures that create slightly cooler temperatures and beautiful shades and shadows as we walk between buildings. They also encourage great outdoor adventures in early evening hours in spring and fall. Just calm, relaxed sauntering with the family... ahhhh. (Check out one of our favorite & fun "Dilly Days" called "World Sauntering Day" here.)
5. Scenery and Greenery
Trees and greenery literally blanket the city and surrounding areas of Memphis, Tennessee. I mentioned in our “Item of the Week” post on “twigs” (see here) that sometimes when visiting larger “concrete jungle” cities like Manhattan, New York, one can easily forget just how green southern cities truly are. Greenery at the International Airport is no exception. Memphis’ airport is charmingly landscaped to include wonderful trees, gorgeous green grass, and lovely flowers that border the moving sidewalks. They are exceptionally breathtaking during spring season as the flowers are just budding and the new trees' leaves are just sprouting. It’s a nice, easy way to get in touch with nature (if you visit during the hours between rush time). You should definitely saunter here, too.
Of course, enjoying a treat from Starbucks is far from free, but it’s one of the few restaurants available to non-ticket-holding patrons of the airport, located in the main/general lobby. Who doesn’t love at least SOMETHING from Starbucks every now and then? We’ve enjoyed the personal-sized bags of delicious, lightly seasoned popcorn many times (for us non-coffee drinkers). Starbucks offers a quick, quaint, cozy “rest stop” after you’ve explored the fascinating outdoor shrubbery and enjoyable moving sidewalk.
7. Airport Departments
This is a great exercise for younger (or first-timers) to engage in. Our son enjoyed navigating and directing us from one “department” to the other, unknowingly becoming familiar with vocabulary, map-reading, and environment awareness. We’d find the check-in desks between lobbies, find specific airline terminal entrances, and baggage claim. We also practiced our cardinal directions inside and outside the airport, just for fun (so he thought). He really enjoyed finding the “You Are Here” maps in various corridors...actually he STILL enjoys this!
8. Elevators and Escalators
This child of ours thoroughly enjoys riding elevators and escalators (i.e. modes of transportation for him). Our airport seems to have customer elevators in some of the strangest, least expected locations. Some elevators only allow patrons to exit on certain floors, so we never know where we’ll end up sometimes. It’s always enjoyable watching him figure out where we are and how to get back to the main lobby. He’s pretty good with maps and navigations (thank God, because I’m “map-matically challenged,” as my family often calls me, though I don't think I’m THAT bad).
Who knew!? Yes, there are miniature exhibits throughout the airport, several being in the “free” areas for waiting passengers or visitors to explore. There’s one in Memphis’ airport called “Martin’s Last Flights,” documenting the last flights of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before his assassination; another one on “Memphis Aviation History,” and there’s a display of Memphis' Blues and Rock n' Roll music history (all pictured below). I’m also told that there are SEVERAL really nice exhibits in the “off limits” area down the sacred terminal corridors solely for actual flight passengers. These small-scale exhibits make great, quick educational snippets during a fun impromptu adventure.
10. Architecture Observations
Like most locations that I’ve talked about and shared lately, there seems to be a consistency in the presence of wonderful architecture in many local facilities, including the Memphis International Airport. I shared the beautiful designs within the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Public Library (here), and the beautiful statues standing to greet visitors at the downtown Memphis Welcome Center (here). The airport has many uniquely designed structures that are worth viewing, selfie-ing, and enjoying. The control tower (pictured above at #3) is tall and visibly prevalent from miles away; concrete outdoor seats shaped like Lincoln Logs (remember those, anyone…?) line the moving sidewalks; and outdoor concrete benches are beautifully engraved with the Memphis Airport “note symbol” logo on their sides (pictured below). There is a lot to simply observe and take-in architecturally. You could easily make a fun academic activity just from architectural observations!
11. Gift Shop
You’re not obligated to purchase anything while you’re visiting, but like most gift shops, they are designed to be inviting. The lighting is always captivating and strategically aimed at certain magazine stands or products. The shelves are stocked with any necessities you may have forgotten or lost and really need for your next flight out or in-town stay. There are plenty of tempting, tasty snacks pleading for their consumption. And the toys section is always just the right height for kids to be suctioned into their viewing area. The gift shop, like the Starbucks mentioned earlier, is just the right size to feel cozy, it's perfectly lit to feel warm, and just rightly placed to get you to walk in and stay a while. No purchase necessary. :)
12. Educational Activities and Opportunities
There are MANY ways to turn trips to the airport into class assignments or activities. It only requires a bit of imagination. For instance, if you’re studying science, your purpose for visiting the airport this time could be to identify 5 different flowers on the premises; or for history you could read the history of Memphis Aviation; and for art you could take a photo of something nice and draw and color it when you get back home. Or, you could offer a challenge for the more competitive students, like see how much you all can accomplish on the clock in 30 minutes or less - “FREE ZONE” (since, at the Memphis airport, parking for the first 30 minutes is free, and $2.00 for the next hour after).
Easy as pie! Lucky for us, the Memphis International Airport is not very big, and thus the directions for getting in and out of the airport are minimal (especially compared to major airports like LAX in Los Angeles, CA). Lucky for me/us, our enter/exit lanes are clear (enough) defined for even ME (Map-Matically Challenged Momma) to follow. Thus we are able to visit often and make wonderful home school memories together.
Be inspired to check out your local airport, whether you live in Memphis, Tennessee or Chicago, Illinois. We've yet to visit an out-of-country airport, so if you've experienced an airport in another country, please share your experiences below in the comments section! Be sure to tell us what you think about your airport and how you’ve explored more than just plane spotting. How often do you visit? What architecture and exhibits are available there? What do you and the kids enjoy most about your airport?
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"I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination."