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07/02/2002 - Updated 04:10 PM ET

Once upon a time…on a family vacation

Imagine the thrill for your children — or you — of visiting a Willy Wonka-like chocolate factory, parading with the Pied Piper or having tea like Eloise did at New York's Plaza Hotel.

With July 4 and family vacation season upon us, here's a vacation idea that sounds like a fantasy: visit the setting of a family favorite children's story.

The authors of two new books offer guidance in fulfilling these childhood dreams. "Using the topic of a children's book is a good way to focus a trip," says Melanie Wentz, author of Once Upon A Time In Great Britain (St. Martin's Press, 266 pages), which will be released in August. During her husband's year-long fellowship in Scotland, Wentz planned vacations the couple and their 4-year-old would enjoy.

"There's a million things to do in Great Britain and this was fun for all of us. Our daughter would get so excited," she says, adding that she hopes people will use her book to "get off the beaten path."

Colleen Dunn Bates, who wrote Storybook Travels (Three Rivers Press, 266 pages) with Susan LaTempa, got the idea for their book when a family vacation dragging unhappy kids around Paris suddenly became something special.

The family was walking over the the Pont Neuf Bridge when 5-year-old Emily suddenly exclaimed, "This is the where Madeline fell off!"

"Until that revelatory moment, Paris had seemed overwhelming to Emily. But after connecting with Madeline's Paris she began to see it on her scale. Her homesickness receded and her excitement bubbled over," Bates says.

Recommended travels

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl: Visit Cadbury World in Birmingham, UK, (0121) 451-4180.

Eloise by Kay Thompson: The Plaza Hotel in New York City, (212) 759-3000.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: Visit Alcott's home in Concord, Mass., www.louisamayalcott.org.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: Visit the garden at Great Maytham Hall, Rolvenden, UK, (01580) 24136

All three authors conducted years of kid-tested research on where to go and what to see. They visited places that inspired beloved children's literature such as Paddington Station in London (A Bear Called Paddington) and Belmont Park (setting for The Black Stallion), as well as some of the modern sites dedicated to the writers or their famous characters.

Wentz includes information on related activities or locations. For instance, she directs readers to the Edinburgh café where J.K. Rowling wrote portions of the Harry Potter books. The authors of both books also give a sense of what the adult experience is like at each site.

"If you don't have kids you might very well go to some of these places because you read it as a child or someone read it to you," LaTempa says.

In fact, I was practically giddy when I reached the chapter in Storybook Travels on Beverly Cleary's character Ramona Quimby. One of my favorite books as a child was Ramona Quimby, Age 8. I hadn't thought about Ramona in almost 20 years, but just reading about the Portland, Ore., neighborhood that the books are set in brought an old friend back to me.

Each author told me about a destination that created lasting memories for her and her family:

Little House on the Prairie, De Smet, S.D.

"I wasn't expecting a whole lot and went more as an obligation, but we had such a fabulous time," Bates recalls of her trip to "the middle of nowhere."

Plan a storybook travel

The authors of Storybook Travels have some advice for ensuring a smooth and enjoyable vacation to the setting of a fantasy tale:

1. Less is more than enough. Limit yourself to one big outing a day with young children, maybe two with older kids.

2. Have a focus. When you set out with a mission that kids can get behind, everybody's likely to end up satisfied at the end of the day.

3. Give kids a voice. For little kids, letting them decide between whether you'll take the bus or the subway is plenty. Older kids can take a much more active role in planning and executing a trip.

4. Keep some semblance of routine. If your little one always has a nap after lunch, find a way to make that happen, even if it's a nap in the car while you drive.

5. Encourage record-keeping. Equip each child with a journal, a pen, and a glue stick, and set aside a little time every day for the journals.

Bates and her family fell in love with the Ingalls Homestead, the original family farm with added 19th century buildings and an exact replica of Laura's house. The homestead's interactive experience allowed them to feel as if they had traveled back in time.

"Who knew how much fun it would be to immerse ourselves in prairie life," she says.

There are two old white clapboard houses on the property, one of which holds "classes" given by a local music teacher and history buff. Visiting children can dress up in period clothes and sit behind 120-year-old desks. The teacher assigns the children the names of the Ingalls children: Laura, Mary, Carrie, Grace and cousin Jean.

Children are free to run through the prairie grass, ride a horse, learn to make rope, climb into the barn loft and sit on old covered wagons.

In the town of De Smet, a mile away, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society runs tours of various houses where the family lived during their first year in the area and when Pa Ingalls built a home there in 1887.

Bates says the town is filled with Ingalls and Wilder connections: the Loftus store, mentioned by Laura in the books; the cemetery where Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Grace are buried; and various streets named after the family.

If you go: Ingalls Homestead, Homestead Road, 1 mile south of De Smet, (800) 776-3594, open Memorial Day to Labor Day; Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, (800) 880-3383, www.liwms.com

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Hamelin, Germany

LaTempa's favorite storybook travel took place in Hamelin, Germany. The city is the fictional home of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the subject of the dark 1888 poem by Robert Browning. In the story, the Pied Piper rids the medieval town of rats, but after not being paid, leads the local children into a mountain cavern that closes behind them.

Throughout the summer, actors perform a weekly retelling of the Pied Piper, with children parading around in rat costumes.

A perfectly preserved medieval town center, Hamelin was the perfect place for LaTempa's daughter to learn about the historical events surrounding the children's tale. "We got such a sense of Europe that we won't have had without the storybook context," she says.

La Tempa and daughter happily discovered that Hamelin also has terrific ice cream. One café serves "spaghetti" made of vanilla ice cream noodles topped with strawberry syrup and ground nuts that look like cheese. If the Pied Piper doesn't capture the imagination, no doubt that ice cream will.

If you go: Hamelin Tourist Information Office, (049) 051 51 202617, www.hamelin.de/touristinfo

Winnie The Pooh, East Sussex, UK

Wentz says visiting the forest where Christopher Milne's fictional Winnie The Pooh lived and played was one of her favorite experiences. "It's easy to do if you rent a car. The area is very natural and has not changed," she says, since Milne bought his weekend home here, south of London, in 1925.

She and her daughter played on the Poohsticks Bridge. "The bridge and the stream are a delightful scene straight out of the Pooh stories. The forest's information center provides maps for "Pooh walks" taking visitors to the bridge, the Enchanted Place and Lone Pine, all places where Christopher Robin, Pooh and friends played.

Wentz also took her daughter to a number of Pooh and Milne-related sites in London, including London Zoo, where a Canadian soldier left his pet bear cub, Winnie, when he was fighting in France during World War I. A young Christopher Milne adored the bear and later, the character of Winnie The Pooh was born

If you go: Ashdown Forest, Wych Cross, UK, Ashdown Forest Centre, (01342) 823-583; London Zoo, Regent's Park, London, (207) 722-3333, www.londonzoo.co.uk

Kathy McCabe is the assistant editor of USATODAY.com Travel. Click here to read her previous columns. Do you have a travel question you need answered? E-mail her at travel@usatoday.com. An answer to your question may appear in a future column.