Image: LAX observation deck
Los Angeles World Airports
The observation deck on top of the landmark LAX space-age Theme Building is open weekends from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Image:
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/29/2010 10:08:27 AM ET 2010-07-29T14:08:27

Excited about your summer vacation but dreading the part of the trip where you rush to the airport, wait in line, have your stuff pawed through and then end up just hanging around? There’s no need to sit by the gate and twiddle your thumbs, especially if you find yourself at one of the many airports offering fresh new amenities or special summer programs. Here’s a roundup of what’s in store:

What’s new?
Just in time for summer, Philadelphia International Airport announced that wireless Internet access, once free only on weekends, is now free all the time. The airport also opened a Passenger Chillin’ Zone with sofas, tables, chairs, ottomans and foliage (Gate D-3) and kicked off a summer-long Just Plane Fun program with live music, appearances by mascots from local sports teams, contests and other activities. You can see the daily events listing on the airport's website.

From now through the end of August, Miami International Airport is throwing weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) parties with a different theme each week. This weekend’s theme is Havana Nights and will include domino tables, mojitos, a DJ, rumba dancing and cigar rolling.

At Los Angeles International Airport, passengers are once again welcome to visit the outdoor observation deck on top of the space-age landmark Theme Building in the center of the airport. Closed since 9/11, and during the building’s $12.3 million renovation and earthquake retrofit, the viewing deck is now open weekends, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with free telescopes offering great views of arriving and departing aircraft, the airport grounds and the surrounding area.

Image: Willy Wonka Candy Machine
Outagamie County Regional Airport
It's an experience getting a snack from this machine at the Outagamie County Regional Airport (ATW) in Appleton, Wis.

Fans of Pink’s, an iconic Hollywood hot dog stand, are also celebrating the opening of a branch of this popular eatery in the pre-security food court at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. On the menu: a special LAX International Dog, chosen from among dozens of “recipes” submitted by airport employees.

The big attraction at Outagamie County Regional Airport in Appleton, Wis., this summer isn’t hot dogs, but candy. A giant purple machine with flashing lights is hard to ignore as it draws crowds and dispenses customized cups of brightly colored, mixed candy. Located pre-security, the Willy Wonka candy machine is one of 25 such machines in the country (there’s one at the Mall of America) and is currently the only one at an airport.

Passengers had so much fun at Vancouver International Airport during the 2010 Winter Games that officials decided to try to re-create what the airport authority’s Christopher Gilliland describes as “that magical and engaging experience.” So during Take-off Fridays this summer you’ll find a day-long festival in the Domestic Terminal complete with face painting, DJs spinning music, prize drawings, meal specials and free samples (look for the chocolate) from a variety of airport shops.

Fridays are also when San Francisco International Airport is presenting the summer season of the You are Hear live music series. Performances will take place each Friday through August 28 between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at three different stages in the airport. This week the lineup includes Quinteto Latino in the International Terminal, Lavay Smith & The Red Hot Skillet Lickers in the United hub and, in Terminal 1, Threeocracy. Click here for the full season schedule.

More airport amenities for you — and your pet
This summer you’ll also find new shops and restaurants opening at many airports. Healthy eaters will be pleased to find a branch of the quick-serve UFood Grill now open at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport. UFood also has outlets at Dallas-Fort Worth and Boston Logan airports, while General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee now has a new branch of the French Meadow Bakery, a Minneapolis chain offering vegan and organic fare. (French Meadow Bakery is also at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.)

Thanks to a new Department of Transportation rule, pets and their owners are getting new perks at airports in the form of safe, fenced, and, in many cases, nicely landscaped pet relief areas outside most every terminal . Dulles International Airport opened its outdoor pet parks last summer but recently added two indoor ones as well, with a third under construction.

Many airports also have fresh new art. Befitting its location in California’s Silicon Valley, the new Terminal B at Mineta San Jose International Airport is home to more than a dozen pieces of interactive, high-tech art, including a fish tank that watches you and a 26-foot-tall “Space Observer” with propellers on its arms and cameras in its antennae. New York’s Albany International Airport recently opened “The Imaged Word,” a six-month exhibition featuring the work of 11 regional artists that includes an 8-foot-tall arched column of books. And at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, where the lobby “forest” includes a walk-through giant Sequoia tree, finishing touches are being put on display cases to show off digital photographs from around the world sent in by passengers.

Do your homework
If your summer travels don’t take you to or through any of these airports, don’t worry. Airports everywhere seem to be beefing up creature comforts in hopes of making your time in the terminals as pleasant as can be. To take advantage of it all, check your airport’s website and follow the advice laid out in my Well-Mannered Traveler’s Guide to Summer Air Travel . That way, any time you spend stuck at the airport this summer can be entertaining and stress-free.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter .

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