Tuesday, April 21, 2009

J. I. Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium

When visiting my family in Indianapolis during the twins' spring break, my sister and I took them to Butler University's Observatory and Planetarium, which is open to the public. This is a highly unusual place- most observatories (college ones in particular) are exclusive. However, when Mr. and Mrs. James I. Holcomb donated money to Butler for the building in the 1950s, the primary condition was that it available to everyone. I think after over 50 years, the staff is a little tired of letting "the great unwashed" in, but they do it regardless.

The telescope is open to the public Friday and Saturday nights- check the website for tour times. The planetarium show and tour is $3 for adults and $2 for kids (we paid $7 as a family), kids under 4 are free. Private tours and shows from groups of 15 or more can be arranged ahead of time ($50 minimum). Currently they are running a show on the moons of Jupiter, which was a little disappointing since it was little more than a powerpoint. I like my planetarium shows to be more about stars and constellations, but I suppose they are trying to provide variety for the regular visitors.

Telescope viewing is always free, but they won't open the 28-foot dome if there's even a chance of rain. As a 38-inch Cassegrain reflector (mirror) telescope- the largest in the state, it is extremely vulnerable to moisture. There are also several smaller and more modern telescopes riding "piggy-back." The whole thing is mounted on four steel beams that go all the way to the ground and held up by a concrete floor 2 feet thick to minimize vibrations.

The building itself is beautifully designed and decorated with a multi-color marble floor inlaid compass and zodiac design. Symbols for the planets and the sun are wrought into the stair rails that wind around in a rectangular spiral up to the telescope dome. (I don't think it is handicap/stroller accessible) Poster sized images of celestial objects around the lobby and up the stairs provide interesting facts.

This was one of my favorite places to visit as a kid, and I think for the price- it can't be beat!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Children's Museum in Indianapolis, Part 2

This is going to be a picture overload, for Mike's benefit.
On the top floor there is a mirror maze and a historic carousel. The ride used to reside in Broadripple Park, near where my dad grew up, and he remembers fighting to get on the tiger. After many years, it began to suffer damage from exposure, and it was put in storage after a collapse. Several years later, it was restored and placed in the Children's Museum, and I, too, remember riding it my whole life. It gives our family a thrill to ride it now with my little ones. Members ride for free, non-members have to buy tokens for about $1 a piece.
Outside the carousel is a large play area complete with a tree house and an ice cream shop.
"Sorry, we're out of chocolate ice cream and root beer."
On the other side of the top floor is the ScienceWorks. Here there is a hands-on watershed area for kids to experience how a river flows and changes, a mini construction site, and several areas dedicated to Indiana wildlife.
Between the two they had an area set up with stacking types games. The boys played Jenga and got to nearly 40 levels (with a little help from their engineer mom). The staff lady said we broke the record.

One level down is a Playscape for preschoolers. It has a water-flow table, sandbox, and a play farm and construction site. One of my favorite features is the infant playground- a large padded area with a knee-high wall and lots of things for them to explore- balls of varying shape, size, and texture, light switches, buttons, drawers, doors that open or slide, and blocks. Next to it is a padded mini obstacle course for your little crawler. They also have story readings every 30 min or so. Age is strictly limited to kids under 5- not even older siblings are allowed in, and strollers must be parked just inside the door. On crowded days the area is often full to the point that they turn people away.
On the bottom floor/basement is the planetarium and the Lilly Theater. A winding "What if..?" exhibit begins with ocean exploration, which leads into an (old) dinosaur area, which leads into an Egyptian exhibit with a real mummy. Nicholas also gets his train fix down here with the Reuben Wells, a steam engine pusher with a toolcar. This was another one of my favorites as a kid. A train platform and station next to it holds a collection of antique toy trains, the mandatory Thomas playset, and a couple train models, one which shows how the Reuben Wells used to do its work. Every half-hour the train has a light and sound event to make it seem as if the train is steaming away. The kids get a huge thrill out of it. Or maybe it's just me.

If you end up visiting, what you can't miss upon arriving is the Dinosphere. And when I say you can't miss it, I mean you can't fail to notice several dinosaurs made to look like they are crashing out of the side of the building as you drive up the street. Great photo op for the family. Inside the Dinosphere itself, you could spend an entire day. The coolest feature in my opinion is the dinosaur dig, where kids can pretend they are doing the real thing. What makes it so cool? The "dirt" is actually pretty solid, and they recover it every few months, so it's not just a big sandbox- it's dynamic and kids get a better sense of how difficult it really is to recover dinosaur bones.

And that's really only about 2/3 of what they have there- not to mention the huge expansion under construction and a large area they creating a new permanent display in. See? Told you I was spoiled.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, part 1

I grew up totally spoiled. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the largest children’s museum in the world, so it has been the standard I've always compare others to, and it's really not fair to them. When we visit my parents, it’s usually the highlight of our stay.
Admission is steep, so if you plan it visit more than once, a year’s pass is worth the money. There are group rates and various discounts you will want to check in to. You can buy tickets online, which I recommend because the line is always long. Better to skip straight to the will-call window. I’d avoid the “free” days, and also weekdays that school is out (MLK, Presidents' Day, etc)- those days are madhouses. Members have extended hours one Saturday and month, and Target sponsors free extended evening hours one Thursday a month. If you arrive and the garage is full (all parking is free), I suggest postponing your visit if you are directed to a 3rd tier (or more) satellite lot- it will be too crowded to be worthwhile. Right now they are building another addition, so the skywalk from the parking garage is closed and pedestrians have to cross a five lane road. They have traffic guards, but as you can imagine, this snarls up the area pretty badly during peak arrival hours.

And by the way, if you are an out-of-towner, be make sure you study the roads into and out of the area, because the museum is in the heart of some, um, unsavory neighborhoods. The last thing you want is to make a wrong turn and end up lost. The museum area itself is clean and well policed, but two blocks out and you are entering unsafe territory.

Check the website for info on rotating exhibits. Right now they are running an X-Men thing and a Lego castle exploration area. The planetarium is currently running a “Worlds of Star Wars” show to complement a visiting Clone Wars exhibit. Get your free tickets online or bright and early, we have never managed to get there early enough.

There’s no food or drinks allowed in the museum, but there is a cafeteria with pizza, burgers, deli sandwiches, and sugary goodies. Prices are fairly reasonable, but you can bring your own food and eat in the Sack Lunch Room on the second floor behind the water-clock. It can be full of school kids on field trips, so you may have to use it off peak hours, but we often see other large families brown-bagging it. Bring your own drinks- there are price-gouging vending machines available if you are desperate.

Since the place is so big, I’ll start with the rotating exhibits.

LEGO Castle Adventure
As to be expected, there are lots of legos to play with- ranging from foamy big blocks, to duplos, to the conventional ones which have 6 tables so there’s plenty of elbow room.

There’s also a handful of castles built after real ones in Europe. You can either walk around them or rotate them on a pedestal to get a 360 view.

There are areas to read or dress up and joust, and also a video catapult game where you try to knock down a castle wall. I think the kids could have stayed in there all day.

STAR WARS: The Clone Wars

This was a bit disappointing. It’s all in the basement corner near the planetarium, and consists mainly of a few costumes and movie props and conceptual drawings. Maybe with the planetarium show it would have been better. Kids were falling all over themselves to stand next to the life-size cut-outs for pictures, though.
In the main entrance they have Obi-Wan’s star fighter displayed- since you can’t get to it, I think it’s the real one from the movie.

We didn’t do the X-men thing, so a brief word on their water clock, which stands in the main entrance. It’s one of the largest in the world, and runs on gravity, physics, and a single pump to get water to the top. The area around it gathers a crowd at the top of every hour so people can watch the minutes drain out. The best time to see it is at 1pm when both hours and minutes drain, and they have an interactive info session on how the clock works.

Tune in later for more on The Children’s Museum!