Science Museums by Night

The Ferrys and the Milases have two words for those planning a winter getaway with friends or family: science museum.

That's right. Pack the sleeping bags, toothbrushes, a few snacks and head to a nearby science museum between your home and that of those you want to visit.

``I'd recommend the idea to anyone,'' said Beth Ferry from Rhode Island. Her family and the Milases, who live in Delaware, didn't just spend the day at the museum, though. The Ferry-Milas group spent the night there, too. They signed on with their children (four between them) for a weekend camp-in at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, located about halfway between their homes. A full array of special evening activities awaited them, from an IMAX movie to a sneak preview of an upcoming exhibit to the chance to watch the night sky through a giant telescope.

Shortly before midnight, the two families settled down in their sleeping bags together in assigned spots just outside the giant walk-through heart.

``The kids thought that was really cool,'' said Beth Ferry. The parents, meanwhile, had more fun than at a theme park, pleased that the children got a hands-on science lesson in the bargain.

``We learned a lot too. You forget how much you've forgotten about science,'' Ferry noted.

The cost probably was less than a hotel and amusements, too: $32 per person, including breakfast and museum and planetarium admission. As far as the Ferrys and the Milases were concerned, the weekend reunion was worth every dollar spent.

``You got an awful lot for your money,'' said Beth Ferry, adding the kids even got a kick out of brushing their teeth and changing clothes in the museum bathroom. ``Not everyone gets to sleep in a museum and do that,'' she explained.

Leigh Anne Fraley, who manages the program at the Franklin Institute, notes such camp-ins are growing in popularity at her museum and at others around the country for precisely that reason. ``Parents these days want to come to the museum and do things with their kids they can't do all the time,'' she explains.

At the same time, science museums are actively seeking new ways to entice more families in the door and keep them coming back. A camp-in works well for a family visiting a new city. Not only can you save on a night in the hotel and give everyone a change of scene, but over a late-night snack or breakfast, the kids can make friends with youngsters their age who live in that community. Whenever we've visited a science museum in another city or especially in another country, we've had as much fun talking with other families we met there as we have touring the exhibits. Maybe there's an opportunity for some new pen-pal relationships or e-mail exchanges. (Make sure to ask where to find the best playground in town or the best pizza.)

Among museums offering camp-ins around the country and abroad for families:
-- The Franklin Institute Science Museumin Philadelphia, Pa. Call 215-448-1200.

-- The National Museum of Science and Industry London, England where 5,000 people a year now participate, The cost is roughly 20 pounds. Call 0171-938-9772 or e-mail: science.nightnmsi.ac.uk.

-- The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Cost is $23 per person. Call 412-237-3400.

-- The National Aquarium in Baltimore. Consider the entertainment possibilities of dissecting a fish. Cost for non-members are $43 for adults and $38 for children. Call 410-576-3800.

-- The Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre and Science Center in San Diego, Calif. Cost is $35 per parent-child team. Here's your chance to solve a crime mystery by analyzing evidence such as air samples and fingerprints. 619-238-1233.

-- The Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn. Your souvenirs could include some homemade GAK or perfume. Prices vary for family programs. Call 612-221-4553.

-- Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Fla. How about Halloween or New Year's Eve at the museum? Cost roughly $20 a person. Call 813-987-6000.

-- Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., offers camp-ins most Friday and Saturday nights January through April. Get ready to freeze a flower in liquid nitrogen. Prices start at $30 a person, including breakfast. Call 201-200-1000.

Overnights aren't the only way to plan museum reunions, though. Carl and Dana Weinberg from Connecticut met New Jersey friends for the day at the Liberty Science Center in northern New Jersey. ``It was a good indoor activity for small children with lots of open space,'' they explained.

But no matter what the kids' ages, they'll find something interesting at a science museum, from virtual basketball to a giant bubble maker to a cooking demonstration. Exhibits, not the parents, provide the entertainment.

(To find if there is a museum overnight program or any special exhibits at science museums you plan to visit, call the Association of Science-Technology Centers at 202-783-7200 or visit the Association's world guide to science centers on the Web at http://www.astc.org/members/campin.htm)

Travelers connecting through O'Hare International Airport this winter, meanwhile, might want to plan a brief airport reunion with Chicago friends or cousins at the new Chicago Children's Museum's 2205-square-feet Kids on the Fly exhibit. Developed cooperatively with the Chicago Department of Aviation, you'll find the free exhibit in Terminal 2 adjacent to the security check-point.

While the grown-ups visit, the kids can build giant skyscrapers out of Duplos (check out the 10-foot-tall Lego Sears Tower), crawl through the ``cargo hold'' or make luggage labels. Let the kids issue you tickets to your fantasy vacation. Even better, there's an information center right there that allows families to check on their flights. I wish every airport in the country had one.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's new books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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