Set in a wonderful upscale New York City neighborhood, along Central Park West, the American Museum of Natural History is a definite “must-see” day trip for families, whether you live in the area, are traveling here from other states, or from abroad.
The museum stays open 363 days of the year, from 10 a.m. until 5:45 p.m., with the Rose Center for Earth and Space open later for special programs. The museum itself is never without a collection of truly remarkable exhibits, and stunning IMAX and space shows. However, if you are visiting for the first time with young children, be aware that some exhibits are geared to older kids and adults, making it difficult for real little ones to sit through patiently. You don’t want your first trip to this wonderful museum to be stressful for either them, or you. A little pre-planning, knowing your child’s/children’s tolerance, and realizing that the visit needs to be geared for those with short attention spans, will help to make your visit one of mutual enjoyment.
While the IMAX and “Journey to the Stars” space movie sound like a “must-see” for kids, both are loud, sometimes intense, and with material that’s may be over a young child’s heads. In the IMAX movie, for example, there are dramatic and quick moving scenes of animals in battle, there is loud drum music and the narrator has a thick accent difficult to understand; the space movie features sudden explosions of stars and dizzying special effects. For most of the 25-minute show, you are looking up. If you are bringing a mix of ages, perhaps one of the accompanying adults can take the older ones, and the younger ones can venture to the Discovery Room. (There are additional fees for IMAX and the Journey to the Stars movie.)
Realizing that children love to touch things, turn things, play with things, turn them over, and make noise, the Discovery Room is the perfect place for a good hour of “learning” through play for those ages five through 12. Here, in a room set off from the main part of the museum with a door to prevent little ones from wandering off, children can pretend to be scientists. Puzzles and games are out and open for play, children can “hunt” for animals and keep track of their finds on a clipboard; magnifying glasses are available to see specimens and artifacts up close, with fun gear to try on. Special programs through the year include a visit from a scientist to discuss ongoing work. There are pre-school activities on Monday mornings throughout the school year. (Free, with paid admission, although hours may vary due to staffing).
Two exhibits, here until January 3, 2010, are definitely worth the added fee, as well as spending time hunt for their location in the massive four-story museum. And, most of these exhibits have timed visits, which mean you can’t just go when you want. At the time you purchase your ticket, you have to say which time slot you prefer. So, choose your exhibits wisely, and don’t overbook.
The “Frogs: A Chorus of Colors,” is a fascinating look at live frogs from around the world. In fact, more than 200 of them are behind glass, set low enough for little faces to watch. Play the game of “hunt” for the frog. Some hide themselves so well in the live plants, it’s fun for all ages to track them down with your eyes. Amazing facts can be read off as you browse. For instance, did you know that a frog’s eye rolls down while it’s eating to help push the food down? Strange, but true! There is an additional fee for this exhibit.
Next, the humid enclosure of the Butterfly Conservatory brings 500 colorful and free-flying butterflies right in your face. It can be a little scary at first for little ones, but a comforting hug usually works. Staff members are on hand to explain the various species of butterflies and why they act the way they do. (Butterflies sleep while hanging upside down. Did you know that?) Stand still long enough and a butterfly may think you are a plant and rest on your shoulder. Don’t worry, they don’t bite; feel honored if they choose you. Before exiting, everyone checks themselves to make sure a butterfly isn’t trying to stowaway on your elbow and make their escape. (Additional fee for this exhibit).
If time permits, the Extreme Mammal exhibit (also ending on January 3, 2010) is cool for most ages, with reproductions of some “far out” animals, like the extinct “saber tooth cat,” and a mammal that is part camel, part giraffe, with a very peculiar nose, and the smallest mammal which is about the size of a bee. It’s a quick walk-through, with some hands-on activities for young ones. (Another additional fee).
The museum usually has a bench or two in a corner area for resting or feeding little ones. The bathrooms are plentiful, and seem to be less crowded the higher up you go in the museum. Take bathroom breaks on the fourth floor, and make sure you take the kids through the dinosaur area. Lots to see from the ceiling on down to eye-level, with some hands-on games.
The café on the lower level has typical kid food, nuggets and French fries, and is quick but with tourist prices. Even the hot dog vendor out front charged $14.00 for two large hot dogs and two drinks. You can’t escape it, unless you bring your own and take a break to sit on the front steps of the museum. Just double check with the security guard before you leave to make sure they will honor your ticket. They should.
Visit the Origami Tree —a holiday favorite—featuring many of the animals on view in the museum (including the favorite big blue whale). And the Rose Center for Space and Earth is a large, airy and glass-enclosed exhibit hall that allows children to learn a bit about their universe.
One last piece of advice: don’t feel the need to take everything in on one visit. There is no way to do so and retain your sanity, especially with children. Take your time; enjoy visiting two or three areas. Getting from place to place can be a long and arduous journey as you roam through exhibits looking for your destination, so pace your day. Stop and enjoy a snack, keep children hydrated. Let them go at their pace. In a few years, your child will be able to withstand more, and enjoy a full day of touring.
The American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West and 79th Street
Entrance Fees (Not Including Special Exhbits)
Children (2-12): $9.00
Senior/Student with ID: $12.00
Member Adult: Free
Member Child: Free
Take advantage of the museum’s online ticketing option.