Visiting the California Academy of Science

For a fun vacation day, we went to see the San Francisco California Academy of Science museum with our friends the day after New Year’s.

The museum has a huge enclosed rainforest exhibit with live birds and butterflies flying around the spiral walkways that link the three or four stories and an elevator that goes down to a level below with a clear tunnel that lets you walk under/through the “flooded rainforest floor,” complete with big catfish.

There’s a planetarium (only open to children above 7 years old, so we didn’t see visit it), an aquarium, a natural history section with stuffed animals and fun animal facts, a live penguin exhibit, and two alligators, one of which is albino. The renovated museum is also the world’s greenest museum, which was interesting to me; recycled denim is used for insulation, the place is full of windows, a radiant heating system is in the floors, and the “living roof” is curved with hills and valleys and covered with half a foot of dirt and living plants, which channels breezes to the viewing area on warm days, traps rain and keeps it from being stormwater on rainy days, and includes windows that open to vent hot air from inside the museum when it gets too hot.

Our friend had done a bit of online research and had determined that getting there early was best. We got there 45 minutes before opening (the museum opens at 9:30), got parking immediately in the second level close to the elevator, but were shocked at the long lines in front of the doors and ticket windows. There were half a dozen self-serve ticket kiosks which people hadn’t discovered yet (credit cards only and no coupons/discounts, although you can buy child/student tickets there), so I managed to snag a spot second in line behind one, but we still had to wait until 9 am for the tickets to go on sale (and a museum worker to come and manually turn on each kiosk and log in).

Our friend had also noted that you should immediately go to the rainforest and planetarium exhibits if that’s what you want to see, otherwise you could potentially stand in line for two hours (and we saw people doing that later on!). Seeing the planetarium requires you to pick up tickets for specific showtimes (or “exhibit-times”?), but since we couldn’t go in there anyway with our babies, we didn’t bother. Instead, we headed over to the rainforest, and only had to wait a few minutes at the front of the line to get inside.

After the rainforest, we went to look at the aquarium and albino alligator. By this time, the museum was getting fuller and fuller, so it was really difficult to move around, especially in the twists and turns of the aquarium exhibits. We ditched our stroller in a stroller parking area. I was glad that I’d brought a baby carrier so that we could carry Steven around without sore backs and arms.

We got some respite from the crowds by retreating to the “early explorers” room, a place reserved for kids from 0-5 (and their parents). There were relatively few people in the room – perhaps because it wasn’t on the generic map that most people got – and plenty of room for babies and toddlers to play. Older toddlers would find the ship (with bunk, play kitchen, and play laboratory) and tree (with stuffed animals in the den-tunnel underneath) really fun; there were also plenty of little plastic animals and wooden puzzles to keep our eight-month-old happily crawling around.

We had gone to the central food plaza area around 10:30 for a brief snack and managed to score a couple tables, but it was so crowded at lunchtime that we had to sit on the concrete floor. Luckily, we’d brought our own food, because the line for the food was a long snake that wrapped all around the large courtyard. (The food that other people were getting looked good, though – hot soup and bread, sandwiches, even some kind of rice bowl with saucy stuff in it.)

Was the $25-per-adult price worth it? Well, it was really, really fun to see our out-of-town friends, and the rainforest was admittedly very cool. Having been a member of the Monterey Aquarium in the past, I found the aquarium to be “old stuff,” but I could see first-time visitors finding it fascinating – although the alligators were pretty cool to see in-person. The natural history museum part was fun, too; I’ve been in natural history museums before, but this time we recognized a lot of the animals from watching Planet Earth and similar nature videos, so I enjoyed that part, too. We also missed out on a big part of the museum by skipping the planetarium. For our experience, especially given the extremely crowded conditions, I would probably have only wanted to pay $15, tops. But I could see myself going back there — and paying full price again — when Steven is 7+ years old, if he’s interested in space-stuff and animals. (And who isn’t, at that age?)

If you’re in San Francisco and are planning to make this a part of your itinerary, here are my personal tips:

  • Timing: Getting there early was crucial. We got there 45 minutes early and were there right before the “bigger early rush.” In just 15 or 20 minutes, the self-serve kiosk lines had gotten long, too, and the ticketed-entry line was ridiculously long, stretching down the street. If you get there later, it means that you get inside later, and then it might be too late to get tickets to the planetarium, plus you’ll be standing in longer lines at the rainforest exhibit.
  • Transportation: We also bypassed the first parking garage level and got a spot right by the elevator on the second level. You get $3 off admission if you have public transportation ticket/transfer stubs for that day, but you’ll have to stand in the [long] main ticket line to get your discount, so again, earlier is better.
  • Splitting up: It might be worth it to consider splitting up – someone standing in the rainforest line, for example, while someone else gets tickets for the planetarium. Disclaimer: I don’t know off-hand if you’re allowed to get tickets for other people at the planetarium, so it’s possible that you’d have to all stand in line there, anyway. In that case, you’d probably want to get tickets first, then go immediately to the rainforest so that you can get in before the lines get ridiculously long.
  • Children: Strollers are difficult to manage in the crowds. Use a baby carrier for little ones, instead! And the “Early Explorers” room for ages 0-5 is great. You’ll find it off of the natural history museum part, near the giant pendulum.
  • Food: Unless you want to spend a large portion of your visit standing in line, pack in your own food. I think the food is quite expensive, too.

If you’ve gone before and have your own tips to add (or any info about the planetarium experience), please post a comment!


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