MOOLAH METER: $$
GOOD FOR: All ages
Just an hour away from Herndon/Reston, the Maryland Science Center at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is great to bring the kids when it’s too cold OR too hot outside. It’s huge, with three levels of interactive exhibits, an IMAX theater and observatory at the top. They have a lot of helpful volunteers in blue shirts hanging around the exhibits, and they’re happy to answer any questions you have.
WHAT TO DO FIRST: Once you’ve parked you’ll be entering through the side facing the harbor, not the one facing Key Highway (that entrance is for school groups). Upon entering, you’ll see the admissions counter where you buy your tickets, which are pretty pricey for a family: Basic admission for an adult starts at $14.50, tickets for kids (ages 3-12) start at $10. Another $4 will get you an IMAX movie and admission to special traveling exhibits. You can then drop off your coats, strollers and lunch bags at the coatroom to the right.
FIRST FLOOR HIGHLIGHTS: In the left wing (as you face the counter) are the gift shop (awesome educational toys and books, plus a miniroom devoted to dinosaur goodies) and Newton’s Alley, you can play a stringless harp, create a huge soap bubble, play tug of war with a pendulum device (hint: one side is weighted so that a toddler on the weighted side can win against a teenage boy, much to his chagrin), and more. On the right side are TerraLinks, an earth science gallery where you can watch a tornado form, and Dinosaur Mysteries, where you can dig and drill for fossils, gape at three-story-high dinos (both skeletons and full-skin casts), color half-sheets of paper with dinosaurs printed on them, and measure dinosaur footprints.
SECOND, THIRD FLOOR HIGHLIGHTS: They move these exhibits around, so you’ll sometimes find them on different floors. Check out Our Place in Space, which features a huge globe that acts as a screen for projected images that change to show the wind, weather and ocean temperatures. Really cool. Your Body exhibits include lying down on a bed of nails (it does hurt a little bit but not as much as you’d expect) and my 10-year-old’s favorite: a symphony of digestive sounds including burping and farting. My 4-year-old loves the third floor, which has a giant animated blue crab, and the Kids Room, which has a large water play area, “undersea” cavern, Legos construction area and so much more. Toddlers can, and will spend HOURS in this room. You’ll also find live shows/demonstrations on these floors, including the third-floor Demo Stage.
FOURTH FLOOR/ROOFTOP OBSERVATORY: We’ve never been up here, but the Web site says it’s open Friday nights as well as Saturdays and Sundays. Maybe we’ll go in the summertime when the weather’s better.
Check the Web site for current discount programs, including membership. Membership is a great deal: for a family of four it’s $100, and $125 for six. You’ll have made your money back if you go three times in the year, plus you get discounts at the gift shop, Beakers Cafe, and IMAX. And you can bring whoever you want, not just your family, for however many your membership allows. And you get reciprocal admissions to science centers around the country.Through March, the center’s Fridays After Five program charges only $8 for admission to its exhibit halls, planetarium, and IMAX Theater on Friday evenings beginning at 5 p.m.(IMAX presentations are at 7 p.m.) Later in the year, admission is only $1, not including IMAX movies, during the Inner Harbor‘s Dollar Days on Dec. 8 and 9.
WHAT TO BRING
At least $4 in quarters for the meters because they take ONLY quarters; comfy walking shoes; a stroller for little ones, which you can park in the coatroom or Stroller Zone on the first floor, or in the Kids Room on the third floor; bagged lunches.
WHERE TO PARK
My secret parking spot, one I’m loathe to give out but will do so in the interests of Parent Solidarity, is a little lot on Key Highway. Go past the Science Center, then take a left onto the cobblestone lot (it’s on the right). There are only about 8 spots (not sure if there are meters or a parking payment kiosk, but you do have to pay) available for the public, so if it’s full, your best bet is to find parking along Light Street or Key Highway, where they’ve done away with parking meters in favor of parking payment kiosks. You find a spot and park, then go to one of the kiosks located along the sidewalk, use a credit card to buy time ($1 per hour, max is 2 hours in some places), get a receipt, then walk back to your car and place the receipt on your dashboard. No more lugging quarters around!
WHERE TO EAT
My preference is to bring a bagged lunch, and this is one of the few facilities that I’ve been to that actually sets aside space for families who bring their lunches. The room is large and has vending machines with drinks and snacks, as well as sinks to wash hands. The lunchroom is located in the lobby where school groups come in, beyond Newton‘s Alley. If you want to buy food, there’s a small open cafe at the main entrance where you can get chilled sandwiches and salads. As you might expect, the items are pretty pricey ($6.50 for a small salad), as are the adult entrees from the grill at Beakers Cafe, a large restaurant one level down from Newton’s Alley and has an entrance on the harbor side. The kid entrees (no combo meals) at the Cafe is not as high–about $3 for a hot dog. At the other end of the cafe, there’s an express food area (no grill) that offers pizza, pretzels, Dip N Dots, cotton candy and more. Prices are a little high but not outrageous here.
WHERE TO GET CASH
There’s an ATM to the right as you enter the main doors, and another ATM in the harborside entrance to Beakers Cafe.